Panama. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd 625

© Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd 625 Panama Blue-green seas, foggy highlands and snaking rivers that fringe a great tropical wilderness. This is ...
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© Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd 625

Panama Blue-green seas, foggy highlands and snaking rivers that fringe a great tropical wilderness. This is Panama as the explorers found it, and as much of it remains today. Many outsiders assume that Panama is all about its capital and commerce. But while the country is racing toward rapid-fire development, the resources Panama has always had and oft neglected have started to attract attention. A third of the country is set aside as protected areas and national parks, and indigenous groups have survived with their cultures largely intact.

FAST FACTS Area 78,200 sq km (slightly smaller than

South Carolina) Budget US$30 per day Capital Panama City Costs Hostel in Bocas US$7, bottle of beer

US$1, three-hour bus ride US$6, set lunch US$3.50 Country Code

%507

Languages Spanish, Kuna plus 14 others Money The balboa – aka the US dollar Population 3.4 million Seasons High season runs mid-December

to mid-April Time GMT minus five hours

TRAVEL HINTS Take a light sweater and a poncho if you plan to hike and camp in the Chiriquí highlands. Get malaria tablets (anything but chloroquine) if you’re heading to the Darién.

OVERLAND ROUTES The principal Costa Rican crossing is on the Interamericana at Paso Canoas. Guabito on the Caribbean side and Río Sereno in the highlands are less chaotic border posts.

PA N A M A

Although the canal has defined Panama for the last century, it’s what lies just beyond this engineering marvel that could define the next hundred years. Pristine beaches, lush rainforest and big-city nightlife give a taste of the country’s outstanding assets. Always a creature of potential, Panama lives with a sharp contrast between its urban and rural counterparts. Panama City is all sparkling skyscrapers, cement mixers and scaffolds, yet an hour outside the capital, indigenous Emberá paddle dugout canoes. Ironically, many residents welcomed the 2009 world economic crisis in relief, and that megadevelopments and realestate speculation would slow down for a pace as a consequence. For Panama, it’s time to get back to natural assets.

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HIGHLIGHTS Bocas del Toro (p670) Soak up the Caribbean charm of laid-back Isla Colón before exploring

the wild beaches and forests of the surrounding islands. Boquete (p663) Fire up with mountain-grown coffee before hiking through the cloud forests

in search of the elusive quetzal. Panama City (p638) Spend the day admiring the faded glory of the old city, then party till

sunrise on Calle Uruguay. Panama Canal (p653) Marvel at hulking freighter ships raised and lowered through sets of

enormous locks. Comarca de Kuna Yala (p690) Explore the tiny palm-covered islands of the Archipiélago de

San Blás, home to one of Central America’s most independent groups, the Kuna. Off the beaten track (p694) Head to the virgin jungles and isolated rivers of the Western

hemisphere’s wildest frontier at Darién Province.

PA N A M A

CURRENT AFFAIRS The lifeline of Panama’s economy, the Panama Canal is the world’s biggest engineering project and it just got bigger. In 2006, Panamanian voters overwhelmingly endorsed an ambitious US$5 billion project to expand the canal. The sandbox is already being dug up – machinery is widening and deepening existing navigation channels, and creating a third set of locks. This massive makeover – slated for construction in 2014 – should bring on more canal traffic and allow larger vessels for a much needed boost to the economy. On May 3, 2009, Panama bucked the Latin American leftist trend by electing conservative supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli president. Part of the conservative Democratic Change (CD) party, Martinelli was expected to boost big business, but he surprised critics by attacking businesses that evaded taxes and infringed on public lands. The world economic crisis has left Panama with high inflation. Foreign investors just aren’t approaching business opportunities with the same gold-rush aplomb that characterized the first decade of the second millennium. What is certain is that Panama is attracting more and more buzz for its pristine beaches, incredible wildlife and rainforests. While Canadian and US retirees were the first to join the bandwagon, more and more world travelers are following suit.

HISTORY

Lost Panama The coastlines and rainforests of Panama have been inhabited by humans for at least

11,000 years. Indigenous groups including the Kuna, the Ngöbe-Buglé, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bribrí and the Naso were living on the isthmus prior to the Spanish arrival. However, the historical tragedy of Panama is that despite its rich cultural history, there are virtually no physical remains of these great civilizations. Unlike the massive pyramid complexes found throughout Latin America, the ancient towns and cities of Panama have vanished into the jungles. Tales of lost cities survive in the oral histories of Panama’s indigenous communities, and Panamanian archaeologists hope that a great discovery lies ahead. What is known about pre-Columbian Panama is that early inhabitants were part of an extensive trading zone that extended as far south as Peru and as far north as Mexico. Archaeologists have uncovered exquisite gold ornaments and unusual life-size stone statues of human figures as well as distinctive types of pottery and metates (stone platforms that were used for grinding corn). Panama’s first peoples also lived beside both oceans, and fished in mangrove swamps, estuaries and coral reefs. Given the tremendous impact that fishing has had on the lives of Isthmians, it seems only fitting that the country’s name is derived from an indigenous word meaning ‘abundance of fish.’

New World Order In 1501 the discovery of Panama by Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas marked the beginning of the age of conquest and colonization in the isthmus. However, it was his first mate Vasco Núñez de Balboa who was to be im-

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further explorations, including the conquest of Peru. From Panamá, vast riches of Peruvian gold and Oriental spices were transported across the isthmus by foot. Vestiges of this famous trade route, known as the Sendero Las Cruces (Las Cruces Trail), can still be found throughout Panama. As the Spaniards grew fat and soft on the wealth of plundered civilizations, the world began to notice the prospering colony, especially the English privateers lurking in coastal waters. In 1573 Sir Francis Drake destroyed Nombre de Dios, and set sail for England with a galleon laden with Spanish gold. Hoping to stave off further ransacking and pillaging, the Spanish built large stone fortresses at San Lorenzo and Portobelo. However, these fortifications didn’t stop Welsh buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan from overpowering Fuerte San Lorenzo and sailing up the Río Chagres in 1671. After crossing the length of the isthmus, Morgan destroyed the city of Panamá, burning it to the ground to return to the Caribbean coast with 200 mules loaded with Spanish loot. The Spanish rebuilt the city of Panamá a few years later on a cape several kilometers west of its original site. The ruins of the old settlement, now known as Panamá Viejo, and the colonial city of Casco Viejo are located within the city limits of the present-day metropolis. British privateering didn’t cease with the destruction of Panamá. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in when Admiral Edward Vernon destroyed the fortress of Portobelo in 1739. Humiliated by their defeat, the Spanish abandoned the Panamanian crossing in favor of sailing the long way around Cape Horn to the west coast of South America.

The Empire Expands

On October 27, 1807, the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which defined the occupation of Portugal, was signed between Spain and France. Under the guise of reinforcing the Franco-Spanish army occupying Portugal, Napoleon moved tens of thousands of troops into Spain. In an act of treachery and military genius, Napoleon then ordered his troops to seize key Spanish fortifications. The resulting Peninsular War crippled both countries. As a result of the conflict, as well as the subsequent power vacuum and decades of internal turmoil, Spain lost nearly all of its colonial possessions in the first third of the century.

In 1519 a cruel and very vindictive Spaniard named Pedro Arias de Ávila (called Pedrarias by contemporaries) founded the city of Panamá on the Pacific side, near where Panama City stands today. The governor ordered the beheading of Balboa in 1517 on a trumped-up charge of treason. He is also remembered for murderous attacks against the indigenous population, whom he roasted alive or fed to dogs. Despite a ghastly record, Pedrarias established Panamá as an important Spanish settlement, a commercial center and a base for

The Empire Ends

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mortalized in the history books following his discovery of the Pacific Ocean 12 years later. On his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, Christopher Columbus went ashore in present-day Costa Rica, where he testified to having seen ‘more gold in two days than in four years in Spain.’ Although fierce local resistance thwarted his attempts to establish a colony at the mouth of the Río Belén in 1503, Columbus petitioned the Spanish Crown to be appointed governor of Veraguas, the stretch of shoreline from Honduras to Panama. With Queen Isabella, his primary benefactor, on her deathbed, the prize went instead to Columbus’ rival. In 1510, Diego de Nicuesa tried to establish a Spanish colony at Río Belén. Local resistance once again beat back the Spanish. Nicuesa fled with a small fleet with 280 starving men aboard. Seeing a protected bay 23km east of what is now Portobelo, he exclaimed: ‘¡Paremos aqui, en nombre de Dios!’ (‘Let us stop here, in the name of God!’). Thus was named the town of Nombre de Dios, one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World. Much to the disappointment of conquistadors, Panama was not rich in gold. Add tropical diseases, inhospitable terrain and less than welcoming natives, and it’s easy to see why Nombre de Dios failed several times as an early Spanish colony. Later in 1513, Balboa heard rumors about a large sea and a wealthy, gold-producing civilization across the mountains – likely the Inca Empire of Peru. Driven by ambition and greed, Balboa scaled the continental divide and on September 26, 1513, became the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean. He claimed the ocean and all the lands it touched for the king of Spain.

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Panama gained independence from Spanish rule in 1821 and immediately joined Gran Colombia, a confederation of currentday Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, a united Latin American nation that had long been the dream of Simón Bolívar. However, internal disputes lead to the abolishment of Gran Colombia in 1831, though fledgling Panama remained a province of Colombia.

it free transit and the right to protect the railway with military force. At the height of the California gold rush in 1849, tens of thousands traveled from the east coast of the USA to the west coast via Panama in order to avoid hostile Native Americans living in the central states. Colombia and Panama grew wealthy from the railway, and the first talks of a canal across Central America began to surface. The idea of a canal across the isthmus was first raised in 1524 when King Charles V of Spain ordered a survey to determine the feasibility of a waterway. Later, Emperor Napoleon III of France also considered the idea. Finally, in 1878, French builder Ferdinand de Lesseps, basking in the glory of the recently constructed Suez canal, was

Birth of a Nation Panama’s future forever changed when world powers caught on that the isthmus was the narrowest point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In 1846 Colombia signed a treaty permitting the USA to construct a railway across the isthmus, though it also granted

PANAMA 82ºW

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CARIBBEAN SEA Changuinola

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See Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro Map (p672)

Guabito El Silencio BOCAS DEL TORO Parque Internacional Almirante La Amistad

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Cerro Santiago (2121m) Las Lajas

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Santa Catalina Isla de Coiba Bahía de las Damas

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Península de Azuero Malena

Los Santos Pedasí

Isla Cébaco

Tonosí Arenas

Isla Jicarón

Guánico Abajo

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Isla Playa Cañas Venao Playa Guánico

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contracted by Colombia to build the canal, bringing his crew to Panama in 1881. Much like Napoleon, Lesseps severely underestimated the task, and over 22,000 workers died from yellow fever and malaria in less than a decade. In 1889 insurmountable construction problems and financial mismanagement drove the company bankrupt. The USA saw the French failure as a business opportunity. In 1903 Philippe Bunau-Varilla, one of Lesseps’ chief engineers, agreed to sell concessions to the USA, though the Colombian government refused. Bunau-Varilla approached the US government to back Panama if it declared independence from Colombia. On November 3, 1903, a revolutionary junta declared Panama independent, and the

US government immediately recognized its sovereignty – the first of a series of American interventions in Panama. Although Colombia sent troops by sea to try to regain control, US battleships prevented them from reaching land. In fact, Colombia did not recognize Panama as a legitimately separate nation until 1921, when the USA paid Colombia US$25 million in ‘compensation.’

Growing Pains Following independence, Bunau-Varilla was appointed Panamanian ambassador to the USA, with his first act of office paving the way for future American interventions. Hoping to profit from the sale of canal concessions to the USA, Bunau-Varilla arrived in Washington, 0 0

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80 km 50 miles

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See Panama Canal Map (p655)

EL PORVENIR

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Lago Alajuela (Madden Lake) Cerro Jefe Cerro Azul (1007m) (950m)

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Nombre de Dios



Cristales

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La Guayra Portobelo

Bahía Piña Jaqué

PACIFIC OCEAN

COLOMBIA See Darién Province Map (p695)

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DC before Panama could assemble a delegation. On November 18, 1903, Bunau-Varilla and US Secretary of State John Hay signed the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, which gave the USA far more than had been offered in the original treaty. In addition to owning concessions to the canal, the USA was also granted ‘sovereign rights in perpetuity over the Canal Zone,’ an area extending 8km on either side of the canal, and a broad right of intervention in Panamanian affairs. Despite opposition from the tardy Panamanian delegation as well as lingering questions about its legality, the treaty was ratified, ushering in an era of friction between the USA and Panama. Construction began again on the canal in 1904 and despite disease, landslides and harsh weather, the world’s greatest engineering marvel was completed within a decade. The first ship sailed through the canal on August 15, 1914. In following years, the US military repeatedly intervened in political affairs. In response to growing Panamanian disenchantment, the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was replaced in 1936 by the Hull-Alfaro Treaty. The USA relinquished its rights to use its troops outside the Canal Zone and to seize land for canal purposes, and the annual sum paid to Panama for use of the Canal Zone was raised. However, a wave of Panamanian opposition to US occupation grew. Tensions reached a boiling point in 1964 during a student protest that left 27 Panamanians dead and 500 injured. Today, the event is commemorated as Día de Los Mártires, or National Martyrs Day. As US influence waned, the Panamanian army grew more powerful. In 1968 the Guardia Nacional deposed the elected president and took control of the government. Soon after, the constitution was suspended, the national assembly was dissolved, the press censored and the Guardia’s General Omar Torrijos Herrera emerged as the new leader. Though he plunged Panama into debt with a massive public works program, Torrijos did convince US president Jimmy Carter to cede control of the canal. The resulting Torrijos-Carter Treaty guaranteed full Panamanian control of the canal as of December 31, 1999, as well as a complete withdrawal of US military forces.

The Rise & Fall of Noriega In 1981, with Panama still basking in the glory of the treaty, a plane crash killed Torrijos.

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Rumors of foul play swept the country. In 1983 Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega seized the Guardia Nacional, promoted himself to general and made himself the de facto ruler of Panama. Noriega, a former head of Panama’s secret police, a former CIA operative and a graduate of the School of the Americas, quickly began to consolidate his power. He enlarged the Guardia Nacional, significantly expanded its authority and renamed it the Panama Defense Forces. He also created a paramilitary ‘Dignity Battalion’ in every city, town and village, its members armed and ready to inform on any of their neighbors showing less than complete loyalty to the Noriega regime. Things went from bad to worse in early 1987 when Noriega was publicly accused of involvement in drug trafficking with Colombian drug cartels, murdering his opponents and rigging elections. Many Panamanians demanded Noriega’s dismissal, with general strikes and street demonstrations that resulted in violent clashes with the Panama Defense Forces. In February 1988, Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle attempted to dismiss Noriega, but was forced to flee Panama. Noriega subsequently appointed a president more sympathetic to his cause. Noriega’s regime became an international embarrassment. In March 1988, the USA imposed economic sanctions against Panama, ending a preferential trade agreement, freezing Panamanian assets in US banks and refusing to pay canal fees. A few days after the sanctions were imposed, an unsuccessful military coup prompted Noriega to step up violent repression of his critics. After Noriega’s candidate lost the presidential election in May 1989, the general declared the election null and void. Guillermo Endara, the winning candidate, and his two vice-presidential running mates, were badly beaten by Noriega’s thugs, with the entire bloody scene captured by a TV crew and broadcasted internationally. A second failed coup in October 1989 was followed by even more repressive measures. On December 15, 1989, Noriega’s legislature declared him president, and his first official act of office was to declare war on the USA. The following day, an unarmed US marine dressed in civilian clothes was killed by Panamanian soldiers while leaving a restaurant in Panama City. The US reaction was swift and unrelenting. In the first hour of December 20, 1989, Panama

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Modern Struggles After Noriega’s forced removal, Guillermo Endara, the legitimate winner of the 1989 election, was sworn in as president, and Panama attempted to put itself back together. The country’s image and economy were in shambles, and its capital had suffered damage from both the invasion and the widespread looting that followed. Unfortunately, Endara proved to be an ineffective leader whose policies cut jobs and cost his administration its early popularity. He was voted out of office in 1994 with single-digit approval ratings. Ernesto Pérez Balladares took office next. Under his direction, the Panamanian government implemented a program of privatization that focused on infrastructure improvements, health care and education. Although Pérez Balladares allocated unprecedented levels of funding for Panama’s development, he would later be investigated for corruption in 2010. In 1999 Mireya Moscoso, the widow of popular former president Arnulfo Arias, and Panama’s first female leader and head of the conservative Arnulfista Party (PA), took office. Moscoso’s ambitious plans never materialized. As Panama celebrated its centenary in 2003, unemployment hit 18% and parts of the country were without food – yet Moscoso

paid US$10 million to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Panama. She was also accused of looking the other way during Colombian military incursions into the Darién. Martín Torrijos, a member of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) and the son of former leader Omar Torrijos, took over in 2004. Although there is still debate regarding the success of his administration, he did implement much-needed fiscal reforms, including an overhaul of the nation’s social security system. Furthermore, his proposal to expand the Panama Canal was overwhelmingly approved by national referendum. On May 3, 2009, Panama became part of the backlash against the Latin American leftist trend by electing conservative supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli president. Still in its honeymoon stage, it is early to say where the conservative administration of Martinelli will lead the nation at the crux of Latin American currents.

THE CULTURE

The National Psyche At the crossroads of the Americas, the narrow isthmus of Panama bridges not only two continents but two vastly different paradigms of Panamanian culture and society. While one sphere of Panama clings to the traditions of the past, the other looks to the modernizing influences of a growing economy. In some ways, these opposing forces are only natural given the many years that Panama has been the object of another country’s meddling. From the US-backed independence of 1903 to the strong-armed removal of Noriega in 1989, with half-a-dozen other interventions in between, the USA left a strong legacy in the country. Nearly every Panamanian has a relative or acquaintance living in the USA. Parts of the country seem swept up in mallfervor, with consumer inspiration straight out of North America. Others, however, are not so ready to embrace gringo culture. Indigenous groups such as the Emberá and Kuna are struggling to keep their traditions alive, as more and more of their youth are lured into the Westernized lifestyle of the city. Given the clash between old and new, it’s surprising the country isn’t suffering from a serious case of cognitive dissonance. Somehow, the exceptionally tolerant Panamanian character weathers many contradictions – the old and

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City was attacked by aircraft, tanks and 26,000 US troops. The invasion, intended to bring Noriega to justice and create a democracy better suited to US interests, left more than 2000 civilians dead, tens of thousands homeless and destroyed entire tracts of Panama City. On Christmas Day, Noriega claimed asylum in the Vatican embassy. US forces surrounded the embassy and pressured the Vatican to release him. They bombarded the embassy with blaring rock music. Mobs of angry Panamanians surrounded the embassy, calling for Noriega to be ousted. After 10 days of psychological warfare, the Vatican embassy persuaded Noriega to give himself up by threatening to cancel his asylum. Noriega surrendered to US forces on January 3, and was flown to Miami where he was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine. Although his US prison sentence ended in 2007, as of 2010 he remained captive pending extradition requests from Panama and France. In July 2010 a French court sentenced Noriega to seven years in jail for laundering drug money.

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the new, the grave disparity between rich and poor, and the gorgeous natural environment and its rapid destruction.

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Lifestyle In spite of the skyscrapers and gleaming restaurants lining the wealthier districts of Panama City, nearly a third of the country’s population lives in poverty. Furthermore, almost a quarter of a million Panamanians struggle just to satisfy their basic dietary needs. The poorest tend to live in the least populated provinces: Darién, Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, Los Santos and Colón. There is also substantial poverty in the slums of Panama City, where an estimated 20% of the urban population lives. Countrywide, 9% of the population lives in barriados (squatter) settlements. For campesinos (farmers), life is hard. A subsistence farmer in the interior might earn as little as US$8 per day, far below the national average of US$5510 per capita. In the Emberá villages of the Darién, traditional life continues as it has for hundreds of years. The majority of these people lack clean water and basic sanitation. The middle and upper class largely reside in and around Panama City with a level of comfort similar to their counterparts in Europe and the USA. They live in large homes or apartments, have a maid, a car or two, and for the lucky few a second home on the beach or in the mountains. Cell phones are de rigueur. Vacations are often enjoyed in Europe or the USA. Most middle-class adults can speak some English and their children usually attend English-speaking schools.

People The majority of Panamanians (70%) are mestizo, which is generally a mix of indigenous and Spanish descent. In truth, many non-black immigrants are also thrown into this category, including a sizable Chinese population – some people estimate that as much as 10% of the population is of Chinese ancestry. There are also a number of other sizable groups: about 14% of Panamanians are of African descent, 10% of Spanish descent, 5% of mixed African and Spanish descent, and 6% are indigenous. Generally, black Panamanians are mostly descendants of English-speaking West Indians, such as Jamaicans and Trinidadians, who were originally brought to Panama as laborers.

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Of the several dozen native tribes that inhabited Panama when the Spanish arrived, few remain. The Kuna live on islands along the Caribbean coast in the autonomous region of the Comarca de Kuna Yala. Considered the most politically organized, they regularly send representatives to the national legislature. The Emberá and Wounaan inhabit the eastern Panamá province and the Darién; Panama’s largest tribe, the Ngöbe-Buglé live in Chiriquí, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro. The Teribe inhabit Bocas del Toro Province, while the Bribrí are found along the Talamanca Reserve. Despite modernizing influences, each of Panama’s indigenous groups maintains its own language and culture.

RELIGION Panama City is home to scores of Catholic churches, Anglican churches filled with West Indians, synagogues, mosques, a shiny Greek Orthodox church, an impressive Hindu temple and a surreal Baha’i house of worship (the headquarters for Latin America). Freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed in Panama, although the preeminence of Roman Catholicism is also officially recognized, with 85% of the country filling its ranks. In fact, children in school have the option to study theology, though it is not compulsory. Protestant denominations account for 12%, Muslims 4.4% and Baha’i 1.2%. Additionally, the country has approximately 3000 Jews (many of them recent immigrants from Israel), 24,000 Buddhists and 9000 Hindus. In addition to the mainstream world religions, the various indigenous tribes of Panama have their own belief systems, although these are fading quickly due to the influence of Christian missionaries. As in other parts of Latin America, the evangelical movement is spreading like wildfire. Although Catholics are the majority, only about 20% of them attend church regularly. The religious orders aren’t particularly strong in Panama either – only about 25% of Catholic clergy are Panamanian while the rest are foreign missionaries.

ARTS Panama’s all-embracing music scene includes salsa, Latin and American jazz, traditional music from the central provinces, reggae, reggaetón and Latin, British and American rock ’n’ roll. Their biggest export is world-

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SPORTS Owing to a strong US legacy, baseball is the national pastime. Although Panama has no professional teams, amateur leagues play in stadiums throughout the country. In the US major leagues, Mariano Rivera, the recordsetting Panamanian pitcher for the New York Yankees, is a national hero. The batting champ Rod Carew, another Panamanian star, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991. Former NY Yankee Roberto Kelly is also fondly remembered. Boxing is another popular spectator sport, and a source of local pride since Panama City native Roberto Durán won the world championship lightweight title in 1972. A legend,

he went on to become the world champion in each of the welterweight (1980), light middleweight (1983) and super middleweight (1989) categories. Panama’s first Olympic gold came in 2008 when Irving Saladino won the long jump in Beijing.

ENVIRONMENT The Land

Panama is both the narrowest and the southernmost country in Central America. The long S-shaped isthmus borders Costa Rica in the west and Colombia in the east. Its northern Caribbean coastline measures 1160km, compared to a 1690km Pacific coastline in the south, and its total land area is 78,056km. By comparison, Panama is slightly bigger than Ireland or Austria. The Panama Canal effectively divides the country into eastern and western regions. Two mountain ranges run along Panama’s spine in both the east and the west. The highest point in the country, Chiriquí’s Volcán Barú, is also the country’s only volcano. Like all Central American countries, Panama has large, flat coastal lowlands, with huge banana plantations. There are about 480 rivers in Panama and 1518 islands near its shores. The two main island groups are the San Blás and Bocas del Toro Archipelagos on the Caribbean side, but most of the islands are on the Pacific side.

Wildlife Panama’s position as a narrow land bridge between two huge continents has given it a remarkable variety of plant and animal life. Species migrating between the continents have gathered in Panama, which means that it’s possible to see South American armadillos, anteaters and sloths alongside North American tapirs, jaguars and deer. With its wide variety of native and migratory species, Panama is one of the world’s best places for bird-watchers. Panama has more than 940 recorded bird species and more than 10,000 plant species, in addition to 125 animal species found only here. The country’s 105 rare and endangered species include scarlet macaws, harpy eagles (the national bird of Panama), golden frogs, jaguars and various species of sea turtle. Panama is one of the best places to see a quetzal. Five species of sea turtle can be seen here, while among the primates are

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renowned salsa singer Rubén Blades, who even ran for president in 1994, finishing third. The jazz composer and pianist Danilo Pérez is widely acclaimed by critics, while Los Rabanes produces classic Panamanian rock. Heavy on the accordion, Panamanian folk music (called típico), is well represented by Victorio Vergara and Samy and Sandra Sandoval. These days reggaetón (also known as punta) permeates all social levels in Panama, and its stars include Flex and the now-deceased Danger Man. Several of Panama’s best novels were written mid-20th century. El ahogado (The Drowned Man), a 1937 novel by Tristán Solarte, blends elements of the detective, gothic and psychological genres with a famous local myth. El desván (In the Garret), a 1954 novel by Ramón H Jurado, explores the emotional limits of the human condition. Gamboa Road Gang, by Joaquín Beleño, is about the political and social events surrounding the Panama Canal. Today’s notable authors include poet and novelist Giovanna Benedetti, historical novelist Gloria Guardia and folk novelist Rosa María Britton. The first prominent figure on Panama’s art scene, French-trained Roberto Lewis (1874–1949) painted allegorical images in public buildings; look for those in the Palacio de las Garzas in Panama City. In 1913 Lewis became the director of Panama’s first art academy, where he and his successor, Humberto Ivaldi (1909–47), educated a generation of artists. Among the school’s students were Juan Manuel Cedeño and Isaac Benítez, and mid-20th-century painters Alfredo Sinclair, Guillermo Trujillo and Eudoro Silvera. Newer artists include Olga Sinclair and Brooke Alfaro.

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634 PA N A MA • • E n v i r o n m e n t

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capuchins, tamarins and squirrel, spider and howler monkeys. Tropical rainforest is the dominant vegetation in the canal area, along the Caribbean coast and in most of the eastern half of the country. The Parque Nacional Darién protects much of Panama’s largest tropical rainforest region. Other vegetation zones include Pacific coast grasslands, highland mountain forest, cloud forest on the highest peaks and mangrove forest on both coasts.

National Parks & Reserves Panama has 12 national parks and more than two dozen officially protected areas. About one-quarter of Panama is set aside for conservation, while about 40% of land remains

covered by forest. Panama also has more land set aside for habitat protection than any other Central American country, and it’s forests contain the greatest number of species of all New World countries north of Colombia. Yet all of these statistics do not account for the fact that protected lands are often poorly protected. In many of the national parks and protected areas, mestizo and indigenous villages are scattered about. In some scenarios, these communities help protect and maintain parks and wildlife. National environmental authority ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente; Map p644; %315-0855; Panama City; h8am-4pm) manages the national-park system. The admission fee of US$5 (US$20 for marine parks) is paid at

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Parque Internacional La Amistad...................11 Parque Nacional Altos de Campana...............12 Parque Nacional Camino de Cruces...............13 Parque Nacional Cerro Hoya........................ 14 Parque Nacional Chagres...............................15 Parque Nacional Darién................................16 Parque Nacional Darién................................17 Parque Nacional Isla de Coiba.......................18 Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí.....................................................19 Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos.......20 Parque Nacional Omar Torrijos.....................21

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either the ANAM headquarters in Panama City, a regional ANAM office or at a park ranger station. Permits to camp or stay at an ANAM ranger station (US$5 to US$10) are obtained at the same places. A few highlights include the following: Parque Internacional La Amistad Home to several indigenous groups, pristine rainforest and abundant wildlife (p668). Parque Nacional Darién Unesco World Heritage Site with 576,000 hectares of world-class wildlife-rich rainforest (p699). Parque Nacional Isla de Coiba Includes the 493-sq-km Isla de Coiba, regarded by scientists as a biodiversity hot spot (p682). Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chriquí Protects 25 islands and numerous coral reefs (p661).

Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos An important nature reserve for many species of Caribbean wildlife, including sea turtles (p679). Parque Nacional Soberanía A bird-watcher’s paradise in lush rainforest (p654). Parque Nacional Volcán Barú Surrounds Panama’s only volcano and highest peak, 3475m Volcán Barú (p667). Parque Natural Metropolitano Tropical semideciduous forest within the city limits (p643).

Environmental Issues Water pollution is a growing issue and most evident around Panama City and Colón, where 90% of Panamanians live. Untreated city sewage is discharged directly into coastal waters and canals. Mangroves, important for maintaining the balance of delicate marine 0 0

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COLOMBIA Parque Nacional Portobelo...............................22 Parque Nacional San Lorenzo...........................23 Parque Nacional Santa Fé...............................24 Parque Nacional Sarigua.................................25 Parque Nacional Soberanía..............................26 Parque Nacional Volcán Barú..........................27 Parque Natural Metropolitano.........................28 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cenegón del Mangle.......................................................29 Refugio de Vida Silvestre El Peñón del Cedro de los Pozos..................................... 30 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla de Cañas...........31 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Iguana...............32 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Taboga y Urabá..33

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Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pablo Arturo Barrios..34 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Peñón de la Honda..35 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Playa Boca Vieja.......36 Refugio de Vida Silvestre Playa de la Barqueta Agrícola...................................................... 37 Reserva Forestal Canglón................................38 Reserva Forestal de Agua Fortuna...................39 Reserva Forestal La Tronosa............................40 Reserva Forestal La Yeguada..........................41 Reserva Forestal Montuoso.............................42 Reserva Hidrológica Serranía Filo del Tallo......43 Reserva Natural Isla San Telmo........................44 Reserva Natural Punta Patiño..........................45 Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo.....................46

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636 T R A N S P O R TAT I O N • • G e t t i n g T h e re & A w a y

ecosystems, are being destroyed at an unsustainable pace. Coral reefs throughout the Caribbean are also endangered. Deforestation is also devastating, with 800 sq km of Darién rainforest felled in only a decade. Gold mining is a hot issue in Panama. In 2009, the government approved a proposal by Petaquilla Gold to extract, refine and export gold in the province of Colón. Along with other environmental groups, the Asociación Nacional para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (National

PA N A M A

Association for the Conservation of Nature; Ancon; Map p640; %314-0060; www.ancon.org, in Spanish) sustains that

the income promised the Panamanian state is little compensation compared to the environmental and socioeconomic damage the mine will cause. For more information on mining issues, contact CIAM (Centro de Incidencia Ambiental; www.ciampanama.org). Dams may become an epidemic in Panama, where proposals have been submitted for almost every river in the country. A US$50million hydroelectric dam project proposed by Hidroecologica del Teribe SA on Naso tribal territory threatens to flood the settlement and ruin water supplies. In addition to drawing international opposition, the dam has divided the tribe.

TRANSPORTATION GETTING THERE & AWAY Air

Panama has two international airports. Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport (airport code PTY;%238-4322; www.tocumenpanama. aero), 35km from downtown, receives most

international flights. In David, Aeropuerto Enrique Malek (airport code DAV;%721-1072) is 75km southeast of the Costa Rican border, and frequently handles flights to and from San José, Costa Rica. Panama’s national airline, COPA (%238-1363; www.copaair.com) is compliant with international aviation standards. Flights go to and from the USA, numerous Latin and South American countries, and the Caribbean. Panama City is a common destination for travelers flying to/from the region on an openjaw ticket.

Boat For information on sailing to Colombia, see p693.

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Bus At all three border crossings with Costa Rica (see p662) you can approach the border via local buses on either side, cross over, board another local bus and continue on your way. Be aware that the last buses leave the border crossings at Guabito and Río Sereno at 7pm; the last bus leaves Paso Canoas for Panama City at 9:30pm. Panaline (%227-8648; www.viajeros.com/panaline) and Tica Bus (%262-2084; www.ticabus.com) have daily direct departures between San José in Costa Rica, and Panama City, departing from the Albrook bus terminal (Map p644). Reserve a few days in advance.

Car & Motorcycle You can drive your own car from North America to Panama, but the costs of insurance, fuel, border permits, food and accommodations will be much higher than the cost of an airline ticket. As a result, most people opt to fly down and rent cars when they arrive in Panama City. If you decide to drive to Panama, get insurance, have your papers in order and never leave your car unattended. US license plates are attractive to some thieves, so you should display these from inside the car. If you are bringing a car into Panama, you must show a passport, valid driver’s license, proof of ownership and insurance papers. Complete information is available at the government website: www.ana.gob.pa/ portal/index.php/regimenes-aduaneros/120 -vehiculos-de-turistas.html.

GETTING AROUND Air

Panama has two major domestic carriers: Air Panama (%316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com/tickets) and Aeroperlas (%315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com). Domestic flights depart Panama City from Aeropuerto Albrook (Albrook airport, Marcos A Gelabert airport; Map p640; %315-0403) and arrive in destinations throughout the country. For most flights it’s wise to book as far in advance as DEPARTURE TAX Panama levies a US$20 departure tax for outbound passengers on international flights but it is usually included in the price of your ticket.

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possible – this is particularly true of flights to Comarca de Kuna Yala. Even if you’re on a tight budget, one-way domestic flights are never more than US$80, and you can sometimes turn a one- or twoday bus/boat journey into a 45-minute flight.

Bicycle You can cycle through Panama easily enough, but cycling within larger Panamanian cities – particularly Panama City – is not wise. Roads are narrow, there are no bike lanes, motorists drive aggressively and frequent rains reduce motorists’ visibility. Outside the cities, roads tend to be in fine shape, although parts of the Interamericana are narrow, leaving little room to move aside should a car pass by. Lodging is rarely more than a day’s bike ride away.

Boat

Bus You can take a bus to just about any community in Panama that is reachable by road. Some

are huge, new Mercedes Benzes equipped with air-con, movie screens and reclining seats. These top-of-the-line buses generally cruise long stretches of highway. The more frequently used Toyota Coaster buses seat 28 people. Affectionately called chivas, these provide inexpensive transit to the interior and along the Interamericana. Urban areas use old American school buses colorfully painted and nicknamed diablos rojos (red devils). They’re a slow but cheap (US$0.25) way to get around Panama City.

Car & Motorcycle Due to the low cost and ready availability of buses and taxis, it isn’t necessary to rent a vehicle in Panama unless you intend to go to places far off the beaten track. Should you choose to rent, you’ll find car-rental agencies in Panama City, David and Chitré. Several agencies also have offices at Tocumen International Airport in the capital. To rent a vehicle in Panama, you must be 25 years of age or older and present a passport and driver’s license, though some places will rent vehicles to 21-year-olds if you ask politely, pay higher insurance costs, and supply them with a major credit card. Prices for rentals in Panama run from US$35 per day for economy models to US$115 per day for a 4WD vehicle (cuatro por cuatro). When you rent, carefully inspect the car for minor dents and scratches, missing radio antennae, hubcaps and the spare tire. These damages must be noted on your rental agreement; otherwise you may be charged for them when you return the car. There have been many reports of theft from rental cars, so don’t leave valuables or luggage unattended. Many hotels provide parking areas for cars.

