(International Living) After five years of writing about Panama for International Living, you’d think writing about the best places to vacation in Panama would be a cinch. The more you know, the easier it should be…but the opposite is often the case. I know so many great places to vacation in Panama that it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few.
There are places like the jungles of the Darien that appeal to the adventure traveler in Panama, and places like Isla San Jose that offer eco-tourists in Panama a bit of luxury in a green environment. But there are a few vacation spots in Panama that no traveler should miss. Three spots that represent three different “faces” of Panama.
The best places to vacation in Panama: the islands
At the top of the list are the islands of Kunayala, also known as the San Blas islands. Here, the Kuna (among the world’s smallest people) live much the way they did when the Americas were first “discovered.” The Kuna are autonomous and thus govern the region. They try to keep tourism from running rampant and favor eco-friendly lodgings that fit in with their traditional huts.
Sapibenega The Kuna Lodge tends to get good reviews, but I say go for Yandup instead. The island is close to the Ukupseni community, which many agree is one of the most beautiful. Beware, first-time visitors feel like they’re dreaming when they see the baby-blue waters dotted with itty-bitty islands. White sand beaches are everywhere you look; swim from one to another. Visit the website to find out about rates and transportation.
Remember, you’ll be in traditional dwellings no matter where you stay in Kunayala. Don’t expect air conditioning and don’t “bug out” if there are a few bugs.
Highland vacations in Panama’s Boquete region
Once you’ve had your fill of the beach, consider a visit to the little mountain town of Boquete and neighboring Volcan. You can get there via a six-hour drive from Panama City, but I prefer to fly an hour to David City and rent a car there.
It’s a 45-minute drive from David to either Boquete or Volcan. In Boquete, be sure to visit The Rock, the best restaurant I’ve been to in years. Head to Volcan for strawberries and a thick, goopy cream called nata or fresh raspberry milkshakes…there are multiple stands but I like Alina’s best. Just ask any local where to find it!
There’s so much to see in this area, you may want to invest in a guidebook like Moon or Lonely Planet. From ancient petroglyphs to horse farms to a completely unique bi-national forest and an 11,000-foot volcano, this region has enough treasures to keep you busy for days.
My top pick for places to vacation in Panama
Believe it or not: Panama City is my top pick for best places to vacation in Panama. I can’t help being biased; I choose to live here and absolutely love it. Here’s what you do: contact Los Cuatro Tulipanes and rent a real restored colonial in Panama City’s historic quarter, Casco Viejo.
Spend a day or two sitting in the majestic plazas and see operas and whatnot at the National Theater, a little jewel if I ever saw one. Plaza Bolivar is my favorite spot here—it’s lined with cafes and it’s the site of the famous Salon Bolivar, where Simon Bolivar tried to create a league of nations and thus unify the region. Longing for the beach? Drive 10 minutes to the Amador area and catch a ferry to Taboga Island. It’s just 12 nautical miles away…perfect for a day trip.
When you get back from the beach, take a quick shower and get ready for a night on the colonial town. On any given evening in Casco Viejo you’ll find a venue offering live jazz, salsa, classic rock and more.
Panama’s art community gathers here and holds events that vary from film screenings to “artblock” parties that continue from one block to the next. Dress is typically casual or bohemian chic and restaurants range from fancy to those of the neighborhood dive variety.
Want to really experience Casco at its best? Come in January, when the Jazzfest is on. Find out more about the upcoming ninth festival, slated for January 2012, here.