Central Panama stretches out from the canal across three provinces and into two oceans to comprise everything from the mountains of the Cordillera Central to the west, to the Caribbean coral reefs and colonial fortresses in the north, to the beaches of the Pearl Islands in the Bahía de Panamá (Bay of Panama) in the south. Most of this region can be visited on day trips from Panama City, but the south. Most of this region can be visited on day trips from Panama City, but the hotels in gorgeous natural settings outside the city will make you want to do some overnights. You could easily limit your entire vacation to Central Panama; the region holds most of the nation’s history and nearly all the things that draw people to the country—beaches, reefs, islands, mountains, rain forests, indigenous cultures, and, of course, the Panama Canal. Within hours of Panama City, in many cases a fraction of an hour, you can enjoy bird-watching, sportfishing, hiking, golf, scuba diving, white-water rafting, horseback riding, whale watching, or lazing on a palm-lined beach.
POINTS OF INTEREST
THE PANAMA CANAL
A visit to the Panama Canal offers not only the chance to see—and perhaps transit—one of the world’s great engineering wonders, but also to witness its 21st-century expansion. The most interesting spot for viewing the Panama Canal is the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks. The national parks nearby provide myriad opportunities for hiking and wildlife viewing. The Panama Canal stretches across one of the narrowest parts of the isthmus to connect the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. For much of that route, it’s bordered by tropical wilderness. About half of the waterway is made up of Lago Gatún (Gatún Lake), an enormous artificial lake created by damming the Río Chagres (Chagres River). In addition to forming an integral part of the waterway, the lake is notable for its sport fishing and for the wildlife of its islands and the surrounding mainland.
PARQUE NACIONAL SOBERANÍA
One of the planet’s most accessible rainforest reserves, Parque Nacional Soberanía comprises 48,000 acres of lowland rainforest along the canal’s eastern edge that is home to everything from howler monkeys to chestnut-mandible toucans. Long preserved as part of the U.S. Canal Zone, Soberanía was declared a national park, after being returned to Panama, as part of an effort to protect the canal’s watershed.
LAGO GATÚN (GATÚN LAKE)
Covering about 163 square miles, an area about the size of the island of Barbados, Gatún Lake extends northwest from Parque Nacional Soberanía to the locks of Gatún, just south of Colón.
ISLA BARRO COLORADO
The island of Barro Colorado in Lago Gatún is a former hilltop that became an island when the Río Chagres was dammed during the construction of the Panama Canal. It covers 3,700 acres of virgin rain forest and forms part of the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, which includes five peninsulas on the mainland and protects an area several times that size.
The provincial capital of Colón, beside the canal’s Atlantic entrance, is named for the Spanish-language surname of Christopher Columbus, though the Americans called it Aspinwall in the 19th century. It was once a prosperous city, as the architecture of its older buildings attests, but it spent the second half of the 20th century in steady decay. Though the 21st century brought relief to the city’s chronic unemployment problems, much of it remains a slum, and crime is endemic.
SAN LORENZO PROTECTED AREA
The San Lorenzo region, on Panama’s Pacific coast near the city of Colón, combines picturesque natural beauty and historic significance. The ruins of San Lorenzo fort, built by the Spanish to protect the entrance to the Chagres River, offers impressive views from its UNESCO-recognized lookout points, while the surrounding Parque Nacional San Lorenzo is graced with lush vegetation and excellent bird-watching.
Portobelo has an inspiring mix of colonial fortresses, placid waters, and lushly forested hills. Christopher Columbus named it “beautiful port” in 1502 during his fourth and final voyage to the Americas. Unfortunately, cement-block houses crowded higgledy-piggledy amid the ancient walls detract from an otherwise lovely setting. Portobelo contains some of Panama’s most interesting colonial ruins, with rusty cannons still lying in wait for an enemy assault, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with San Lorenzo. Depending on your timing, you could see congo dancing or the annual Festival del Cristo Negro. Between the history, turquoise sea, jungle, coral reefs (great for scuba diving or snorkeling), beaches, and local culture, it’s an enticing spot to spend a few days.
PARQUE NACIONAL CHAGRES (CHAGRES NATIONAL PARK)
The mountains to the northeast of the canal form a vast watershed that feeds the Chagres River, which was one of the country’s principal waterways until it was damned to create the canal, and is now the source of nearly half of the water used in the locks. To protect the forests that help water percolate into the ground and keep the river running through the dry season, the Panamanian government declared the entire watershed a national park in 1985.
Isla Taboga is known as the “Island of Flowers” for the abundant gardens of its small-town, San Pedro, spread along the steep hillside of its eastern shore. The traditional celebrations on Isla Taboga are on June 29, when the local parishioners celebrate San Pedro’s day, and July 16, when the Virgen del Carmen is celebrated with a procession through town and a boat caravan around the island. Taboga has no pharmacy, and only a very small clinic.
The island of Contadora, a mere 20 minutes from Panama City by plane, has some of the country’s loveliest beaches. Half a dozen swaths of beige sand backed by exuberant foliage line Contadora’s coves, and they lie within walking distance of affordable accommodations. It is a small island, covering less than a square mile, but it can serve as a base for day trips to nearby isles with deserted beaches and snorkeling sites, as well as deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, and whale watching.
Playa Coronado began to develop as a weekend destination for wealthy Panamanians decades ago, and today the coast is almost completely lined with condos and weekend homes, leaving few spots for nonresidents to get onto the beach. The sand here is pale gray with swaths of fine black dirt, which gives it a sort of marbled appearance. It is usually safe for swimming. The big attraction is the 18-hole golf course that is part of the BlueBay Coronado Golf & Beach Club. One of the country’s best golf destinations, the resort gets packed with Panamanian families on weekends and holidays but is practically dead most weekdays.
PLAYA FARALLÓN (PLAYA BLANCA)
For years, few people visited this lovely, long stretch of white beach because it lay behind a military base used by Panama’s national guard and was restricted. The base saw heavy fighting during the 1989 U.S. invasion, and for much of the 1990s its buildings, pockmarked with bullet holes, were slowly being covered with jungle. Everything changed at the beginning of the 21st century when the Colombian hotel chain Decameron opened a massive resort here and began promoting it as “Playa Blanca” (White Beach). Panamanians still use the Farallón name. Now the area is the epicenter of beach development in Panama, with several new resorts, two 18-hole golf courses, and a growing number of homes and condos.
EL VALLE DE ANTÓN
Bowl-shaped El Valle was the crater of a volcano that went extinct millions of years ago. This is apparent when you view it from the mirador (lookout point) on the right as the road begins its descent into town—a worthwhile stop. The former crater’s walls have eroded into a series of steep ridges that are covered with either luxuriant vegetation or the pale-green pasture that has replaced it. El Valle’s volcanic soil has long made it an important vegetable-farming area, but as outsiders bought up the land on the valley’s floor, the farming and ranching moved to its periphery, to the detriment of the native forests. Thankfully, tracts of wilderness have been protected in the Cerro Gaital Natural Monument and adjacent Chorro el Macho Ecological Reserve.