Hitchhiking Hitchhiking is not as widespread in Panama as elsewhere in Central America. Most Panamanians travel by bus and travelers would do best to follow suit. The exception is holiday weekends, when buses are overflowing and hitchhiking may be the only way out of a place. If you get a ride, offer payment upon arrival – ‘¿Cuánto le debo?’ (‘How much do I owe you?’) is the standard courtesy. Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country, but it’s not uncommon in rural areas of Panama.

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Boats are the chief means of transportation in several areas of Panama, particularly in Darién Province, the Archipiélago de Las Perlas, and the San Blás and Bocas del Toro island chains. While at least one eccentric soul has swum the entire length of the Panama Canal, a boat simplifies the transit enormously. The backpacker mecca of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón is accessible from Almirante by speedy and inexpensive water taxis – see p677 for details. Colombian and Kuna merchant boats carry cargo and passengers along the San Blás coast between Colón and Puerto Obaldía, stopping at up to 48 islands to load and unload passengers and cargo. However, these boats are occasionally used to traffic narcotics, and they’re often dangerously overloaded. Hiring a local boatman is a wiser option and usually included in lodging – see p691 for more details. Since there aren’t many roads in eastern Darién Province, boat travel is often the most feasible way to get from one town to another, especially during the rainy season. The boat of choice here is a piragua (long canoe), carved from the trunk of a giant ceiba tree. Their shallow hulls allow them to ride the many rivers of eastern Panama. Many such boats are motorized. See p698 for more details.

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638 PA N A MA C I T Y • • H i s t o r y

Taxi Panamanian taxis don’t have meters, but there are some set fares. Taxis are cheap, and most of the time plentiful. However, they can be difficult to hail late at night and just before and during holidays. During these times, it’s best to call for a radio taxi. Listings for reliable radio taxis can be found in the Yellow Pages of phone directories throughout Panama, under the heading Taxis. More expensive ‘sedan’ taxis operate from upscale hotels and malls. These drivers charge at least twice what you’d pay a hailed cab.

Train For details on the scenic train trip between Panama City and Colón, see p652.

PANAMA CITY PA N A M A

pop 446,000

Undoubtedly the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is both a gateway to the country’s natural riches and a vibrant destination in its own right. As a thriving center for international banking and trade, Panama City sports a skyline of shimmering glass-and-steel towers. Residents often joke that Panama City is the ‘Miami of the South,’ except that more English is spoken. Although there’s no shortage of sophisticated dining and chic dance clubs, visitors to Panama City usually cozy up to the colonial district of Casco Viejo, a dilapidated neighborhood with cobblestones, old churches and scenic plazas reminiscent of old Havana. Casco Viejo lay crumbling on the edge of the sea for decades but has undergone extensive renovation in recent years. Panama City is at times polluted and chaotic but it is dynamic too. Whether you measure the pulse of the city by the beat of the salsa clubs along Calle Uruguay, or by the staccato voices of street vendors, chances are you’ll slip into the rhythm of this Latin playground.

HISTORY Panama City was founded in 1519 by the Spanish governor Pedro Arias de Ávila (Pedrarias) not long after Balboa first saw the Pacific. The Spanish settlement quickly became an important center of government and church authorities. In 1671 the city was ransacked and destroyed by the Welsh pirate

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Sir Henry Morgan, leaving only the stone ruins of Panamá Viejo. Three years later, the city was re-established in the peninsular area of Casco Viejo. Yet after the destruction of the Caribbean port at Portobelo in 1746, the Spanish overland trade route declined. Panama City subsequently faded in importance, though it returned to prominence in the 1850s when gold seekers on the way to California flooded across the isthmus by the Panama Railroad. After Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903, Panama City was firmly established as the capital. Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal spurred the city to become a hub of international business and trade. Today, Panama City is by far the wealthiest city in Central America, owed in large part to the Panama Canal. While foreign investment has waned with the 2009 world economic crisis, the pending expansion of the Panama Canal signals a possible future prosperity.

ORIENTATION Panama City stretches about 20km along the Pacific coast, from the Panama Canal at its western end to the ruins of Panamá Viejo to the east. Near the canal are Albrook airport, the Fort Amador Causeway and the wealthy Balboa and Ancón suburbs first built for the US canal and military workers. The Puente de las Américas (Bridge of the Americas) arches gracefully over the canal. The colonial part of the city, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe and Casco Antiguo), juts into the sea on the southwestern side of town. From here, two major roads head east through the city. The main drag is Av Central, which runs past the cathedral in Casco Viejo to Parque Santa Ana and Plaza Cinco de Mayo; between these two plazas, the avenue is a pedestrianonly shopping street. At a fork further east, the avenue becomes Av Central España; the section that traverses the El Cangrejo business and financial district is called Vía España. The other part of the fork becomes Av 1 Norte (José D Espinar), Av Simón Bolívar and finally Vía Transístmica as it heads out of town and across the isthmus toward Colón. Av 6 Sur branches off Av Central not far out of Casco Viejo and undergoes several name

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changes. It is called Av Balboa as it curves around the edge of the bay to Punta Paitilla, on the bay’s eastern point; it then continues under various names past the Centro Atlapa to the ruins of Panamá Viejo. The 2009 expansion of Av Balboa created Cinta Costera, a waterfront green space with walking and biking paths that extends from El Cangrejo to Casco Viejo. Generally, avenidas (avenues) run east– west, while calles (streets) run north–south. Av Central and Vía España form the boundary – avenidas south of Vía España are labeled sur (south) while calles east of Vía España are labeled este.

HSBC (Map p644; Vía España) Changes Amex traveler’s checks with no fee; US$5 transaction for other types.

Panacambios (Map p644; %223-1800; ground fl, Plaza Regency Bldg, Vía España; h8am-5pm Mon-Fri) Buys and sells international currencies.

Post Many hotels sell stamps and some will mail guests’ letters. Main post office (Map p644; Av Balboa btwn Calles 30 & 31; h7am-5:45pm Mon-Fri, 7am-4:45pm Sat) Holds poste-restante items for 30 days. Post office (Map p644; Plaza las Americas; h7am5:45pm Mon-Fri, 7am-4:45pm Sat) Only post office for mailing packages.

Maps

Telephone

Just off Av Simón Bolívar opposite the Universidad de Panamá, the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (Tommy Guardia; Map p644; % 236-2444; h8am-4pm Mon-Fri) has an excellent map collection for sale.

Tarjetas (phone cards) in denominations of US$3, US$5 and US$10 can be purchased at pharmacies for local and regional calls, which can be made from any card phone.

INFORMATION

ATP offices give out free maps but few ATP employees speak English. ATP (Map p640; %226-7000; www.atp.gob.pa; Vía

Earl S Tupper Tropical Sciences Library/Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI; Map p644; %212-8000; h10am-4:30pm Mon-Fri) Stocks books on wildlife and the environment, also a library. Exedra Books (Map p644; %264-4252; cnr Vías España & Brasil; h9:30am-9:30pm Mon-Sat, 11am-8:30pm Sun) Among Central America’s best bookstores.

Emergency Ambulance (%228-2187, 229-1133) Fire (%103) Police (%104)

Internet Access Most lodgings have wi-fi, and internet cafes are plentiful in Panama City, especially in the El Cangrejo banking district. Business Center (Map p644; Calle 49A Oeste; per hr US$0.75; h24hr) Air-conditioned, fast internet.

Medical Services Medicine in Panama, especially in Panama City, is of a high standard. Centro Medico Paitilla (Map p644; %265-8800, 265-8883; Calle 53 Este & Av Balboa) Has well-trained physicians who speak both Spanish and English.

Money There are plenty of 24-hour ATMs throughout the city.

Israel, San Francisco; h8:30am-4:30pm Mon-Fri) Panama’s tourism bureau is headquartered at the Centro Atlapa in the San Francisco neighborhood. Enter at the rear of the large building. Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente (ANAM; Map p644; %315-0855; h8am-4pm) ANAM can occasionally provide maps and information on national parks. However, they are not organized to provide much assistance to tourists. Located inside Building 804 of the Albrook district.

DANGERS & ANNOYANCES Casco Viejo is the focus of an ambitious urban renewal program, though it’s still a work in progress. Generally speaking, the tip of the peninsula southeast of the Iglesia de la Merced is safe for tourists, especially since the area is heavily patrolled by police officers. But stay where it’s well lit and around people. Take taxis at night. Moving to the base of the peninsula, there are high-density slums where many tourists have been the target of criminals. Other highcrime areas include Curundú, El Chorrillo, Santa Ana, San Miguelito and Río Abajo. Calle Uruguay, the clubbing hub of the city, also attracts opportunists. Don’t take your full wallet out at night. We have heard reports of women going up to male travelers to hug them and taking their wallets.

PA N A M A

Bookstores

Tourist Information

640 PA N A MA C I T Y • • S i g h t s

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When walking the city streets, be aware that drivers do not yield to pedestrians. Also, be on the lookout for missing storm and sewer covers, downed wires and high curbs.

In 1904, at the time construction began on the Panama Canal, all of Panama City existed where Casco Viejo stands today. As population growth and urban expansion pushed the urban boundaries further east, the city’s elite left and the neighborhood rapidly deteriorated into an urban slum. Today, the Unesco World Heritage Site of Casco Viejo is half-crumbling, half-high-end, with renovations giving a sense of how magnificent the area must have looked in past years. Part of the allure of strolling along Casco Viejo’s cobbled streets is the dilapidated charm of the crumbling buildings, modest homes and ruins. Restoration is still happening, so please be aware of your surroundings, and exercise caution (see p639).

SIGHTS

Casco Viejo Following the destruction of the old city by Henry Morgan in 1671, the Spanish moved their city 8km southwest to a rocky peninsula on the foot of Cerro Ancón. The new location was easier to defend as the reefs prevented ships from approaching the city except at high tide. The new city was also easy to defend as it was surrounded by a massive wall, which is how Casco Viejo (Old Compound; Map p649) got its name.

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PLAZA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA

but I think you are more of a pirate than I am.’ Whatever the truth, the baroque altar was later moved from the old city to the present site.

This plaza (Map p649) is the heart of Casco Antiguo, and was the site where Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903.

TEATRO NACIONAL

Built in 1907, the interior of this ornate theater (Map p649; %262-3525; Av B) has been completely restored, and boasts red and gold decorations, a once-magnificent ceiling mural by Roberto Lewis and an impressive crystal chandelier. Performances are still held here; for information or a look around, visit the office at the side of the building.

IGLESIA DE SAN JOSÉ

This church (Map p649; Av A) protects the famous Altar de Oro (Golden Altar), salvaged after Henry Morgan sacked Panamá Viejo. According to local legend, when word came of the pirate’s impending attack, a priest painted the altar black to disguise it. The priest told Morgan that the famous altar had been stolen by another pirate, and convinced Morgan to donate handsomely for its replacement. Morgan is said to have told the priest, ‘I don’t know why,

PLAZA DE FRANCIA

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SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES Canal Bay & Tours..............................4 A3 Ecocircuitos........................................ 5 A4 Mercado Nacional de Artesanías.........6 F3 Museo de Sitio Panamá Viejo...........(see 6) Panamá Viejo Ruins..........................(see 6) Scubapanama.....................................7 E2 SLEEPING Canal Inn........................................... 8 Hostal Amador Familiar......................9 Hostal Casa Margarita......................10 Hostel de Clayton.............................11 La Estancia........................................12

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EATING La Tablita......................................... 13 D2 TRANSPORT Muelle 19........................................(see 4) Panama Railway Company...............14 B3

4

642 PA N A MA C I T Y • • S i g h t s

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GETTING INTO TOWN

From the Airports Tocumen International Airport is 35km northeast of the city center. The cheapest way to get into the city is to exit the terminal, cross the street (to the bus shelter) and catch a city-bound bus. Much faster and costlier, taxis can be hired at the Transportes Turísticos desk at the airport exit, next to posted prices. Or take a colectivo (shared taxi) for US$11 per person (for three or more passengers). Buses to Tocumen depart every 15 minutes from the Albrook Terminal. If you take the Cinta Costera route bus (US$1, one hour), it’s twice as fast as the others and air-conditioned. A taxi from downtown to the airport should cost no more than US$20, leaving the airport they tend to charge more (US$25 to US$30). The Albrook airport north of Cerro Ancón handles domestic flights. The easiest way to get to/ from the airport is by taxi, and the ride should cost between US$3 and US$5.

From the Bus Terminal

PA N A M A

All long-distance buses arrive at the Albrook bus terminal; from here there are connections throughout the city. Routes (such as Vía España, Panamá Viejo) are displayed in the front window and cost US$0.25. If you arrive after dark, it is recommended that you take a taxi (US$3 to US$5) to your destination.

the story (in Spanish) of the French role in the construction of the canal. It’s dedicated to the memory of the 22,000 workers, mostly from France, Guadeloupe and Martinique, who died trying to create a canal. Most were killed by yellow fever and malaria. There is also a monument to the Cuban doctor Carlos J Finlay, who discovered how mosquitoes transmit yellow fever and led to the eradication of the disease in Panama.

era religious artifacts, some dating from the 16th century. Just inside the doorway of the ruins is the Arco Chato, a long arch that has stood here, unsupported, for centuries. It reportedly played a part in the selection of Panama over Nicaragua as the site for the canal: its survival was taken as proof that the area was not subject to earthquakes. It suddenly collapsed in 2003. MUSEO DEL CANAL INTEROCEÁNICO

PASEO LAS BÓVEDAS

This impressive museum (Map p649; %211-1995;

This esplanade (Map p649) runs along the top of the sea wall built by the Spanish to protect the city. From here, you can see the Bridge of the Americas arching over the waterway and the ships lining up to enter the canal.

cnr Av Central & Calle 6a Oeste; admission US$2; h9:30am5:30pm Tue-Sun) is housed in the former head-

PALACIO DE LAS GARZAS

The presidential palace (Map p649; Av Alfaro) is named after the great white herons that reside here. The president of Panama lives on the upper floor.

quarters for the original French canal company. The Panama Canal Museum (as it’s more commonly known) presents excellent exhibits on the famous waterway, framed in its historical and political context. Signs are in Spanish, but English-speaking guides and audio tours (US$5) are available. MUSEO DE HISTORIA DE PANAMÁ

CLUB DE CLASES Y TROPAS

This abandoned ruin (Map p649; Calle 1a Oeste) was once the favorite hangout of General Noriega, though it was virtually destroyed during the 1989 invasion. Some fresh paint was selectively applied in early 2000, when scenes from the movie The Tailor of Panama were filmed here. MUSEO DE ARTE RELIGIOSO COLONIAL

Housed beside the ruins of the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo, this art museum (Map p649; %228-2897; cnr Av A & Calle 3 Este; admission US$1; h8am-4pm Tue-Sat) has a collection of colonial-

This modest museum (Map p649; %228-6231; Calle 6a Oeste; admission free; h8:30am-3:30pm MonFri) has a small selection of exhibits covering Panamanian history from the colonial period to the modern era.

Panamá Viejo For over 150 years, the city of Panamá was the metropolis of the Pacific. In addition to being a gateway for the bullion of Peru, it was also a major trading post for Oriental silks and spices. It’s riches were the envy of pirates the world over.

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When Panamá fell to Henry Morgan in 1671, the city contained a magnificent cathedral, several beautiful churches, thousands of colonial homes and hundreds of warehouses stocked with foreign goods. Plundering reduced Panamá Viejo to mere beams and stone blocks. Although the ruins were left intact as recently as 1950, the expansion of the capital resulted in the transformation of Panamá into a squatter camp. Although the government declared the ruins a protected site in 1976 (Unesco followed suit in 1997), most of the old city had already been dismantled and overrun. Today much of Panamá Viejo lies buried under a poor residential neighborhood, though the ruins are definitely worth visiting, even if only to stand on the hallowed grounds of one of North America’s important colonial cities. PANAMÁ VIEJO RUINS

MERCADO NACIONAL DE ARTESANÍAS

Panamá Viejo buses (US$0.25) coming from Av Balboa will drop you off at this artisans market (National Artisans Market; Map p640; h9am-6pm) behind the first remnant of ruins as you approach from Panama City. MUSEO DE SITIO PANAMÁ VIEJO

This museum (Map p640; admission US$3; h9am-5pm) contains a rather impressive scale model of Panamá Viejo prior to 1671, as well as a few surviving colonial artifacts. All signs are in Spanish, though a brochure and tape recording recount the site’s history in English.

Causeway At the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, a 2km palm-tree-lined calzada (causeway) connects the four small islands of Naos, Culebra, Perico and Flamenco to the mainland. The Causeway is the popular place to be in the early morning and late afternoon, when residents walk, jog, skate, cycle or simply

escape the noise and pollution of the city. The Causeway also offers sweeping views of the skyline and the old city, with flocks of brown pelicans diving into the sea. On the Causeway, Bikes n More (%314-0103; h8am-6pm Sat & Sun) operates a booth where you can rent a bicycle. The interesting Centro de Exhibiciones Marines (%212-8000 ext 2366; admission US$1; h1-5pm Tue-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat & Sun), operated by the Smithsonian

Tropical Research Institute (STRI), includes an informative marine museum with signs in English and Spanish, two small aquariums and a nature trail through a patch of dry forest containing sloths and iguanas. At the time of publication, construction was well underway on the Museo de la Biodiversidad (Museum of Biodiversity; www.biomuseo panama.org; Causeway), Panama’s new landmark museum with extensive botanical gardens. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry penned this controversial design of crumpled multicolor forms. Located near the tip of the Causeway, it is slated to open in 2011. Isla Flamenco is home to an enormous shopping center with open-air restaurants, upscale bars and clubs. The easiest way to reach the Causeway is by taxi (US$4 to US$6).

Parque Natural Metropolitano Up on a hill, north of downtown, this 265-hectare national park (Map p640) protects a wild area of tropical forest within the city limits. It has two main walking trails, the Nature Trail and the Tití Monkey Trail, which join to form one long loop. The 150m-high mirador (lookout) offers views of Panama City, the bay and the canal all the way to the Miraflores Locks. Mammals in the park include tití monkeys, anteaters, sloths and white-tailed deer; reptiles include iguanas, turtles and tortoises. More than 250 bird species have been spotted here. The park was the site of an important battle during the US invasion to oust Noriega. The concrete structures just past the park entrance were used during WWII as a testing and assembly plant for aircraft engines. The park is bordered on the west and north by Camino de la Amistad; Av Juan Pablo II runs right through the park. For a self-guided tour, get a pamphlet in Spanish and English at the visitors center (Map p640; %232-5516; admission

PA N A M A

The ruins (Map p640) of Panamá Viejo, founded in 1519, are not fenced in, so you can visit them anytime, though it’s probably best to explore the area during the daylight hours. The ruins cover a large area, and you can still see the cathedral with its stone tower, the plaza beside it, the convent of Santo Domingo, the Iglesia de San José, the hospital of San Juan de Dios and the city hall.

PA N A MA C I T Y • • S i g h t s 643

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EATING @ Athens.................................................29 La Posta ..............................................30 Market.................................................31 Masala Indian Cuisine ...................32 Mercado de Mariscos....................33 New York Bagel Café.....................34 Niko's Cafe.........................................35

E3 : : E3 E3 : : E3 : B5 : F1 : : F2

: : : INFORMATION SIGHTS:& ACTIVITIES : :F3 DRINKING ? : : Ancon Expeditions .........................15 Autoridad Nacional del : : : : : ........................1 : : Ambiente (ANAM) C1 Museo People.................................................36 E3 : : : : : Business Center..................................2 Afro-Antilleano ............................16 : : F2 : : B4 : : : : Canadian Embassy............................3 F4 :Museo À : de:Arte : : : ENTERTAINMENT :F4 : : A4 Alhambra Cinema ..........................37 F2 Centro Médico Paitilla.....................4 Contemporáneo..........................17 : : : : : de: : Earl S Tupper Tropical Museo Ciencias Miramar Inter-Continental..........38 E3 Sciences Library.............................5 A3 Naturales........................................18 B3 Multicentro Mall..............................39 F4 Exedra Books.......................................6 G2 Spanish Panama..............................19 F1 Multiplaza Mall ................................40 H4 HSBC.......................................................7 A4 Restaurante-Bar Tinajas ...............41 E3 Instituto Geográfico Nacional SLEEPING i (Tommy Guardia)..........................8 E1 Anita's Inn ..........................................20 G2 SHOPPING f Main Post Office.................................9 A4 Baru Lodge ........................................21 G2 Flory Saltzman Molas....................42 F2 Immigration Office ........................ 10 B3 Casa de Carmen...............................22 G2 Mercado de Buhonerías y Panacambios.................................... 11 F2 Hostal Balboa Bay ...........................23 D3 Artesanías......................................43 A4 Post Office......................................... 12 C3 Hotel Acapulco ................................24 C3 Tupper Center.................................. (see 5) Smithsonian Tropical Hotel Andino ....................................25 C3 Research Institute .......................(see 5) Hotel Caribe ......................................26 B3 TRANSPORT UK Embassy ...................................... 13 F3 Hotel Marparaíso.............................27 C3 Aeroperlas .........................................44 G2 US Embassy ...................................... 14 D4 Mamallena.........................................28 C3 Albrook Bus Terminal....................45 A2

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646 PA N A MA C I T Y • • C o u r s e s

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THE JAZZ SOLUTION This once down-and-out section of the city is writing a new chapter. Making a strong push towards revitalization, Casco Viejo is home to dozens of new restaurants, cafes, shops and renovated historic buildings. In the midst of this architectural revival, another, less tangible one struggles to take place: that of the Panamanian community. Jazz great and native Panamanian Danilo Perez returned here to establish Fundación Danilo Perez (Map p649; %211-0272; www.fundaciondaniloperez.com; Av A 1069), a musical foundation which has generated over a million dollars in scholarships, many to underprivileged youth. According to Perez, ‘Through the discipline of music we can create relevant leaders and good citizens. We can solve many of society’s problems.’ The foundation also sponsors the Panama Jazz Festival, a wildly popular city-wide event featuring artists from all over the world. It is held every January. The weeklong event culminates in a free Saturday concert in the Casco’s Plaza de la Independencia. The foundation in Casco Viejo also houses a library and musical museum and is open to the public.

US$1; h8am-5pm Mon-Fri, 8am-1pm Sat), about 40m

north of the park entrance.

PA N A M A

Museums Sadly, the establishment and preservation of museums is not a governmental priority in Panama City and many collections have not been properly maintained. The fascinating Museo Afro-Antilleano (Map p644; %262-5348; cnr Av Justo Arosemena & Calle 24 Este; admission US$1; h8:30am-3:30pm Tue-Sat) has exhibits on the

history of Panama’s West Indian community. Near Av de los Mártires in the Ancón district, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Map p644; %262-8012; admission free; h9am-4pm Mon-Fri, 9am-noon Sat, 9am-3pm Sun) hosts permanent and

changing contemporary art exhibits by prominent Latin American artists. Museo de Ciencias Naturales (Map p644; %2250645; Av Cuba btwn Calles 29 Este & 30 Este; admission US$1; h9am-3:45pm Tue-Sat) features works on the

natural sciences, flora, fauna, geology and paleontology of Panama.

Baha’i House of Worship Located 11km from downtown on the Transisthmian Hwy, the white-domed Baha’i temple (%231-1137; h10am-6pm) looms like a giant egg atop the crest of a hill. It serves all of Latin America and is surprisingly beautiful and breezy. Information about the faith is available in English and Spanish; readings from the Baha’i writings (also in English and Spanish) are held Sunday mornings at 10am. Any bus to Colón can let you off on the highway, but it’s a long walk up the hill. A taxi from Panama City costs around US$20, plus waiting time.

COURSES Dance

You can try open-air salsa dancing at Parque Recreativo Omar (see Map p640). Classes (US$1) run every Saturday at 8:30am. To practice, check out Havana Panamá (p651) in Casco Viejo.

Language Located in the suburban El Dorado neighborhood, the Institute for Spanish Language Studies (ILERI; Map p640; %260-4424; http://isls.com/panama; Camino de la Amistad) offers four hours of one-

on-one instruction per day, five days a week. Costs start at US$395 for the first week (with lodging, meals, trips and activities), and decrease with each subsequent week. The weekly rate without lodging starts at US$265. Spanish Panama (Map p644; %213-3121; www.spanish panama.com; Via Argentina, Edificio Americana No 1A) gets strong reviews from travelers. It has a similar structure to ILERI’s: four hours of one-onone classes daily and dorm accommodations for US$375 per week (long-term discounts are available).

TOURS For listings, please see the Directory, p707.

FESTIVALS & EVENTS Although not as famous as the celebrations in Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans, Carnaval in Panama City is celebrated with equal merriment and wild abandon during the days preceding Ash Wednesday. From Saturday until the following Tuesday, work is put away, and masks, costumes and confetti are brought forth. For a period of 96 hours, almost anything goes.

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The Panama Jazz Festival (www.panamajazzfestival .com) draws hundreds of thousands of spectators for a weeklong festival in mid-January. For more information, see opposite. For a list of events, check out the arts section in the Sunday edition of La Prensa as well as the back pages of the Panama News.

SLEEPING

Casco Viejo As Casco Viejo (Map p649) sees extensive renovation, this old-world charmer is becoming an excellent option for lodging. Advantages include the great number of restaurants and cafes and its walkability. Hospedaje Casco Viejo (%211-2027; www.hospedaje cascoviejo.com; Calle 8a Oeste; dm US$9, d with/without bathroom US$18/16; pi) Every inch of this old

.com; Calle 9a Este; dm/d/tr incl breakfast US$12/28/36; iW) Housed in a creaky, colonial man-

sion, Luna’s Castle blends historic Spanish colonial architecture with funky, laid-back backpacker vibes. Ample dorms are stacked with bunks and the shared bathrooms get a frequent scrub. Perks include internet, laundry service and a basement movie house showing your favorite flicks. A bit loony and very friendly, this is the kind of hostel people keep talking about long after their trip ends.

La Exposición & Bella Vista The neighborhoods of La Exposición and Bella Vista (Map p644) are home to a number of fairly standard budget and midrange hotels. Mamallena (%6538-9745; www.mamallena.com; Calle Maria Icaza; dm/d incl breakfast US$11/28; ia) For a small, intimate hostel, Mamallena is a top pick. Run by Stuart, an over-working, overplaying Aussie, this place nails the mark on SPEAK PANAMEÑO You can express your appreciation with chévere (cool); buena leche is good luck; un pinta means a beer while vaina just means thing.

service. Desk service is 24 hours and guests get free wireless and computer use, pancake breakfasts and access to a DVD library. Highceiling dorms have air-con at night and the cute motel-style doubles offer considerable privacy. The house itself is homey and cool, on a residential street that’s somehow survived the wrecking ball. Hostal Balboa Bay (%227-6182; Calle 39 No 21; dm incl breakfast US$13, s/d with air-con US$30/40; ai)

Though quiet and clean, this central hostel gets less traffic than the competition. Service isn’t a strong suit, but doubles are ample and airy. The dorm has single beds lined up in a tight row. There’s a small kitchen facility and wi-fi costs $5 extra. Hotel Acapulco (%225-3832; Calle 30 Este; s/d US$39/42; pa) A discernible step up from the standard hotel fare that runs chock-ablock in this part of town, the Acapulco offers a certain no-nonsense style. Spotless rooms offer air-con, hot-water showers and balconies off the French doors (make sure yours locks). Hotel Andino (%225-1162; Calle 35; s/d US$39/50; pa) Rooms at the Andino come up short on charm, but they’re big, clean and equipped like a start-up apartment. Request a king-size and you can also get a two-burner stove for some self-catering adventures. If you don’t feel like leaving the hotel, there’s a bar and restaurant, making it a convenient choice to crash overnight between bus departures. Hotel Marparaíso (%227-6767; Calle 34 Este; s/d incl breakfast US$40/50; pai) If counting pennies, consider that your stay here includes a free airport pickup, satellite TV, wi-fi and continental breakfast. Rooms have bright tropical bedspreads and smell a bit too much of deodorizer. Try for one on the 4th floor or higher. A chill bar and restaurant is a good place to chat up other travelers. Hotel Caribe (%225-0404; www.caribehotel.net; cnr Calle 28 Este & Av Perú; d/tr incl breakfast US$52/75; pas) Psychedelic and slightly retro –

by default rather than design – this large casino-hotel is good on price but short on atmosphere. Its best feature is a rooftop pool overlooking the city. While central, the neighborhood tends to be a little rough.

El Cangrejo & San Francisco The modern banking district of El Cangrejo is central but also one of the noisier spots in town. Anita’s Inn (Map p644; %213-3121; www.hostelspanama .com; Av 2a B Norte; dm US$10, dm/s/d without bathroom

PA N A M A

hostel has seen heavy use, from the worn tile bathrooms to bowing beds, but it’s hard to get picky at these prices. The best room is the dormitory, with well-spaced single beds. While service is laissez-faire, perks include a communal kitchen, wi-fi and an open-air courtyard. It’s on a quiet side street next to the Iglesia de San José. Luna’s Castle (%262-1540; www.lunascastlehostel

PA N A MA C I T Y • • S l e e p i n g 647

648 PA N A MA C I T Y • • E a t i n g

US$13/33/39; ai) Affiliated with Spanish

Panama (p646), this student guesthouse occupies a plain peach-colored building. While the location is good, the rooms could use some love and personal presence. Casa de Carmen (Map p644; %263-4366; www.lacasa decarmen.com; Calle 1a de Carmen 32, El Carmen; dm/s/d without bathroom US$12/30/35, d US$55; pai) In a cozy

colonial near Vía Brasil, this congenial home sports fresh rooms with high ceilings. Guests of all ages congregate in the communal kitchen, lounge area or on the lush hammock patio. The owners offer a wealth of knowledge of the city and countryside. Be sure to book ahead. Baru Lodge (Map p644; %393-2340; www.barulodge .com; Calle 2nda Norte H-7, El Carmen; s/d incl breakfast US$55/88; ai) Tasteful and cordial, this subdued inn

PA N A M A

sits on a residential street central to the action. Rooms are sleek and modern, with subdued colors and soft lighting. Cable TV, wi-fi, air-con and air purifiers are among the perks. The garden patio has wicker seating where continental breakfasts are served and soon will have a pool. oHostal Casa Margarita (Map p640; %3945557; www.hostalcasamargarita.com; Calle Los Claveles, casa 97, San Francisco; s/d/tr/q incl breakfast US$66/77/110/132; pai) Irresistibly cozy and chic, this is a

great addition to the Panama City B&B scene. Rooms in this stucco house are smart and simple, with colorful touches, flat-screen TVs and minifridges. A huge garden and breakfast patio offers ample space to lounge or dally over a complete breakfast with fresh fruit. Guests also get kitchen use and wi-fi, but the real treasure here is the warm Venezuelan family.

Canal Zone For quieter digs, this is your best bet. The neighborhood of Balboa sits right before the Causeway, while Clayton is further out, adjacent to Miraflores Locks. You’re a taxi ride away from downtown, but staying out here is a welcome respite from the noise and congestion of Panama City. Hostel de Clayton (%317-1634; www.hosteldeclayton .com; Calle Guanabana, Edificio 605B, Clayton; dm US$14, d with/without bathroom US$40/35; pai )

Reminiscent of an army barracks, this friendly hostel is located on the site of the former US army base of Clayton, a well-heeled residential area. The rooms and amenities are perfectly suited to the budget traveler, but for those without a rental car or the budget for taxis, the location leaves you adrift in suburbia.

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Hostal Amador Familiar (% 314-1251; www .hostalamadorfamiliar.com; Calle Akee, casa 1519, Balboa; dm incl breakfast US$15; d with fan/air-con US$30/35 paiW) A big yellow canal house with airy, high-ceiling bedrooms and a private garden with open-air kitchen. Breakfast comes with cereal or eggs, toast and coffee. Tiled rooms with rod iron beds and sashed windows sport the quirks and creaks of old buildings. The location is just off the Causeway, US$3 to downtown by taxi. Canal Inn (%314-0112; www.canal-inn.com; Calle Ernesto J Castillero, Casa 7, Balboa; s/d incl breakfast US$77/88; paiWs) Catering mostly to couples

and older independent travelers, this personable inn offers excellent service and a selection of snug, bright rooms. Some mattresses are worthier than others. The best room is No 17, sporting its own balcony. While the ethnic decor gets a little overly enthusiastic, it’s still a sweet and relaxing spot. The quiet neighborhood is ideal for jogging or strolling out to the Causeway. La Estancia (% 314-1417; www.bedandbreakfast panama.com; Casa 35, Quarry Heights, Ancón; d incl breakfast US$83; paiW) Perched atop Cerro Ancón

and surrounded by tropical flora and fauna, La Estancia is a small cement apartment building converted into a tranquil B&B. Rooms are clean and uncluttered but slim on personality. Breakfasts are excellent, best enjoyed on the patio while gazing upon the Puente de las Américas. It’s a US$5 to downtown by taxi.

EATING Panama City is a paradise for those who love to dine out. There are literally hundreds of places to eat, from holes in the wall to garden bistros.

Casco Viejo Casco Viejo hosts a unique mix of upscale eateries, and the city’s cheapest dives. Café Coca Cola (Map p649; Av Central; plates US$1-3; h7:30am-11pm) A neighborhood institution, this old-school diner serves hearty platefuls of rice, beans and the featured meat of the day, all with air-conditioning. Granclement (Map p649; Av Central; gelato US$2.503.50; hnoon-8pm) Pure pleasure defines these intense tropical fruit gelatos and intense, creamy flavors like basil, orange-chocolate and ginger. A few scoops of these fussy French creations sweeten any stroll through the Casco. oMercado de Mariscos (Map p644; Av Balboa; mains US$2.50-8; hlunch Mon-Sat) Above a bris-

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PA N A MA C I T Y • • E a t i n g 649

tling fish market in a new building donated by Japan, this unassuming restaurant is the place to get your seafood fix. Ceviche starts at US$2.50 and you can also get a whole fried fish with salad (US$5). A cavernous bowl of ‘Get Up Lazarus’ soup supposedly cures hangovers. Super Gourmet (Map p649; Av A; sandwiches US$3.509; h7am-7pm Mon-Sat, 10am-3pm Sun; i) Stocking gourmet goods that range from wine to wasabi peas, this is the perfect pre-picnic stop. You can also grab soup or a baguette deli sandwich with roasted chicken and peppers, pastrami or three cheeses; the half-portion is probably enough. Diablo Rosso (Map p649; Av A; lunch US$3.50-6; h9am-7pm Mon-Sat) This art cafe with biting social commentary and quirky folk art would be perfectly at home in Buenos Aires’ Palermo.

