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Views of Panama

Chiriquí: An Extraordinary Destination

Located some 250 miles from Panama City, the province of Chiriquí offers the best of two worlds: beaches straight out of a fantasy and the imposing panoramas of the biodiverse Pacific Ocean contrast with a handful of mountain towns that enjoy a temperate climate. Startlingly green lands produce not only the best coffee, but much of the food consumed in this Central American country.

By: Viodelda Barrías
Photos : Javier A. Pinzón

 

Two Beaches in One Day

Located around 250 miles from Panama City, the province of Chiriquí —also known by its indigenous name, Valley of the Moon— possesses a coast that runs from neighboring Costa Rica to the Azuero Peninsula. It includes virtually untouched beaches, modest tourist developments, and towns that are changing in response to the growing tide of tourists starting to discover the region’s beauty and biodiversity.

We set aside our first day in the province for getting to know two of its most famous beaches: La Barqueta and Las Lajas. We begin our adventure by visiting Alanje, a small Colonial town known in Panama as the pilgrimage site for Catholic devotees of the Christ of Alanje; it is also the gateway to La Barqueta. Alanje was founded in September 1591. The famed Christ of Alanje is housed in its Minor Basilica of St. James the Apostle. Every year, during Easter and in September, thousands of people flock to the church to ask forgiveness or give thanks for favors. After a brief visit to the church, we head toward La Barqueta.

Twenty-five minutes from the city of David, La Barqueta is one of the most popular watering places for Chiriquí residents. The sun was already toasting the 14 miles of beach by the time we arrived. The powerful waves of this Sea Turtle Protection Area and Wildlife Refuge are excellent for surfing and the mangrove swamps are great for kayaking and horseback-riding or simply admiring sunrise in the forest. It is a magnificent experience; locals claim that the sunsets are one of the area’s greatest attractions. This is a turtle nesting site, so if you stay long enough, and if you are lucky, you might witness the turtles arriving at night to lay their eggs.

La Barqueta is stunningly beautiful but the sea crashing against the beach is rough. So be careful and watch out for whirlpools; ask the locals about the safest places to swim.

After seeing La Barqueta, we undertake the 70 mile journey to Las Lajas, which is incredibly peaceful since mass tourism has not yet reached it. It is a peaceful haven with 11 miles of sunflower-toned sand, located some 56 miles east of David in the district of San Félix in the town of the same name, which is essentially a fishing village.

While there are a few hotels here, this is a great place for camping: the sea is nearly turquoise and the waves are foamy. Tranquility reigns. It’s an inviting spot to create some shade by pitching a tent or to rent a farmhouse. Just like at La Barqueta, take care: high tide brings powerful and dangerous waves.

If you decide to stay for the sunset, you’ll be treated to the spectacular show eastern Chiriquí puts on: as the sun sinks below the horizon, the sky shades to orange as you fill your lungs with that briny breeze that seems to cleanse your very soul. It is practically a mystical experience.

 

Among Islands and Corals

Do you dream of an island all your own? Of engaging in high-end sport fishing, swimming off beaches of white sand, or staying in a beach cabin that has been designated one of the “Unique Lodges of the World”? It’s all possible in the Gulf of Chiriquí on Panama’s Pacific coast.

We set out to discover the marvels of the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park from Boca Chica, a small fishing town that has seen dizzying hotel development over the past decade, on its coast and on nearby islands such as Boca Brava, Palenque, and Isla Secas.

We depart from the Seagull Cove Resort, an enchanting boutique hotel with its own dock, located on the mainland. We plan a panoramic tour of the archipelago to enjoy its lovely beaches and crystalline waters.

The first island to appear, just before we reach the protected area, is Boca Brava, a mountain that suddenly rears up out of the sea near Cala Mia Boutique Resort, considered another local gem. The island boasts beaches of white sand, cabins among lush trees, a private dock, sport fishing, and a spa, among other amenities.

