12 Step Planet: Panama
The crossroads of the Americas, there’s more to Panama than the canal! A fantastic party atmosphere, paradise islands and stunning scenery for a start...
Eamonn Seoige, 02 Nov 2012
There are so many unspoilt coastal and mountainous regions in Panama that it’s hard to pick where to go. What better way to appreciate the spectacular landscape and wildlife than in the company of one of the country’s indigenous tribes? How about traversing the tropical Chagres River in a dugout canoe with native Embera fishermen and joining them for a hearty feast followed by traditional music and dance? There are numerous opportunities to sample ancient indigenous culture throughout the country.
Anything to avoid?
Avoid straying too far off the beaten track in downtown Panama City. Muggings are commonplace, especially targeting gormless tourists. The Darién province, close to the Colombian border, is well known for kidnapping and extortion. This area is a hotbed of drug trafficking and unsurprisingly is over-subscribed with shady characters.
What should I bring home?
Why, a handmade Panama hat of course! Indigenous handicraft markets are widespread and of excellent quality. Tapestry is extremely popular, especially decorative clothing made from ‘molas’, a form of intricate design created by the Kuna Indians. Handmade, hardwood carvings from the mountainous regions also make great souvenirs.
When should I go?
It really depends on where you plan to stay. The Pacific coastal region is best visited in December to February when rainfall is at its lowest and temperatures warm, but not stifling. All in all, you can’t really go wrong during the December to April dry season. Panama is at its liveliest with festivals and activities, including the world renowned Carnaval in Panama City.
What’s my challenge?
Experience one of Central America’s most beautiful countries, a place where over thirty percent of the countryside is designated National Park. It’s a land of contrasting landscapes and peoples, high mountains, rainforests, coastal paradises and urban jungles. Most importantly, locals are warm and friendly. The greed and crass commercialism that has blighted neighbouring countries has yet to make its way to rural Panama.
What’s the currency?
There are two currencies in operation. Well, kind of... The Panamanian Balboa is the official currency, but the government stopped printing it in 1941 and adopted the US Dollar as legal tender. However, Panama continues to mint its own coins and, unsurprisingly, they are the same size, shape, weight and denomination as the US versions.
Something to remember...
There are few places on the planet with richer biodiversity than Panama. Despite the fact that it’s the size of North Carolina, Panama has over five million acres of National Park and is home to almost a thousand species of bird. That’s more than Canada and the US combined! Its unique geographical position, linking two great continents and oceans has contributed to the sheer variety of animal life. There are tours aplenty, into the tropical rainforest regions, where such unique creatures as sloths and armadillos can be seen in their natural environment. You don’t have to travel more than an hour from the paved streets of Panama City before you’re lost in a lush green world. The coastal regions are equally bountiful; Panama can boast some of the best spots for whale and turtle watching in the world.