You can also enjoy a frothy cup of cappuccino, cheesy arepas (corn cakes) piled high with eggs, hearty vegetarian soup or spinach quesadillas. Check for art openings or Tuesday night dinner-and-a-movie. Frit Arte (Map p649; Av Central; set menu US$3.80; h8am-4pm Mon-Sat) A fine lunchtime fix with a cheap rotating menu with home-cooked dishes. You can also get breakfast, a variety of vegetarian dishes and fritura (fried food) such as gourmet carimañolas (deep-fried rolls with meat and yucca) stuffed with gouda, or grilled arepas. Service is superfriendly and the walls are lined with kooky crafts and art for sale. Café Per Due (Map p649; Av A; pizza US$5-8; h9am10pm Tue-Sun) Our pick for a quick bite, this casual Italian-run eatery serves scrumptious

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650 PA N A MA C I T Y • • D r i n k i n g

thin-crust pizzas. Check out the bacon and blue cheese or the fresh tomato, basil and garlic. Mozzarella is not skimped on. For privacy, try the tiny brick courtyard with a couple of tables. Manolo Caracol (Map p649; %228-4640; Av Central; 5-course lunch US$25; hnoon-3pm & 7-10:30pm Mon-Fri, 7-11pm Sat) Manolo’s immerses you in tropical

tastes. Tiny courses pair opposite flavors and textures, such as beef tongue sprinkled in sea salt, fire-roasted lobster drizzled in olive oil, and tart mango salad with crunchy greens. Not every dish sings, but the fun is adventuring through them in a lovely colonial atmosphere. Drinks are extra.

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El Cangrejo & Bella Vista La Tablita (Map p640; Transistmica; mains US$2-8) Classic in the beat-up, rundown sense of the word, La Tablita is a smoking open-air grill with worn checkered tiles, surly wait service and delicious charred meat. Niko’s Cafe (Map p644; Calle 51 Este near Vía España; mains US$3-8; h24hr) Spawned from a Greek immigrant who once sold food from a cart, Niko’s has become one of Panama City’s most successful chains, with locations throughout the city. These sprawling 24-hour cafeterias serve hearty portions of inexpensive food ranging from made-to-order breakfasts, Panamanian dishes and desserts. New York Bagel Café (Map p644; Plaza Cabeza de Einstein, near Vía Argentina; mains US$3-8; h7am-8pm Mon-Fri, 8am-8pm Sat, 8am-3pm Sun; W) More San

Francisco than Brooklyn, this fully American creation nonetheless packs in expats with fresh baked bagels, lox and oversized breakfasts. The setting offers jazz, soft sofas and an assortment of laptop geeks. Athens (Map p644; Calle 50, Bella Vista; mains US$5; h11am-11:30pm) Fresh, delicious and casual, this Greek eatery serves warm pitas with hummus, satisfying Greek salads, gyros and pizzas. It’s ideal for families and large groups, with extensive opening hours and plenty of indoor and outdoor seating. Masala Indian Cuisine (Map p644; %225-0105; Calle 42 Este, Bella Vista; mains US$8; hnoon-11pm) A fiery plate of Indian curry and an ice-cold Kingfisher lager are a perfect match for the tropical climate. Cozied up with floor pillows and colorful textiles, Masala offers a full complement of traditional dishes ranging from tikka masala to lamb vindaloo, with a good selection for vegetarians. Market (Map p644; Calle Uruguay & Calle 47, Bella Vista; mains US$9-28) With blackboard specials, brick

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and bustle, this bistro is more Manhattan than Calle Uruguay, but here it is. The emphasis is on style and quality. Salads come in oversized bowls and you can top off your order of Angus beef with interesting sides such as creamed spinach or green beans with bacon. It is wildly popular for weekend brunch. La Posta (Map p644; %269-1076; www.lapostapanama .com; Calle Uruguay, Bella Vista; mains US$11-24; hnoon2:30pm & 7-10:30pm Mon-Sat) For contemporary

Panamanian cuisine, this is the place. The tropical setting says hacienda and a seasonal menu features local meats and produce. Start with sashimi-style fish with seared herb crust and choose from flavorful mains such as seafood risotto or wood-fire roasted pork chops. Mangrove wood supplies a sweet smoky flavor to dishes; the restaurant also supports its reforestation. The warm chocolate cake made with organic Bocas chocolate oozes with goodness.

DRINKING Bars and clubs open and close with alarming frequency in Panama City, where the nightlife is stylish, sophisticated and fairly pricey. The well-to-do denizens love a good scene, so it’s worth scrubbing up, donning nice threads and parting with a bit dough. You might regret blowing your budget in the morning, but that’s the price you pay to party with the beautiful people. Big areas for nightlife include Casco Viejo, Bella Vista and the Causeway. Vía Argentina is an up-and-coming spot – look for new bars and clubs on this fashionable avenue. The district of Bella Vista is home to Calle Uruguay, a strip of trendy bars and clubs reminiscent of Miami’s South Beach. The scene is young and you can expect to pay to play here. Moreover, clubs change hands quickly in this neighborhood, so it’s best to ask locals about the latest and greatest additions. For the latest on what’s happening in the city, be sure to pick up a copy of La Prensa (www.prensa.com, in Spanish). Weekend listings are available in the Thursday and Friday editions or on its website; look for the ‘De Noche’ section. Generally, the best gay scene in Panama City is actually found at the city’s hippest bars and clubs, not in gay-specific establishments. Website www.farraurbana.com (in Spanish) lists new gay clubs as well as upcoming parties.

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PA N A MA C I T Y • • E n t e r t a i n m e n t 651

Although half the fun of partying it up in Panama City is finding a hidden gem, here’s a few of our favorite spots to get you started. Bar Relic (Map p649; Calle 9a Este; h8:30pm-late Tue-Sat) Wildly popular with travelers and hip young Panamanians, this cavernous hostel bar knows the right thing at the right time. Service is friendly and patrons easily mingle in the ample courtyard with shared picnic tables. Not only are you outside (a rarity in Panama City bars) but you’re partying next to the historic wall of the city. Cayucos (Map p640; Causeway) Located on the Causeway, this open-air resto-bar sits on the water with excellent views of the city. While more a restaurant than bar, it’s perfect for the first cold beer of the evening. Havana Panamá (Map p649; Av Alfaro; cover US$10; hThu-Sat) Old school rules this vintage salsa bar replete with bandstand and leather booths. You’ll have to don your finest threads (there’s a dress code) and enter behind a swooshy velvet curtain. A salsa band rocks the house. People (Map p644; Calle Uruguay) A favored spot for the beautiful people and their hangers-on, this polished club attracts a babyfaced crowd to dance to pop hits. Zona Viva (Map p640; Isla Flamenco, Amador) On the Causeway, Zona Viva is a closed compound hosting a number of nightlife spots, ranging from packed dance clubs to more low-key watering holes. Shop around and pick the theme that you like, be it a pirate bar or an Egyptian club. For some it’s pura racataca (without class), for others it’s a fishbowl of fun. Identification is checked at the gate to the complex, so the area is considered more secure than most.

Panamanians love to gamble, and there are flashy casinos scattered around the city. Even if you’re not a big card-player, it’s hard to pass up US$5 blackjack, especially when the drinks are free – a good spot is the Miramar Inter-Continental (Map p644; Av Balboa). A good place to see some traditional Panamanian folk dancing is the RestauranteBar Tinajas (Map p644; %263-7890; Av 3a A Sur near Calle 52; hMon-Sat). Sure, it’s touristy, but nicely done just the same. Shows are staged here on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and Saturday nights at 9pm; there’s a US$5 entertainment fee, as well as a US$5.50 minimum per person for drinks and food. Make a reservation before dining. For a little culture, the Teatro Nacional (Map p649; %262-3525; Av B) offers dance, music and live performances, though just sitting in this historic theater is enjoyable enough.

ENTERTAINMENT

store, opposite the Legislative Palace in the Ancón district, you’ll find a nice selection of tagua nut carvings (from the egg-sized tagua nut).

Merchandise from around the world is sold very cheaply in Panama. Clothes, radios, shoes and textiles (including fabrics the Kuna purchase to make clothes) spill onto the pedestrian walkway along Av Central. Authentic handicrafts can be found at the following places: Flory Saltzman Molas (Map p644; Calle 49 B Oeste near Vía España) Has the best selection of authentic molas (colorful hand-stitched textiles made by the Kuna) outside the islands. Mercado de Buhonerías y Artesanías (Map p644) A bustling outdoor market. Mercado Nacional de Artesanías (Map p640) Crafts market recently moved to the first ruins approaching Panamá Viejo.

Tupper Center of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI; Map p644) At STRI’s book-

GETTING THERE & AWAY Air

International flights arrive at Tocumen International Airport (%238-4160), 35km northeast of the city center. Panama’s airlines are Air Panama (%316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com/tickets) and Aeroperlas (Map p644; %315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com). Domestic flights depart from Albrook airport (%315-0403), aka Aeropuerto Marcos A Gelabert, in the former Albrook Air Force Station near the canal.

PA N A M A

If you’re not looking to get blotto, there are numerous ways to spend a moonlit (or rainy) evening in the city. A good place to start is the arts section in the Sunday edition of La Prensa, or the back pages of the Panama News. Panamanians have a love affair with Hollywood, and there is no shortage of airconditioned cinemas in and around the city. For a little escapism, MultiCentro (Map p644; Av Balboa) and Multiplaza Mall (Map p644; Vía Israel & Vía Brasil; h10am-9pm) show the latest Hollywood releases in English, with Spanish subtitles. If you’re more independently minded, the Alhambra Cinema (Map p644; Vía España) screens arthouse films.

SHOPPING

652 PA N A MA C I T Y • • G e t t i n g T h e re & A w a y

For information on getting to town from the airports see boxed text, p642. All flights within Panama last under one hour and prices vary according to season and availability. Both Aeroperlas and Air Panama fly to the following destinations: Bocas del Toro and David (one way US$80), El Porvenir and Playón Chico for San Blás (US$40), Isla Contadora (US$35), La Palma and Sambú for Darién (US$48).

Boat For Isla Taboga, Barcos Calypso (%314-1730; round trip US$11) has regular departures from the Causeway, see p658.

PA N A M A

Bus The Albrook bus terminal (p644), near Albrook airport, is a convenient one-stop location for most buses leaving Panama City. The terminal includes a food court, banks, shops, a sports bar, storage room, bathrooms and showers. The mall next door has a supermarket and cinema. Before you board your bus you must pass through a turnstile and pay US$0.10 tax to the terminal. Local buses from the city’s major routes stop at the terminal, and behind the station there are direct buses to and from Tocumen International Airport. To get to the station from the city, take any of the frequent buses that pass in front of the Legislative Palace or along Vía España (look for the ‘via Albrook’ sign in the front window). Inside, Información (%303-3040; h24hr) offers assistance.

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Both Panaline (www.viajeros.com/panaline) and Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com) serve San José, Costa Rica; see their websites for hours. Canal Zone buses with Cooperativa SACA depart from the Albrook bus terminal to Balboa and Clayton (both US$.025), Miraflores Locks (US$0.35), and Gamboa (US$0.65), leaving every 45 minutes.

Car Many car rental agencies lie clustered around Calle 49 B Oeste in El Cangrejo. Daily rates start from US$35 per day for the most economical cars, including insurance and unlimited kilometers. Rental-car companies in Panama City include the following: Avis Albrook airport (%264-0722, 315-0434); Tocumen airport (%238-4056) Barriga (%269-0221, 238-4495; Tocumen airport) Budget Albrook airport (%263-8777, 315-0201); Tocumen airport (%238-4069) Hertz Albrook airport (%264-1111, 315-0418); Tocumen airport (%238-4081)

Train The Panama Railway Company (%317-6070; www .panarail.com; Carretera Gaillard) operates a glassdomed luxury passenger train from Panama City to Colón (one-way/round-trip US$22/38), leaving at 7:15am and returning at 5:15pm daily. It’s a lovely ride that follows the canal, and at times the train is surrounded by nothing but thick vine-strewn jungle. If you want to relive the heyday of luxury train travel for an hour or two, this is definitely the way to do it.

BUSES FROM PANAMA CITY

Destination

Cost (US$)

Duration (hr)

Frequency

Changuinola Chitré Colón David El Valle Las Tablas Penonomé Pesé San José, Costa Rica Santiago Soná Villa de Los Santos Yaviza

24 7.50 2.50 12.50-15 3.50 8 4.35 8 25-35 7.50 8 8 14

10 4 2 7-8 2½ 4½ 2½ 4½ 16 4 6 4 6-8

8pm daily hourly every 20min 15 daily hourly hourly 48 daily 6 daily 2 daily 20 daily 6 daily 18 daily 8 daily

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A taxi to the station, located in the town of Corazal, from Panama City centre costs about US$3.

A R O U N D PA N A MA C I T Y • • Pa n a m a C a n a l 653

Metro (%264-6788) Taxi Unico Cooperativa (%221-3191)

AROUND PANAMA CITY

The only spot to rent bicycles in Panama City is at the start of the Causeway. Both Moses (%221-3671; h9am-7pm Sat & Sun) and Bikes N More (%314-0103; h8am-6pm Sat & Sun) operate booths with rentals starting at US$3.50 per hour for mountain bikes. You can also rent tandems and rickshaw bikes.

No visit to Panama City would be complete without taking a day trip to its famous waterway – just remember that the Canal Zone is much, much more than just the canal. The rainforest surrounding the canal is easily accessed and one of the best places to view a variety of Central American wildlife.

Bus

PANAMA CANAL

Panama City has a good network of local buses (nicknamed diablos rojos or ‘red devils’), which run every day from around 5am to 11pm. A ride costs US$0.25, and we promise you’ve never seen anything quite like these tricked-out street rockets. Buses run along the three major west–east routes: Av Central–Vía España, Av Balboa– Vía Israel, and Av Simón Bolívar–Vía Transístmica. The Av Central–Vía España streets are one-way going west for much of the route; eastbound buses use Av Perú and Av 4 Sur; these buses will take you into the banking district of El Cangrejo. Buses also run along Av Ricardo J Alfaro (known as Tumba Muerto). There are plenty of bus stops along the street, but you can usually hail one from anywhere. Many of these buses stop at the Albrook bus terminal.

The canal is truly one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels. Stretching for 80km from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colón on the Atlantic side, the canal cuts right through the Continental Divide. Nearly 14,000 vessels pass through the canal each year, and ships worldwide are built with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind: 305m long and 33.5m wide. Ships pay according to their weight, with the average fee around US$30,000. The highest amount, around US$200,000, was paid in 2001 by the 90,000-ton French cruise ship Infinity; the lowest amount was US$0.36, paid in 1928 by Richard Halliburton, who swam through. The canal has three sets of double locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatún Locks on the Atlantic side. Between the locks, ships pass through a huge artificial lake, Lago Gatún, created by the Gatún Dam across the Río Chagres (when created they were the largest dam and largest artificial lake on Earth), and the Gaillard Cut, a 14km cut through the rock and shale of the isthmian mountains. With the passage of each ship, a staggering 52 million gallons of fresh water is released into the ocean. In 2006, Panamanian voters overwhelmingly endorsed an ambitious project to expand the Panama Canal. One of the biggest transportation projects in the world, this US$5.25 billion mega-project will stretch over seven years and finish in conjunction with the canal’s centennial in 2014. New locks will be 60% wider and 40% longer, and container traffic is expected to triple. For more information on the history of the canal, see p629.

Bicycle

Taxi Taxis are plentiful but some do not travel (or even know) the whole city, so don’t be surprised if they leave you standing on the sidewalk upon hearing your destination. Taxis are not metered, but there is a list of standard fares by zone. One zone runs a minimum of US$2; Canal Zone destinations run up to US$6. An average ride, crossing a couple of zones, would cost US$3 to US$4, more for additional passengers or if it’s late. Always agree on a fare before you get into the taxi, or ask your hotel to estimate the fare to your destination so you can hand the driver the correct change upon arriving. Taxis can also be rented by the hour. You can phone for a taxi: America (%223-7694) America Libre (%223-7342) Latino (%224-0677)

PA N A M A

GETTING AROUND

654 A R O U N D PA N A MA C I T Y • • A r o u n d t h e C a n a l

MIRAFLORES LOCKS

A one-way taxi fare to Muelle (Pier) 19 should cost around US$6.

The easiest and best way to visit the canal is to go to the Miraflores Visitors’ Center (%276-8325;

FISHING

Sights

www.pancanal.com; viewing deck/full access US$5/8; h9am5pm), located just outside Panama City. The

recently inaugurated visitors’ center features a large, four-floor museum, several viewing platforms and an excellent restaurant that overlooks the locks. A tip: the best time to view big liners passing through is from 9am to 11am and from 3pm to 5pm. To get there, take any Paraíso or Gamboa bus from the bus stop on Av Roosevelt across from the Legislative Palace in Panama City. These buses, passing along the canal-side highway to Gamboa, will let you off at the ‘Miraflores Locks’ sign on the highway, 12km from downtown. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the locks from the sign. A taxi should cost less than US$15 for the round trip – agree on the price beforehand. OTHER LOCKS

PA N A M A

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Further north, beyond the Miraflores Locks, are the Pedro Miguel Locks. You will pass them if you’re taking the highway to Gamboa. The only facilities here are a parking lot, from where you can see the locks. On the Atlantic side, the Gatún Locks have a viewing stand for visitors. You can also drive across the locks themselves; you will pass over them if you cross the canal to visit Fuerte San Lorenzo. For more details on these locks, see p687.

Activities CANAL TRANSITS

Reader-recommended Canal Bay & Tours (%3141339; www.canalandbaytours.com) offers partial canal transits every Saturday morning. Boats depart from Muelle (Pier) 19 (Map p640) in Balboa, a western suburb of Panama City, travel through the Miraflores Locks to Lago Miraflores and back, and then cruise out into the bay for scenic views of the city. These tours last 4½ hours and cost US$115 per person – it’s a good idea to make reservations in advance. One Saturday every month, the company also offers full transits from Balboa to Cristóbal on the Caribbean coast, passing all three sets of locks. The transit takes all day, from 7:30am to 5:30pm, and costs US$165. Check the company’s website for dates of upcoming transits.

If you’re looking to reel in the big one, get in touch with Panama Canal Fishing (%6699-0507; www.panamacanalfishing.com). Its signature tour is fishing for peacock bass in Lago Gatún and the Río Chagres. Introduced by an American looking to boost his pastime, peacock bass are now considered a plague and fishing them does a great favor to the lake.

AROUND THE CANAL Although no visit to Panama would be complete without visiting the world-famous canal, the surrounding area is home to impressive attractions, especially wildlife-watching and birdwatching. On a day trip from Panama City, you could first visit the Miraflores Locks, then the Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo, and finish at the Parque Nacional Soberanía and the Panamá Rainforest Discovery Center. The last two stops are only 25km from the center of Panama City, but they seem like a different world. These attractions are located along the highway that runs from Panama City to Gamboa, the small town where the Río Chagres enters Lago Gatún. They can be reached by taking the Gamboa bus from Albrook terminal.

Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo Ten kilometers past the Miraflores Locks is the Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo (%232-4854; admission US$1; h8am-4pm), which was established in 1923 to introduce, propagate and disseminate tropical plants from around the world into Panama. Later, a small zoo was added to help American soldiers identify tropical animals while they were out in the field. Many of the plant species are marked along a trail. Under the jurisdiction of the Panama City municipality, Summit depends on city funding and organization, thus improvements are often slow to implement. The star attractions at the zoo include an enormous harpy-eagle compound, a tapir area and a rapidly expanding jaguar enclosure. Since the aim of the park is to promote environmental education, natural enclosures mimic rainforest habitats highlighting the native flora and fauna of Panama.

Parque Nacional Soberanía A few kilometers past Summit, across the border into Colón Province, the 221-sq-km

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Parque Nacional Soberanía (admission US$5) is one of the most accessible tropical rainforest areas in Panama. It extends much of the way across the isthmus, from Limón on Lago Gatún to just north of Paraíso, and boasts hiking trails that brim with wildlife. You can pay the entrance fee at the park headquarters (%276-6370) at the turnoff to Summit. Maps, information about the park and camping permits are available here, including a brochure for self-guided walks along the nature trail. If you plan on hiking, please note that the trailheads are quite far from park headquarters. If arriving by taxi, have the driver wait for you to pay the fee and then take you to the trailhead. Hiking trails in the park include a section of the old Sendero Las Cruces (Las Cruces Trail), used by the Spanish to transport gold by mule train between Panama City and Nombre de Dios, and the 17km Camino del Oleoducto (Pipeline Rd), providing access to Río Agua Salud, where you can walk upriver for a swim under a waterfall. A shorter, very easy trail is the Sendero El Charco (the Puddle Trail), signposted from the highway, 3km past the Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo. Pipeline Rd is considered to be one of the world’s premier bird-watching sites – not surprisingly, it’s intensely popular with bird-watchers, especially in the early morning hours. Over 500 different species of birds have been spotted on the trail, and it’s fairly likely you will spot everything from toucans to trogons. The Río Chagres, which flows through the park and supplies most of the water for the Panama Canal, is home to several Emberá communities. Although the Darién is the ancestral home of the Emberá, a wave of migration to the shores of the Río Chagres commenced in the 1950s. The Emberá community of Ella Puru (%6537-7223) and Wounaan community of San Antonio (%6637-9503) regularly receive visitors. With prior notice you can arrange a pickup from the docks in Gamboa. Tour prices start at US$30 per person, depending on the activities you arrange. There is no shortage of possible excursions, ranging from guided rainforest walks to watching traditional dances.

Panama Rainforest Discovery Center Geared toward ecotourism and environmental education, this new center (%6588-0697; www .pipelineroad.org; adult/child US$20/4; h6am-4pm) is an excellent facility for bird-watchers and nature

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lovers. If you roll out of bed early, you will be rewarded for the effort. In fact, those arriving after 10am pay US$5 less in admission, a sure sign that coming later is a lesser value. During premium hours, only 25 visitors are admitted to minimize impact on wildlife. A 32m-high observation tower is great for spotting blue cotinga and toucans. The sustainably built visitor center provides information and has 13 species of hummingbirds feeding nearby. You can also contact the center to participate in bird migration counts. It’s run by the non-profit Fundación Avifauna Eugene Eisenmann (%264-6266; www.avifauna.org.pa) with the mission to protect Panama’s bird fauna and rainforest habitat. No buses access the park. It is best to negotiate with a taxi, rent a car or go with an organized tour. The center is 1.6km from the entrance to the Pipeline Rd. You must pass the town of Gamboa, at the end of Gaillard Rd, and follow the signs.

MONUMENTO NACIONAL ISLA BARRO COLORADO This lush island in the middle of Lago Gatún is most intensively studied area in the neotropics. Formed by the damming of the Río Chagres and the creation of the lake, in 1923 Isla Barro Colorado (BCI) became one of the first biological reserves in the New World. Home to 1316 recorded plant species, 381 bird species and 120 mammal species, the island also contains a 59km network of marked and protected trails. It is managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), which administers a world-renowned research facility here. Although the 15-sq-km island was once restricted to scientists, visitors can enter as part of a guided tour. The trip includes an STRI boat ride down an attractive part of the canal, from Gamboa across the lake to the island. Tour reservations are essential – book as far in advance as possible. Reserve through the Panama City visitor services office of STRI (Map p644; %212-8026; www.stri.org; Tupper Bldg, Av Roosevelt, Ancón district; foreign adult/student US$70/40, Panamanian adult/student US$25/12; h8:30am-4:30pm Mon-Fri).

A 45-minute boat ride leaves Gamboa pier at 7:15am on weekdays and at 8am on weekends. Hikes are demanding and last two to three hours. The entire trip lasts four to six hours, depending on the size of the group and on the weather. A buffet lunch (with vegetarian options) is included. For more informa-

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tion, you can download the free pdf on the STRI website.

ISLA TABOGA A tropical island with only one road and no traffic, Isla Taboga is a pleasant place to escape the hustle and bustle of Panama City, just 20km offshore. First settled by the Spanish in 1515, quaint Taboga is also home to the second-oldest church in the Western hemisphere. However, the main appeal is sandy beaches lapped by warm waters, which can rejuvenate even the most hardened urbanite. Rumors abound that the now-defunct Hotel Taboga will be knocked down to make way for a upmarket resort. In the meantime, Taboga is still a laid-back day trip from Panama City, for a little fun in the sun.

History

Orientation & Information Ferries from Panama City tie up at a pier near the north end of the island. As you exit the pier, you’ll see the entrance to the abandoned Hotel Taboga to your right. To your left, you’ll see a narrow street that is the island’s main road. From this point, the street meanders for 5.2km before ending at the old US military installation atop the island’s highest hill, Cerro El Vigia. For more information on the island, check the excellent English-language site, www .taboga.panamanow.com.

Sights & Activities There are fine beaches in Taboga, all free, in either direction from the ferry dock. Many visitors head straight for the Hotel Taboga, to the right as you walk off the ferry dock; the hotel faces onto the island’s most popular beach, arcing between Taboga and tiny Isla El Morro.

On weekends, when most visitors arrive, fishermen at the pier take passengers around the island, showing it from all sides and stopping at some good snorkeling spots. The caves on the island’s western side are rumored to hold golden treasure left there by pirates. During the week you can still snorkel around Isla El Morro, which doesn’t have coral but attracts some large fish. Walk left from the pier along the island’s only road for about 75m until you reach the fork. The high road leads to a modest church, in front of which is a simple square. Founded in 1550, it is the second-oldest church in the western hemisphere; inside is a handsome altar and lovely artwork. Further down the road is a beautiful public garden, which bears the statue of the island’s patroness, Nuestra Señora del Carmen. For a fine view, you can walk up the hill on the east side of the island, Cerro de la Cruz, to the cross on the top. Another trail leads to a viewpoint atop Cerro El Vigia, on the western side of the island. A wildlife refuge, the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Taboga y Urabá, covers about a third of the island, as well as the island of Urabá just off Taboga’s southeastern coast. This refuge is home to one of the largest breeding colonies of brown pelicans in the world. May is the height of nesting season, but pelicans can be seen from January to June. On your way to and from the island, keep an eye on the ocean. On rare occasions during August, September and October, migrating humpback and sei whales can be seen in spectacular displays.

Festivals & Events Taboga’s annual festival takes place on July 16, the day of its patron saint, Nuestra Señora del Carmen. The statue of the saint is carried upon the shoulders of followers to the shore, placed on a boat and ferried around the island. Upon her return, she is carried around the island while crowds follow.

Sleeping & Eating Most people choose to visit Isla Taboga as a day trip from Panama City, though there are a few affordable places to stay. Zoraida’s Cool (% 6471-1123, 6566-9250; d/tr US$30/35) Overlooking the bay, this family lodging is lovingly run by Zoraida. Rooms are small and mattresses plastic-wrapped, but this is the best bargain on the island. The best

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Taboga is part of a chain of islands once inhabited by indigenous peoples who resided in thatch huts and lived off the bounty of the sea. In 1515, Spanish soldiers announced their arrival on Taboga by killing or enslaving the islanders and establishing a small colony. However, peace did not reign, especially since a number of pirates, including Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, frequented the island, and used it as a base from which to attack Spanish ships and towns. Aside from a few live rounds fired by the US Navy during a WWII session of target practice, recent years have been peaceful.

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feature is a hammock deck ideal for a snooze with Pacific views. Turn left as you exit the dock and walk for a few minutes until you see a sign leading you up the hill. Vereda Tropical Hotel (%250-2154; http://vereda tropicalhotel.com; d from US$71; ai) Atop a hill with commanding views (it’s about 100m up a winding path), this boutique hotel charms with tropical tones, mosaic tiles and rod-iron railings. The dining patio has gaping views and Julio Iglesias serenading from the speakers. Unfortunately, service is slack. Cerrito Tropical (%390-8999; www.cerritotropical panama.com; d incl breakfast US$75, 2-person apt US$100170; aW) This smart Canadian-owned B&B

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occupies a quiet nook at the end of a steep road. Rooms are stylish but small, and have access to a large shady deck. Extras range from Spanish lessons to barbecues and picnic lunches. To arrive, go right uphill at the end of Calle Francisco Pizarro. Donde Pope Si Hay (mains US$4-7; h8am-8pm) A simple cement eatery serving fresh fish, green coconut water and patacones (fried plantains).

Getting There & Away The scenic boat trip out to Isla Taboga is part of the island’s attraction. Barcos Calypso (%314-1730; round trip US$11) has departures from Panama City at 8:30am and 3:00pm Monday and Friday, 8:30am on Tuesday and Thursday, and 8:30am, 10:30am and 4:00pm on weekends. Ferries depart Isla Taboga at 9:30am and 4:00pm Monday and Friday, 4:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday, and 9:00am, 3:00pm and 5:00pm on Saturday and Sunday. Ferries depart from La Playita de Amador, which is located behind the Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas on the Causeway. The easiest way to reach the dock is by taxi (US$4 to US$6).

CHIRIQUÍ PROVINCE Chiricanos claim to have it all, and there’s an element of truth in what they say: Panama’s tallest mountains, longest rivers and most fertile valleys are in Chiriquí. The province is also home to spectacular highland rainforests as well as the country’s most productive agricultural and cattle-ranching regions. Not surprisingly, many chiricanos often dream about creating an independent República de Chiriquí.

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SPLURGE: ARCHIPIÉLAGO DE LAS PERLAS With hundreds of islands, white-sand beaches and turquoise waters, the Pearl Islands is everybody’s idea of paradise. Though Survivor was filmed here, you can stay without a majority vote. There is plenty of snorkeling, diving and sunning, but prices for lodging and food tend to be steep. Our pick is Perla Real (%250-4095,

6513-9064; www.perlareal.com; d/ste US$99/133; a), a comfortable inn that’s a 10-minute walk from the beaches of Isla Contadora. Snorkeling and diving trips can be arranged at Coral Dreams (% 6536-1776; www.coral -dreams.com). Daily flights (round trip US$60, 20 minutes) go direct from Panama City.

Bordering Costa Rica to the west, Chiriquí is often the first province in Panama encountered by overland travelers. It also serves as a suitable introduction to the not-so-subtle beauty Panama has to offer. Although the mist-covered mountains near Boquete are slowly being colonized by waves of North American and European retirees, the town serves as a good base for exploring the flanks of towering Volcán Barú, Panama’s only volcano and its highest point (3475m). The region is also home to the Parque Internacional La Amistad, a bi-national park shared by Costa Rica and Panama. The park offers excellent hiking through lush rainforests, largely unfettered by tourist crowds.

DAVID

pop 124,000

Panama’s second-largest city is the capital of Chiriquí Province and a major agricultural center. Though David has a large town feel, it’s rapidly growing in terms of wealth and importance as foreign capital arrives via North American and European retirees moving in. But the trend has somewhat stabilized. For most travelers, David serves as an important transportation hub for anyone heading to/from Costa Rica, the Chiriquí highlands, Golfo de Chiriquí, Panama City and Bocas del Toro. Although the city has few attractions in its own right, David is a pleasant enough place to stay, and there’s no shortage of interesting things to see and do in the surrounding area.

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Orientation

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David is halfway between San José in Costa Rica and Panama City – about seven hours by road from either place. The Interamericana does not enter the town, but skirts around its northern and western sides. The city’s heart is its fine central plaza, the Parque de Cervantes, about 1.5km southwest of the highway.

EXPLORE MORE AROUND DAVID

Information

Develop your rum palate Go on a pri-

BOOKSTORES

Livraría Regional (Av Bolívar) Modest bookstore with a handful of titles in English including coffee-table books on Panama. INTERNET ACCESS

Internet Fast Track (Av 2 Este; per hr US$0.75; h24hr)

Planet Internet (Calle Central; per hr US$0.75; h9ammidnight) MEDICAL SERVICES

Chiriquí Hospital (%777-8814; cnr Calle Central & Av

Spice things up with these Lonely Planet author-tested excursions: Rest those bones in hot springs Take

a bus to the town of Caldera, and hike the dirt road for 45 minutes to Los Pozos de Caldera. vate tour of the Carta Vieja Rum Factory on the outskirts of town. Swim with chiricanos at Balneario Ma-

jagua or Balneario La Nueva Barranca Hop on a Boquete- or Concepciónbound bus and jump off at either of these popular local swimming spots. Beat the heat at nearby Playa

Barqueta Grab some friends and take a taxi from David to the lovely dark-sand beach of Playa Barqueta for a day of fun in the sun.

3 Oeste) One of the best hospitals in the country.

HSBC (Av Central) With branches on Calle C Norte near the park and on Av Obaldía north of the bus station. POST

Post office (Calle C Norte; h7am-6pm Mon-Fri, 7am4:30pm Sat) TOURIST INFORMATION

ATP (%775-2839; Av Central; h8:30am-4:30pm MonFri) Provides information on Chiriquí Province. Autoridad Nacional de Ambiente (ANAM; %7757840; fax 774-6671; h8am-4pm Mon-Fri) Provides tourist information and gives permits to camp in the national parks. It’s near the airport.

Sights & Activities David serves as a base for exploring the Chiriquí lowlands. For tips on attractions see boxed text, right. The modest Museo de Historia y de Arte José de Obaldía (Av 8 Este btwn Calles Central & A Norte; admission US$1; h8:30am-noon & 12:45-4:30pm Mon-Sat) is a twostory colonial home constructed in 1880, still furnished with its original art and decor. Named after the founder of Chiriquí Province, the museum also houses local archaeological artifacts and old photos of the canal constructions. If you’re looking to get your adrenaline fix, consider spending the day white-water rafting

on the Río Chiriquí or the Río Chiriquí Viejo. Tour operators in Boquete pass by David on their way to the launch point and with advanced notice, they’ll be happy to pick you up at your accommodations. For more information, see p665.

Festivals & Events The Feria de San José de David, held for 10 days each March, is a big international fair. La Concepción, half an hour west of David, celebrates it’s saint’s day on February 2.

Sleeping Purple House (%774-4059; www.purplehousehostel.com; cnr Calle C Sur & Av 6 Oeste; dm/d US$8/20; pai) The first hostel in David continues as a welcoming good deal. Tile bunk rooms are clean and tidy, and the doubles come with á la carte options of hot water (US$2), air-con (US$5) and cable TV (US$2). Andrea proves to be an incredible resource, and can direct guests to binders of information or suggest economical transport to the coast or elsewhere. The house also recycles and has a community partnership selling Ngöbe-Buglé crafts without commission. Bambu (%730-2961; www.bambuhostel.com; Calle de la Virgencita, San Mateo Abajo; dm US$8, d with/without bathroom US$30/25; paWs) This is an ideal crash pad

for backpackers wanting a little rock ’n’ roll. Run by a NYC musician, it features two dorms

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courtyard with access to smart, small rooms. Rooms are clean and the ample swimming pool proves a nice added bonus. Morning coffee is included and you can get extra services such as transfers and tours. Hotel Castilla (%774-5260; Calle A Norte; r from US$40; pai) Professional and super clean, this hotel offers cheerful rooms with matching beds and desk sets in deco style. Each is equipped with air-con, a hot-water shower, phone and cable TV.

