By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: David Mesa and Javier Pinzón
Panama is a wonderful country. The rainy season lasts for nine months, leaving gardens and souls all shades of green, until winter gives way to summer in late November with an invitation to plan the kind of outing that can only be enjoyed in sunshine and breeze.
With this in mind, we offer a list of places to visit and things to do over the next months, all close to the capital or just a few hours away. These suggestions combine natural and cultural beauty, adventure, and just the right dose of serenity.
Parque Natural Metropolitano
With seven nature trails, three lookout points, and a crane that lifts visitors up to explore the forest canopy, Parque Natural Metropolitano is the perfect choice for those who enjoy walking and discovering forest flora and fauna. Best of all, it is one of the last refuges of the dwindling Central American Pacific tropical dry forest, and only twenty minutes from downtown Panama City.
The Visitor Center at the end of Víá Juan Pablo II provides all the information you’ll need for your visit. It’s open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Foreigners: $4 and $2; Panamanian nationals and residents: $1 and $0.50. For more information: http://www.parquemetropolitano.org
Calzada de Amador
There is a bit of everything along this strip of land stolen from the sea: open spaces to fly kites, sidewalks for a quiet stroll, dedicated biking and skating lanes, benches to watch the sunset… It’s the perfect quiet place in the mornings and afternoons, but at nightfall the atmosphere changes completely with the profusion of restaurants and bars in the area. Also located along the Causeway is the Biomuseo, with eight galleries that explain how the world changed following the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama three million years ago.
For more information on the Biomuseo: http://www.biomuseopanama.org
The history of this village in the Panamanian Caribbean is anchored in the colonial period: Portobelo, along with Havana and Cartagena, was among the largest of the infamous slave trading centers and one of the continent’s major commercial markets. There are still several colonial buildings in Portobelo and every March the village dons its finest attire to welcome tourists to the traditional Devils and Congos Festival. Don’t miss it! Boats leave from La Guaira, very close to Portobelo, for the island of Isla Grande, a popular beach destination with a wide range of hotels and restaurants.
Portobelo is located 57 miles from Panama City, about an hour and a half by car.
El Valle de Antón
Located in central Panama, the village of El Valle combines a beautiful landscape, a pleasant climate, and a variety of activities that make boredom impossible. You won’t want to miss the Arts and Crafts Market, offering a wide assortment of local agricultural and handcrafted products, but El Valle is also home to a snake ranch, several hiking trails, rivers, and the famed hike up the legendary La India Dormida mountain. There is a wide range of hotels to choose from. Look for the bakery on the main street; they make fresh bread and sweets daily.
Located 85 miles down the Pan-American Highway, about two hours by car from Panama City.
Mariposario Cerro La Vieja
Just 30 minutes from Penonomé, the capital of the Coclé province, the Cerro La Vieja Butterfly Sanctuary studies, breeds, and exhibits butterflies. The nearly 13,000 square-feet of trails and gardens with host and nectar-producing plants, as well as a small souvenir shop, are overseen by Panamanian biologists and businesspeople. This is a dream-come-true for plant and “winged-flower” lovers.
About two hours from Panama City by car. Take the Pan-American Highway to the Hotel Dos Continentes in Penonomé and exit on the street that serves as an access road to the hotel. It’s a 35-minute drive to Chigoré; just follow the signs.
Las playas del Pacífico
There are Punta Chame and Malibú. Coronado, San Carlos, Río Mar, Santa Clara, Playa Blanca and Farallón. Panama’s Pacific Coast offers a wide variety of beaches, from charming fishing villages such as Farallón to sophisticated “all-inclusive” hotels like Playa Blanca, making it is possible to visit and enjoy solitary beaches with locally-run restaurants as well as those managed by hotel complexes with swimming pools, a choice of restaurants, different water activities, horseback riding, and even golf courses. Which will you choose?
Punta Chame, the nearest beach, is forty minutes from Panama City. Farallón, the farthest away, takes a couple of hours to reach. All are accessible from the Pan-American Highway, always on the left.
La Laguna de San Carlos
A perfect place to fish and camp or enjoy spectacular views and the cool breeze that runs through the surrounding forest. Located in the San Carlos district two hours from Panama City and 15 miles from the Pan-American Highway, the Lagoon is the starting point for a trek up Cerro Picacho, which reaches 3,900-feet above sea level. A warning: the path up to El Picacho is narrow and steep and we recommend it only to those with experience in hiking and trekking.
Keep an eye out for the entrance to Las Lajas, just past Chame; it’s about a 45-minute drive by car. You’ll want to be careful; the road is narrow in some sections and has sharp turns. It ends in a fork; take the road to the right. Locals charge an entrance fee of $0.50 per person and $5 per car. The cost for tents starts at $9 for three people.
Las montañas de Chicá
Just 43 miles from the Panamanian capital, the town of Chicá in the Chame district can be reached by hiking up the hill known locally as the “Loma de Campana.” The trek up to the village is part of the outing as it provides a view of Chame Bay on the left and lush mountain greenery made up of trees, ferns, and mosses on the right. Halfway up is a worthwhile lookout point where you can enjoy breathtaking scenery and a sense of freedom. Another option is the hike up Cerro La Cruz, although we recommend you use a guide for that one. The town of Chicá is best visited in April, when the locals organize the Feria de las Flores (Flower Festival) with markets selling plants and other locally-grown agricultural products.
Fifty miles from Panama City along the Pan-American Highway; turn off at the entrance to Campana and drive another 25 minutes.