Ever since travelling through Costa Rica over fifteen years ago, I’ve always been a bit homesick for this part of the world: the wildlife; the people, the scenery and the Spanish flair…they’re all so unique for Central America. As you will understand, Panama was on my wishlist as well, but considering the prices for flights from the Netherlands and neighbouring countries, I decided to wait until the time was right. And my patience was rewarded, for these days several airlines (KLM and Lufthansa among them) offer affordable direct flights to this country, which enabled me to realise my dream last May.
After a twelve hour flight to Panama City, the following day I board a plane that takes me to Bocas del Toro – an archipelago in the northwest of Panama, practically bordering Costa Rica. The plane lands at the tiny Colón airport, located on the main island, where at that moment a baseball game (the country’s # 1 sport) is in progress right next to the landing strip…. I can’t help but wonder if this ever goes wrong :-). The main island, Isla Colón, is touristic and in order to find that true Local Hideaway spirit I have to start looking for other places in this idyllic archipelago. And not being able to choose, I managed to find you two completely different Local Hideaways!
The first one is located on Isla San Cristóbal’s most southern tip and is a true ecological paradise. The simple huts are all created entirely from recycled materials and it is The place to go to if you’re looking for rest and beautiful surroundings: from the dock you can dive straight into the sea to go snorkeling in the “house reef”; in the dark it is magical to go swimming with the fluorescent algae and if you’re lucky dolphins will dive right past you while you’re relaxing in one of the comfortable hammocks. And for those of you who like a bit of adventure, there’s also some unexplored jungle for you to discover and go animal spotting, or Lazare can take you to some other of the hidden places in his boat.
The second location I visit on Bocas del Toro, on Isla Bastimentos this time, is a gem! Hidden in the jungle is a stunning and exclusive Lodge with working cocoa farm. Here, owners Henry and Margaret go to great lengths to give you a unique experience. It is the place to be for an elaborate introduction to nature, local (school) life and every facet of chocolate (from how it’s prepared to tasting the result!). And it is a unique experience to be sleeping outdoors, surrounded by all the fascinating jungle sounds, and to wake up to monkeys going past in the mornings!
For some more overwhelming nature I travel to the mainland and visit the highest Eco lodge in Panama, at 2000m, bordering the Amistad National Park. A true Local Hideaway, for it can only be reached by 4WD and once you’ve reached your destination, your mouth will fall open: you’re on top of the world here – above the canopy of an endless cloud forest. If you’re a nature lover, this is an absolute must, for it is so undisturbed! The Lodge is a perfect start for various jungle treks during which you can discover the local flora and fauna. Chances are that you will spot the Resplendent Quetzal, I was fortunate enough to spot a pair twice! But a motley collection of hummingbirds, howler monkeys; bellbirds; capuchin monkeys; etc. etc. also belong to the usual suspects. Owner Jeffrey is an American ecologist who has extensive knowledge of the environment and his passion is contagious. Unfortunately, after a couple of days the time has come for me to say goodbye to this special place, but in my mind I’m already planning a return trip.
I continue my journey to the south-side of Panama, travelling towards the sea again. Did you know that, in Panama, it is possible to swim in both the Caribbean Sea as well as the Pacific on the same day? For my visit to the Pacific I’m headed for Santa Catalina. Leaving the Pan American Highway behind, time seems to have stood still here: sleepy little villages consisting of nothing more than a small school, a church and a tienda – shop – filled to the brim with everything you can think of, your basic local village shop, where people still come shopping on horseback. The road is surprisingly new, which may be an indication of changes to come, but for now the contrast with modern cities such as Panama City couldn’t be greater.
The same can be said for Santa Catalina, a tiny fishing village. Everything breathes a relaxed atmosphere around here, the going is extremely easy and the colourful locals, whose main source of income consists of fishing and tourism, mix wonderfully well with the surf dudes who, bare footed and with their boards tucked under their arms, walk out to sea to check out the waves. What a great place! Beach life on the Pacific side is different than on the Caribbean side, in the sense that it is all about catching the perfect wave here. If you’re not a surfer yourself, it is great to simply watch the surfers perform all those cool manoeuvres. Or you can book a lesson and try to tame the waves yourself. When you’re staying in Santa Catalina a trip to Coiba National Park (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a definite must; rarely have I seen so many incredible things when I was snorkeling (or diving, which is even more popular around here): sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, moray eels, stingrays, colourful fish and, if it’s the season, you may even spot some humpback whales from the boat.
Naturally, I can’t end my trip without having been to Panama City. Here you’ll find a fascinating mix of old and new. One minute, it’s as if you’re in a North American city, complete with skyscrapers, Trump Tower (!) and an actual skyline….and the next it’s clear that you’re in Central America. In addition, there is the Panama Canal: a fascinating lifeline that divides the city in half and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.
The most desirable part of this metropolis by far is the Casco Antiguo or the Casco Viejo. Because of the extensive restorations that took place in this area, magnificent old colonial buildings seem to arise like phoenixes from the ashes. Ambitious plans exist to take on the entire Casco Viejo and restore it completely ….which I think would be a shame, for this will only result in the locals leaving the area and the housing prices to skyrocket. Consequently, instead of remaining the exciting mix of old and new that it is now, the neighbourhood will become one large open air museum. Hopefully, the right balance will be found soon, for as I’ve already said, it is lovely to be here. By the way, it is also quite a safe area to be in because the presidential residence is located quite nearby, which means there’s a lot of police around.
There’s a multitude of restaurants, art galleries, bars and quaint little shops, and their presence creates a lively atmosphere, both during the day and at night. For instance, breakfast or lunch at Super Gourmet is an absolute must, their English Muffin Sandwiches are soooo good –my favourite! And if you’re looking for a trendy location with a stunning view of the skyline to have some pre-dinner drinks, take the lift up to the Tantalo Hotel roof terrace!
For outsiders it is an eye-opener to see the other side of this metropolis, where the façades of the magnificent colonial buildings unfortunately hide a lot of misery. The manager of my Local Hideaway in Panama City, a real ‘home away from home’, by the way, brought a unique project to my attention: an old monastery that is being turned into a community centre, where former gang members and their families can turn to for (language) courses, sports activities, childcare and ‘urban gardening’…it’s wonderful to see these initiatives take shape in this metropolis.
After more than two weeks of travelling around this diverse country, the time has come for me to say goodbye. It was lovely to be here, and I have seen and done a great deal in a relatively short period of time. In my opinion, Panama offers just that bit more variety than Costa Rica, while tourism is less developed and more balanced than in its neighbouring country. But opinions are bound to differ on that score :-).
If you’re looking for a holiday that offers overwhelming nature, a lovely beach life; a varied city life; some adventure and interesting encounters with colourful locals….. don’t wait any longer and book a trip to Panama!
Esther van Onna – Founder Local Hideaways. October 2016
Local Hideaways Panama: www.localhideaways.com