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A INFORMATION ATP..................................... 1 Chiriquí Hospital..................2 Costa Rican Consulate.........3 HSBC...................................4 HSBC...................................5 HSBC...................................6 Immigration Office...............7 Internet Fast Track...............8 Livraría Regional..................9 Planet Internet...................10 Post Office.........................11

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Eating & Drinking If you’re looking for cheap produce, don’t miss the bustling market (cnr Avs Bolívar & Obaldía). Casa Vegetariana (Av 2 Este; meal US$2; h7am-4pm) This cheerful Chinese-style mini-cafeteria packs in the crowds for inexpensive plates of sautéed greens, eggplant, fried rice and beans served on no-nonsense metal plates. Restaurant 24 (Av 2 Este; mains US$2-3; htill late) Popular with locals for its grilled meats and inexpensive lunch specials – this is the perfect spot to get your fill without breaking the budget. Java Juice (Av Francisco Clark; mains US$2.50-4; h11am-11pm Mon-Sat, 4-10pm Sun) Iced coffee, fresh-fruit smoothies, healthy salads and grilled burgers are the fare at this charming outdoor cafe northeast of the bus terminal.

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Rincón Libenésa (Interamericana; mains US$4-7) The homemade hummus, tabouleh and baba ghanooj at this authentic Lebanese restaurant provide welcome relief from a steady diet of rice and beans. It’s located three blocks past the McDonald’s off the Interamericana.

eight hours). Buses depart from the bus station every day at 8:30am from the David bus station. From San José, buses depart for the return trip to David at 7:30am. Tickets can be purchased up to two days in advance.

Entertainment

The undisputed gem of the Chiriquí lowlands is Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí, a national marine park with an area of 147 sq km protecting 25 islands, 19 coral reefs and abundant wildlife. The marine park also protects the 30-sq-km Isla Boca Brava (accessed via mainland Boca Chica), a lovely little island crisscrossed by hiking trails and home to monkeys, nesting sea turtles and 280 recorded bird species. Whether you want to lie on the beach, snorkel clear waters or go wildlife-watching underneath the rainforest canopy, there’s something for everyone in this off-the-beaten-path destination. oHotel Boca Brava (%851-0017; www.hotel

Cine Gran Nacional (Av 1 Este btwn Calles Central & A Sur) David’s small cinema screens mostly American new releases.

Getting There & Away AIR

David’s airport, the Aeropuerto Enrique Malek, is about 5km from town. There are no buses to the airport; take a taxi (US$5). Air Panama (%721-0841; www.flyairpanama.com/ tickets) and Aeroperlas (%721-1195; www.aeroperlas .com) fly direct from Panama City to David (US$80, 45 minutes), both with multiple flights daily. Aeroperlas also flies at 10am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to Bocas del Toro (US$36, 40 minutes). The David bus station (Av del Estudiante) is about 600m northeast of the central plaza. Most buses begin service by 7am. For Guadalupe, passengers can get on a Cerro Punta bus, which continues on; passengers for Volcán also take the Cerro Punta bus, but get off earlier. For Las Lajas, visitors will have to continue to the beach via taxi (US$5). Tracopa (%775-8853) operates direct buses between David and San José, Costa Rica (US$14,

bocabrava.com; Isla Boca Brava; hammocks/dm US$7/10, d without bathroom US$25, standard/deluxe r US$35/50) has

been renovated and revamped under the enthusiastic new management of a young couple. Offering a wide selection, from the ultrabudget to air-con comfort, this is a great getaway spot to mingle with other travelers. The hotel can arrange any number of excursions around the islands, involving snorkeling, whale-watching or just lounging on a gorgeous island (prices range from US$12 to US$70 depending on the tour and the number of participants). The breezy restaurant-bar (meals US$4 to US$8) cooks up fresh fish and burgers.

BUSES FROM DAVID

Destination

Cost (US$)

Duration

Frequency

Boquete Caldera Cerro Punta Changuinola Guadalupe Horconcitos Las Lajas Panama City Paso Canoas Puerto Armuelles Río Sereno Santiago Volcán

1.50 2 3 8 3.50 1.50 2.25 13-15 1.75 3 4 7.25 2.50

1hr 45min 2¼hr 4½hr 2½hr 45min 1½hr 6-8hr 1½hr 2½hr 2½hr 3hr 1¾hr

every 20min until 9:30pm hourly until 7:30pm every 20min until 8pm hourly until 6:30pm every 20min until 8pm 11am & 5pm four daily every 45min, 6:45am-8pm every 10min until 9:30pm every 15min until 9pm every 30min until 5pm hourly until 9pm every 20min until 8pm

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GETTING TO COSTA RICA

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The most heavily trafficked Panama–Costa Rica border crossing is at Paso Canoas (h24hr), 53km west of David on the Interamericana. Allow at least one to two hours to get through the formalities on both sides. Buses from David depart frequently for the border (US$1.50, 1½ hours, every half hour) from 4:30am to 9:30pm. On the Costa Rican side of the border, you can catch regular buses to San José or other parts of the country. The less traveled border post at Guabito–Sixaola (h8am-6pm), just north of Changuinola, is more straightforward. Buses from Changuinola (US$1.80, 30 minutes, every half hour) depart from 6am to 7pm. The Costa Rican side has regular buses on to Puerto Limón and San José, as well as regional destinations. The least trafficked crossing is Río Sereno (h9am-5pm Mon-Sat, 9am-3pm Sun), located 47km west of Volcán. Buses to the border depart from David and travel via La Concepción, Volcán and Santa Clara (US$4, three hours, every 30 minutes). On the Costa Rican side, take a 15-minute bus or taxi to San Vito, where buses leave for regional destinations. Travelers may be asked for an onward ticket if entering Costa Rica. If you do not possess one, it is acceptable to buy a return bus ticket back to Panama. Note that Costa Rica is one hour behind Panama – opening and closing times are given here in Panama time. For crossing in the opposite direction, see p616 and p567.

To reach Boca Chica, first take a David bus (US$1.50) to the Horconcitos turnoff, located 39km east. You can also take any passing bus (those heading from David to Panama City), as long as you ask the driver to drop you at the Horconcitos turnoff. From the turnoff, a bus (US$3, 50 minutes) leaves four times daily for Boca Chica, or you can take a taxi (US$20). For transportation hours, call Jimi (%6857-2094). At the Boca Chica dock, hire a water taxi (per person US$2) to take you 200m to the Boca Brava island dock at Restaurante Boca Brava.

PUNTA BURICA This lush peninsula jutting into the Pacific is a lovely spot for absorbing the beauty of both the rainforest and the coastline. Mono Feliz (%6595-0388; [email protected]; cabin per person US$22, campsite per person US$10; ps) offers visitors a chance to enjoy this untouched natural beauty. Wildlife is a key feature here, and the Mono Feliz (happy monkey) certainly has its share of its namesake. Facilities include three stand-alone cabins – two in the garden and one on the beach. There is also a large pool (fed by cool spring water, and you may be surrounded by monkeys at times), freshwater showers and an outdoor kitchen for guest use. Those who’d rather not cook can pay US$30 per day extra for three home-cooked meals, ranging from fresh seasonal fish to conch or lobster when available (individual meals available for US$8 to

US$12). Beds have mosquito nets. Camping on the beach is also available (bring your own gear), and you have access to pool and bathrooms. The friendly American owner Juancho offers a range of activities including nature walks (an excursion to Isla Burica at low tide is a highlight), fishing, bird-watching, surfing (several boards available) and horseback riding. Remedial massage and yoga is available for guests in need of deeper relaxation. All activities except horseback riding (US$10 plus guide fee) are free. The owner speaks English, French and Spanish. Owing to its isolation, reaching Mono Feliz requires a bit of work. You’ll first need to go to the small coastal town of Puerto Armuelles. Departures from David to Puerto Armuelles leave every 15 minutes (US$3, 2½ hours). Be sure to arrive in Puerto Armuelles no later than noon. The bus drops you off in the mercado municipal, and from there take a truck to Bella Vista. It’s approximately a one-hour walk down the hill from here to Mono Feliz. You can also exit at El Medio, the last stop before the trucks go inland to Bella Vista. From El Medio it’s an hour’s walk along the beach. Mono Feliz is directly in front of Isla Burica. For private transportation from Puerto Armuelles, contact Spanish-speaking Tonio (%6662-9533, 6584-8456; per person one-way US$10) or Otto (%6595-0388); weather permitting, either can take you directly to Mono Feliz.

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PLAYA LAS LAJAS Playa Las Lajas, 51km east of David and 26km south of the Interamericana, is one of several long, palm-lined beaches along this stretch of the Pacific coast. Playa Las Lajas gathers crowds on the weekends, but often lies empty during the week, when you can have serious stretches of sand all to yourself. Saturated with beachgoers on the weekend, Las Lajas Beach Cabins (%720-2430, 618-7723; 3-person campsites US$10, 2-/3-person r or cabins US$20/30) has nine rustic cabañas right on the beach, a clam’s toss from the surf. Bathrooms are communal in a nearby concrete structure. An additional concrete structure offers six private rooms. None of them have fans and all could use a good sweep. Comfortable and stylish Las Lajas Beach Resort (%832-5463; www.laslajasbeachresort.com; d/ste US$99/150; hclosed Oct; a) is a sweet splurge. Rooms are

BOQUETE pop 5000

The mountain town of Boquete, the Napa Valley of coffee, is known throughout Panama for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural setting. Flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits flourish in Boquete’s rich soil, and the friendliness of the locals seems to rub off on everyone who passes through. Boquete was very much intent on remaining a small town, but was faced with changes beyond anyone’s control – baby boomers started getting old. One decade ago, Modern Maturity magazine of the American Association for Retired Persons chose Boquete as one of the four top places in the world to retire, and a flock of foreign retirees started snatching up mountain plots. Today, gated communities dot the hillsides and the face of Boquete is slowly being transformed. For travelers, Boquete is one of the country’s top destinations for outdoor lovers. From

here you can hike, climb, raft, visit coffee farms, soak in hot springs, study Spanish or go on a canopy tour. And of course there’s nothing quite like starting your day with a glass of freshly squeezed OJ, or perking up with a cup of locally grown coffee.

Orientation & Information Boquete’s central area is only a few square blocks. The main road, Av Central, comes north from David, passes along the western side of the plaza and continues up the hill past the church. ATP (h8am-5:30pm) About 1.5km south of Boquete, this office sits atop a bluff overlooking town. Here you can grab a Kotowa coffee, pick up maps and obtain information on area attractions. A 2nd-floor exhibit details the history of the region (Spanish only). Banco Nacional de Panama (Av Central) A 24hr ATM. Centro Medico San Juan Bautista (%720-1881) Global Bank (Av Central) Internet Kelnix (Av Central; per hr US$0.75; h8am11pm Mon-Sat, 10am-11pm Sun) Post office (h7am-6pm Mon-Fri, 7am-5pm Sat)

Sights COFFEE PLANTATIONS

No trip to Boquete is complete without learning the secrets of a perfectly blended cup of joe. Located on the main road about 600m north of the town center, Café Ruíz (%720-1392; www.cafe ruiz.com; 3hr tour US$30) is Panama’s most famous coffee-grower and makes the award-winning Gesha coffee. The tour includes transportation to a nearby coffee farm, a presentation on the history of coffee in Boquete, a visit to the roasting facility and a tasting session. Tours start at 9am daily except Sundays and holidays; advance reservations are required. Kotowa Coffee Estate (%720-1430; 2½hr tour US$28) is a gourmet grower offering the most comprehensive coffee-estate tour in the area. It features a description of the estate’s history, a full tour of the production facilities and processing mill, and again, the obligatory tasting session. The estate requests 24 hours’ notice prior to your visit. You can also have a cup at an outlet in the ATP information center. GARDENS & ZOOS

Mi Jardín es Su Jardín (admission free; hdawn-dusk), just uphill from Café Ruíz, is a magnificent garden surrounding a luxurious private estate. The residence is off-limits to the public, but you are free to stroll about the garden.

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impeccable, with beds decked in embroidered molas and amenities include an infinity pool. Even nonguests might pop in for Americanstyle breakfasts or big cheeseburgers. Back where the road dead-ends at the beach sits La Estrella del Pacifico (mains US$4), serving simple fish dishes with great ocean views. To reach Las Lajas, take any bus from David (US$2.25, 90 minutes) that travels by the Las Lajas turnoff on the Interamericana. At the turnoff, take a taxi (US$5) to where the road reaches the sea. Turn right and proceed 1.5km until you arrive at the cabins.

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El Explorador (%775-2643; Calle Jarmillo Alto; admission US$3; h10am-6pm daily mid-Dec–mid-Apr, Sat & Sun only mid-Apr–mid-Dec) is a private garden in

Spanish. It’s several kilometers before Boquete on the road to Volcancito.

a hilly area 45 minutes’ walk from the town center. It’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland, with no shortage of quirky eyecatching displays. Working in conjunction with ANAM, the family-run Paradise Gardens (%6615-6618; www

HOT SPRINGS

Boquete is a good base for exploring the Los Pozos de Caldera (admission US$2;hdawn-dusk), an undeveloped hot spring rumored to have health-giving properties. A round-trip taxicab from Boquete to the hot springs should cost about US$30. A bus from the center runs to Caldera (US$1.45) every two hours; from here there’s a walk (inquire at your hotel).

.paradisegardenspanama.com; Calle Volcancito Principal; suggested donation US$5; h10am-4pm Thu-Tue) has

taken in confiscated, orphaned and abandoned birds, sloths, monkeys, anteaters and the occasional feline. Animals have large enclosures and are very well taken care of. The landscaped grounds are a delight to roam too. Educational material is in English and

Activities HIKING

With its breathtaking vistas of mist-covered hills and nearby forests, Boquete is one of the 0 0

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INFORMATION ATP....................................... 1 Banco Nacional de Panamá....2 Centro Médico San Juan Bautista..............................3 Global Bank...........................4 Internet Kelnix.......................5 Post Office.............................6

A4 D2 A1 D2 D2 D1

SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES Boquete Outdoor Adventures....................(see 10) Boquete Tree Trek.............(see 10) Café Ruíz...............................7 A1 Chiriquí River Rafting............ 8 D2

El Explorador..........................9 B1 Global Humanitarian Adventures....................(see 10) Habla Ya Language Center..10 D2 Mi Jardín es Su Jardín...........11 A1 Paradise Gardens.................12 A4 SLEEPING El Oasis................................13 Hostal Boquete....................14 Isla Verde.............................15 Mamallena.......................... 16 Pensión Marilós...................17 Pensión Topas.....................18 Refugio del Río....................19

D2 D1 C2 D2 D2 D2 C2

EATING Art Café La Crêpe................20 Bistro Boquete......................21 Café de Encuentro...............22 El Sabrosón..........................23 La Casa del Café..................24 Supermercado Romero........25

A2 D1 D2 D1 A3 D1

DRINKING La Cabaña............................26 D1 Zanzibar..............................27 A2 TRANSPORT Main Bus Terminal...............28 D1 Urbano Bus Stop..................29 D1

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WHITE-WATER RAFTING

Those who seek a bit of adventure shouldn’t miss the excellent white-water rafting within a two-hour drive of Boquete. The Río Chiriquí and the Río Chiriquí Viejo both flow from the fertile hills of Volcán Barú, and are flanked by forest for much of their lengths. At some places, waterfalls can be seen at the edges of the rivers, and both pass through narrow canyons with awesome, sheer rock walls. The Río Chiriquí is most often run from May to December, while the Chiriquí Viejo is run the rest of the year; the rides tend to last four and five hours, respectively. Depending on the skill level of your party, you can tackle thrilling Class III and Class IV rapids or some seriously scary Class V rapids. For quality white-water trips, Boquete Outdoor Adventures (%720-2284; www.boqueteout dooradventures.com; Av Central, Plaza Los Establos) is a reputable outfitter, also offering kayak and sportfishing on the Chiriquí coast. Another good option is Chiriquí River Rafting (%7201505; www.panama-rafting.com; Av Central). Both staff

bilingual employees. All-day rafting trips are offered for around US$90, depending on the run and the size of the party. CANOPY TOURS

Although canopy tours are about as prevalent as rice and beans in Costa Rica, they’re still quite new to the Panama tourist scene. For the uninitiated, a canopy tour consists of a series of platforms anchored into the forest canopy and connected by zip lines. Although they were originally used by biologists to study the rainforest canopy, today they function primarily as a way for gringos to get their ecokicks. If you’re game, Boquete Tree Trek (%720-1635, 6450-2599; www.aventurist.com; Av Central, Plaza Los Establos; h7:30am-12:15pm & 1:15-4:30pm) offers a three-

hour tour (US$70) with 12 zip lines, a rappel and a Tarzan-swing in secondary forest. These lines pick up some serious speed, so you might want to consider going a little heavy on the hand-brake. VOLUNTEERING

Does your experience of Central America include challenging local kids to soccer or reading one a story in your brand new Spanish? Global Humanitarian Adventures (GHA; %in USA 1-877-442-4255, in Boquete 6907-0781; www.gogha.org; Av Central, Plaza Los Establos; h8am-4pm Mon-Fri, 8amnoon Sat) is a Red Cross–affiliated project that

matches travelers with a range of fantastic volunteer opportunities. Volunteers are needed in a range of areas from the environment to education. GHA matches your skills and interest to the job. Placement is free, no Spanish is required and there’s no minimum stay. The office is shared with Boquete Outdoor Adventures.

Courses Spanish by the River (%/fax 720-3456; www.spanishat locations.com) is the sister school to the popular Spanish school in Bocas del Toro. Rates for group/private lessons are US$150/290 for 20 hours, a one-week course. Cheaper rates are available for more comprehensive packages and longer stays. Students can choose homestays (US$15 per night with breakfast), simple dorms (US$10 per night) or private rooms (US$15 per night). Spanish by the River is located 5km south of Boquete near the turnoff to Palmira. The reader-recommended Habla Ya Language Center (%720-1294; www.hablayapanama.com; Central Av,

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most idyllic regions for hiking and walking. Several good paved roads lead out of town into the surrounding hills, passing coffee plantations, fields and farms, gardens and virgin forest. Although saunterers will be content with picturesque strolls along the river, the more ambitious can climb Volcán Barú (3475m), Panama’s highest point and only volcano. There are several entrances to the park, but the trail with easiest access to the summit starts near Boquete. For more information, see p667. You can also access the Sendero Los Quetzales (Quetzals Trail; see p667) from Boquete; the trail is uphill from here though – you’ll have an easier time if you start hiking from Cerro Punta (see p668). A pleasant day hike is along the Sendero El Pianista (Pianist Trail), which winds through dairy land and into humid cloud forest. To access the trail head, take the first right fork out of Boquete (heading north) and cross over two bridges. Immediately before the 3rd bridge, about 4km out of town, a track leads off to the left between a couple of buildings. You need to wade across a small river after 200m, but then it’s a steady, leisurely incline for 2km before you start to climb a steeper, narrow path. The path winds deep into the forest, though you can turn back at any time.

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Plaza Los Establos; h8am-6pm Mon-Fri, 9am-noon Sat) of-

fers both group and private lessons. A week (20 hours) of group/private lessons is US$225/295. Both Spanish schools can arrange tours and hook up travelers with volunteer opportunities.

Festivals & Events The town’s annual festival is the Feria de las Flores y del Café (Flower and Coffee Fair), held for 10 days each January. Another popular event is the Feria de Las Orquídeas (Orchid Fair), held every April.

Sleeping Because of the cool climate, all the places to stay in Boquete have hot showers. Pensión Marilós (%720-1380; [email protected]

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.com; cnr Av A Este & Calle 6 Sur; s/d without bathroom US$7/10, d US$16; p) With the feel of a well-worn fam-

ily home, Marilós offers a bit of peace and quiet at bargain rates. Rooms are warmly decorated with assorted knick-knacks and doo-dads reminiscent of the guest bedroom at grandma’s house. Wi-fi is in the works. Pensión Topas (%720-1005; www.pension-topas .com; Av Belisario Porras; s/d without bathroom US$10/12, s/d/ tr US$22/32/36; pWs) Built around a small or-

ganic garden and pool, this agreeable Germanrun lodging features Tintin murals and tidy rooms. A shady outdoor patio provides ample shared space and perks include an outdoor solar-heated shower, foosball and volleyball. Refugio del Río (%720-2088; www.refugiodelrio.com; dm/d/tr US$10/25/35; p) With the comfy feel of a large, well-kept home, this budget stop rises above mere hostel living. Featuring high ceilings and fine hardwood details, the sprawling rooms are pleasant and well furnished. A refreshing escape from bunk-bed living, the dormitory features a row of single beds with snug covers. The tidy lawn borders a babbling river, a background sound sure to give sweet dreams. Mamallena (%730-8342; www.mamallenaboquete.com; Av Central; dm incl breakfast US$11, d with/without bathroom US$33/28; pW) On the central plaza, this creaky

boardinghouse has been converted into a backpacker hub, complete with fresh paint, complimentary bicycles and free pancake breakfasts. Dorms are on the small side and private rooms are in the process of being upgraded – don’t expect anything fancy. Service-oriented, it’s a good place to get local information. Hostal Boquete (%720-2573; Calle 4a Sur; dm US$12, d/tr US$33/43, d/tr with view US$38/48; piW)

Overlooking the Río Caldera, Hostal Boquete

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is both attentive and attractive. It’s a worthy deal for budget travelers, especially considering the attentive service given by its American owner David. While rooms are basic and functional, the best features are the riverfront terraces. There is also a decent onsite restaurant and scooter rentals. El Oasis (%720-1586; www.oasisboquete.com; Calle de la Feria; d with/without view US$55/50, ste US$75120;piW) Fresh and modern, this good-

value inn sits across the river from Boquete proper, ideal for couples or groups of friends. The garden-side restaurant serves satisfying and reasonably priced meals (US$6 to US$12), which range from smoked trout with roquefort to rosemary lamb or pastas. Breakfast is included in the prices above. Isla Verde (%720-2533; [email protected]; Av B Oeste; d/ste US$80/100, cabin from US$100; piW)

Set riverside in a beautiful, lush garden, these delicious two-story Alpine cabins feature luxuriant mattresses, vaulted ceilings, complete kitchens and roomy bathrooms. It’s probably the best in-town retreat, with prompt and professional service and even professional massages available. Cabins cost US$20 extra for each additional person (US$10 for kids).

Eating & Drinking Supermercado Romero (Av A Este; h24hr) One block east of the plaza, this has the best selection of groceries. La Casa del Café (Av Central; coffee US$1.50; h8am8pm) Just before the Texaco gas station, this tiny shop is the only spot in town to sample a wide variety of brands and brews, with 20 to 40 varieties, plus sandwiches and frappes. El Sabrosón (Av Central; mains US$2-3) This muchloved local institution cooks up cheap and filling Panamanian cuisine served cafeteria style. oCafé de Encuentro (Calle 6 Sur; breakfast US$6; h7am-midnight) In a converted carport and garden, this family-run eatery is a true find. Eggs in warm ranchera sauce are a favorite, and the menu ranges from Panamanian fare to pancakes and bacon. Expect a line out the door. Art Café La Crêpe (Av Central; mains US$6-13; h11am9pm Tue-Sun) Fresh and festive, this cafe serves delicious incarnations of its namesake. There is a daily lunch special (US$12) with dessert and appetizer. There’s also brunch on weekends. Boquete Bistro (Av Central; mains US$10-12; h11am10pm) Decent fare for fussy travelers, but service is slow. The steak fajitas appetizer and garden salads satisfy lesser appetites for fewer

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dollars. By strange election, all burgers are served on English muffins. Zanzibar (Av Central) A low-key jazz bar with the cure for what ails ya, Zanzibar is the place to mingle with travelers and locals. Your best chance of hearing live music is on weekends, though most nights of the week you’ll find a friendly face sitting at the bar. Happy hour runs from 5pm to 7pm. La Cabaña (Calle de la Feria; cover US$2; h7pm-2am Fri & Sat) Boquete’s only disco is riverside, with DJs, reggaetón, a young crowd and a steady current of rum and Cokes to keep it flowing.

Getting There & Around

PARQUE NACIONAL VOLCÁN BARÚ This 143-sq-km national park is home to Volcán Barú, which is Panama’s only volcano as well as the dominant geographical feature of Chiriquí. Volcán Barú is no longer active (there is in fact no record of its most recent eruption), and it has not one but seven craters. Its summit, which tops out at 3475m, is the highest point in Panama; on a clear day it affords views of both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The national park is also home to the Sendero Los Quetzales, one of the most scenic treks in the entire country. It is home to its namesake bird, plus over 250 bird species as well as pumas, tapirs and the conejo pintado (a spotted raccoon-like animal). Unfortunately, landslides in 2009 severely damaged the trail. Until it is repaired, hikers may have to hire a guide to navigate the tricky terrain. Inquire with rangers before setting out.

Admission to the park (US$5) is paid at either of the trailheads leading to the summit or at the ranger station on the Cerro Punto side of the Sendero Los Quetzales. The best time to visit is during the dry season, especially early in the morning when wildlife is most active. Overnight temperatures can drop below freezing, and it may be windy and cold during the day, particularly in the morning – dress accordingly.

Sights & Activities VOLCÁN BARÚ

There are entrances to the park, with summit access, on the eastern and western sides of the volcano. The eastern access to the summit, from Boquete, is the easiest, but it involves a strenuous uphill hike along a 14km dirt/mud road that goes from the park entrance – about 8km northwest of the center of Boquete – to the summit. If you drive or take a taxi as far up as you can and then walk the rest of the way, it takes about five or six hours to reach the summit from the park gate; walking from town would take another two or three hours each way. It’s best to camp on the mountain for at least one night, but be prepared for the cold. Camping will also allow you to be at the top during the morning, when the views are best. The other park entrance is just outside the town of Volcán, on the road to Cerro Punta. The rugged 4WD-only road into the park goes only a short way off the main road to the foot of the volcano. The view of the summit and nearby peaks from this entrance is impressive, and a lovely loop trail winds through secondary and virgin forest. The climb from this side is steep and technical.

Sendero Los Quetzales The park’s most accessible trail is the scenic Sendero Los Quetzales (Quetzal Trail) near Cerro Punta. One of the most beautiful in Panama, this trail runs for 8km between Cerro Punta and Boquete, crossing back and forth over the Río Caldera. The trail can be done in either direction, but is easiest from west to east: the town of Cerro Punta is almost 1000m higher than Boquete, so hiking east is more downhill. Please note that a recent landslide has made sections of this trail very difficult to follow. It is under repair, but progress will surely be slow. Always check on the state of the trail

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Buses to Boquete depart David’s main bus terminal regularly (US$1.50, one hour, every 30 minutes from 6am to 9:30pm). Buses to David depart from the northern side of Boquete’s plaza (every 30 minutes from 5am to 6:30pm). A taxi between David and Boquete costs around US$18. Boquete’s small size lends itself to easy exploration, and walking is a great way to see the area. The local (urbano) buses winding through the hills cost US$0.50. They depart from the main road one block north of the plaza. Taxis charge US$1 to US$2 to get to most places around town. For scooter or bike rentals (about US$3 per hour), check out Mamallena (left) or Boquete Tree Trek (p665).

Information

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before starting your hike, and whether a guide may be required. In good conditions, the trail itself takes about four to five hours walking west to east, though getting to and from the trailhead will take another couple of hours of walking on either side. A 4WD taxi can take you to the start of the trail on the Cerro Punta side for about US$12; taxi drivers know the area as Respingo. The trail is 5km uphill from the main road and 2km from the last paved road. When you exit the trail, it’s another 8km along the road to Boquete, though you may be able to catch a taxi along the road. In total, the hike is about 23km, so plan accordingly if you intend to walk the length of the trail. After arriving in Boquete, you can stay overnight or take a bus to David and then Cerro Punta; note that the last Cerro Punta bus leaves David at 6pm. You can also leave your luggage at one of the hotels in David and save yourself the hassle of backtracking. Take only the bare essentials with you on the walk (and a little cash for a good meal and/or lodging in Boquete).

Sleeping Camping (US$5) is available in the park and on the trail to the summit from the Boquete side, along the Sendero Los Quetzales or at the ranger station at the entrance to the Sendero Los Quetzales on the Cerro Punta side.

Getting There & Away See Volcán Barú (p667) and Sendero Los Quetzales (p667) for information.

CERRO PUNTA At an altitude of 1800m, this small town is surrounded by beautiful, rich agricultural lands, and offers spectacular views across a fertile valley to the peaks of Parque Internacional La Amistad. Although the scenery is inspiring enough, the main reason travelers pass through here is to access the Sendero Los Quetzales or the Parque Internacional La Amistad. The modest Hotel Cerro Punta (%771-2020; [email protected]; s/d US$25/31; p) offers a row of mint-green concrete rooms that are a bit tired and beat up. If you’re on your way to either national park, enjoy the private hotwater bathroom – it’s the last one you’ll see for awhile. Buses run from David to Cerro Punta (US$3, 2¼ hours, every 20 minutes from

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5:30am to 8pm). If you’re coming from Costa Rica, you can catch this bus at the turnoff from the Interamericana at Concepción.

PARQUE INTERNACIONAL LA AMISTAD This 4070-sq-km national park was established jointly by Panama and Costa Rica – hence its name, La Amistad (Friendship). In Panama, the park covers portions of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro Provinces, and is home to members of three indigenous groups: the Teribe, the Bribrí and the Ngöbe-Buglé. The bi-national park also contains large swaths of virgin rainforest that remain home to a recorded 90 mammal species (including jaguars and pumas) and more than 300 bird species (including resplendent quetzals and harpy eagles). Although most of the park’s area is high up in the Talamanca Mountains and remains inaccessible, there is no shortage of hiking and camping opportunities available for intrepid travelers.

Information Admission to the park (admission US$5, campsite US$5; h8am-4pm) is paid at either of the two Panamanian entrances: one at Las Nubes, near Cerro Punta on the Chiriquí side and one at Wekso, near Changuinola on the Bocas del Toro side. Permits to camp in the park are available at the ranger station. If you plan to spend much time at Las Nubes, be sure to bring a jacket. This side of the park, at 2280m above sea level, has a cool climate. Temperatures are usually around 24°C (75°F) in the daytime and drop to about 3°C (38°F) at night.

Sights & Activities LAS NUBES

Three main trails originate at Las Nubes ranger station. The Sendero La Cascada (Waterfall Trail) is a 3.4km round-trip hike that takes in three miradors (lookout points) as well as a 45m-high waterfall with a lovely bathing pool. The Sendero El Retoño (Rebirth Trail) loops 2.1km through secondary forest, crosses a number of a rustic bridges and winds through bamboo groves. The Vereda La Montaña (Mountain Lane) is a more strenuous 8km round-trip hike that ascends Cerro Picacho. The Las Nubes entrance is about 7km from Cerro Punta; a sign on the main road in Cerro Punta marks the turnoff. The road starts out paved, but by the time you reach the park, it’s

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C H I R I Q U Í P R O V I N C E • • T h e R o a d t o B o c a s P r o v i n c e 669

a rutted track suitable only for 4WD vehicles. A taxi will bring you from Cerro Punta for US$4 for up to two people, then US$2 per extra person.

Getting There & Away

WEKSO

If you travel along the paved road that crosses the Cordillera Central from the Interamericana to Chiriquí Grande, providing access to Bocas del Toro, you will pass a few wonderful accommodations that boast relaxation and incredible hiking opportunities. Both are located high in the Talamanca range about 41km from the Interamericana.

Sleeping The ranger station at Las Nubes has a dorm (dm US$12) with bunk beds. Due to their popularity, guests need to reserve ahead via ANAM in David (p659). Guests have kitchen access; stock up on provisions in Cerro Punta. You’ll also need to bring your own bedding. Wekso has a Naso-run guest lodge (lodging per person US$15, 3 meals US$13) which benefits the tribe, staffed by members of the local community. Rooms are basic but there is a secure water supply, flush toilets and an outdoor shower. Workers can also prepare meals for you, lead you on guided tours through the jungle and answer all your questions about Naso culture and history. It’s a five-hour hike from Wekso to the Parque Internacional La Amistad. Wekso is administered by ODESEN (Organization for the Sustainable Development of Naso Ecotourism; eco [email protected]; %6569-3869), a community-

based development organization that promotes ecotourism in the park as well as the cultural preservation of the Naso. Their direct contact is Raul Quintero.

THE ROAD TO BOCAS PROVINCE

Sleeping & Eating oLost & Found Lodge (%6432-8182; www .lostandfoundlodge.com; dm/d without bathroom US$12/30)

A backpacker community in the cloud forest, this original lodge offers a utopian take on jungle living. The trail-accessed lodge sits perched on a steep hill facing a gaping mountain panorama. Bunks are stacked high, though you can also choose a private room that’s basic but clean. Shared bathrooms are stall-style and well maintained. The young Canadian owners have plotted out every detail, from foosball tournaments to a trickedout treasure hunt that takes visitors mucking through rivers and labyrinths, competing for a coveted bottle of cheap wine. You don’t need to lug food up here – the shelves of the open-air kitchen are stocked with the basics (pasta, eggs, sauces and vegetables) to cook, though you can also order meals if you prefer. Activities are plentiful and wellpriced. Guests can visit a local coffee producer who produces organic farming or peruse the trails (those of Finca La Suiza are accessible for a fee). Lost & Found supports the local community by using community-organized tours and local guides and offering volunteer liaisons to work in farming, English teaching or outreach. If you have some extra time on your hands, ask about volunteer opportunities. While Rocky the resident kinkajou is here because he cannot be released into the wild, other animals come for the buffet of bananas left out for them – not the best wildlife practice, but one you might see throughout the country and should discourage. Given the isolation, it’s necessary to call or email your reservation 24 hours in advance. Finca La Suiza (%6615-3774, in David 774-4030; [email protected]; s/d US$55/66; hclosed mid-Sep–midNov) Featuring 200 hectares of cloud forest and

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To reach Wekso, you first have to catch a bus from Changuinola to the hamlet of El Silencio (US$0.75, 40 minutes, every 20 minutes), and then take a 45-minute boat ride up the Río Teribe. In El Silencio, you can hire a five-person boat for around US$60 to US$75. If you contact the ANAM office (%758-8967) in Changuinola about visiting Wekso, they can radio ahead and make sure there is someone at the river’s edge. Once on the river, you’ll pass hills blanketed with rainforest and intermittent waterfalls; the backdrop is always the glorious Talamanca range. After about 45 minutes on the river, you’ll see a sign on the right bank that announces your arrival at Wekso, which is actually a protected area but still some way from the park. There’s a 3.5km loop trail at Wekso that cuts through secondary and virgin rainforest, with excellent bird-watching. You can also take a dip in the river (the water is too swift for crocodiles), but be careful not to wade out very far or the current will carry you downstream.

See Las Nubes (opposite page) and Wekso (left) for transportation information.

