Everyone has heard of Panama. They have this famous thing called “The Panama Canal”, but I never actually thought about going there. Then my friend called and told me that she was doing this crazy thing…she was moving to Panama. She packed her stuff and I went along for the adventure. That was 4 trips ago for me! We have spent the most time on the Pacific side of the country in Playa Serena about 60-80 minutes from Panama City. Several local towns: Gorgona and Coronado are havens for ex-pats: European, Canadian and American with a strong community camaraderie. They organize group exercises such as, outings, volleyball games, happy hours, dinners, etc…and you can communicate pretty much in English. They have luxurious high rise resorts landscaped against beautiful panoramic ocean and mountain views, which are mixed in with local Panamanian flavor. They have strong infrastructure with good roads, doctors/medical facilities, grocery stores, gas stations, shopping and local eating. You can go buy food at one of the big supermarket chains or you can go up to the local Panamanians on the street selling fruit or on the beach selling fish. It’s a fun, friendly, relaxing area within minutes to all the things you need to live. Even though we like to relax on the ocean or pool side, we try to venture to something new each time I visit. Here are some of our adventures and what I found interesting.
El Valle is great for an afternoon or day trip. It is a wonderful mountainous area with a robust farmer’s market of fruits, veggies and local crafts. Continue up the mountain and there are mud baths, springs and zip lining through the canopy and over waterfalls. You can see local flora and if you are lucky, some birds, owls and monkeys.
· Altos de Maria is a beautiful community set in the mountains. There are gorgeous water falls, hiking trails, and rivers in this mainly residential area.
· Gamboa is gorgeous. The tree lined entry to the rainforest resort is beautiful. There are supposedly boat trips out where the monkeys will come to your boat. It is smack in the rainforest and it was pouring rain the day we went, so we will have to go back another time. You are on vacation and have to be flexible! The area also had a huge local craft area where you can buy all the local wares. There is a large zoo right there also.
· Colon is on the Caribbean side. It is lush with brilliant blue water. We went to Shelter Bay which caters mainly to boaters coming in for the night. Shelter Bay does have an 11 room hotel and the food is good at the Dock restaurant. We went to La Playa Diablo “Devil’s Beach” which is a treat. You will walk 5-10 minutes through the jungle and when you reach the opening, you are on the beach. The wind whips through the trees making weird sounds-like the ones you hear from the lost souls in the movies. I guess that is why they call it Devil’s Beach! The beach is remote and you will be lucky if you see anyone. The shells are huge…but so are the crabs so watch your toes! In the National Park, you can go up to a ruins where a huge fort once stood, canons still in place. They are well preserved and it is easy to walk through.
· Portobelo is a little town that is known for the Cristo Negro “Black Christ” in the local church, Iglesia de San Felipe. According to legend, the dark skinned Jesus arrived on a Spanish Ship heading to Cartagena. Each time the ship tried to leave, storms forced it back to port. The Captain was convinced the statue was supposed to stay in Portobelo. They don the statue each year in new purple robes and parade it through town. You can walk through town from the church and see many local artists selling their wares or head over to another fort which still stands with the canons in place. Captain Jack’s is a great place to sit and look out over the town and water…and they have a good burger!
· The Panama Canal: We have visited both the Miralores locks and the Gatun Locks. The Miraflores Locks are massive and a site to behold. There are observation decks where you can sit and watch the ships come in and they will educate you on the history and local use of the Canal. There is also a museum that you can go through to learn the history. The Gatun Locks are definitely my favorite. You can physically drive across the canal which is quite interesting since you can look over and see the massive canal doors holding back all that water. The walking tour will take you through the canal and you can watch them work, see the massive size of the gears and see the local trains that will help guide the ships through the canal. They have both the older trains and the local electric ones on display.
So far here are some of the things I have learned:
· The Pacific side is more commercial/has more infrastructure than the Caribbean side. Gas stations are plentiful on the pacific side-make sure you don’t get low on gas on the Caribbean side or you will be buying it from a little fella from his house!
· The Caribbean side is definitely more brilliant and lush than the Pacific side but doesn’t have as many people or amenities.
· The country as a whole is not densely populated. You will rarely see more than a few people on their beautiful beaches.
· The Caribbean sand is grainy and large, brownish in hue. The Pacific side has the softest, silkiest volcanic sand I have ever seen.
· When in the dry season, the locals will say everything is brown and ugly. Its not! It is still green and you will feel like you are in paradise.
· When in the rainy season, the locals will say it rains all the time. It doesn’t! It showers periodically and then the sun comes back out.
· Download the WAZE app! It is currently a free navigation app and will help you get through the country.
· If you need to visit the bank for money, etc… you need to dress appropriately. It is more formal and you cannot go in shorts.
· Before you leave the airport to start your adventure, check your phone. If you do not have service or internet (not WIFI), visit the phone/data kiosk by the rental car area. They can set you up on a local sim card with local minutes that will give you unlimited data. You will need this to get around because their roads are typically NOT marked with street names.
Have fun! Enjoy yourself and visit Cynthia Lehman (firstname.lastname@example.org) over at Inside Panama and she can help you figure out what you want to see and where you want to visit while you are there. She can also show you different living areas…trust me, you will want to go back more than once!