Uncharted Territory

Panama: Come for the Canal, Stay for the Rest

There's more to this tropical country than its modern engineering wonder.

By Juan Grimas January 24, 2019

Journey to the San Blas archipelago.

Canal, canal, canal. When it comes to travel destinations, Panama lives under the giant shadow cast by its modern engineering wonder, the Panama Canal, neglecting the rest of the incredible adventures this tropical country has to offer. Panama has it all: crystal-clear waters, breathtaking nature garnished with exotic wild life, and a capital city that’s been called the "Dubai of Latin America." 

Lucky for you, I’m a native Panamanian and now your personal tour guide. Leave the path between the seas for later. Here’s a rundown on what to visit during your stay.

Casco Viejo is steeped in history.

Image: Juan Grimas

Panama City

Perfect for a morning stroll or a late afternoon bike ride, la Cinta Costera is a coastal beltway that manages to capture the beauty of Panama City in a 4.3-mile trail from El Casco Viejo (the old city) to Punta Paitilla (the modern city). Shaved ice and popsicle street vendors, basketball courts, bike trails, outdoor gyms, and photo spots are all situated along  this family-friendly beltway. Just remember to dress light and bring water bottles; there’s a long walk ahead. 

Colonial Spanish architecture meets the 21st century in Casco Viejo, one of the most charismatic neighborhoods in the 507 (it's the international calling code). Discover the second city built under the name of Panama City and all its charm; whether you want to experience the unique Panamanian cuisine at the renowned Dónde José, watch the sun set in the horizon while you sip on mojitos at Casa Casco’s rooftop, or find out you’re a salsa-dancing virtuoso at any of the famous Casco Viejo nightclubs, this small piece of history is sure to be one of the best parts of your stay, if not the best.

San Blas Islands

With 365 pristine islands, and more than 300 of them uninhabited, the San Blas archipelago is the closest place on Earth to paradise. Take a speedboat from Puerto Cartí and within minutes you’ll witness white-sand beaches covered with coconut palms luring you into their tropical enchantment, while the ceviche and smell of fresh seafood cooked by natives—shrimp, fish, and even lobster—makes you think twice about returning to civilization. What else could you ask for? I guarantee you won’t miss Netflix.

Las Tablas

If you have the luxury of time and money, and, like me, the soul of a party animal, I know just the thing: Los Carnavales in Las Tablas, the biggest celebration in the whole country. Celebrated once a year—usually between February and March—Los Carnavales (the carnivals) arrive demanding a country-wide labor shutdown, marking the beginning of a four-day nonstop party, starting Friday night and culminating early morning on Ash Wednesday.

Skip the coffee, grab a beer—or two, or three, who cares?— and prepare for full days of madness that feature, but are not limited to, orchestra-replete trucks known as Murgas, state-of-the-art H20 artillery warfare every morning, and the dazzling parade of themed floats of competing streets (Up Street versus Down Street). Anything goes. 

The Highlands

Take a break from the big city and explore the chilly highlands of Boquete. Here, you’ll not only see the nature; you’ll taste it, too. Fresh strawberries that linger on your palate (and in your dreams) at Fresas Mary; brewed coffee and jaw-dropping views of the highlands at El Parador. Or become an expert angler by catching your own trout lunch at Bambito. And don’t worry about the few extra calories. Hiking to the highest point in Panama, the Barú Volcano, will help balance those out. Need extra motivation to reach the summit? It’s one of the only places in the world where you can see the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea at the same time with the naked eye. 

Getting There

From IAH: Air China offers two flights per week to Tocumen International Airport at $388 round trip non-stop. Need more flexibility? United offers two flights per day for $428 round trip, non-stop. Travel time from is a comfortable three hours and 45 minutes—just a power nap and a Lord of The Rings movie away.

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