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some of the best views in Panama, this is a recommended mountain retreat. The low-key lodge has three clean, comfortable rooms with private hot-water bathrooms and large picture windows. On a clear day, you can see the bright blue expanse of the Golfo de Chiriquí. The enthusiastic and warm German owners will also provide a home-cooked breakfast for about US$4 to US$7 and dinner for US$8 to US$16. Several kilometers of well-marked hiking trails pass through primary forest. The scenery features towering trees, hundreds of bird species and views of the Reserva Forestal Fortuna, the Chiriquí mountains and the Pacific islands. Highlights include waterfalls, dipping ponds and superb vantage points across the forest canopy. Be advised that the owners keep dogs that roam freely at night, and for morning bird-watching you’ll need to ask for them to be tied up. Entrance to the trails costs guests US$8 for the duration of their stay; nonguests pay US$8 per day. English, Spanish and German are spoken. Since it’s isolated, it is best to make reservations in advance. The best time to call is between 7pm and 9pm.

Getting There & Away Lost & Found Lodge provides shuttle transportation from David (US$30), or you can take the bus (US$3 from David). After one hour, the bus reaches a yellow tollbooth followed by a sign near Km 42 that says ‘You have found the lost paradise.’ From here, hike up a path for 15 minutes, following the signs. You can also take a bus from the Bocas side, starting in Changuinola or Almirante (around US$8). To get to Finca La Suiza, take any Changuinola-bound bus from David (hourly starting at 5am) and ask the driver to drop you off. Coming from the Interamericana, the lodge is to the right just after the only gas station on the road. Coming from the north, the lodge is on the left 1.3km after a toll plaza for trucks. You can leave luggage with the caretaker near the entrance gate while hiking.

BOCAS DEL TORO Where primary rainforest meets banana plantation and Caribbean islands dot a shock of blue waters, Bocas del Toro Province promises all that is tropical. Located 32km from the Costa Rican border, the Archipiélago de

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Bocas del Toro consists of six densely forested islands, scores of uninhabited islets and Panama’s oldest marine park, Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos. Naturally beautiful and half-tame, Bocas is Panama’s principal tourist draw, the place for a hefty dose of sun and surf. In addition to being the longtime roost of Chiquita Banana, the mainland is home to the Panamanian half of the binational Parque Internacional La Amistad, home of megafauna such as the elusive jaguar, as well as NgöbeBuglé settlements. Deep in the forest live the last remaining Naso, one of the only tribes in the Americas to retain their traditional monarchy. Few visitors are disappointed with the perfect Bocas cocktail of water fun and thatched luxury. Unfortunately, the secret has leaked, and there’s no sign that development will slow down. The real-estate boom has brought bulldozers and bullying interests, making locals debate the merits of increased tourism when there may not be the infrastructure to support it.

ISLA COLÓN Relaxed as it is, Isla Colón has ridden a major development boom. Since the mid-1990s, foreign investors have been buying up land like crazy, with new hotels, restaurants and condos constantly springing up. Fortunately, there’s still a heavy dose of local flavor, and the lack of beachside Pizza Huts is testament to the fact that development is still years behind similar destinations in nearby Costa Rica. ACTIVITIES

Diving & Snorkeling

With nearly 40 rivers unloading silt into the seas around Bocas del Toro, the archipelago’s waters are notorious for poor visibility. For example, if it has rained a lot in recent days, visibility may be limited to only 3m; at best visibility is about 15m. Although experienced divers accustomed to crystal-clear Caribbean diving may be disappointed with Bocas, the islands still have much to offer. The emerald green waters of the archipelago are home to barracuda, stingrays, dolphins and nurse sharks. Better sites nearby include Dark Wood Reef, northwest of Bastimentos; Hospital Point, a 50ft wall off Cayo Nancy; and the base of the Punta Juan buoy north of Isla Cristóbal. PADI-certified Starfleet Eco Adventures (Map p674; %757-9630; www. starfleetscuba.com; Calle 1A) and

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Bocas Water Sports (Map p674; %/fax 757-9541; www .bocaswatersports.com; Calle 3) offer diving trips. They cost around US$60 for a two-tank dive and US70 for a full-day tour. PADI open-water and advanced-diver courses are available. Both dive shops also offer snorkeling on their boat tours. Boat Tours

Surfing

Although everyone (and their grandmother) seems to have picked up surfing in nearby Puerto Viejo, Bocas del Toro is still emerging as an international surf destination. It offers an excellent mix of beginner beach breaks, ripping reefs breaks and some seriously suicidal breaks. For surfing information on nearby Isla Bastimentos and Isla Carenero, see p679 and p677 respectively. Beginner surfers looking for a bit of reef experience should check out Playa Punch, which offers a good mix of lefts and rights. Although it can get heavy when big, Punch generally offers some of the kindest waves around. Just past Punch on route to Playa Bluff is a popular reef break known as Dumps. This left break can get up to 3m, and should only be ridden by experienced surfers as wiping out on the reef here is a dangerous affair. There is also an inner break known as Inner Dumps, which also breaks left, but is more forgiving than its outer brother. Be careful walking out on the reefs as they are sharp and full of urchins – wear booties. If you wipe out and get cut up, be sure to

properly disinfect your wounds. Although salt water heals, sea water doesn’t, especially in the Caribbean where the water temperature means that the ocean is full of live bacteria. The island’s most notorious surf spot is Playa Bluff, which throws out powerful barreling waves that break in shallow water along the beach, and have a reputation for snapping boards (and occasionally bones). Though waves close quickly, the tubes here are truly awesome, especially when the swells are strong. You can rent surfboards from Tropix Surf (Map p674; % 757-9727; Calle 3; h 9am-7pm) or Mondo Taitú (see p675). If heading out to Isla Bastimentos or Isla Carenero, arrange your board in advance as there are no surf shops on either island. Kayaking

Although you will need to be wary of boat traffic and the occasional swell, a great way to travel between islands is by sea kayak. Bocas Water Sports rents kayaks for US$3 per hour. Cycling

Whether you’re heading to Boca del Drago on the paved road or taking the dirt path to Playa Bluff, a bike can seriously increase your mobility. Note that the bike ride to Boca del Drago is taxing, especially when the sun is beaming. If you’re unsure of your fitness level, it’s advised that you head to Punta Bluff instead, even though the road can flood after heavy rains. Hiking

If you’re looking to get well off the beaten path, there is a network of undeveloped hiking trails that fan out across the island. One of the more popular hikes starts at the end of the coastal road in Mimbi Timbi and carries on along the coast to Boca del Drago. You will need about six hours of daylight to complete the hike and you must carry in all your fresh water. The trail winds past caves, caverns and plenty of vineentangled jungle. A bike will help speed things up a bit, though you will be carrying it part of the way, especially if it’s been raining recently. Sailing

With affordable overnight adventures and options for snorkeling, fishing and dolphinwatching, Catamaran Sailing Adventures (Map p674; %757-9710; www.bocassailing.com; Av Sur; snorkel tour US$40) has popular tours on a 42-foot catama-

ran that are kid-friendly too.

PA N A M A

The most popular tours in the area are all-day snorkeling trips, which are perfect for nondivers who want a taste of the area’s rich marine life. A typical tour costs US$20 per person, and goes to Dolphin Bay, Cayo Crawl, Red Frog Beach and Hospital Point. A trip to the distant Cayos Zapatillas costs US$25 (plus an additional US$10 for admission to the marine park), and includes lunch, a laze on the beach and a jungle walkabout on Cayo Zapatilla Sur. In addition to the dive operators listed earlier, a recommended tour operator is J&J Tours (Map p674; %757-9915; [email protected] .com; Calle 3). Many ‘tours’ are really little more than boat transportation to a pretty spot. If you have your own snorkel gear (or if you rent it), you can also get the local boatmen to take you around the area in their small, motorized canoes. Agree on a price before you go.

B O C A S D E L T O R O • • I s l a C o l ó n 671

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Boca del Drago

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Punta Cauro

Conch Point

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Punta Rancho

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Playa El Istmito

Isla Cristóbal

3

Isla Colón

Punta Norte

82º15'W

1

BOCAS DEL TORO

Big Creek

9

Playa Bluff

Punta Rocosa

82º15'W

ARCHIPIÉLAGO DE BOCAS DEL TORO

10

8

Punta Puss Head

Isla Carenero

Hospital Point

6

Punta Bluff Playa Punch

SEA

Old Bank

CARIBBEAN

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Isla Solarte

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Cayo Nancy

Wizard Beach

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PA N A M A

Playa Segunda

Quebrada Sal

Isla Bastimentos

Playa Larga

Red Frog Beach

SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES Bocas Butterfly Farm....................1 Dark Wood Reef..........................2 La Gruta (Communidad Bahía Honda).....................................3 Nivida Cave..................................4 Punta Juan Buoy..........................5

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EATING Bibi's..........................................10 C3 Island Time Thai.........................11 D3 Up in the Hill.............................12 D3

SLEEPING Aqua Lounge...............................6 Cabañas Estefany.........................7 Casa Acuario................................8 La Coralina...................................9

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lonelyplanet.com Fishing

The best budget option for aspiring anglers is to go surf casting with the local water-taxi drivers. The hand lines are a bit tricky at first, though you’ll get the hang of it. It’s best to go early in the morning when the fish are biting; prices are negotiable.

Bocas del Toro The archipelago’s largest and most developed island is home to the provincial capital, Bocas del Toro, a colorful town of wooden houses built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century. Today, Bocas is a slowpaced community of West Indians, Latinos and resident gringos. It serves as a convenient base for exploring the marine national park, as taxis marinos (water taxis) can whisk you away to remote beaches and snorkeling sites. ORIENTATION

INFORMATION

For more information on the islands, see the useful English website www.bocas.com or check out the island’s monthly bilingual publication, The Bocas Breeze (www.thebocas breeze.com). ANAM (Map p674; %757-9442; Calle 1) Not really set up as a tourist information office, though they can answer questions about the national park or other protected areas. If you want to camp out in any of the protected areas, you must first get a permit from an ANAM office. ATP tourist office (Map p674; %757-9642; h8:30am-3:30pm Mon-Fri) In Centro de Facilidades Turísticas e Interpretación (Cefati) on the eastern waterfront. A color map in English and Spanish is available. Banco Nacional de Panamá (Map p674; cnr Calle 4 & Av E; h8am-2pm Mon-Fri, 8am-noon Sat) Exchanges traveler’s checks and has a 24-hour ATM. Bocas Internet Café (Map p674; Calle 3; per hr US$1.50; h8am-10pm) Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance (Map p674;%6086-2331; www.discoverbocasdeltoro.com; Calle 3) English-speaking with good reference information

for travelers. Arranges tours and visits to a Ngöbe crafts workshop on Isla San Cristobal. You can recycle plastic bags here (they get made into very cool purses by local women) and get water refills to avoid buying more plastic. Cable & Wireless (Map p674; Calle 1) International calls can be made here. Hospital (Map p674; %757-9201; Av G; h24hr) The island’s only hospital has a 24-hour emergency room. Post office (Map p674; Governmental Bldg, Calle 3) DANGERS & ANNOYANCES

The surf can be quite dangerous on some beaches, with frequently strong riptides – use caution when going out into the waves. If you get caught in a rip, swim parallel to the shore and don’t panic. Tap water is not safe to drink in Bocas del Toro. Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance refills water bottles. Bocas del Toro is a conservative place, and local law prevents both men and women from walking down the streets topless. Even if you are on your way to the beach, wear a shirt or you will be sent back to your hotel if spotted by the police. SIGHTS

Boca del Drago

Located on the western side of Isla Colón, this sleepy beach (Map p672) is famed for its huge numbers of starfish. The calm and relaxed vibe at Boca del Drago is perfect for beach bums. The swimming and snorkeling here is good, especially when the sea is calm and the water is clear. Although it’s not as stunning as the wilderness beaches on Isla Bastimentos, the lack of surge here means that this is the safest spot in the archipelago for nonsurfers. Cabañas Estefany (p675) is the one place to stay here. To get here from Bocas, take a ASK A LOCAL Mass tourism has been hard on Bocas, so when you go, think sustainable. Avoid using small plastic water bottles; support sustainable tourism with a visit to the Ngöbe-run restaurant in Communidad Bahía Honda (p675); make sure your boat in Dolphin Bay keeps a respectable distance from the dolphins, and use the co-op of local boaters (p687) who show more consciousness in their boating practices. Daniel, Bocas del Toro

PA N A M A

Bocas town is laid out in a grid pattern with most of the hotels and restaurants on Calle 3. The airport is on Av E, four blocks from Calle 3. Note that the town, the archipelago and the province all share the name Bocas del Toro. Isla Colón and Bocas del Toro town are also referred to as Bocas Isla. It rains a lot in Bocas – even in the dry season, there can be long periods of constant showers.

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674 B O C A S D E L T O R O • • I s l a C o l ó n

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The closest beach to town, Playa El Istmito (Map p674), is plagued by chitras (sand flies). Since it’s not the most attractive beach, it’s worth heading further north. Further up the coast is Playa Punch (Map p672), which is dangerous for swimming but good for surfing. After you round Punta Bluff, the road takes you along Playa Bluff (Map p672), a secluded wilderness beach that is pounded by intense waves. Although you wouldn’t want to get into the water here without a board, the soft, yellow sand and palm-fringed shores are pristine and well worth the trip. Playa Bluff stretches for 5km all the way to Punta Rocosa, and serves as a nesting area for sea turtles from May to September.

local bus, water taxi (US$15 to US$20 roundtrip) or taxi (US$15 one way). The bus leaves from Bocas plaza (US$0.70, one hour) at 7am, 10am, noon, 3pm and 5pm. Return trips go at 8am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm and 6pm, though afternoon trips tend to experience delays. Other Beaches

A string of beaches on the eastern side of Isla Colón can be reached by a road that skirts up the coast from town. There’s no public transportation to the beaches, but a 4WD taxi will take you to any of them and pick you up at an appointed time for a negotiable price – expect to pay US$40 for a round-trip taxi to Playa Bluff, since road conditions may be poor.

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C INFORMATION ANAM .....................................................1 ATP ..........................................................2 Banco Nacional de Panamá...........3 Bocas Internet Café...........................4 Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance..............................................5 Cable & Wireless.................................6 Hospital .................................................7 Post Office ............................................8

To Playa Bluff (8km); La Gruta (8km); Boca del Drago (14km)



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1

500 m 0.3 miles

D3 D3 D3 D3 D4 D3 B2 D3

SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES Bocas Water Sports...........................9 Cap 'n Dons....................................... 10 Catamaran Sailing Adventures ................................... 11 J & J Tours.......................................... 12 Spanish by the Sea.........................13 Starfleet Eco Adventures ................................... 14 Tropix Surf......................................... 15

66 6666 66 6 6666 6 66666 6666 Playa El

3 " Istmito

Bahía Sand Fly

Bahía de Almirante

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Calle 7

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Av H

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26 " i " 16 i

Av G

38 #

29 " @

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Calle 2

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Simón

Av Central Bolívar i " 15 # 22 " 18 i

Av D

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Bahía de Almirante

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Av A

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Av B

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DRINKING ? Barco Hundido ................................34 D3 La Iguana ........................................... 35 D3 Mondo Taitú Bar ...........................(see 26) Plank....................................................36 D2 Point .................................................. (see 30)

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To Punta Manglar (1.3km); Punta Caracol Aqua Lodge (2.5km)

#1 H

" 34 ?

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Av C

TRANSPORT Boteros Unidos................................37 D4 Caribe Shuttle ................................(see 39) Ixa's Bike World ...............................38 D2 Taxi 25................................................. 39 D3

" 30 @ " @

8

` #

Calle 5

EATING @ Alberto's Pizzeria...........................(see 20) Buena Vista Bar & Grill...................27 D4 El Chitré ..............................................28 D3 Isla Supermarket Colón................ (see 4) La Casbah...........................................29 D2 Om Café..............................................30 D3 Panadería & Dulcería Alemana..31 D3 Starfish/Le Petit Bistro ..................32 D4 Super Gourmet................................33 D4

#

Creek

4

C2 C2 D3 D3 C3 D2 D3 C4 C2 C2 C2

31

# 32 Av E

Airport Terminal

Calle 6

3

SLEEPING i Casa Amarilla....................................16 Cocomo ..............................................17 Hostel de Hansi................................18 Hostel Heike......................................19 Hotel Cala Luna ...............................20 Hotel Casa Max................................21 Hotel del Parque .............................22 Hotel Dos Palmas............................23 Hotel La Veranda ............................24 Lula's....................................................25 Mondo Taitú .....................................26

Airport

Calle 1

1 "

Ferry Dock

D4 D2 C4 D4 D4 D4 D3

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La Gruta

SLEEPING

If sun, sand and surf aren’t your persuasion, then consider taking a trip to the indigenous Communidad Bahía Honda. Here you’ll find La Gruta (The Cavern; Map p672), a cave where you can wade through waist-high water while trying not to disturb the thousands of sleeping bats overhead. The entrance to the cave, which is marked by a statue of the Virgin Mary, is located 8km from Bocas town along the road to Boca del Drago. There is also a small community restaurant. A taxi should cost about US$15 round trip or take the bus.

Reservations are a good idea between December and April and during national holidays and local festivals. Cabañas Estefany (Map p672; %6624-9246; campsite

Bocas Butterfly Farm

taitu.com; Av H; dm/d US$10/22, dm with air-con US$12; ai)

A great morning trip from Bocas, this adorable butterfly farm (Map p672; %757-9008; www.bocas

Though it looks like a strong wind could collapse it, this is Bocas’ backpacker hub. Built on good vibes, this hostel makes good with a chill social atmosphere, freebies and nightlife. There’s a communal kitchen, lounge area, laundry facilities, free bikes and surfboards. oHostel Heike (Map p674; %757-9708; www

butterfly.com; adult/child US$5/2; h9am-3pm Mon-Sat, 9am-noon Sun) houses species from every corner

of Panama. There is no road access – hire a water taxi from Bocas town for US$1 one way. COURSES

FESTIVALS & EVENTS

Bocas celebrates all of Panama’s holidays, with a few enjoyable local ones besides. Annual events celebrated on Bocas and Bastimentos include the following: May Day (May 1) A Maypole dance performed by local girls.

Día de la Virgen del Carmen (third Sunday in July) Pilgrimage to La Gruta caves for a mass in honor of the Virgen del Carmen. Feria del Mar (September 28 to October 2) Held on Playa El Istmito, a few kilometers north of Bocas.

Fundación de la Provincia de Bocas del Toro (November 16) A big affair celebrating the foundation of the province in 1904 with parades and other events. Día de Bastimentos (November 23) Bastimentos Day is celebrated with a huge parade and drumming exhibitions.

of the few beach lodgings on Isla Colón. Its wooden cabañas are bare bones, some without fans and all with cold showers. Secure a room with a fan as it can get quite buggy. Cabins are often booked with scientific researchers, so it’s recommended that you call ahead. Mondo Taitú (Map p674; %/fax 757-9425; www.mondo

.hostelheike.com; Calle 3; dm with/without air-con US$17/10; ai) Awash with colorful murals and natu-

ral woods, Heike is the perfect spot for chilling Caribbean-style. Expertly managed by a friendly Panamanian, it gets rave reviews from travelers. The sprawling roof deck with fans and hammocks is the perfect spot to indulge in a cold beer and a good book. Hostel de Hansi (Map p674; %757-9085; Calle 3; s without bathroom US$11, d US$25) This cheery German-run lodging recently underwent major renovations. It prides itself on a quiet, family-friendly setting. Spotless rooms have fans; doubles sport their own balcony and guests have use of an ample kitchen. Hotel La Veranda (Map p674; %757-9211; www .explorepanama.com/veranda.htm; Av G; d without bathroom US$29, d/tr US$56/66) This lovely residence-turned-

inn was built in 1910 and has been maintained down to its gleaming hardwood floors. The six unique guest rooms have early-20th-century antique furnishings. The veranda is perfect for an afternoon sundowner. Hotel Casa Max (Map p674; %757-9120; casa1max @hotmail.com; Av G; d US$35) This Dutch-owned spot offers brightly painted wooden rooms with firm beds and high ceilings. Guests get hotwater showers, though some bathrooms are dated and worn. Dreamy balconies overlook the town and the ocean, and a breakfast of fresh fruits and strong coffee sweetens the deal. Hotel Dos Palmas (Map p674; %757-9906; Av Sur; d US$35) Proudly ‘100% Bocatoreño,’ Dos Palmas

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A reader-recommended language school, Spanish by the Sea (Map p674; %/fax 757-9518; www .spanishbythesea.com; Calle 4) offers affordable Spanish classes in a relaxed setting. Group lessons are US$150 per week for 20 hours. The school also offers a popular survival Spanish course to jump-start your travels. Homestays can be arranged (US$15 per night with breakfast), or you can bunk down in clean and comfy dorms (US$10) or private rooms (US$15). Spanish by the Sea also organizes parties, dance classes and open lectures. English, Spanish, French, German and Dutch are spoken.

per person US$5, kitchen use US$5, d US$35, 5-/7-person cabin US$20/65) Located at Boca del Drago, this is one

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offers basic wooden rooms with old-fashioned furnishings. Run by a friendly matriarch, it’s not some cookie-cutter lodging, though some might find it a little musty. It sits above the water and boasts exceptional views of the bay. Hotel del Parque (Map p674; %757-9008; Calle 2; s/d/tr US$37/45/50;aW) A classic Caribbean house fronting the plaza, this tranquil place has B&B style within budget reach. Ample rooms have big windows, cool cement floors and firm beds in crisp linens. The terraces provide views of the action on the plaza and hammocks for cat naps. Hotel Cala Luna (Map p674; %757-9066; www.calaluna bocas.com; Calle 5; s/d/tr US$45/55/65; ai) Built atop legendary Alberto’s Pizza, the Italian-owned Cala Luna features cathedral windows, tasteful wood details and crisp, functional rooms. As an added bonus, guests can watch planes coming in for a landing 30m above their heads from a pair of lookouts on the roof. Casa Amarilla (Map p674; %757-9938; Calle 5; d US$50; ai) In a cute yellow house, these four motel-style rooms come decked out with amenities. Each has a laptop with internet connections, flat-screen TV and hot water. The American owners are usually around to help or to share a morning cup of coffee with you. Lula’s (Map p674; %757-9057; www.lulabb.com; Av Norte; d/tr/q incl breakfast US$55/66/77; ai) A place of rockers and porches, this lovely B&B is a welcome addition to the Bocas scene. Rooms are immaculate, with hot-water showers and a snug design. The American hosts give first-rate service, in addition to big southern breakfasts. La Coralina (Map p672; %6788-8992; www.lacoralina .com; Punta Bluff; d with/without bathroom US$100/60, ste US$120; aW) On the way to Punta Bluff, this

attentive resort in a cool colonial offers airy rooms, sprawling decks and sea views. The location – facing two world-class surf breaks, stuns those with tubes on the brain. Active travelers can take advantage of the private nature trails and horseback riding on offer. Cocomo (Map p674; %757-9259; www.cocomoonthe sea.com; cnr Av Norte & Calle 6A; s/d/tr incl breakfast US$66/83/94; ai) A sweet clapboard house

with a tropical garden and hammock deck on the sea, Cocomo wants for nothing. A local pioneer, this American-run bed and breakfast knows service. Rooms have hot water, and breakfast includes fresh pastries, fruit, yogurt and omelets. Kayaks are complimentary.

lonelyplanet.com EATING

Bocas town has some of the best dining options in Panama. All are on Map p674. On Saturdays, a farmers market operates in Parque Simon Bolívar. Food carts sell roast chicken and juices, but ask for bottled water in your batido. Isla Supermarket Colón (Calle 3) The largest supermarket on the island. Super Gourmet (Calle 3) Stocks specialty items such as rotisserie chicken, Mexican food, wine and frozen bagels. Panadería & Dulcería Alemana (Calle 2; pastries US$1-3; h7am-8pm Mon-Sat, 8am-4pm Sun) Frothy cappuccinos, whole-grain bread and moist slabs of carrot cake are the order of the day at this German bakery. El Chitré (Calle 3; plates US$2-3) Patronized by locals and travelers alike, this no-frills cafeteria is the best spot in town for cheap but tasty grub. Buena Vista Bar & Grill (Calle 1; mains US$5-12) This waterfront restaurant serves nachos, bacon cheeseburgers and brownie sundaes to hungry expats. Dinner ups the ante with seafood and fish dishes. Starfish/Le Petit Bistro (Calle 1; tapas US$4-6; h8am-noon & 6-10pm Mon-Sat, 9am-2pm Sun) With homespun charm, Starfish is a coffee and smoothie bar by day, with stacks of fashion mags and comfy chairs. By night it’s candlelit and serves good French cuisine, tapas and sashimi. Foreign-run and friendly, it’s worth a try. Alberto’s Pizzeria (Calle 5; pizzas US$9; hnoon-10pm Mon-Sat) Sardinian-run Alberto’s is a favorite local haunt where you can even play pingpong while anticipating your dinner. Fresh pizzas with toppings such as artichokes, kalamata olives and gorgonzola satisfy big appetites. Om Café (Av H; mains US$6.50-15; h8am-noon & 6-10pm Fri-Tue) Guaranteed to make your brow sweat, this welcoming Indian cafe cooks up classic curries and vindaloo with crisp hot naan. Service may be slow, so order up a cocktail to keep you company (try the Tipsy Turban – a dizzy mix of passion fruit, rum and sugar). La Casbah (%6477-4227; Av H; mains US$8-15; h610pm Tue-Sat) Popular with locals and travelers alike, this Mediterranean restaurant serves up gazpacho, goat’s cheese salad and wellprepared meats and seafood. The fish of the day comes in cucumber and coconut sauce and there’s a nice baked veggie plate for nonmeat-eaters. Reserve ahead.

lonelyplanet.com DRINKING

GETTING THERE & AWAY

Air

Both Aeroperlas (%757-9341) and Air Panama (%757-9841) offer daily flights connecting Bocas with Panama City (US$100, one hour, one to two daily). Aeroperlas also has flights from David to Bocas (US$55, 50 minutes, daily from Monday to Friday). Nature Air (%in USA 800-2359272; www.natureair.com) has flights from San José, Costa Rica to Bocas (US$160, 1½ hours, 7am on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday). Boat

If you don’t fly into Bocas you’ll have to take a water taxi (US$4) from Almirante on the mainland (for more information, see p680). On the waterfront, Taxi 25 makes the halfhour trip every half hour from 6am to 6:30pm. To reach Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, Caribe Shuttle (%757-7048; www.caribeshuttle.com) offers a combination boat-bus trip (US$28) daily at 9am, arriving in Puerto Viejo at 11:30am

(Costa Rica time). They provide a hotel pickup but you must reserve one day in advance. GETTING AROUND

To reach nearby islands, you can hire boaters operating motorized boats and canoes along the waterfront. As a general rule, you should always sort out the rate beforehand, and clarify if it is for one way or round trip. Rates vary but you will get a better deal if you speak Spanish, are with a group and arrange for a pickup. Locals claim Boteros Unidos (Calle 3) consistently offer fair prices; the staff is also trained in safe boating and sustainable tourism practices. Round-trip rates are generally US$8 to the near side of Isla Bastimentos and US$2 to Isla Carenero. Although you should always pay on the return leg – this guarantees a pickup – most boaters will want some money upfront so that they can buy petrol. You can rent a wide selection of bicycles from Ixa’s Bike World (Av H; h8am-6pm) for US$10 per day.

ISLA CARENERO A few hundred meters from Isla Colón, the oftforgotten island of Isla Carenero takes its name from ‘careening,’ nautical talk for leaning a ship on one side for maintenance. In October, 1502 Columbus docked his fleet here for careening while he recovered from a bellyache. Today, the wave of development that transformed Isla Colón is also making headway on Isla Carenero. Staying on the island is a quiet alternative to Isla Colón.

Orientation Water taxis dock at the small marina on the tip of the island. From here, a path that leads to the island’s fledgling town, and continues across the island.

Activities Those serious about surfing can tackle Silverbacks, an enormous barreling right that breaks over a reef, with heights of over 5m. On a good day Silverbacks is a world-class break that wouldn’t look out of place on Hawaii’s North Shore. Since it breaks off the coast, a water taxi is required to reach it. For surf classes (three hours US$45) or kayak rentals (half-day US$10), check out Bibi’s (see p678), where Argentine surf instructor Luis ([email protected]) offers tailored trips.

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Kick off your crazy Bocas night at La Iguana (Calle 1), a popular surfer/skate bar that will start you off with a US$1.50 beer-tequila combo. You probably won’t be in the mood for the dancing pole yet, though. Next, head to backpacker central, namely the Mondo Taitú Bar (Av I), which always guarantees a good time. On Tuesdays and Fridays, the party-loving owners entertain their guests with a variety of themed events, though the creative cocktail list and hookahs (US$5) make Mondo a good choice any night. If you’re feeling brave (and cheap), order a tequila suicide – a snort of salt, a squeeze of lime in the eye and a shot of the worst tequila they can find (at least it’s free!). Caribbean pub and bar Plank (Av 1; h5-11pm) has bar seating on faded decks to live music that spans from reggae to disco. Happy hour is daily from 7pm to 9pm and women get free drinks on Tuesdays and Fridays. Another spot is Point (Av H), a chill hangout located below Om, with pool tables and US$1 shots. Most nights in Bocas end at the Barco Hundido (Calle 1), an open-air bar that’s affectionately known as the ‘Wreck Deck’ – the name comes from the sunken banana boat that rests in the clear Caribbean waters in the front. A short boardwalk extends from the bar to an island seating area perfect for stargazing. All of these places are on Map p674.

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EXPLORE MORE OF BOCAS DEL TORO Skip the crowds by hiring a boat and checking out: Cayo Crawl Get lost in these mangrove-

dotted channels near Isla Bastimentos. Cayos Zapatillas Set out for these

pristine white-sand beaches and virgin forests. Dolphin Bay Spot dolphins frolicking at

this densely populated breeding ground. Swan Cay Spot red-billed tropic birds

and white-crowned pigeons in this cay near Isla de Los Pájaros.

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Sleeping & Eating Although not as popular as Isla Colón or Isla Bastimentos, Isla Carenero is a good option for travelers who want a different view of the islands. Aqua Lounge (Map p672; %757-9042; www.bocas aqualounge.com; dm US$10) This backpacker palace is a rustic matchstick construction on the dock facing Bocas. Guests love it or leave it, but it says Spring Break in so many ways. The onsite bar is hugely popular, then there’s the aquatic trampoline… Casa Acuario (Map p672; %757-9565; d US$85-94; a) Visually dreamy, this tropical inn sits above crystal-blue waters teeming with tropical fish. Rooms are impeccably outfitted with smart fixtures and rustic, crafty touches. The big draw is the private decks and open-air dining. Bibi’s (Map p672; mains US$5-10; hWed-Mon) This thatched, over-the-water restaurant and surf outfitter makes fresh salads, tasty soups and lightly fried fish. The service couldn’t be friendlier and the sea views will keep you lingering.

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Marino Isla Bastimentos. The main settlement is the historic West Indian town of Old Bank, which has its origins in the banana industry. The island is also home to the Ngöbe-Buglé village of Quebrada Sal, separated from Old Bank by a huge swath of jungle. Long the stronghold of Afro-Caribbean culture in Bocas, Bastimentos is changing in nature, not in small part to Red Frog Beach Rainforest Resort & Marina, a luxury development project that puts destination real estate front and center.

Orientation The small village of Old Bank has no roads, just a wide, concrete footpath lined on both sides with colorfully painted wooden houses. From the town, there is a path leading across the island to Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach, though the route can turn into a virtual swamp following the rains. On the southeastern side of the island is the remote Ngöbe-Buglé village of Quebrada Sal. Tropical forest covers the interior of the island; you can explore it, but go only with a guide, as it’s very easy to get lost.

Dangers & Annoyances Readers have reported muggings on the trail to Wizard Beach. Never go on any trail after dark and always travel with a friend. The alternate trail (follow the signs from town to Island Time Thai and beyond) is slightly longer but more secure.

Sights OLD BANK

Getting There & Away

Although very poor and somewhat depressed, Old Bank has a much more pronounced Caribbean vibe than Bocas town, and it’s a relaxing place to stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. You may hear Guari-Guari, the Spanish-English Creole language.

Isla Carenero is a quick and easy US$1 boat ride from Bocas town.

BEACHES

ISLA BASTIMENTOS Although it’s a mere 10-minute boat ride from the town of Bocas del Toro, Isla Bastimentos is a different world. The northern coast of the island is home to palm-fringed wilderness beaches that serve as nesting grounds for sea turtles, while most of the southern coast consists of mangrove islands and coral reefs within the boundaries of the Parque Nacional

Bastimentos has some amazing beaches, though be careful swimming as the surf can really pick up on the north coast of the island. The most beautiful beach on the island is Wizard Beach (also known as Playa Primera), which is awash in powder-yellow sand and backed by thick vine-strewn jungle. Although Wizard Beach is connected to Old Bank via a wilderness path, the mere 30-minute walk can

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turn into an all-day trek through the muck if it’s been raining heavily. Assuming the weather is cooperating, you can continue walking along the coast to Playa Segunda (Second Beach) and Red Frog Beach. Like Wizard, both beaches are stunning and virtually abandoned, though it’s likely that this will change as development on the island continues. If the weather isn’t cooperating, you can access Red Frog Beach by water taxi via a small marina on the south side of the island; entrance to the beach is US$2. While you are on Red Frog beach, keep an eye out for the rana rojo (strawberry poison-dart frog) as they might not be on the island for too much longer. The path continues past Red Frog Beach to Playa Larga (Long Beach), where sea turtles nest from April to August. Playa Larga and much of the eastern side of the island fall under the protection of Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos.

Established in 1988, this was Panama’s first marine park (admission US$10). Protecting various areas of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago including parts of Isla Bastimentos and the Cayos Zapatillas, the marine park is an important nature reserve for countless species of Caribbean wildlife. You can get current park information from the ATP or ANAM offices in Bocas del Toro (p673). The dive operators and boatmen in Bocas are also good sources of information about the park and its attractions. If you want to camp out anywhere in the park, you are required to first obtain a permit from ANAM. QUEBRADA SAL

On the southeastern edge of Bastimentos at the end of a long canal cut through the mangrove forest is the Ngöbe-Buglé village of Quebrada Sal (Salt Creek). The community consists of 60-odd thatch and bamboo houses, an elementary school, a handicrafts store, a general store and a soccer field. Water taxis can drop you off at the entrance to pay the US$1 entry fee and sign the visitors’ log. The Quebrada Sal is slowly modernizing along with the rest of the archipelago. The villagers are friendly and open to visitors, especially if you can speak Spanish. If you have the time, it’s worth hiring a local guide to walk

with you along the cross-island trail that leads to Playa Larga (about one hour each way).

Activities DIVING & SNORKELING

Diving trips are offered by Dutch Pirate (%65671812; www.thedutchpirate.com), with an office in Old Bank, though it’s best to phone ahead to make a reservation. For more information on diving and snorkeling, see p670. SURFING

If you’re looking for a solid beach break, both Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach offer fairly constant sets of lefts and rights that are perfect for beginner and intermediate surfers. When the swells are in, Wizard occasionally throws out some huge barrels, though they tend to close up pretty quickly. SPELUNKING & HIKING

The fascinating Nivida cave is one of the island’s natural wonders, and half the fun is getting there. At Roots (see p680) you can arrange a trip with Oscar (prices negotiable), a reliable local guide. You’ll then travel by small motorboat up a channel through lush vegetation full of wildlife. A short walk through the jungle leads to a massive cavern complete with swarms of nectar bats and a swimmable subterranean lake. Oscar can also arrange a challenging crossisland hike to Laguna de Bastimentos, a jungle lake completely surrounded by dense vegetation. This swath of rainforest is the terra firma section of the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos.

