Where else can you see the sun rise over one ocean and set over another? With the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean on the other, Panama is a unique destination that is rapidly gaining in popularity, with travellers keen to experience its Central American combination of carnivals, culture, and tropical climate.
Unlike some of its more developed neighbours such as Costa Rica, Panama is still relatively unspoilt by mass tourism, and the country is ripe for exploration.
The place to go
The New York Times recently listed Panama as the number one of its “45 Places to Go” in 2012, and celebrities don’t disagree: Angelina Jolie and husband Brad Pitt, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, and U2 singer Bono, have all been seen enjoying holidays in Panama.
Although most people think of the world famous canal when the country is mentioned, Panama is a destination of rich diversity with multiple atmospheres and cultures, making it a fascinating place for those looking for a range of adventures. As it is relatively small (about 78,200 square kilometres) it can be crossed by land in a few hours, allowing visitors to enjoy different experiences in a relatively short space of time.
With two coasts and more than a 1,000 islands, Panama has beaches, rainforests, highlands, and lively city life.
It is also the only country in Central America that is hurricane free, and it does not suffer any of the earthquakes that plague some of its neighbours, making it a year-round destination.
I was in Panama for carnival. Like Rio in Brazil, Panama parties like there’s no tomorrow on the days surrounding Shrove Tuesday with dancing in the streets, parades of colourful floats, and the crowning of beautiful leggy carnival queens dressed in sequins, fishnets, and feathers. Panama’s carnival dates back to colonial times and is celebrated in several provinces including Coclé, Herrera, and Los Santos.
But I was right in the thick of it, in Panama City. Called La Jumbo Rumba, or Carnaval de la City, the festivities began with the coronation of Queen Stephanie and her two attendant “princesses”, who then appeared in various changes of costume throughout the five-day celebrations.
Over 150,000 people flocked to the City’s coastal strip each day to dance, sing, eat, drink, and – get soaked. Each morning at 10 a.m. the culecos began, as hoses from giant tanker trucks were turned on the crowds.
Drenched but happy, everyone continued to cavort. Children contributed to the chaotic atmosphere by spraying bystanders with water pistols or shaving foam as the scenes became increasingly surreal.
A woman walked by with a tray of toffee apples on her head, swaying between balloon vendors and people dressed as zombies or witches on stilts. Somewhere in the crowd a man was dancing with a blow-up doll.
The final night of carnival was celebrated with fireworks and live music provided by Panama’s favourite singer, Rubén Blades, whose rendition of the song ‘Patria’ (Fatherland), which many Panamanians consider their second national anthem, had the crowd in tears. The Queen and princesses reigned serene (and were among the few onlookers who kept dry) throughout the week’s antics.
After partying till dawn, revellers require a hearty breakfast. The Full Panamanian desayunos (breakfast) is a plate groaning with cholesterol. I stopped off at the roadside café La Hacienda on the road to Capira with my bleary-eyed fellow carnival animals.
First order was for coffee, which in Panama is called “Panama Joe”. The tortillas were a bit of a surprise, not Mexican-style but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese, something akin to huevos rancheros. Hojaldras, deep-fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar like a Panamanian doughnut, seemed to be another common breakfast staple. But there is perhaps no dish more emblematic of Panama than the sancocho, a chicken stew made with a starchy root called ñamé. Sancocho is said to put strength back into your body after a late night out, which describes most nights during carnival time.
A visit to the historic Panama Canal, said to be one of the Wonders of the World, is a must of course. Escaping the madness of carnival, a morning spent watching majestic ships pass through this staggering feat of engineering was strangely calming.
The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and a ship takes about 8 to 10 hours to cross it. Panama Canal was excavated in one of the narrowest and lowest parts of the mountainous isthmus of Panama that links North and South America. Open every day of the year, it is possible to see 5,000,000 tonne vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet in the locks as they make their way over the isthmus from one ocean to the other.
The Miraflores Visitors Centre is only 15 minutes from downtown Panama City and has interactive exhibits explaining the workings of the canal and its history.
A boat trip from the canal across Gatun Lake provided a glimpse of the local flora and fauna, including monkeys and crocodiles, and the opportunity to cruise out to visit some indigenous peoples who live here, such as the Embera Indians who welcomed us with traditional dances and music.
Portobelo, in Colon, once the greatest Spanish port in the region, is where one can still see the remains of forts that preserve the memory of attacks from famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, who is buried beneath the sea here.
I stepped inside the church Iglesia San Felipe, which now houses the Black Christ statue. Nobody knows exactly how or when it arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.
Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals.
Back in the city, I gaped at the innovative Frank Gehry-designed Bio Museo, a space celebrating ecological diversity, which opened last year. Panama City’s new Cinta Costera (Coastal Belt) creates a green stripe of waterfront paths that finishes in Casco Viejo, a stunning historic neighbourhood rebuilt after decades of neglect. The old town vies with old Havana and San Juan for authentic colonial Spanish charm, and the architecture of Casco Viejo, which was once left to fade and crumble, is now attracting artists, writers, and former ambassadors who have homes here.
There are no direct flights to Panama from the UK. Although BA & Virgin in conjunction with American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines fly daily via various US gateways, flying with either KLM or Iberia through Europe avoids the trauma of clearing US immigration and customs.
KLM Dutch Airlines fly daily to Panama City from Heathrow and all UK regional airports via Amsterdam. Prices start from around £684 www.klm.com 0871 231 0000.
Iberia fly from Heathrow to Panama City via Madrid five times a week, not Monday or Thursday, from about £650 www.iberia.com 0870 609 0500.
Judith Baker is a travel writer who has travelled extensively throughout the Caribbean region.
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