Then there are the islands of Paridas (the largest) and Paridita, Santa Catalina, Pulgoso, Tintorera, Obispo, Obispone, Icacos, Corral de Piedra… The sea is a vivid, crystal-clear turquoise. We soon come upon Bolaños, with its four beaches of soft white sand fringed by coral reefs visited by marine megafauna. From the boat, we spot a turtle welcoming us and inviting us to delight in the warm waters of the Gulf. A few minutes later, we reach Isla Gámez and its two white-sand beaches. Here we disembark, sip a refreshing beverage, and swim in the limpid waters.

But there are still more idyllic sites to discover in this natural treasure. Isla Palenque, lying outside the protected zone, turned out to be fascinating and surprising. The hotel of the same name offers luxury and comfort on 400 acres of tropical jungle.

The resort is one of the ten hotels in Central America managed and developed by Cayuga Collection, all of which are distinguished by their sustainability. Isla Palenque has been designated one of the “Unique Lodges of the World” by National Geographic.

A guide met us at the hotel dock and offered us wet towels to counteract the blazing sun. A 6-minute van ride through leafy greenery took us to the other end of the island, where the cabins or bungalows are located. We savored a delicious lunch with a starter of chayote ceviche, accompanied by a wonderfully fresh tuna steak as the main dish, followed by caramelized pumpkin for dessert.

After returning to the mainland, we visited the Boca del Mar hotel, less than five minutes from the center of Boca Chica. It’s another local paradise that offers beautifully decorated cabins, several pools, a restaurant, and a private dock. We learned about the wide range of available tourist attractions and excursions before leaving for our next stop: sunset in the middle of the ocean. A luminous sun gilded the sky with red, yellow, and orange as it sunk into the sea between two islets. Our return to Seagull Cove Resort brought us another surprise: the traditional Saturday party at the Tiki Bar.

Idyllic and Magical Isla Secas

The third day of our adventure saw us depart from the dock of Seagull Cove Resort for the Islas Secas archipelago. After sailing for some 45 minutes, we caught sight of what would be another unparalleled experience: Isla Cavada, the largest of the fourteen islands that make up the archipelago, and the site of one of the region’s most idyllic resorts. The surrounding waters are home to more than 750 species of fish and 128 species of plants.

Isla Secas Reserve and Resort just re-opened on December 20th with a new look in all the common areas, restaurants, and cabins, making for an inviting experience under the stars. The sun provides solar energy, water is recycled, food waste is dehydrated, and no plastic bottles are used in an effort to preserve the environment as much as possible.

This tropical paradise allows you to escape to the islands in the archipelago, dive in the pellucid waters, practice standup paddleboarding or standup kayaking, relax in a full-service spa, or spend the day comfortably horizontal in a hammock.

A tour of the island paths on foot and by 4×4 took us to a landing strip surrounded by native vegetation and we ate lunch by the sea: sierra ceviche, freshly-caught tuna accompanied by a salad of lettuce and tomato with soursop dressing and fried plantains, topped off by banana ice cream with organic chocolate sauce.

The captain of the boat was waiting for us on the hotel dock to return us to terra firma. We spent three days delighting in the best beaches on the Chiriquí Pacific coast, an exhilarating experience that just begs to be repeated.


Where to Stay

Boca Chica

Hotel Bocas del Mar. Beautiful cabins. Private dock. Tel: +507 6395 8757. info@bocasdelmar.com  www.bocasdelmar.com

Seagull Cove Resort. Boutique hotel. The Tiki Bar presents good music and folkloric shows. Tel: +507 851 0036. www.seagullcoveresort.com

Islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí

Isla Palenque Resort. Luxury and environmental sustainability characterize this resort. Designated one of the “Unique Lodges of the World” by National Geographic. Tel: +1 855 679 4364.

www.islapalenque.com

Cala Mía Boutique Resort. The facilities on Boca Brava blend harmoniously into nature. Tel: +507 851 0025 / 6972 6954 / 1 800 507 1246. calamiaresort@gmail.com www.calamiaresort.com

Isla Secas Reserve and Resort. Located on Isla Cavada, the largest island in the Islas Secas archipelago. The cabins are dotted around the jungle. Energy is supplied by solar panels. Tel: 800 377 8877. www.islasecas.com