Sleeping Hostel Bastimentos (%757-9053; Old Bank; dm US$6, d US$12-20, d with air-con US$40; n) On a hill off the main path, this sprawling yellow clapboard has a bright selection of 28 rooms and hammock decks. Spaces are creaky but serviceable and the host, Dixon, couldn’t be nicer. Backpacker-ready, it has two kitchens and a common room with a bar, TV and dartboard. Beverly’s Hill (%757-9923; www.beverlyshill.blogspot .com; Old Bank; d US$40-50, s/d without bathroom US$14/20)

Run by Simon from Brighton, these jungle cabins occupy a lush green garden replete with red frogs. Immaculate thatched rooms feature fans and firm mattresses. Hammocks abound and some rooms offer hot-water showers. The onsite composting and water filtration system

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makes this one of the most environmentally friendly hotels on the island. El Jaguar (Old Bank; d/tr US$20/24) This simple boarding house is distinguished by the irrepressible personality of its owner – El Jaguar. A local schoolteacher, he is also known to serenade guests with impromptu ditties on the guitar. There is an outdoor kitchen and some rooms have bathrooms. Pension Tío Tom (%/fax 757-9831; [email protected] gmail.com; Old Bank; d US$20-25, 2-person bungalow US$30)

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This plank-and-thatch building has been offering cheap, clean and unfussy rooms for years. All rooms now come with private baths and a waterfront deck is strewn with hammocks. German-run, they can also provide hearty meals (dinner US$6), organize tours and rent kayaks. Point (%757-9704; Old Bank; d US$30) At the northern tip of Bastimentos, these standard rooms boast excellent views of the point break (bring your own board). Service may be indifferent, but there are creature comforts like hot-water showers, and a fridge and coffee maker.

Eating & Drinking Although you’re just a short boat ride away from Isla Colón, there are a handful of interesting spots on the island that are worth checking out. Rooster (Old Bank; mains US$2-4) Welcome to Panama’s only fry-free zone. Using the region’s fresh fruits and vegetables, chef Pete makes everything from banana waffles to lobster tails taste fresh and healthy. Its new location occupies the deck of a colorful house. Roots (Old Bank; mains US$3-10) This Bocas institution is famous for its masterfully prepared local meats and seafood, perfectly accented with fresh coconut milk. Co-owner Oscar Powell has also done much for the community of Isla Bastimentos and he’s a personable fellow with a sharp sense of humor. oIsland Time Thai (%6844-7704; dishes US$6; h12:30-8pm) Well worth the muddy 20-minute jungle trek and a one-hour wait, this is real and red-hot, made by Nui, a loveable Thai transplant. Red curry and cold Balboas are enjoyed on a forested deck in view of resident sloths. To get here, follow the signs uphill from the cement plaza in Old Bank and leave your shoes at the door. Up in the Hill (www.upinthehill.com; chocolate from US$2) Organic chocolate and gourmet coffee are reason enough to hike to this charming

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outpost on Bastimentos. To get there, head right from the docks onto the main road and follow the signs (it is past Island Time Thai).

Getting There & Away To get to Isla Bastimentos from Bocas del Toro, just walk down to the waterfront and ask a boatman to take you over. The ride will cost about US$2 to get to the near side of the island or US$4 to the far side.

ALMIRANTE On the mainland, this sad, garbage-strewn village is the point of entry for Bocas del Toro. Water taxis depart here. Seeing disoriented travelers arrive, local taxis will try to charge US$5 for the trip between the bus station and the dock, but the walk only takes five minutes. Taxi 25 has a water shuttle to Bocas del Toro (US$4, 30 minutes). An air-conditioned bus to Changuinola (US$1) leaves every 15 minutes between 6am and 8pm. Taxis to Changuinola (US$5 to US$15) can be bargained, particularly if you start your walk from the dock to the bus station.

CHANGUINOLA pop 50,000

Headquarters of the Chiriquí Land Company, the very same people that bring you Chiquita bananas, Changuinola is a hot and rather dusty town surrounded by a sea of banana plantations. Although there is little reason to linger here, overland travelers en route from Costa Rica to Isla Colón stop here. Changuinola also serves as the access point for the Wekso entrance to the Parque Internacional La Amistad. The ANAM (%7586603, 767-9485; h8am-4pm Mon-Fri) office near the center of town has information on the park.

Sleeping & Eating Hotel Hawaii (%758-6025; Av 17 de Abril; s/d US$20/24; ai) These ample plain rooms have clean bathrooms with spigot showers and beds clad in white sheets. There’s an internet cafe in the lobby. Resto Cotty’s (Av 17 de Abril; meals US$2.50; h24hr) On the main road, this clean cafeteria-style restaurant prepares Panamanian fare. A plate of curried chicken and rice is gratifying and quick.

Getting There & Away Buses for Costa Rica depart next to the gas station. Other buses depart from Terminal

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Urrica (%758-8115) with departures between 6am and 7pm. Almirante (with boat connections to Isla Colón; US$4; 45min) Every half hour.

David (US$8; 4½hr) Every half hour. El Silencio (Parque Internacional Amistad; US$0.65; 30min) Every 20 minutes.

Guabito-Sixaola (US$1.80; 30min) Every half hour. Panama City (US$25; 10hr) Daily at 7am. San José (Costa Rica; US$12; 6hr) Daily at 10am. You can take a taxi from Changuinola to the Costa Rican border at Guabito (US$2.50 per person, 15 minutes).

THE INTERIOR

SANTA FÉ This tiny mountain is a perfect destination for independent-minded hikers and birdwatchers looking to escape the crowds. Lovely mountain streams abound. There’s a lovely swimming hole at Río Bulava, a 20-minute walk. Head along the right branch of the fork at the southern edge of town, take the second right, and you’ll soon reach several spots that make for a nice dip. The refreshing Cascada de Bermejo is an excellent half-day hike – you can get directions at the hostel. To see an organic family farm up close, visit with Chong & María (%6525-4832; per person half-

day US$5, lunch US$2), hospitable campesino hosts happy to show you around their very smallscale operation. Make sure you book ahead. If you are interested in visiting a Ngöbe-Buglé community, Inocencio & Pedra Virola (%6738-9906; per person US$30) offer tours of Río Piedra. The perfect base camp for area adventures, Hostal La Qhia (%954-0903, 6592-5589; www.panama mountainhouse.com; dm US$11, d & tr with/without bathroom US$33/28; p) is a an oasis of lovely gardens and

comfortable beds. It’s also an excellent source of information, offering maps and detailed instructions for area hikes and river trips. Frequent buses travel from Santiago to Santa Fé (US$2.40, 1½ hours, every 30 minutes), from 5am to 6pm. From Santiago you can catch frequent buses to David (US$7, three hours) and Panama City (US$7.50, four hours).

SANTA CATALINA Santa Catalina is home to several hundred people who lead simple lives as fishers. The town has a laid-back feel to it, with one good outdoor pizzeria that forms the nexus of the dining and nightlife scene. However, the realestate signs are starting to go up, and rumors run the gamut from constructing a mega-resort and airstrip to establishing a protected area and a marine park. It’s hard to know what the future of Santa Catalina holds, but in the meantime, enjoy it while it’s still remote, undeveloped and home to some seriously wicked surf.

Sleeping & Eating If you want to be on the beach, follow the road out of town – a number of signed turnoffs advertise accommodations. Most are a 1km walk to the center on mostly flat but unshaded terrain. Surfer’s Paradise (camping per person US$5, d/tr/q US$33/36/44, deluxe q US$100; p) You could watch the tubes roll in all day at this hilltop camp with a box seat to the waves. Guests can take surf classes (2½ hours, US$40) and rent boards (US$15 to US$20). To arrive, take the turnoff on the left after arriving in town and follow the signs. Cabañas Rolo (%6598-9926; dm $10, d/tr with bathroom US$55/65, without bathroom US$40/50; p) These rustic cabins are a favorite of baby-faced surfers from around the world. Each has one to three good beds, a fan, and a shared cold-water bathroom that sees much traffic. Truckstop-quality coffee is free in the morning and guests get use of an open-air kitchen.

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Between Chiriquí and Panama City, the regions of Veraguas, Península de Azuero and Coclé – all part of the interior – have long been overshadowed by the flash of the capital, the coolness of the highlands and the lure of the Caribbean. For Panama’s heart and soul, this may be the best place to look. Here, some of the friendliest Panamanians reside in laid-back colonial towns and hillside villages. Founded by the Spanish four centuries ago, many settlements retain original, well-preserved colonial churches and colonial character. Some of Panama’s oldest traditions live on here, with old-world festivals held throughout the year. The region’s economy is primarily based on agriculture, though the interior also produces exquisite handicrafts. The region is also home to Santa Catalina, one of the best surf destinations in Central America, as well as the scenic mountain towns of Santa Fé and El Valle. The Pedasí coast is an up-and-coming destination for off-track beaches and surf.

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SPLURGE: ISLA DE COIBA

La Buena Vida (%6572-0664; www.labuenavida .biz; cabins US$55-100; pa) Three bright cab-

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With the exception of Galápagos and Isla de Coco, few Latin destinations are as exotic (and difficult to access) as this national park just 20km offshore from the Golfo de Chiriquí. Coiba is a veritable lost world of pristine ecosystems and unique fauna. Left alone for the past century while it hosted a notorious penal colony on its shores, Coiba offers intrepid travelers the chance to paddle the Pacific, hike through primary rainforest, snorkel and dive in a marine park and come face to face with increasingly rare wildlife. However, with virtually no tourist infrastructure in place, a tour is key. For a multiday ocean-kayak trip (starting at around US$400 for three days and two nights), contact Boquete Outdoor Adventures or Fluid Adventures; see p702.

The owner, Rolo Ortega, speaks Spanish and English, rents surfboards (US$10 to $US15 per day), and can arrange surf trips to Isla Cébaco (per group US$200). oHibiscus Garden (%6615-6097; www.hibiscus garden.com; s/d US$23/39, without bathroom US$15/25; pai) On Playa La Gartero (10km before

Santa Catalina), these mellow German-run lodgings fuse modern with rustic, with stylish installations and minimal fuss. Rooms have recycled driftwood beds and private hammock terraces. The gulf beach is calm, secluded and very swimmable. For some, the distance will be a drawback, though you can ride the horsecarriage shuttle into town for only US$1, or the faster Flying Sausage for US$5. You won’t get bored here; horseback riding (three hours US$15), surf lessons and fishing trips are offered. The restaurant serves salads and sandwiches, as well as a daily special. Oasis Surf Camp (%6588-7077; [email protected] .com; d with fan/air-con US$35; hclosed Oct;pW) This Italian-run surf camp has long been a staple of Santa Catalina and its beachfront setting is one of the best. Cabins overlooking the blacksand beach have simple but adequate facilities including cold-water showers and ample hammocks. Breakfast (US$3) and authentic Italian meals (around US$7) are served at the open-air restaurant. They also rent a variety of surf boards (US$10 to US$15). It’s 2km from Santa Catalina’s main road, on Playa Estero near the mouth of the river.

ins feature sea-themed mosaics and colorful tiles, original designs crafted by the American couple that has welded, tiled and painted the place into eclectic perfection. The owners have ironed out every little detail here, from local tips and recommendations to quality lunchboxes for tours. La Buena Vida composts and recycles, and runs a community art workshop, with local artisans’ work sold onsite. It is located on the main street in Santa Catalina. Pizzeria Jamming (pizza US$5-8; h6:30-11pm TueSun) A much-loved local institution on the road to the beach-facing hotels. Delicious thin-crust pizzas are made from fresh ingredients, and the open-air rancho is Santa Catalina’s liveliest gathering spot.

Getting There & Away To reach Santa Catalina from Panama City, first take a bus to Soná where you can take one of the three daily buses to Santa Catalina, leaving at 7am, noon and 4pm (US$3.80, 1½ hours). Unless the driver is pushed for time, he may be able to take you to any one of the hotels listed for an additional fee. If you miss the bus, you can hire a taxi from Soná to Santa Catalina for around US$30. From Santa Catalina, daily buses to Soná leave at 7am, 8am and 2pm. In Santa Catalina, the bus stops at the intersection to the beach road. Note that there are never taxis in town, unless of course someone is arriving from Soná.

CHITRÉ

pop 40,000

The mellow, cowboy-esque capital of Herrera Province links visitors to the lovely Península de Azuero.

Sights & Activities Chitré is centered on its understated cathedral, which is striking for its elegant simplicity and fine balance of gold and wood. The town is also home to the modest Museo de Herrera (%9960077; cnr Paseo Enrique Geenzier & Av Julio Arjona; admission US$1; h8am-noon & 1-4pm Tue-Sat, 8-11am Sun), a small

anthropology and natural history museum. Bird-watchers can explore Playa El Agallito, 7km from Chitré, a mudflat hosting thousands of migratory birds. The Humboldt Ecological Station studies them; you’re welcome to stop by and visit the displays. A bus leaves the Chitré station for the beach every 20 minutes or so during

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DETOUR: REMOTE AZUERO Most visitors access the Azuero via Chitre, but a few hours south of Santiago, the west coast of the peninsula is an amazing off-the-beaten-path attraction. Between December and February, three species of turtles hatch on the beaches of Malena. To join community volunteers working toward their preservation, contact Malena Beach Conservation Association (Asociación Conservacionista de Playa Malena; www.playamalena.org; per week incl meals & lodging US$150). Basic Spanish is necessary. The organization also offers horseback riding (US$10 per hour), boat tours and nature walks. Providing luxury camping and rooms, Tanager Tourism Ranchos (%6866-9652, 6667-6447; www .tanagertourism.com; luxury campsite s/d incl breakfast US$25/20, s/d incl breakfast US$40/55) are thoughtfully crafted by a Dutch couple who offer area tours and promote sustainable local tourism. From Santiago, coaster buses leave hourly to Mariato, which will pass Palmilla (1½ hours, US$3). Get off at Tanager Tourism (known as Casa de los Holandeses).

daylight hours. The one-way fare is US$0.50. A taxi ride from town costs US$3 one way.

Sleeping & Eating There’s no shortage of cheap hotels in town. Hotel Santa Rita (%996-4610; cnr Calle Manuel Maria Correa & Av Herrera; d with/without air-con US$22/18; pa) One of the city’s first hotels, Santa Rita

Getting There & Away Chitré is a regional bus transportation center. Buses arrive and depart from the Terminal de Transportes de Herrera (%996-6426), 1km south of downtown. Buses go to Las Tablas (US$1.25, 40minutes, every 20 minutes) and on to Pedasí (US$3.25, one hour, hourly) and other places on the peninsula. To get there, Radio Taxi (%9964442) charges US$1 to US$2. The ‘Terminal’ bus (US$0.25) leaves from the intersection of Calle Aminta Burgos de Amado and Av Herrera.

PEDASÍ

pop 2400

For years, this sleepy retreat bloomed only at festival times. But outsiders are discovering the big appeal of small-town life and wilderness beaches. Almost without warning, Pedasí has become the focus of an intensive push to develop the southwestern coastline, with lofty comparisons to Tuscany and California. Helpful but slow, the ATP office (%995-2339; h9:30am-5:30pm) lies one block past the main road in the north of town. The ANAM (h8am4pm, Mon-Fri) office in the south of town has extremely poor service, but in theory provides information about Isla Iguana and Isla de Cañas. Pedasí serves as the gateway to the Azuero coastline; the closest beaches are Playa El Toro and La Garita, both reached by a 2km road (walk or take a taxi, US$6 to US$8). It’s also a convenient base for exploring the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Iguana a 55-hectare island wildlife refuge. Though ravaged by El Niño, the surviving coral is pretty spectacular and the water is shallow enough to be snorkeled. Snorkeling and diving around the nearby islands surrounded by large coral reefs are a major attraction. The PADI-certified Pedasí Sports Club (Buzos de Azuero;%995-2894; www .pedasisportsclub; Calle Central s/n) offers two-tank dives (US$85 and up) to Isla Frailes and Isla Iguana. Snorkelers (US$35) can join dive trips to Iguana. They also offer a river kayak

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has slid in status to simply economical. Highceiling rooms feel musty around the edges and bathrooms smell scoured with bleach. Perks include some private balconies and there’s wi-fi and cable TV. Hotel Rex (%996-4310; Calle Melitón Martín s/n; s/d US$36/49; paW) With a prime location on Parque Union and good dining downstairs, Rex is a solid midrange choice. Clean tiled rooms have brick walls, fresh towels and water thermoses. There’s TV in the rooms, two terminals with internet and wi-fi available throughout. Restaurante El Meson (Calle Melitón Martín s/n; mains US$4-12; h7:15am-10pm; W) Has a long list of offerings, from sandwiches to steak and seafood. The chicken tacos will fully satisfy small appetites. Full breakfasts include fried yucca or tortillas de maiz with eggs and coffee. The ambience is glass tables and tall wooden chairs.

To get to David or Panama City from Chitré, take a bus to Divisa and then catch a directo (direct bus) to either city (US$7 or US$8, six hours). Buses leave every half hour from the Delta station at the intersection of the Interamericana and the Carretera Nacional.

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LOS FIESTAS DE AZUERO Famous throughout Panama, the traditional festivals in Azuero were created by Spanish settlers. Few foreigners see this wild side of Panama. While you may sacrifice a day or two to a thumping head, these are parties you’ll never forget. Some of the best: Carnaval – the four days before Ash

Wednesday (February/March) in Chitré, Parita, Las Tablas and Villa de Los Santos. Semana Santa – March/April in Pesé

and Villa de Los Santos. Feria de Azuero – late April/early May

in Villa de los Santos. Fiesta de Corpus Christi – 40 days after

Easter in Villa de Los Santos. Patronales de San Pablo & San

Pedro – June 29 in Pedasí and La Arena.

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Feria de la Mejorana, Festival de la

Virgen de las Mercedes – September 23 to 27 in Guararé. For more information, see the various town and city listings in this chapter and Panama City bus schedules (p652).

tour or kayak rentals (US$40), sportfishing, turtle-watching (US$65) and horseback riding (US$45 to US$65). Staff speak English, Turkish and Spanish. Every year, thousands of olive ridley sea turtles nest at Isla de Cañas (admission US$10). There is no public transportation to the island but trips can be arranged through the ATP office. The bare-bones Residencial Moscoso (%9952203; Av Central s/n; s/d US$20/25; pai) offers clean but worn dark-tile rooms. The friendly Dim’s Hostal (%995-2303; Av Central s/n; s/d incl breakfast US$33/49; pai) has a coveted backyard patio with hammocks and a mango tree; the breakfasts are made to order. Ask around for local restaurant recommendations. The amiable Restaurante Angela (Av Central s/n; mains US$2.50; h7am-8:30pm) is a good spot to grab a quick lunch of típico, grilled fish or chicken or shrimp in garlic herb sauce. Buses from Las Tablas leave every 45 minutes between 6am and 4pm (US$2, one hour) from in front of Restaurante Angela. Buses to Playa Venado (US$2) leave at 7am, 10am and noon.

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Playa Venao Past Pedasí, the long, protected beach of Playa Venao is transforming from a wild beach to an outright destination. Surfers lay the first claim to its waters – waves are consistent and break in both directions. On the jungle side of the main access road, Eco Venao (%832-0530; www.venao.com; campsite per person US$5.50, dm US$11, d without bathroom US$28, 2-person cabin US$44; pi) offers a cool mountain am-

bience and kind prices. The eight-person dorm is rustic but comfy, with mosquito nets, kitchen and shady porch ringed with hammocks. The colonial-style guesthouse is simply lovely. You can also rent horses (US$10), surfboards (US$20 per day), kayaks (US$25 per day) and do beachfront yoga. Internet (US$4) may be dear, but consider your location. ‘Eco’ means that trash separation and recycling are practiced, and instead of building big infrastructure the property was left mostly intact, with small footpaths that lead to the beach. The property has a 15-minute waterfall hike. The Playa Venao turnoff is 33km by road southwest of Pedasí. The Cañas–Las Tablas bus (US$2) passes between 8am and 9am and makes the return journey in the evening. Confirm exact times with your hotel. You can also take a taxi from Pedasí (US$30).

EL VALLE pop 6000

Picturesque El Valle de Antón is nestled in the crater of a giant extinct volcano that blew its top three million years ago. El Valle is a popular weekend getaway for urbanites in need of a little fresh air and scenery. It’s a superb place for walking, hiking or horseback riding.

Sights & Activities In addition to outdoor pursuits, El Valle’s main attraction is its Sunday handicrafts market (mercado; h8am-2pm) where Ngöbe-Buglé, Kuna, Emberá and Wounaan sell quality baskets, woodwork, ceramics, soapstone carvings, flowers and plants (including orchids) as well as a variety of fresh produce. The excellent El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (Evacc;% 6676-8094; www.houstonzoo.org/ amphibians) works to save amphibians from the deadly kitrid virus threatening amphibians around the world. You can see native Panamanian species including the golden frog. It’s on the grounds of El Níspero zoo, 1km north of Av Central.

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Sleeping & Eating La Casa de Juan (%6453-9775; www.lacasadejuan panama.blogspot.com; Calle Cocorron No 4; dm/d US$10/20)

This bare-bones Sanford and Son setup brims with the clutter of ATV vehicles, outdoor weight-lifting equipment and wagon wheels. Though decrepit, the house is clean and Señor Juan is a social host also offering guided walks. Santa Librada (%6591-9135; Av Central; d US$15) Behind the popular restaurant, a passageway leads to three basic but clean doubles, adding another much-needed value option ideal for couples. Residencial El Valle (%983-6536; [email protected] hotmail.com; Av Central; d/tr/q US$44/55/66; p) Visitors become loyalists, given the high level of service offered at this motel-style lodging. This long-standing hotel offers clean no-fuss rooms and like the nearly identical Don Pepe next door, it has a nice roof deck and bike rentals. Attached is a popular restaurant. Restaurante Santa Librada (Av Central; mains US$24.50) Cheap and cheerful, the Santa serves hearty portions of Panamanian staples such

as bistec picado (spicy shredded beef), as well as sandwiches and breakfast. El Valle Gourmet & Coffee Shop (Av Central; sandwiches US$5; h9am-6pm Thu-Sun) With gourmet sandwiches and smoothies, this is also a good stop to stock up on picnic items before heading for the trails. You can find goat cheese, cured meats and olives here.

Getting There & Away Buses leave Panama City for El Valle (US$3.50, 2½ hours, hourly from 7am to 7pm). The center of town is small, but many of El Valle’s attractions are a distance from there. Taxis within town cost no more than US$2. Buses to La Mesa (US$0.35) pass by Chorro El Macho, and run along El Valle’s main street.

COLÓN PROVINCE With an edgy reputation more true crime than travel, Colón rarely makes travel wish lists. But there is more to this Caribbean province than its notorious capital. Extending for over 200km along the Caribbean coast from Veraguas Province in the west to the Comarca de Kuna Yala in the east, Colón Province is mostly undeveloped and virtually inaccessible. However, the province is also home to the Spanish colonial city of Portobelo, which at one time was the most prominent port on the Caribbean, as well as the famed tropical getaway of Isla Grande. Although the city of Colón can be dangerous, the surrounding area features everything from pristine beaches and lowland rainforests to colonial splendors and modern engineering marvels. Portobelo, with its growing music and art scene, shows the best of vibrant Congo culture. And of course, it’s worth mentioning that the luxury train connecting Panama City to Colón is one of the greatest rail journeys in the Americas.

COLÓN

pop 45,000

With its colonial grandeur crumbling and its neighborhoods marginalized, historical Colón is sadly the city that Panama forgot, in spite of vigorous renovations underway in isolated sectors to court Caribbean cruise ships. Prior to 1869, the railroad connecting Panama City and Colón was the only rapid transit across the continental western hemisphere. However, the establishment of the US

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El Valle’s famous arboles cuadrados or square trees, an unusual native species, are located in a thicket along a hiking trail behind the Hotel Campestre, east and north of the town center. On the west side of town (follow the signs), Pozos Termales (Thermal Baths; Calle los Pozos; admission US$1; h8am-5pm) is the perfect place to soak the afternoon away. In a remote, forested area, the recently renovated complex features a series of pools with varying temperatures and supposed curative properties. The hills around El Valle are excellent for walking and horseback riding; Residencial El Valle (below) hires out both bikes and horses. The trails are well-defined since they’re frequently used by locals. Piedra El Sapo (Toad Stone), west of town near La India Dormida (a mountain ridge that resembles a sleeping Indian girl), is said to have some of the most beautiful trails. Nearby, in the neighborhood of La Pintada, are some unusual ancient petroglyphs depicting humans, animals and other shapes. The most famous waterfall in the El Valle area is the 85m-high Chorro El Macho (admission US$3.50; h8am-4pm), accessed via a short hike. The waterfall is 2km northwest of town, reachable by the bus to La Mesa (US$0.35). A lovely rainforest swimming hole just below the falls – bring your swimsuit.

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transcontinental railroad put Colón out of business almost overnight. The last whiff of prosperity was seen during the construction of the Panama Canal. In an attempt to revive the city, the Zona Libre (Free Zone) was created on the edge of Colón in 1948. Today, it’s the largest freetrade zone in the Americas. Unfortunately, none of the US$10 billion in annual commercial turnover seems to get beyond the compound’s walls and the Zona Libre exists as an island of materialism floating in a sea of unemployment, poverty and crime. The improved Ruta 3 between Panama City and Colón is now a four-lane highway, resulting in much quicker travel times.

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History Colón was founded in 1850 as the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Railroad, though it faded into obscurity less than 20 years later. At the peak of its economic depression in 1881, the French arrived in Colón to start construction of an interoceanic canal, though the city was burnt to the ground four years later by a Colombian hoping to spark a revolution. In the years to follow, Colón entered a second golden age as the city was entirely rebuilt in French Colonial architectural style. Rivaling Panama City in beauty and wealth, life in the top of the Canal Zone was pleasurable and highly profitable. Following its economic ruin in 1914, the city spiraled into the depths of depravity. Today, most of the colonial city is still intact, though the buildings are on the verge of collapse.

Orientation & Information The city is reached via two major roads on the southern side of town. The roads become Av Amador Guerrero and Av Bolivar at the entrance to the town, and run straight up the grid-patterned city, ending near Colon’s northern waterfront. Perpendicular to these avenues are numbered streets. Calle 16 is the first of these you’ll cross as you enter the town while Calle 1 is at the northern end of town. The Zone Libre occupies the southeastern corner of the city while the city’s cruise-ship port, Colón 2000, is located just north of the Free Zone. Given Colón’s high rate of crime, the safest place to withdraw money is the BNP ATM in the Colón 2000 cruise port.

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Dangers & Annoyances Despite Colón’s new cruise port on the eastern side of the city, Colón is still a dangerous slum. Crime is a serious problem, and you need to exercise caution when walking around. Paseo de Washington, the renovated waterfront area, and Av Bolívar are safe to peruse by day. The train and bus stations are under 300m away and walkable during daylight hours. Always travel by taxi at night.

Sights For some great sights just outside of Colón, see opposite. ZONA LIBRE

The Free Zone is a huge fortresslike area of giant international stores selling items duty free. It’s the world’s second-largest duty-free port after Hong Kong. However, most of these stores only deal in bulk merchandise; they aren’t set up to sell to individual tourists, and simple windowshopping is not very interesting. Many travelers leave disappointed. If you do buy something, the store usually sends it to the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, where you can retrieve your purchase before departing the country. You can enter the Zona Libre by presenting your passport at the security office. COLÓN 2000

Only a decade old, this sterile shopping and entertainment sector geared toward cruise-ship travelers sits on the east side of Colón. Though lacking in any Panamanian flavor, it is safe to peruse and features a good selection of restaurants and souvenir shops as well as a casino.

Sleeping & Eating There’s no shortage of hotels in Colón, though most are in seedy areas and have serious security issues. The following options have 24hour security guards. Meryland Hotel (%441-7055; cnr Calle 7 & Av Santa Isabel; s/d US$50/60; paiW) A massive stone building, this business hotel fronts an attractive city park. Small tile rooms with gold tones and rod-iron furniture have air-con, cable TV and hot-water bathrooms, though you’re paying for security, not luxury. The restaurant saves you the trouble of having to leave the hotel at night. Radisson (%446-2000; www.radisson.com; Colón 2000; s/d US$119/220; pais) Really you could be anywhere, but this luxury chain hotel has the friendliest staff and the best digs in Colón.

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Rooms are comfortable and sufficiently stylish, with minibar and flat-screen TVs, and you can always let off steam with some laps in the pool. Get in on big off-season discounts by looking for specials on the web.

Getting There & Away BUS

From Panama City, a regular bus service to Colón (US$2.50, one hour, every 30 minutes) departs from the Albrook Bus Terminal. Colón’s Terminal de Buses is at the intersection of Calle Terminal and Av Bolívar. It serves towns throughout Colón Province, including the following: La Guayra (US$2.85; 2hr; hourly) In La Guayra, you can catch the boat to Isla Grande.

Nombre de Dios (US$3.75; 2½hr; hourly) Portobelo (US$1.30; 1½hr; hourly) TRAIN

Getting Around While in Colón, it’s a good idea to not wander around on foot. Fortunately, taxis congregate at the bus station, train station and the Zone Libre, and fares across the city are usually around US$1.

AROUND COLÓN Gatún Locks

The Gatún Locks (admission free; h8am-4pm), just 10km south of Colón, raise southbound ships 29.5m from Caribbean waters to the level of Lago Gatún. From there, ships travel 37km to the Pedro Miguel Locks, which lower southbound ships 9.3m to Lago Miraflores, a small body of water that separates the two sets of Pacific locks. The ships are lowered to sea level at the Miraflores Locks. The Gatún Locks are the largest of the three sets, and their size is truly mind-boggling. In his superlative book The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough notes that if stood on its end, a single lock would have been the tallest structure on Earth at the time it was

built, taller by several meters than even the Eiffel Tower. From a well-placed viewing stand opposite the control tower, you can watch the locks in action. The whole process takes about two hours; it’s probably the most interesting stage of the Canal transit, and the English brochure does a good job of describing what you’re watching. Buses to the Gatún Locks leave the Colón bus terminal hourly (US$1.25, 20 minutes). If you arrive by taxi you can stop here before heading on to Gatún Dam – another 2km away. A taxi ride from Colón to the locks and dam and back should cost US$60 per party but agree on a price before leaving.

Parque Nacional San Lorenzo Centered on the ruins of the crumbling Spanish colonial fortress of Fuerte San Lorenzo, the 97-sq-km park (www.sanlorenzo.org .pa) is perched at the mouth of the Río Chagres. This river floated Welsh pirate Henry Morgan to the interior in 1671, enabling him to sack the original Panama City. This Spanish fortress is built of blocks of cut coral with rows of old cannons jutting out. Among the many Spanish cannons, you might spot a British one – evidence of the time when British pirates overcame the fort. Much of the fort is well preserved, including the moat, the cannons and the arched rooms. There is unfortunately no public transportation to Fuerte San Lorenzo from Colón. However, a round-trip taxi ride from Colón should cost around US$40.

PORTOBELO pop 4100

This Caribbean fishing village is so laid-back and languorous, it’s incredible to ponder that it was once the greatest Spanish port in Central America. Mules once carried Peruvian gold and Oriental treasures to Panama City via the fortresses at Portobelo. Though English privateers destroyed them several times throughout their history, many of these atmospheric colonial fortresses still stand. Throughout the village, homes are situated among these atmospheric ruins. Portobelo is experiencing something of a cultural rival, with recent interest surging in Congo art and dancing. Visitors can explore the extensive ruins, boat to remote beaches and dive at interesting underwater attractions.

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The Panama Railway Company (%317-6070; www .panarail.com; Carretera Gaillard) operates a glassdomed luxury passenger train along the canal and through jungle to/from Panama City (US$22/38 one-way/round-trip, one hour), leaving Colón at 5:15pm daily. The Colón train station is in the city but is best accessed by taxi. If you are arriving via train, the bus terminal is close by and shouldn’t be a problem to walk to.

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688 C O L Ó N P R O V I N C E • • P o r t o b e l o

History Portobelo, the ‘beautiful port,’ was named by Columbus in 1502, when he stopped here on his fourth New World voyage. For the next 200 years, Portobelo served as the principal Spanish Caribbean port in Central America. Aiming to disrupt the Spanish treasure route, British admiral Edward Vernon destroyed Portobelo in 1739. Discouraged, the Spanish abandoned the overland Panama route, and instead started sailing the long way around Cape Horn to and from the western coast of South America. Though rebuilt in 1751, Portobelo never attained its former prominence, and in time became a virtual ruin. The outermost fortress was dismantled to build the Panama Canal, with larger stones used in the construction of the Gatún Locks. Yet there are still considerable parts of the town intact, protected as a national park and historic site.

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Orientation & Information Located 43km from Colón, Portobelo consists of about 15 blocks of homes and businesses that line a paved, two-lane road. This road intersects with the Panama City–Colón road at the town of Sabanitas, 33km to the west. East of Portobelo, the road forks after 9km. The left branch extends 11km to the village of La Guayra, where you can hire boats to Isla Grande. Just off the main road, ATP (%448-2200, 64857028; h9:30am-5:30pm Tue-Fri & Sun) has good information. Ask Mireya Jimenez for information about congo dance workshops or volunteering with the school; Spanish-only spoken. Across the street from the tourist office, an internet cafe (per hr US$1.50; h8:30am-4pm Mon-Fri) also serves as a small library.

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exhibits of Portobelo’s history as well as a three-dimensional model of the area. The large colonial church, built in 1776, contains a life-size statue of the Black Christ, which is believed to have miraculous powers. On the way to Portobelo, the black-sand Playa María Chiquita and the white-sand Playa Langosta are two attractive beaches.

Activities Although the clarity of the water here is not spectacular, Portobelo enjoys a good diving reputation due to two unique sites off the coast, namely a 33m (110ft) cargo ship and a C-45 twin-engine plane. An open-water course costs US$275; a discovery dive for first-timers runs US$110. If you’re planning to dive, it’s best to phone ahead or make a reservation via the internet. Outfitter Scubaportobelo (%261-3841; www.scubapanama.com) offers all-inclusive scuba packages.

Festivals & Events On October 21 each year, the Festival of the Black Christ attracts hundreds of pilgrims, many dressed in the same royal purple color as the statue’s clothes. The statue is paraded through the streets starting at 6pm, and street festivities follow. Holy Week is also an interesting time to be here. The most intriguing local tradition is Festival de Diablos y Congos (www.diablosycongos .org), a festival of rebellion and ridicule that mocks the colonial Spaniards. During the festivity, blacks assume the role of escaped slaves and take ‘captives.’ It is held two weeks after Carnaval, sometimes coinciding with March 20, Portobelo’s patron saint day. In addition, on the last Sunday of each month there is an Afro Mass with a town fair displaying local food and traditional crafts.

Sights The remnants of Fuerte San Jerónimo and Fuerte Santiago can still be seen near town, and the ruins of Fuerte San Fernando occupy a grassy flat across the bay. The ruins of Santiago, 500m west of Portobelo’s center, include officers’ quarters, an artillery shed, a sentry box, a barracks and batteries. You can climb up a hill behind the fort for a fine view overlooking the ruins and bay. At the center of Portobelo, Fuerte San Jerónimo is a more complete fort than Santiago. The restored Real Aduana de Portobelo (Customs House; admission US$1), also known as the contaduría (counting house), has interesting

ASK A LOCAL ‘To see authentic Portobelo, see the Festival de Diablos y Congos where we celebrate our cimarrón (ex-slave) ancestors, slaves who survived by rebellion. We dance, and instead of wearing our Sunday best, we wear clashing rags. We speak in reverse, as cimarrones did, to keep the Spaniards guessing. Survival is all about liberty, it’s a beautiful thing to see.’ Aristela Blandon, Portobelo

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Sleeping & Eating

gmail.com; d US$50, 4-person loft US$75, 2-bedroom house US$150; pa) Quite out of the ordinary,

this chill photographer’s home is adapted for guests. Side by side there are two ample houses; just lovely, with a grassy seafront perfect for lounging. The bright, open interiors showcase photography and local Congo art. It is fine to cook here or you can pay extra for prepared meals. Guests can organize onsite excursions to snorkel and sightsee or take a Caribbean cooking workshop (US$15 per person) from Doña Cecelia.

Getting There & Away Buses to Portobelo (US$1.30, 1½ hours, every 30 minutes) depart from Colón’s Terminal de Buses from 6:30am to 6pm. From Panama City you can avoid passing through Colón. Take the Colón bus and get off at El Rey supermarket in Sabanitas, 10km before Colón. Next, catch the bus coming from Colón to Portobelo when it passes through Sabanitas (US$1, 1¼ hours). It’s often full, so try to take as little luggage as possible.

ISLA GRANDE Palm trees and white-sand beaches form the backdrop to this lovely island 15km northeast of Portobelo. A popular getaway for Panama City folk, Isla Grande is an ideal setting for

PORTOBELO’S TOP FIVE ESCAPES Take a water taxi to Puerto Francés for

private swims and jungle hikes. Snorkel around Spanish cannons en-

crusted in the coral landscape. Kayak up the tranquil Río Claro. See a sunset from El Fuerte de San

Fernando. Join a Congo dance workshop and

sweat to cool African rhythms.

snorkeling, scuba diving or simply soaking up the island’s relaxed vibe. About 300 people of African descent live on the island, most of whom eke out a living from fishing and coconuts – you’ll get a taste of both when you sample the fine island cuisine.

Activities Some lovely beaches on the northern side of the island can be reached by boat (hire a water taxi at the dock in front of Cabañas Super Jackson) or on foot (there’s a water’s-edge trail that loops around the 5km long, 1.5km wide island, as well a slippery cross-island trail). If you’re looking for a good surf break, take a water taxi out to La Guayra where you can find a good reef break that peaks right and left. The trail across the island leads to Bananas Village Resort (%263-9766; www.bananasresort.com), where US$35 will get you use of the facilities, a welcome cocktail and lunch. Some fine snorkeling and dive sites are within a 10-minute boat ride of the island. Isla Grande Dive Center (%223-5943), located 50m west of Cabañas Super Jackson, offers a variety of dives around the island and in the San Blás archipelago. For US$30, one of the boatmen in front of Cabañas Super Jackson will take you on a half-day adventure – the possibilities are quite appealing. The mangroves east of Isla Grande are fun to explore, or you could go snorkeling off the coast of the nearby islets.

Festivals & Events The Festival of San Juan Bautista is celebrated on June 24, with swimming and canoe races. The Virgen del Carmen is honored on July 16, with a land and sea procession, baptisms and masses. Carnaval is also celebrated here in rare form. Along with the dancing, there are also satirical

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Local families may rent out spare rooms for around US$15, particularly during festivals – ask at ATP (opposite). Coco Plum Eco Lodge (%448-2102; www.coco plumpanama.com; s/d/tr US$45/55/65; pa) An attractive, motel-style lodging, the friendly Coco Plum has been around for years. At the time of writing, the scuba shop was undergoing transition to new management. On the waterfront, the feel of the place is ocean kitsch, replete with nets, shells and pastels, but the effect is cozy. A salon has games and TV. The attached bar-restaurant (mains US$7.50 to US$15) is popular with travelers – check out the octopus in coconut milk or the seafood stew. Scubaportobelo (%448-2147; www.scubapanama .com; d US$50, d/q cabins US$61/72; pa) Nondivers are welcome at this comfortable seafront lodging. A new structure has motel-style doubles with balconies, electric showers and air-con. The cute cabins are charming but pocketsized – best for a couple or a family with small children. oCasa de la Bruja (%226-2035; [email protected]

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songs about current events and a lot of joking in the Caribbean calypso tradition.

Sleeping & Eating Cabañas Super Jackson (%448-2311; d with fan/air-con US$20/35; a) Closest to the main pier, this Isla Grande landmark offers a handful of cheap and cheerful rooms with private bathrooms. There are definitely more comfortable spots on the island, but it’s hard to beat the price, the convenience factor and the humorous name. Hotel Sister Moon (%236-8489; www.hotelsister moon.com; s/d incl breakfast US$49/98; as ) A 10-minute walk east of the Super Jackson takes you to these cabins on a hillside at the end of the island. Surrounded by swaying palms and crashing waves, each boasts fabulous views from a front-porch hammock. The hotel bar-restaurant is built right over the water and features the island’s famous coconut-infused seafood.

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Getting There & Away Buses from Colón go to La Guayra (US$2.50, 1½ hours, hourly). A 10-minute boat ride from there to Isla Grande costs US$3 to US$5. Parking costs US$2.50 per day.

COMARCA DE KUNA YALA Imagine a turquoise archipelago with one island for every day of the year. With white sand and waving palms, these Caribbean islands cheat no one’s version of paradise. The Comarca de Kuna Yala is home to the Kuna, an autonomous indigenous group who run San Blás with minimal interference from the national government. The Kuna was the first indigenous group in Latin America to gain such independence and today are a unique example of successful indigenous autonomy. The Comarca is a narrow, 226km-long strip on the Caribbean coast that includes the Archipiélago de San Blás, which stretches from the Golfo de San Blás to the edge of the Colombian border. While the majority of the islands are postcard perfect, only community islands are inhabited. These acre-sized cays packed with bamboo huts, livestock and people are integral to the strong Kuna sense of community. In tourism, the Kuna is protectionist: no foreigner may run a business here (even Panamanian) and visitors are often charged a fee to land.

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San Blás is no longer the off-the-beatenpath tourist destination it once was. In 2009, the road to Cartí was completed, making the region more accessible. However, visitors still have a choice between vibrant community life and complete and total isolation.

HISTORY The Kuna have lived in Eastern Panama for at least two centuries, though scholars fiercely debate their origins. Language similarities with people who once lived several hundred kilometers to the west would indicate that the Kuna migrated eastward. However, oral tradition has it that the Kuna migrated to San Blás from Colombia after the 16th century, following a series of devastating encounters with other tribes armed with poison-dart blowguns. Scholars agree that life on the islands is relatively new for the Kuna. Historians at the end of the 18th century wrote that the only people who used the San Blás islands at the time were pirates, Spaniards and the odd explorer. Today, there are an estimated 70,000 Kuna; 32,000 live on the district’s islands, 8000 live on tribal land along the coast and 30,000 live outside the district. So communal are the island Kuna that they inhabit only 40 of the 400 cays – the rest are coconut farms with sea turtles and iguanas. The inhabited islands are packed with traditional bamboo-sided, thatched-roof houses in sometimes unsanitary conditions. Historically, the Kuna subsisted on freshly caught seafood including fish, lobster, shrimp, Caribbean king crab and octopus. This was accompanied by food crops, including rice, yams, yucca, bananas and pineapples grown on the nearby mainland. Today, this traditional diet is supplemented by food products obtained by bartering coconuts with passing Colombian ships.

ORIENTATION Up until recently, the only practical way to visit the Comarca region was to fly and inaccessibility helped preserve traditional Kuna culture. Recently, road access via Cartí was added – now visitors can take a 4WD taxi to the edge of the mainland and boat to the islands. At the northwest end of the province, airport-equipped El Porvenir is the traditional gateway to the San Blás islands. From here, boat transportation can be arranged to islands with basic hotels. If you’re planning on staying

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at any of the far-flung islands, you can also fly into Río Sidra or Playón Chico.

one’s photo, ask their permission first and be prepared to pay US$1 per subject (some Kuna expect to be paid US$1 per photo). You may not be expected to pay for a photo taken of an artisan from whom you buy crafts from, but it depends on the subject. Some islands may charge you US$50 just for possessing a video camera.

INFORMATION

ACTIVITIES Most hotels are complete packages, where a fixed price gets you a room, three meals a day and boat rides to neighboring islands for swimming, snorkeling and lounging on the beach. If you seek community life, you can also arrange visits to more populated islands. Before swimming off the shores of a heavily populated island, however, take a look at the number of outhouses built over the ocean – they may change your mind. Snorkeling is good in places, but many of the coral reefs in the region are badly damaged. You can often rent snorkeling equipment from your hotel, but serious snorkelers should bring their own gear. Hikers can also arrange jaunts to the mainland jungles, but these trips should not be attempted without

KUNA LIVING 101 Lodging considerations in the Comarca are vastly different from those on the mainland. Here, a spot in a thatched hut with sand floor can cost anywhere between US$30 and US$130 per night. What’s the difference? Often it has more to do with access, ambience and organization than anything. Densely populated community islands are more likely to have budget options, but they will not live up to your image of a remote tropical paradise. Resort islands generally have a higher price tag, but may not offer many opportunities to interact with locals. When planning, consider why you’re going and the following: Space Does the island have shade? Privacy? Are there pleasant areas to swim or do you have

to boat to swim and snorkel sites? Access Is the island too remote, requiring expensive transfers to do anything? Hospitality Ask other travelers about their experience. Water Is it potable? Consider bringing a filter. Bathrooms Are there modern installations or does the toilet sit at the end of a dock? Safety Do excursion boats have life vests and good motors?

Lodgings generally include three meals (but not drinks), one outing per day (eg snorkeling, a community visit) and transportation to or from the airport or Cartí, but do confirm ahead. Fees to visit Kuna islands and drinking water may be separate. It is always wise to bring snacks, insect repellent, a first-aid kit and a flashlight. Rates are generally lower from April to November. When booking, remember that internet is not prevalent and any mobile phone number is only good until that phone accidentally falls into the ocean. But approach your hosts with good humor and patience and they will probably reciprocate in spades.

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Although a trip to the Archipiélago de San Blás may not fit in the budget, these culturally rich Caribbean islands are a good place for a splurge if you can swing it. Prices vary, but if you stick to the cheaper hotels, you can survive on about US$45 per day; this includes meals, lodging and daily boating excursions. Owing to the limited number of flights to the area, you should book as far in advance as possible. It’s also recommended that you reserve your hotels in advance, especially since package deals are pretty much the norm in the Comarca. You’re also going to want to hit an ATM before you touch down on the islands. The Kuna are very particular about what foreigners do on their islands (see p692). As a result, they require that tourists register and pay a visitation fee (between US$3 and US$12) on the main islands. On smaller, privately owned islands, visitors must seek out the owner, receive permission and pay a fee (around US$2). Visitors must also pay for any photo they take of the Kuna. If you want to take some-

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RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL IN KUNA YALA When visiting the Comarca de Kuna Yala, please consider how your visit may affect the community. Tourism revenue can play a vital role in the development of the region, particularly if you are buying locally produced crafts or contracting the services of a Kuna guide. However, indigenous tourism can be an exploitative force. Western interests have already caused an irreversible amount of damage to the region. Be aware of your surroundings and be sensitive to your impact. One look at the paradisiacal setting, the rainbow flag and the distinctive Kuna dress and you might feel transported into the pages of National Geographic. Don’t snap that shutter just yet. If the Kuna appear unfriendly, consider their predicament. When cruise ships visit, the number of people on an already congested island can triple. Nonetheless, nearly two-thirds of the populace (the tourists) turns paparazzi on the other third (the Kuna). It’s an unsavory scene that is repeated again and again. Trash is a problem on the islands, and there is no effective plan for its removal. You may see litter and burning piles of plastics. For the Kunas, the cost of removal to the mainland is too costly, there is no designated site or ‘culture’ of waste management, since all refuse was relatively innocuous until outside influence prevailed. With no current solution to the issue, do what you can to pack out your own garbage and try to consume fresh products with minimal packaging, eg choose coconut water over Coca Cola. The way you dress (or fail to) is another issue. Kuna men never go shirtless and Kuna women dress conservatively, with their cleavage, bellies and most of their legs covered. Arriving in Kuna villages in bikinis or shirtless is nearly always interpreted as a sign of disrespect. In general, it is not worth the risk of offending local sensibilities. To rein in the situation, the Kuna charge fees for photographs taken of them as well as visitation fees for each island. Forget the way things work back home. Remember this is their territory and their rules apply. If you can’t afford the photo fee, just tuck away your camera and strike up a conversation instead.

a guide. Activities aside, most travelers to Kuna Yala are content with simply soaking up the Caribbean sun and perfecting their hammock-swaying.

SLEEPING & EATING In a protectionist move to preserve local culture, the Kuna Congress passed a law several years ago that prohibits outsiders from owning property in the Comarca. Hotels in the Comarca are 100% owned by local families. For tips on lodging, see p691. Since there are no restaurants, each hotel provides meals for guests. Seafood features widely. Quality varies, as stocks have been depleted through overfishing; there is always a healthy stock of fresh coconuts on hand. It’s a good idea to bring packaged snacks with you. The following hotels are listed by location (west to east) instead of by price. Hotel Corbiski (%6708-5254; www.corbiski.com; r per person incl 3 meals & tour US$45) A new bamboowalled lodging with laminated floors and neat and spacious rooms on a busy community island. Clean shared bathrooms occupy cement stalls. Lodgings include purified water and transportation to and from Cartí or Porvenir.

The owner, Elias Pérez, is the school principal, speaks English and can arrange local excursions or facilitate volunteering at the school. Cartí Homestay (%6734-3454, 6517-9850; www.carti homestay.blogspot.com; r per person incl 3 meals & tour US$30)

Catering to backpackers, this popular hostel on a crowded community island is friendly and cozy. Certainly it is the best place to meet young Kunas and strike up a conversation, though the inflatable Jägermeister bottle in the corner is a good indicator of the kind of cultural interactions you might expect. The hosts can also coordinate sailing trips to Colombia. Robinson’s Cabins (%6721-9885; r per person incl 3 meals & tour US$30) Occupies one side of Naranjo Chico. There is little to do here, but dining outdoors around the picnic table provides the perfect opportunity to mix with fellow travelers. At the time of writing, bathrooms with plumbing were in the process of installation. In low season, rates are discounted but transfers to Cartí (US$15) are charged separately. If Robinson is full, his cousin Ina’s place next door offers identical rates and lodgings. Defected from a previous location known as Robinson’s Island, the location can be confusing for boat drivers. Access via Cartí, El Porvenir or Río Sidra.

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oCabañas Kuanidup (%6635-6737, 67427656; r per person incl 3 meals & tour US$75) A clutch of

Yandup is run by an attentive Spaniard-Kuna family. The octagonal thatched-roof cabins have private bathrooms, solar-generated light and clean water. Guests can request vegetarian meals and get tailored excursions, which include cultural visits as well as the usual snorkeling and hiking. The island’s grassy grounds and powder-fine beach might be reason enough to just stay put.

SHOPPING Molas are the most famous of Panamanian traditional handicrafts. Made of brightly colored squares of cotton fabric sewn together, the finished product reveals landscape scenes, birds, sea turtles or fish – often surrounded by a mazelike pattern. Craftsmanship varies considerably between molas, and prices only start at US$10, going into the hundreds. You can find molas on the islands (or rather, the mola-sellers will find you).

GETTING THERE & AWAY Air

Both Air Panama (%316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com) and Aeroperlas (%315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com) fly to the Archipiélago de San Blás. Air Panama has one flight per day to Achutupu, Cartí, Corazón

SAILING THE KUNA YALA TO COLOMBIA Don’t mind roughing it? Here’s an adventure. Small sailboats can take passengers to Colombia via Archipiélago de San Blás for the price of a flight. However, these boats are not official charters. Passengers help out in exchange for cheap passage, a few days of sun and sand in the San Blás, and a snorkeling trip or two. Half the trip is the open-sea passage to Cartagena, which can be quite rough. Before you book, find out: Do you get a cabin or floor space? What’s the size of boat and the number of passengers? Are there adequate life boats and life vests for all passengers? Is there adequate safety equipment and a functioning radio? Does the captain have a charter license? What are the meals like? (some boats serve beans and rice three times a day)

Reports are mostly good, but travelers have complained about boats skimping on meals, overcrowding or traveling despite bad weather. Bring snacks and ask ahead if the boat needs fresh groceries (since boats spend extended periods at sea). During trade-wind season (December to April) you should bring motion-sickness medication. Don’t skimp on research – check a boat or captain’s existing references with hostels and other travelers before committing. If you are only traveling for the novelty of sailing, consider a trip that sticks to the Kuna Yala. The best place to inquire about scheduled departures is at any of the youth hostels in Panama City (p647). A typical five-day sailing trip including food, and activities (but not island fees) costs around US$385.

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solar-powered bamboo-and-thatch cabins with sandy floors and private bathrooms. They are extremely professional, with secure boats, and purified drinking water included. Interesting outings include night diving, a waterfall hike, and a visit to the prized Cayos Holandeses or to the nudist island next door. The island fronts a lovely beach and there’s volleyball, but most pass the time swinging in the hammocks. Regional transportation is included. Access via Cartí, El Porvenir or Río Sidra. Cabañas Tigre (%333-2006; r per person US$10, child US$5) On a quiet tip of a lovely community island, these bamboo-and-thatch cabañas have cement floors and shared facilities. Meals are extra (US$4 to US$7). The grounds are strung up with colorful hammocks and the ocean here is clear and placid, perfect for kayaking or snorkeling (US$1). Local guide Leonard Serrano can guide kayaking trips, hiking (US$15 for two) or snorkeling (US$20 to US$26 for two, depending on location). Fly into Corazón de Jesus. Yandup Lodge (%261-7229; www.yandupisland.com; cabins per person incl 3 meals & tour US$125) Just five minutes by boat from Playón Chico, tiny islet

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de Jesús, El Porvenir, Playón Chico and Río Sidra. Aeroperlas has three flights per day to all of these destinations, except Achutupu. Book as far in advance as possible as demand far exceeds supply. Note that planes may stop at other islands in the archipelago, loading and unloading passengers or cargo before continuing on. Flights depart from Albrook Airport in Panama City and arrive at their destinations in about 30 minutes to an hour. A one-way flight ticket to each destination is around US$60; prices vary according to season and availability.

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Car Recently completed, the only road that leads into the district connects the town of El Llano, on the Carretera Interamericana 70km east of Panama City, to the San Blás coastal hamlet of Cartí. The road begins near El Llano at the turnoff for Nusagandi, and has one river crossing that sometimes may be impassable. It’s best to take a shared 4WD with a powerful engine, a winch and good tires. Ask your Panama City hostel to arrange transportation or call driver Germain Perez (%6734-3454; www .cartihomestaykunayala.blogspot.com; per person US$25).

You can also get around the islands by boat (see boxed text, p693).

DARIÉN PROVINCE The Darién has a rogue reputation fed by its reputation as the playground of Colombian guerrillas and narcotraffickers. While the dangers of the province shouldn’t be underestimated, they should at least be contextualized. The issues surrounding the Darién are complex and require careful consideration. With the right planning, the Darién can show prudent travelers something truly wild. In a stroke of irony, the lower Darién has remained so pristine because of its volatile reputation. Parque Nacional Darién is a 5760-sq-km national park where the primeval meets the present, its landscape virtually unchanged in a million years. Emberá and Wounaan people maintain many of their traditional practices and retain generations-old knowledge of the rainforest. Parque Nacional Darién is also one of world’s richest biomes and home to the legendary bird-watching destination of Cana.

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But while the southern Darién features Panama’s most spectacular rainforests, the north faces the worst scenes of habitat destruction. Most news items focus on Colombian conflicts spilling over into Panama’s borders, but the real battle lines surround the province’s rapidly disappearing forests.

History Indigenous groups living within the boundaries of the Darién emigrated from the Chocó region of Colombia thousands of years ago. Anthropologists place the Chocóes in two linguistic groups – the Emberá and the Wounaan. With the exception of language, their cultural features are virtually identical but they prefer to be distinguished as two separate peoples. Before the introduction of the gun, the Emberá and Wounaan were expert users of the boroquera (blowgun) and they envenomed their darts with lethal toxins from poisonous frogs and bullet ants. Many scholars believe that they forced the Kuna out of the Darién and into the Caribbean coastal area. During occupation, the US Air Force turned to the Emberá and Wounaan for jungle survival. Since both groups thrive in the tropical wilderness, many were added to the corps of instructors that trained US astronauts and air force pilots at Fort Sherman, near Colón. Today, the majority of the 8000 Emberá and Wounaan in Panama live deep in the rainforests of the Darién, particularly along the Sambú, Jaqué, Chico, Tuquesa, Membrillo, Tuira, Yape and Tucutí rivers. Along with subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing and poultry raising, they also work on nearby commercial rice and maize plantations.

Orientation & Information The Interamericana terminates in the frontier town of Yaviza, beyond which lies the vast wilderness region of the Darién. The highway starts again 150km further on in Colombia. This break between Central and South America is known as the Darién Gap – literally the end of the road. International authorities eager to improve transportation and trade between the continents are lobbying to push the Interamericana through the Darién Gap now that Colombia has become more stable. However, proponents must deal with Panamanian fears that it is not stable enough. In addition, a road could also

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increase illegal immigration and drug traffic and may help spread foot-and-mouth disease in cattle, which is presently limited to South America. A paved road would also make logging easier, undoubtedly leading to the deforestation of the largest forested area in the country. Any printed information on the Darién can become rapidly outdated. Travelers should always seek up-to-date information. The best source is a guide who leads frequent trips to the area. Local ANAM offices in towns such as Yaviza or La Palma can provide some information on the park and potentially help find guides (usually rangers with days off). Travelers must also check in with the police in these towns before heading out into the jungle. Panama City’s Instituto Geográfico Nacional (p639) usually sells topographical maps for some regions of the Darién. Keep your baggage to a minimum on any jungle trek. You will need insect repellent, sunblock, a hat and rain gear. Food can only be found in the towns, not at ranger stations. Bring some drinking water and a means of purifying water. Dry season (mid-December through midApril) is the best time to visit; otherwise, you’ll be slogging your way through thick mud and swatting at moth-size mosquitoes. For more information on trip planning, see opposite.

Dangers & Annoyances The greatest hazard in the Darién is the difficult environment. Trails, when they exist at all, are often poorly defined and are never marked. Many large rivers that form the backbone of the Darién transportation network create their own hazards. Any help at all, much less medical help, is very far away. To minimize these risks, visit either as part of an organized tour or with the help of a qualified guide. Dengue and malaria are serious risks. Take a prophylaxis or chloroquine – and cover up as much as possible, especially at dawn and dusk. Areas of the Parque Nacional Darién are also prime territory for the deadly fer-de-lance snake. The chance of getting a snakebite is remote, but you should be careful – always wear boots while walking in the forest. Although they don’t carry Lyme disease, ticks are everywhere in the Darién. In reality, they’re nothing more than a nuisance, but bring a good pair of tweezers and a few books of matches.

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The US State Department warns travelers against visiting remote areas of the Darién off the Interamericana.Unfortunately, this blanket advisory includes the entirety of Parque Nacional Darién, although certain destinations are safe to visit. Particularly treacherous are the areas between Boca de Cupe and Colombia, the traditional path through the Darién Gap – there is minimal police presence, and it is unlikely that you will be given assistance if (when) trouble arises. It’s also recommended that you avoid the towns of Balsal, El Naranjal, Púcuro, Limón, Paya and Palo de las Letras. The areas north and east of this are also considered dangerous, including the mountains Altos de Limón, the Río Tuquesa and the trail from Puerto Obaldía. Although the no-go zones in the Darién are well removed from the traditional tourist destinations, the dangers in these spots cannot be underestimated. Narcotraffickers utilize these jungle routes and they don’t appreciate bumping into travelers trekking through the woods. Parts of the Darién Gap have also become areas of activity for guerrillas from neighboring Colombia, although they usually come to rest and hide, not to attack. However, Colombian paramilitary forces often cross the border to hunt the guerrillas and the last place you want to be is caught in the crossfire. Missionaries and travelers alike have been kidnapped and killed in the southern area of the Darién. Despite these warnings, there are parts of the Darién that can be visited in complete safety – these areas are covered in more detail later in this chapter.

Tours The Darién is the only major part of Panama where a guide is necessary. If you speak Spanish, you can hire guides locally for about US$10 to US$20 per day (see opposite). But transportation costs can be very expensive. If you go with a tour operator, they will take care of all arrangements without a language barrier, teach you about the incredible local ecology, cook for you and humor you when you have blisters. Here are some options: Ancon Expeditions (p707) The sole operator in the Darién for many years, Ancon has the most experienced guides and operate highly professional tours. Trips run from four days to two weeks. Destinations include Ancon’s field station in Cana, a private lodge in Punta Patiño on the Pacific coast and visits to remote indigenous communities. Special programs for bird-watchers and hikers are excellent.

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SURVIVING THE DARIÉN Parque Nacional Darién is the most ecologically diverse land-based national park in all Central America yet it is one of the least-visited parks too. Chalk it up to reputation – with its high stakes and poisonous snakes, the Darién isn’t for everyone. Yet as a destination it is fascinating and fulfilling – provided you take the necessary precautions and go prepared.

Security When planning your trip, first consider your destination. Established routes are recommended both for your safety and for legal reasons. The police have been known to detain those on unauthorized routes and suspect their activity – even if they are with a guide.

Safety Even if you have crossed Central America by bus alone, solo travel here is not recommended. First off, trails are unmarked and it is terribly easy to get lost. Second, no one is likely to come to your aid. Third, poisonous snakes and scorpions could end your trip (or your life) unexpectedly.

Preparations

Guides Paying more usually means getting more. A naturalist guide will have a different skill set than a guía local (local guide). Consider your needs and criteria when making a selection. The following are essential: Experience in the area Extensive local contacts and problem-solving skills A planned itinerary with realistic travel times and contracted transportation Good equipment (tents, etc) if you do not have your own Any necessary permits

The following are desired: Skill at spotting animals Knowledge of local history, animals and plants Knowledge of English (or another language) First-aid kit and skills Handheld radio and/or cell phone for areas with coverage

Fellow travelers can be excellent guide references but it is important to meet your guide – particularly if you will be traveling solo. If contracting your guide in the Darien, converse with locals, find someone you trust and ask them for references. Find out ahead of time if gas, transportation, food and fees are included. Perhaps the most important factor for a local guide is that they have extensive contacts in the region who can help arrange logistics, and know the actual terrain. Don’t assume that a local guide is experienced – some have never before set foot in the national park. ANAM is a good point of reference.

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Though remote, the Darién is not cheap. Travelers should make a careful trip budget. Most people loathe to take tours do so here. Decide whether going with an independent guide and paying all the fuel and food costs separately will really work out to your advantage – fuel can be astronomical. Those who contract a local guide should speak Spanish themselves, so solutions can be discussed when problems arise. Engines break, flights are delayed...in short, travel delays are about as common as raindrops in the Darien. Go with extra food and cash, a flashlight, matches, good personal equipment and flexibility in your schedule.

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Ecocircuitos (p707) With a focus on sustainable tourism, Ecocircuitos offers volunteer vacations in a rural community of the Darién. Projects include working on an organic farm, assisting a nonprofit crafts cooperative or improving community infrastructure. Panama Exotic Adventures (%314-3013; www .panamaexoticadventures.com) With an ecolodge in Metetí (right), this French-run outfit offers three- to eight-day trips with hands-on visits to indigenous communities, kayaking and outings.

Volunteering An excellent organization that sometimes takes volunteers is the Fundación Pro-Niños de Darién (%in Panama City 264-4333, in Metetí 299-6825; www.darién.org.pa). The nonprofit foundation aims to improve the lives of children through educational and nutritional programs. ‘Godparents’ can sponsor a child for US$20 per month. They also help residents develop sustainable agriculture. Also see the listing for Ecocircuitos (p707).

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Getting There & Away The Interamericana journeys 266km from Panama City to Yaviza, passing through Chepo, El Llano, Ipetí, Tortí, Higueronal and smaller, unmapped communities in Panamá Province before crossing into the Darién. Serving these towns, there are eight buses daily from Panama City to Yaviza between 3:30am and 7am (US$14, six to eight hours). Be sure to tell the bus driver your destination. With varying frequency, Air Panama (%3169000; www.flyairpanama.com/tickets) has flights to La Palma (US$40, one hour) and El Real Sambú (US$35, 15 minutes) up to several times per week.

Getting Around In the vast jungles of the Darién Province, rivers are often the only means of getting from one point to another, with piraguas providing the transport. In La Palma you can hire a motorized boat for US$175 to US$200 per day, which can take you to the Río Mogué or the Río Sambú. From either of these rivers you’ll have to negotiate with indigenous villagers (in Mogué or La Chunga) to take you further upriver in piraguas. Hiring boats in Río Jaqué is possible but strongly ill-advised owing to the dangers of guerrilla activity. A shorter (and cheaper) boat trip goes from Puerto Quimba to La Palma.

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METETÍ On the road to Yaviza, Metetí buzzes with passing traffic. It’s also a key stepping stone to La Palma via a scenic boat ride. Lodging options here are preferable to those in Yaviza. New additions include an ecolodge and an airstrip in the works. For last-minute purchases there is a good-sized grocery store. The bleach-scented Hotel Felicidad (%2996544; d with fan/air-con US$10/15) is one of the decent hotels, with clean cement rooms. The nearby Restaurante Johana (mains US$2.50) serves meat dishes with rice and plantain, and fresh juice (but no beer). Run by Panama Exotic Adventures, ecolodge Filo de Tallo (%6780-2945, 6673-5381; www .panamadarien.com; 4-day package per person US$600) is an elegant take on jungle living, with three wellspaced thatched huts containing beds draped with mosquito netting and attached bathrooms set with pastel river stones. Activities include crabbing in the mangroves, kayaking and visiting a Wounaan village. Although it’s on a deforested sector just entering the Darién, it’s one of the best lodgings in the region. It is also certified as carbon-neutral by Forest Finance. Packages include all meals and activities and transportation to/from Panama City. For the boat to La Palma, take the turnoff for Puerto Quimba, a port on the Río Iglesias. The paved road between Metetí and Puerto Quimba is about 20km long. A passenger pickup shuttles between Metetí and Puerto Quimba every 30 minutes from 6am until 9pm (US$1.50), or take a taxi (US$10). From Puerto Quimba, unscheduled boats to La Palma leave several times a day between 7:30am and 6:30pm (US$3); they depart from La Palma roughly between 5:30am and 5pm. A one-way charter (US$30) may also be an option. Traveling to La Palma by boat from Puerto Quimba is an excellent alternative to flying straight in from Panama City. The scenery along this 30-minute river trip is virgin jungle and dense mangrove forests – and you’re bound to meet interesting characters onboard.

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Part bazaar and part bizarre, this concrete village is the end of the road. Here the Interamericana grinds to a halt and beyond lies the famous Darién Gap. Rough-edged and misshapen, it’s hardly a holiday destination unless you had cockfighting in mind. For

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travelers, it is an essential stop to check in for entry to Parque Nacional Darién. Recently relocated from El Real, the ANAM (%299-4495) office of Parque Nacional Darién (right) can offer updated information on trails and safety; register here and pay your park fee (foreigners US$10). The office also can suggest local guides (US$10 to US$20 per day). If you do not need a local guide, your best bet is to register with ANAM in Panama City and take the boat to La Palma from Puerto Quimba. The best sleeping option is Ya Darien (%2944334; d with fan/air-con US$15/20), where tidy rooms have cold-water showers and the help is slow as molasses. If you have a pressing need to spend the night in Yaviza, the Hotel 3Americas (%299-4439; r from US$20) has worn, plain rooms and the distraction of a cockfighting pit. There are eight buses daily between Panama City and Yaviza (US$14, six to eight hours). To arrange a private boat to El Real (US$60 to US$80 for three passengers), contact Chicho Bristan (%299-6566, 6539-2007) of El Real to pick you up in Yaviza.

El Real dates from the days of the early conquistadors, when they constructed a fort beside the Río Tuira to prevent pirates from sailing upriver and attacking Santa María. Gold from mines in the valley of Cana, to the south, was brought to Santa María, and stored until there was a quantity sufficient to warrant assembling an armada and moving the bullion to Panama City. Today, El Real is one of the largest towns in the Darién, though it’s still very much a backwater settlement. El Real is the last sizable settlement before the national park. Those heading up to Rancho Frío must either hire a local guide or be part of a tour – ANAM will not let you proceed unescorted. Before your arrival, you must register at ANAM in Yaviza or Panama City, where you can pay the entry fee (foreigners US$10). Options are slim here and it is really best to make food purchases prior for the hike. If you arrive in town too late to start the trek to Rancho Frío, you can spend the night at Macho de Monte (%299-6566, 6539-2007; r per person US$10), a rustic pensión. At Fonda Doña Lola (meals US$3) you can have a heaping plate of rice and chicken. Currently, El Real is only accessed by boat or air charter. Veteran boatman Chicho Bristan (%299-6566, 6539-2007) offers charter boat trips be-

tween Yaviza and El Real (US$60 to US$80 for three passengers). Though the park cannot be accessed by vehicle, Chicho can arrange a 4WD vehicle (US$25) to take you partway, leaving you in Pirre 1, a 1½-hour hike to Rancho Frio.

PARQUE NACIONAL DARIÉN Rancho Frío (Pirre Station)

Thirteen kilometers south of El Real, as the lemon-spectacled tanager flies, is the Rancho Frío sector of Parque Nacional Darién. It’s home to Pirre Station, the most accessible section of the national park, with two good hiking trails. A two-day hike to Mount Pirre ridge requires a tent and complete self-sufficiency. A second trail winds through jungle to a series of cascades about an hour’s hike away. Neither should be attempted without a ranger or local guide as they are not well marked and if you get lost out here, you’re finished. Pirre Station has barracks (cots per person US$10) with fold-out cots, a rustic dining area and kitchen, cold stall showers and an outhouse. There is also a shady campsite (per person US$5) where you can either pitch a tent or string up a hammock. Electricity is run off batteries and use must be kept minimal. Visitors must bring their own food and purified water. Cooking fuel is scare, so let the rangers do the cooking (US$10 a day is most appreciated). Beware: most of Parque Nacional Darién is prime fer-de-lance territory, and these very deadly snakes have been found near the station. Always wear boots and long trousers when you’re walking in camp at night or entering the forest at any time. Pirre Station can only be reached by hiking or by a combination of hiking and boating or 4WD transportation (see El Real, left). The four-hour hiking route takes the ‘road’ connecting El Real and Rancho Frío, yet this barely discernible path is pretty much impossible without a guide (though you can contract one in Pirre 1 for US$10). Only 15km separate Pirre Station and Cana, yet between the two there’s nothing but virgin rainforest.

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The provincial capital of Darién Province, La Palma is a one-street town located where the wide Río Tuira meets the Golfo de San Miguel. Pastel stilt houses lord over the

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GETTING TO COLOMBIA

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The Interamericana stops at the town of Yaviza and reappears 150km further on, far beyond the Colombian border. Although a trickle of travelers have walked through the infamous Darién Gap, the presence of Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries, smugglers and bandits make this a potentially suicidal trip. The Caribbean crossing between Puerto Obaldía, Panama and Capurganá, Colombia is not recommended. From Puerto Obaldía, a traveler must either walk or boat to the Colombian village of Sapzurro. On foot, this takes about 2½ hours, but the track is indistinct in places, and the presence of rogue factors in the area makes boating the better option. From Sapzurro it’s a two-hour walk further to Capurganá. There is a fair amount of risk crossing here and anyone attempting it should get solid information about the security situation beforehand. Tourists have made it safely to Colombia along this route, though the point worth emphasizing is that not everyone has made it. For information on sailing to Colombia, which is by far the safest option after flying, see boxed text, p693.

muddy waterfront, a scene abuzz with commerce, bars and evangelist messages. Most travelers pass through La Palma to take transport to somewhere else. The two most popular boating destinations are Reserva Natural Punta Patiño and the Emberá villages that line the banks of the Río Sambú. Every facility of possible interest to the traveler is located on the main street, which is within 300m of the airstrip. La Palma is home to the only bank in the Darién Province, the Banco Nacional de Panamá. There are also a hospital, a port and a police station (if you intend to go anywhere near the Colombian border and you speak Spanish, you should talk to the police here first), as well as hotels, bars and several food stands. The waterfront Hospedaje Pablo & Benita (%299-6490; Calle Central Abajo; s/d/tr US$10/15/20) has thin walls and mattresses but good sea views. The friendly owners can help arrange visits to the Emberá community of Mogue. The comparatively upscale Hotel Biaquira Bagara

tain with a seaworthy motorboat (US$120 to US$200 per day, gas included).

(%/fax 299-6224; d with/without bathroom US$20/15, d with air-con US$25; a) is simple and sweet, with

Riverside Sambú is an interesting stop, populated by Emberá people and cimarrones (whose ancestors escaped the slave trade by living in the jungle). Urban by Darién standards, it has an airstrip, hospital and pay phone. Given the ease of flying in here, it makes a good launch point to visit riverside Emberá and Wounaan communities and absorb the slow jungle pace. From Sambú, visitors can plan trips to Puerto Indio (with permission from the Emberá and Wounaan) and visit petroglyphs or mangrove forests. Bocaca Verano is a lagoon with crocodiles and prolific birdlife. Local guide Lupicinio, found in front of Sambú house, guides hiking excursions ($15 per person) to see harpy eagles

hardwood decks, wicker furniture and firm beds. Below there is a basic market: if you’re boating upriver, stock up on groceries here. There’s no shortage of cheap and somewhat cheerful eateries in town. La Unción (%299-6372; mains US$2-4) offers decent comida criollo (typical food) served along with fiery sermons on the satellite TV. For flights, Air Panama (%316-9000; www .flyairpanama.com/tickets) flies twice weekly from Panama City to La Palma (US$46, one hour). To hire a boat and a guide, look in the vicinity of the dock for a responsible cap-

Reserva Natural Punta Patiño Twenty-five kilometers south of La Palma, Punta Patiño is a private wildlife reserve owned by the government conservation group Ancon. The 263-sq-km preserve contains species-rich primary and secondary forest, and is one of the best places in Panama to spot harpy eagles. It is also a great place to rack up the bird count, and there’s a good chance of seeing everything from three-toed sloths and howler monkeys to crocodiles. The only way to reach the preserve is by boat or plane. Ancon Expeditions (p707) offers a package tour that includes the round-trip airfare between Panama City and Punta Patiño, lodging, food and activities. You can book lodgings at the reserve without a guided tour, but you must notify it in advance of your arrival.

SAMBÚ

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and tours to Bocaca Verano in dry season. For boat tours, Juan Murillo takes visitors fishing (4 passengers US$120) in the Golfo de San Miguel in his 75-horsepower boat. Since there are no phones, ask around for either guide. Facing the airstrip, Hotel Fiesta (%public phone 333-2512; r with air-con US$25) is Sambú-deluxe, boasting the village’s only air-conditioned lodgings. It’s above a store also run by the friendly Telma and Ricardo. Next door, Mi Lindo Sueño (%public phone 333-2512; r without bathroom US$10) has plain concrete rooms. oSambu Hause (%6687-4177; http://sambu hausedarienpanama.com; r per person incl breakfast US$25) is the only jungle B&B around. It’s an attractive yellow clapboard run by friendly Mabel. Cozy but simple, this might be the only place to get pancake breakfasts in the Darién. You can also arrange cultural tours here. The Emberá community runs Werara Puru, a choza (hut) built to lodge tourists, located a 10-minute walk from town. When we visited the space was under renovation. You can get cheap and tasty meals at Comidas Benedicta (meals US$2.50), where Anthony Bourdain dined when in Sambú. If it’s a party you want, check out Mis Cabañas del Nuevo Milenio (hSat & Sun), a woodsy juke-joint with music blasting half the village away. You can get a beer here, though it may not be cold. Air Panama (%316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com/ tickets) flies twice weekly from Panama City (US$46, one hour). Always confirm your return ticket in advance. Boat Barco Buen Pastor (%6772-2435) travels between Panama City and Sambú (12 hours, US$15) weekly; contact Señora María Teresa on the phone number above for details. The panga boat to Puerto Quimba (US$20) goes three times a week, with one stop in La Palma. Trips are not scheduled far in advance, ask around and try to confirm a date for a return trip.

Ancon Expeditions is the exclusive operator here. Their base is the ANAM/Ancon field station, a wooden structure built by gold workers during the 1970s, and enlarged in mid-1998. The building has rustic dorms, shared bathrooms and candlelit evenings. Ancon Expeditions (see p707) offers an excellent five-day, four-night package that includes private charter flights between Panama City and Cana, an English-speaking guide, all meals and accommodations (including tent camping along the Pirre Mountain Trail, with all provisions carried by porters).

Nestled in foothills on the eastern slope of Pirre Ridge, the Cana valley is the most isolated place in Panama. It’s also the heart of the Parque Nacional Darién, and is regarded as one of the finest bird-watching spots in the world. In addition to four species of macaw, Cana is known for its harpy eagles, blacktipped cotingas, dusky-backed jacamars, rufous-cheeked hummingbirds and goldenheaded quetzals.

ACCOMMODATIONS Prices cited are high-season rates including Panama’s 10% tax on hotel rooms. High season is from mid-December to mid-April. Rates may spike up to 50% higher for Easter week and between Christmas and New Year’s. Lowseason rates are generally about 15% lower. There is usually no shortage of places to stay in Panama, except during holidays or special events outside Panama City, when advance reservations may be necessary. Budget lodgings typically range from US$7 per person and up to US$35 for a double room. Hotels in the midrange category usually charge about US$36 to US$90 for a double room.

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Bird-Watching With more than 900 species of birds in Panama, all you need to do to spot feathered friends is to get a good pair of binoculars and hit the trails. Two popular spots include Camino del Oleoducto (Pipeline Rd; p656) in Parque Nacional Soberanía and Parque Nacional Volcán Barú (p667), home of the resplendent quetzal, the Maya bird of paradise. Panama’s avian species are at their best in the legendary Cana Valley, which is regarded as one of the top bird-watching destinations in the world. This phenomenal wildlife preserve can only be accessed via organized tour with Ancon Expeditions (p707). The Panama Audubon Society (%224-9371; www .panamaaudubon.org), located in Panama City, organizes the annual Christmas bird count on Pipeline Rd, and runs bird-watching expeditions throughout the country.

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Diving & Snorkeling

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Panama has numerous islands with good snorkeling and diving sights. On the Caribbean coast, Bocas del Toro (p679) and the San Blás Archipelago (p691) are prime spots. Dive shops on Bocas del Toro rent snorkeling and diving gear, and offer PADI-certified classes, while snorkeling in San Blás is more of the do-ityourself variety. There is also good diving and snorkeling around Portobelo (p688) as well as a couple of reputable dive shops in town. On the Pacific coast, there is good snorkeling in the Golfo de Chiriquí (p661) and in the Archipiélago de las Perlas (p658). Although coral reefs in the Pacific are not as vibrant as their Caribbean counterparts, you’re bound to see some big fish here as well as the occasional pelagic creature. You can rent equipment at the destinations listed above, but avid snorkelers should bring their own. Scubapanama (Map p640; %261-3841; www.scubapanama.com), based in Panama City, offers diving trips throughout the country.

Fishing With 1518 islands, 2988km of coast and 480 rivers, there’s no problem finding a fishing spot in Panama. Possibilities include deep-sea fishing, fishing for bass in Lago Gatún on the Panama Canal, trout fishing in the rivers running down Volcán Barú and surf casting on any of Panama’s Pacific and Caribbean beaches.

Hiking Hiking opportunities abound in Panama. In the Chiriquí highlands, the Sendero Los Quetzales (p667) winds through Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, and is regarded as the country’s top hike – check conditions before going. Parque Internacional La Amistad also has some fine, short trails, starting near its Cerro Punta (p668) entrance. From Boquete, you can summit Volcán Barú (p664), Panama’s highest point and only volcano. El Valle (p684), nestled in a picturesque valley, is a fine place for casual walkers. Near Panama City on the shores of the canal, Parque Nacional Soberanía (p654) contains a section of the old Sendero Las Cruces used by the Spanish to cross between the coasts. Parque Natural Metropolitano (p643), on the outskirts of Panama City, also has some good walks leading to a panorama of the city. You can also trek through lush rainforests in the Parque Nacional Darién (p699), though this is

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THE TRANSPANAMA TRAIL Linking all of Panama by trail, this crosscountry circuit (www.transpanama.org) has spectacular landscapes spanning from coastline to rainforest and mountains. The trail is a work in progress and is currently 60% finished, running from the border of Costa Rica toward Panama City. The Camino Real – the historic land crossing made redundant by the Panama Canal – is part of it. The trail can be done in short three- to four-day segments, accessed by public transportation. Highlights include the segments between Boquete and Costa Rica, Parque Nacional Campana and El Valle (three to four days), and the Cocle–Veraguas crossing from Huacas el Quise to Laguna de La Yeguada. More information is available on the website, where you can also download GPS tracks for free.

best arranged through a reputable guide owing to the guerrilla activity in the region. See p704 for advice on hiking.

Surfing The country’s top surfing destination is the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro (p679), which attracts strong winter swells and surfers from around the world. Although it remains an off-the-beaten-path destination, Santa Catalina (p681) on the Pacific coast has some of the most challenging breaks in Central America. There is also uncrowded surfing on the laid-back Caribbean island of Isla Grande (p689) and at Playa Venao (p684) on the Península de Azuero.

White-Water Rafting & Kayaking Whether you take to the water by raft or kayak, Panama boasts some excellent opportunities for river running. The country’s most famous white-water runs are the Ríos Chiriquí and Chiriquí Viejo, though there are also opportunities for sea kayaking in both Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí Provinces. The unofficial river-running capital of Panama is the highland town of Boquete (p665). Located near the Ríos Chiriquí and Chiriquí Viejo, Boquete is home to the country’s top rafting outfits, namely Boquete Outdoor Adventures (%720-2284; www.boqueteoutdoor adventures.com) and Chiriquí River Rafting (%7201505; www.panama-rafting.com).

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Boquete Outdoor Adventures run river kayak trips during the rainy season (April to November). They also run sea kayak trips in the Golfo de Chiriquí, as do Fluid Adventures (%6560-6558; www.fluidadventurespanama.com). The only adventure tour operator to offer kayaking in San Blás is Ecocircuitos (%314-0068; www .ecocircuitos.com). Also on the Caribbean coast, independently minded travelers can rent kayaks at Cap ‘n Dons (Map p674; %757-9248) on Isla Coĺón.

BOOKS

BUSINESS HOURS Opening hours for travel agents, tour operators and other businesses are normally 8am to noon and 1:30pm to 5pm weekdays, and 8am to noon on Saturdays. Government offices, including post offices, are open 8am to 4pm on weekdays and don’t close for lunch. Most banks are open 8:30am to 1pm or 3pm on weekdays; some have Saturday hours as well. Shops and pharmacies are generally open from around 9am or 10am until 6pm or 7pm Monday to Saturday. Grocery stores are generally open from 8am to 9pm, though some stay open 24 hours. Restaurants usually open for lunch from noon to 3pm and dinner from 6pm to 10pm. Those that offer breakfast open from 7am to 10am. On Sundays, many restaurants are closed. In Panama City and David, restaurants open later on Fridays and Saturdays, until about 11pm or midnight. Most bars are

open from around noon to 10pm, later on Friday and Saturday nights (typically 2am). Nightclubs in Panama City open around 10pm or 11pm and close at 3am or 4am.

CLIMATE Panama’s tourist season is the dry season (from mid-December to mid-April). This is true for the Pacific slope, but the Caribbean side can get rain throughout the year. The weather can be hot and steamy in the lowlands during the rainy season, when the humidity makes the heat oppressive. But it won’t rain nonstop; rain in Panama, as elsewhere in the tropics, tends to come in sudden short downpours that freshen the air, and is followed by sunshine. It’s more comfortable to do long, strenuous hiking in the dry season.

COURSES Panama is home to several Spanish-language schools, which are located in Panama City (p646), Boquete (p665) and Bocas del Toro (p675).

DANGERS & ANNOYANCES Crime is a problem in certain parts of Panama City. The city’s better districts, however, are safer than in many other capitals: witness the all-night restaurants and activity on the streets at night. On the other hand, it is not safe to walk around at night on the outskirts of Casco Viejo – be careful in the side streets of this district, even in the daytime. In general, stay where it’s well lit and there are plenty of people around. Colón has some upscale residential areas, but the city is widely known for street crime. Consult your hotel on areas to avoid. Certain areas in the Darién Province bordering Colombia are extremely dangerous. Few travelers have reason to be in these areas. In the past, it has been used as a staging ground by criminals, human traffickers, the Colombian paramilitary and guerrillas. The area that is particularly treacherous goes beyond Boca de Cupe to Colombia, the traditional path through the Darién Gap. Numerous Colombian boats travel the Caribbean through the Archipiélago de San Blás between the Zona Libre in Colón and Cartagena, Colombia. There have been cases of boats trafficking drugs on northbound voyages. Take this possibility into account if you plan on taking one of these slow cargo boats. On the Pacific there have been incidences as well.

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Excellent books dealing with facets of Panamanian history include the following: The Sack of Panamá: Sir Henry Morgan’s Adventures on the Spanish Main, by Peter Earle, is a vivid account of the Welsh pirate’s looting and destruction of Panama City in 1671. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, by David McCullough, is a readable and exciting account of the building of the Panama Canal. It’s 700 pages long and reads like a suspense novel. How Wall Street Created a Nation: J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, by Ovidio Diaz Espino, probes deeply into the dark alliances and backroom deals that culminated in the Canal’s construction. Inside Panama, by Tom Barry and John Lindsay-Poland, is a look at the political, economic and human-rights scenes in Panama, with special emphasis on Panamanian society since the 1960s and on US–Panama relations from that time through to the mid-1990s.

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Hiking Safety Though tropical, Panama runs the gamut from hot to cold and hiking is not easy here. You should go adequately prepared. Always ask about the conditions of the trail before heading out – either with local outfitters or rangers. Carry plenty of water, even on short journeys, and always bring food, matches and adequate clothing – jungles get quite a bit colder at night, particularly at higher elevations. Hikers have been known to get lost in rainforests, even seemingly user-friendly ones such as Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and the Sendero Los Quetzales. Landslides, storms and vegetation growth can make trails difficult to follow. In some cases, even access roads can deteriorate enough for transport to leave you a few miles before your intended drop-off point. This is just the reality of the jungle. Many hikers have gotten lost and there is no official rescue organization to help. If you are heading out without a guide, let your plans be known at your hotel and tell them the number of days you will be gone. Never walk in unmarked rainforest; if there’s no trail going in, you can assume that there won’t be one when you decide to turn around and come back out. Always plan your transportation in advance – know where and when the last bus will pass your terminus, or arrange for a taxi pickup with a responsible, recommended transporter.

EMBASSIES & CONSULATES More than 50 countries have embassies or consulates in Panama City. For contact details see the Panama White Pages, listed under ‘Embajada de [country]’ or ‘Consulados.’ With the exception of the USA and France, you’ll find most embassies in the Marbella district of Panama City. Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have no representation in Panama. Canada (%294-2500; www.canadainternational.gc.ca/ panama; Torre de las Americas, Tower A, Piso 11, Punta Pacifica) Colombia (%264-9266; World Trade Center, Calle 53 Este, Marbella) Costa Rica David (Map p660;%/fax 774-1923; Calle C Sur btwn Avs 1 & 2 Este); Panama City (%264-2980; fax 264-4057; Av Samuel Lewis) France (Map p649; %228-7824; Plaza de Francia, Paseo las Bóvedas, Casco Viejo) Germany (%263-7733; www.panama.diplo.de; World Trade Center, Calle 53 Este, Marbella)

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Netherlands (%264-7257; Calle 50, Marbella) UK (Map p644; %269-0866; www.ukinpanama.fco.gov .uk/en; Swiss Tower Calle 53 Este, Marbella)

USA (Map p644; %207-7000; www.panama.usembassy .gov; cnr Av Balboa & Calle 37 Este, La Exposición)

FESTIVALS & EVENTS Panama has a range of colorful festivals that encompass everything from traditional folkloric fests to indigenous celebrations. For the lion’s share of the country’s revelry, head to the interior, where some of Panama’s most famous events take place. For more details see p684. The following events are the country’s better known celebrations: Carnaval (February/March) On the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, costumes, music, dancing and general merriment prevail in Panama City and in the Península de Azuero towns of Las Tablas, Chitré, Villa de Los Santos and Parita. Semana Santa (March/April) On Holy Week (the week before Easter), the country hosts many special events, including the re-enactment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; on Good Friday, religious processions are held across the country. Corpus Christi (May/June) Held 40 days after Easter, this religious holiday features colorful celebrations in Villa de Los Santos. Masked and costumed dancers representing angels, devils, imps and other mythological figures enact dances, acrobatics and dramas. Festival of the Black Christ On October 21, thousands of visitors come to honor the black Christ in Portobelo.

FOOD & DRINK Food

Panama’s national dish is sancocho (chicken and vegetable stew). Ropa vieja (literally ‘old clothes’), a spicy shredded beef combination served over rice, is another common and tasty dish. Rice is the staple of Panama. Breakfast staples and snacks are tortillas de maíz (thick, deep-fried cornmeal cakes) and hojaldras (deep-fried mass of dough served hot and covered with sugar). For lunch, simple comida corriente is an inexpensive set meal of beef, chicken or fish served with rice, black beans, fried plantain, chopped cabbage and maybe an egg or an avocado. Meat figures prominently in the Panamanian diet. You’ll find specialties such as carimañola, a yucca roll filled with chopped meat then deep-fried. The most common snack is the empanada (turnover filled with ground meat and fried), and tamales (cornmeal with a few spices

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and chicken or pork, all wrapped in banana leaves and boiled) are another favorite. Seafood is abundant and includes shrimp, Caribbean king crab, octopus, lobster and corvina (sea bass). Along the Caribbean coast you’ll also find a West Indian influence to the dishes, such as coconut rice and coconut bread, or seafood mixed with coconut milk. In Panama City you’ll often see men pushing carts and selling raspados, cones filled with shaved ice topped with fruit syrup and sweetened condensed milk.

Drinks

GAY & LESBIAN TRAVELERS Panamanians are more out than in recent years, though the trend is much more prevalent in the capital than anywhere else. More than in other parts of Central America, you will probably meet openly gay locals, though the culture generally follows an unspoken ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. The New Men and Women Association of Panama (Asociación de Hombres y Mujeres Nuevos de Panamá; www .ahmnpanama.org) has information on national

issues and events. Panama City has a few gay and lesbian clubs (not openly advertised). Outside the capital, gay bars are hard to come by and discrimination is more prevalent. In most instances, gays and lesbians just blend in with the straight crowd at the hipper places and avoid cantinas and other conventional lairs of homophobia. Panamanian website www.farraurbana.com lists upcoming gay and lesbian events and

HOLIDAYS

New Year’s Day January 1 Martyrs’ Day January 9 Carnaval February to March Semana Santa (Holy Week) March to April Labor Day May 1 Founding of Old Panama August 15 All Souls’ Day November 2 Independence from Colombia November 3 First Call for Independence November 10 Independence from Spain November 28 Mothers’ Day December 8 Christmas Day December 25

INTERNET ACCESS With the exception of the Kuna Yala and Darién regions, internet cafes and wi-fi are widely available throughout the country. Most cafes charge US$1 per hour.

INTERNET RESOURCES

ATP (Autoridad de Turismo Panamá; www.atp.gob.pa) Panama’s tourist website in Spanish. Also has a sister site in English, www.visitpanama.com. Lanic (http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/ca/panama) Has an outstanding collection of links from the University of Texas Latin American Information Center. Panama info (www.panamainfo.com) Also in English.

MAPS

The Instituto Geográfico Nacional (Tommy Guardia; Map p644; % 236-2444; h 8am-4pm Mon-Fri), in Panama City, sells topographical maps of selected cities and regions. Various free tourist publications distributed in Panama also have maps.

MEDIA

Newspapers & Magazines La Prensa (www.prensa.com, in Spanish) is the most widely circulated daily newspaper in Panama. Other major Spanish-language dailies include La Estrella de Panamá, El Panamá América, El Universal and Crítica. The Panama News (www.thepanamanews.com) is published in English every two weeks. It is distributed free in Panama City. The Visitor, written in English and Spanish and targeted towards tourists, is another free publication. The Miami Herald International Edition is available in some upscale hotels.

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Fresh fruit drinks, sweetened with sugar and mixed with water or milk, are called chichas, and are extremely popular. Chicheme is a concoction of milk, sweet corn, cinnamon and vanilla. Coffee is traditionally served very strong and offered with cream or condensed milk. Milk is pasteurized and safe to drink. The national alcoholic drink is made of seco, milk and ice. Seco, like rum, is distilled from sugarcane, but it doesn’t taste anything like the rum you know. This is the drink of campesinos (farmers). Popular in the central provinces, vino de palma is fermented sap extracted from the trunk of a palm tree called palma de corozo. By far the most popular alcoholic beverage in Panama is cerveza (beer). A large Atlas at a typical cantina can cost as little as US$1; the same beer can cost you US$3 at a decent restaurant.

parties, new club openings and political issues in Panama City. You’ll need at least a little Spanish to maneuver through the site.

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Radio & TV

Taxes

There are three commercial TV stations in Panama (channels two, four and 13) and two devoted to public broadcasting (five and 11). Many hotels have cable TV with Spanish and English channels. Panama has over 90, mostly commercial, radio stations. Popular radio stations include 97.1 and 102.1 (salsa), 88.9 (Latin jazz), 88.1 (reggae), 94.5 (traditional Panamanian), 106.7 (Latin rock) and 98.9 (US rock).

A tax of 10% is added to the price of hotel rooms – always ask whether the quoted price includes the tax. Hotel prices given in this book include the tax. A 5% sales tax is levied on nonfood products.

MONEY

PA N A M A

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Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it here is the balboa, but it’s exactly the same bill, and in practice people use the terms ‘dólar’ and ‘balboa’ interchangeably. Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US coins; both are used. Coins include one, five, 10, 25 and 50 centavos (or centésimos); 100 centavos equal one balboa. Be aware that most businesses won’t break US$50 and US$100 bills and those that do may require you to present your passport. For exchange rates at the time of research, see below.

ATMs Throughout Panama, ATMs are readily available except in the most isolated places. Look for the red ‘sistema clave’ signs to find an ATM. They accept cards on most networks (Plus, Cirrus, MasterCard, Visa and Amex). These places have no banks, and it’s a long way to the nearest ATM: Santa Catalina, Santa Fé, Boca Brava, Isla Contadora, Isla Grande, Portobelo, Isla de Coiba and the Darién.

Credit Cards Although accepted at travel agencies, upscale hotels and many restaurants, credit cards can be problematic almost everywhere else. In short, carry enough cash to get you to the next bank or ATM.

Exchange Rates The table shows currency exchange rates at the time this book went to press. Country

Unit

US$

Australia Canada Euro zone Japan New Zealand UK

A$1 C$1 €1 ¥100 NZ$1 UK£1

0.81 0.93 1.19 1.09 0.66 1.44

Tipping The standard tipping rate in Panama is around 10% of the bill; in small cafes and more casual places, tipping is not necessary. Taxi drivers do not expect tips.

Traveler’s Checks Although they can be cashed at a few banks. traveler’s checks are rarely accepted by businesses, and traveler’s checks in currencies other than US dollars are not accepted anywhere in Panama. Some banks will only accept American Express traveler’s checks. The banks that do accept traveler’s checks typically charge an exchange fee equal to 1% of the amount of the check.

POST

Panama’s mail is handled by Correos de Panama (www.correos.gob.pa). Airmail to the USA takes five to 10 days; to Europe and Australia it takes 10 days. Panama has neither vending machines for stamps nor drop-off boxes for mail. Upscale hotels may send post. In Panama City, packages can only be mailed from the Plaza de las Americas Post Office. Bring all packing materials yourself. Most post offices are open from 7am to 6pm weekdays and from 7am to 4:30pm Saturday. General delivery mail can be addressed to ‘(name), Entrega General, (town and province), República de Panamá.’ Be sure the sender calls the country ‘República de Panamá’ rather than simply ‘Panamá,’ or the mail may be sent back.

RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL Traveling sensitively in Panama means being mindful of the environment around you. Try to patronize local businesses and industries, and spend your money where it will go directly to the people working for it. Don’t support businesses that keep caged animals around. It’s an offense to keep a parrot, toucan or macaw in a cage. In some restaurants you may see endangered species on the menu; avoid tortuga (sea turtle), huevos de tortuga (turtle eggs), cazón (shark), conejo pintado (paca), ñeque (agouti) and enado (deer).

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For information on responsible tourism in the Comarca de Kuna Yala, see the boxed text (p692). For information on responsible tourism in Bocas del Toro, see boxed text, p673.

SHOPPING

TELEPHONE Panama’s country code is %507. To call Panama from abroad, use the country code before the seven-digit Panamanian telephone number. There are no local area codes in Panama. Telephone calls to anywhere within Panama can be made from pay phones. Local calls cost US$0.10 for the first three minutes, then US$0.05 per minute. You can buy Telechip phonecards at pharmacies, corner shops and Cable & Wireless offices (the national phone company) in denominations of US$3, US$5, US$10 and US$20. You then plug this into the phone and dial the local number. Some public phones accept both cards and coins, but many accept only cards. Note that calling cell phones (which typically begin with a ‘6’) is much pricier (US$0.25 per minute).

TOURIST INFORMATION

The Autoridad de Turismo Panamá (ATP, Panama Tourism Authority; Map p640; % 226-7000; www.atp .gob.pa; Atlapa Convention Center, Vía Israel, San Francisco,

Panama City), formerly known as IPAT, is the

national tourism agency. In addition to this head office, ATP runs offices in Bocas del Toro, Boquete, Colón, David, Paso Canoas, Penonomé, Portobelo, Santiago, Villa de Los Santos, Las Tablas, El Valle and Pedasí. There are smaller information counters at the ruins of Panamá Viejo, in Casco Viejo, and in both the Tocumen International Airport and the Albrook domestic airport. ATP has a few useful maps and brochures, but often has a problem keeping enough in stock for distribution to tourists. Most offices are staffed with people who speak only Spanish, and the helpfulness of any particular office depends on the person at the counter. Some employees really try to help, but others are just passing the time. As a general rule, you will get more useful information if you have specific questions.

TOURS Though increasingly navigable for the independent traveler, Panama does have special conditions (complex logistics, limited public access and big wilderness) which make contracting a tour operator a good option. The Darién is relatively inaccessible without a guide. Some recommended operators: Ancon Expeditions (Map p644; %269-9415; www .anconexpeditions.com; El Dorado Bldg, Calle Elvira Mendez) Operating all over Panama, Ancon employs the country’s best nature guides. The company is also the exclusive operator for the world-famous Cana field station popular with birdwatchers, and the Punta Patiño lodge, both in the Darién. Ecocircuitos (Map p640; %314-0068; www.ecocircuitos .com) With a focus on sustainable tourism, Ecocircuitos offers a range of tours throughout the country, including wildlife-watching, kayaking in the Comarca Kuna Yala and volunteer vacations in the Darién. Scubapanama (Map p640; %261-3841; www.scuba panama.com) Located in the El Carmen area of Panama City, Scubapanama is the country’s oldest and most respected dive operator, and offers a variety of dive trips throughout Panama.

TRAVELERS WITH DISABILITIES

The government-created Instituto Panameño de Habilitación Especial (IPHE, Panamanian Institute for Special Rehabilitation; %261-0500; Camino Real, Betania, Panama City; h7am-4pm) assists all disabled

people in Panama, including foreign tourists. However, the law does not require – and Panamanian businesses do not provide – discounts for foreign tourists with disabilities.

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A remarkable variety of imported goods, including cameras, electronic equipment and clothing, is sold in Panama, both in Colón’s tax-free Zona Libre (p686) and in Panama City (p651). The favorite handicraft souvenir from Panama is the mola, a colorful, intricate, multilayered appliqué textile sewn by Kuna women of the Archipiélago de San Blás. Small, simple souvenir molas can be bought for as little as US$10, but the best fetch several hundred dollars. It’s possible to purchase high-quality replicas of huacas – golden objects made on the isthmus centuries before the Spanish conquest and placed with Indians at the time of burial. These range in price from US$15 to more than US$1000. Other handicrafts that can be purchased include wood carvings (from the cocobolo tree), tagua carvings (from the egg-sized tagua nut) and baskets – all made by the Wounaan and Emberá tribes.

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Panama is not wheelchair-friendly; with the exception of wheelchair ramps outside a few upscale hotels, parking spaces for the disabled and perhaps a few dozen oversized bathroom stalls, accommodation for people with physical disabilities rarely exists in Panama, even at top hotels. The international Travelin’ Talk Network (TTN; %in USA 303-232-2979; www.travelintalk .net; membership per year US$20) is a member-based organization offering those with various disabilities a network about travel.

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VISAS Every visitor needs a valid passport and an onward ticket to enter Panama, but further requirements vary by nationality and change occasionally. Anyone planning a trip to Panama would be advised to check the government website (www.migracion.gob.pa) for the latest information on entry requirements. Ticketing agents of airlines that fly to Panama and tour operators that send groups there often can provide this information. Citizens of the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Finland, as well as a few South and Central American countries, need only a passport. Most other nationals, including US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand citizens, may enter with a US$5 tourist card filled out at the airport or some border posts upon entry. Nationals of countries not listed above should obtain a visa prior to travel at Panamanian embassies and consulates abroad. The cost is around US$20, depending on the country. If you are heading to Colombia, Venezuela or some other South American country, you may need an onward ticket before you’ll be allowed entry, or even allowed to board the plane out. A quick check with the appropriate embassy – easy to do by telephone in Panama City – will tell you whether the country you’re heading to has a requirement to have an onward ticket. You are required by law to carry either your passport or a copy with you at all times, and police officers reserve the right to see your identification at any time. Visas and tourist cards are both good for 90 days. To extend your stay, contact the Immigration office (Migración y Naturalización; Map p644; %225-1373; cnr Av Cuba & Calle 29 Este; h8am-3pm MonFri) in La Exposición. They also have offices in

David and Chitré. You must bring your pass-

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port and photocopies of the page with your personal information and of the stamp of your most recent entry to Panama. You must also bring two passport-size photos, an onward air or bus ticket and a letter to the director stating your reasons for wishing to extend your visit. You must have proof of funds (US$500) for the remainder of your stay. You will have to fill out a prórroga de turista (tourist extension) and pay US$250. You will then be issued a plastic photo ID card. Go early in the day as the whole process takes about two hours. If you have extended your time, you will also need to obtain a permiso de salida (permit) to leave the country. For this, bring your passport and a paz y salvo (a certificate stating you don’t owe any back taxes) to the immigration office. Paz y salvos are issued at Ministerios de Economia y Finanzas, found in towns with immigration offices, which simply require that you bring in your passport, fill out a form and pay US$1.

VOLUNTEERING Volunteer opportunities are on the rise in Panama and there are excellent causes to donate your time to. Nonprofit Fundación Pro-Niños de Darién (%254-4333; www.darien.org.pa) is targeted at the improvement of the lives of children throughout the Darién through education, health and nutrition programs. The organization also works to help residents develop sustainable agriculture. You can also take part in volunteer vacations in the Darién (p707). With a base in Boquete, Global Humanitarian Adventures (GHA; %in USA 1-877-442-4255, in Boquete 6907-0781; www.gogha.org) is a Red Cross–affiliated project involved in literacy programs, health projects, orphanages, community outreach and more. Opportunities can be tailored to match volunteer skills and there is no minimum time or language requirement for participation. This expanding program has offshoots throughout the country, though most volunteers start at the main office. For further information, see p665.

WOMEN TRAVELERS While there is no doubt Panama is a Latin culture, female travelers usually find it safe. A minority of Panamanian men may make flirtatious comments, hiss, honk their horn or stare, even if you’re accompanied. Don’t take it as a challenge. A kind of hormonal babble, this behavior

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is as much about male bonding as the female passerby. The best response is to follow the lead of Panamanian women: give these men a broad berth, ignore their comments and look away. While locals might get away with skimpy, stretchy clothing, travelers will naturally attract less attention with a more conservative approach. Wearing shorts outside of a beach setting marks you as a tourist. In the interior, dress is more formal, with skirts and nice sandals the norm. Even in beach towns, women should save their bathing suit for the beach. Women traveling solo will get more attention than those traveling in pairs or groups. Although assault and rape of foreign travelers is rare, avoid placing yourself in risky scenarios. In general, don’t walk alone in isolated places, don’t hitchhike and always pay particular attention to your surroundings.

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If you are taking a long-distance bus, sit down next to a woman or a family if you are nervous about come-ons. Be picky about your taxis: though shared taxis may be the norm (between unknown parties), avoid those with more than one man in them. If the driver tries to pick up another fare, you can offer to pay more to travel alone.

WORK It’s difficult for foreigners to find work in Panama. The government doesn’t like anyone taking jobs away from Panamanians, and the labor laws reflect this sentiment. Basically, the only foreigners legally employed in Panama work for their own businesses, possess skills not found in Panama or work for companies that have special agreements with the Panamanian government.

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