Panama Coast Line

The History Of Panama

Panama Coast Line

EXPLORING THE BRIDGE BETWEEN THE AMERICAS

There's no ignoring the cultural, geographical and historical appeal of Central America.

With ancient Aztec and Mayan monuments, colorful colonial architecture, living indigenous communities, and vibrant art and culture stemming from them all on full display, the region promises an extensive array of experiences that far surpasses most travelers' awareness of it.  And we haven’t been mentioned the marvelous mix of natural environments, which are replete with astounding biodiversity!

Interestingly (and unfortunately), Panama is not usually the first Central American country that comes to mind for any of this. Forming a natural bridge between Central and South American, Panama is of course home to the world-famous canal. Yet it doesn't always figure prominently on the list of must-see destinations for other kinds of immersive experiences that responsible travel enthusiasts clamor for today.

But the history of Panama is rich with incredible stories and places that deserve far more attention than they get. Here, then, is a look at six ways that Panama measures up to and, in some cases, even outshines its Central American neighbors, from its modern canal back in time to its native peoples.

THE PANAMA CANAL

panama canal

Easily Panama's most prominent feature, the Panama Canal is the 48-mile-long, man-made channel chiseled across the Central American isthmus. There were plans for a canal there starting as early as 1529, but the 10-year construction project led by the United States wasn’t completed until August 15, 1914.

These days, 13,000 to 14,000 ships use the canal every year to make the 8- to 15-hour traverse, which saves more than two weeks of cruising around the length of South America. Passing through a system of three locks (a.k.a. water elevators), ships of all sizes – including massive cargo freighters – rise and drop between sea level and Gatun Lake, a vast artificial, but wonderfully wild, reservoir that is used for most of the crossing.

The two coastal lock systems – the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic and the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific – are the best places from which to take in the canal’s sights and mechanics. For close-up views, the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center is excellent, and also not far from Panama City.

But the panoramic views from the high perch of the newer Agua Clara Visitor Center, which is located at the Gatun Locks about seven miles from Colón, are arguably better. They take in Gatun Lake, the Atlantic Ocean, and both the old and new expanded channels, as well as the engineering innovations, used to manage the latter. Ideal visit times are when the large ships work their way through the locks, so operations can be seen in action.

Both visitor centers have restaurants, gift shops, and projection rooms with informative films and fact-filled exhibitions about the canal and Panama history. At Agua Clara, there is also a short nature trail.

PANAMA’S BEACHES

Panamas Beaches

As a small country with two long coastlines and a number of outlying archipelagos, Panama arguably has some of the best beaches in Central America. Regrettably, most visitors never get any further than the oceanfront coconut tree lines nearest to Panama City – the modern “city beaches" of Tabonga Island, and between Coronado, Gorgona and Punta Chame. While gorgeous, these beaches can get very crowded.

You’re far better off enjoying sandy strand time at one of the remote beaches International Expeditions visits on their Costa Rica to Panama cruise along the Pacific coast or on a privately arranged tour. For example, on the northwest Caribbean coast of Panama, an archipelago of nine islands collectively known as Bocas del Toro lays claim to some of the country's most alluring beaches. On the far side of big Bastimentos Island (which is dominated by a national marine park), Red Frog Beach is only accessible by forest path or boat. Although it doesn’t feel quite as remote as it used to, the area is still touched by turquoise waters and simply stunning views.

East of Bastimentos you’ll find two much smaller islands, called the Cayos Zapatillas ("Slipper Islands”). They’re thick with mangroves, unsullied beaches, and relatively pristine coral reefs. The most remote beach (and one of Panama's most delightful tastes of paradise) is Starfish Beach, a.k.a. Playa Estrella, which is located on the distant side of Isla Colón. There isn't much sand there, but a palm-fringed shallow bay shelters large numbers of starfish.

In all cases, the beauty of the surrounding nature in Bocas del Toro – a good bit of which is protected and unspoiled – makes water-based ecotourism a strong selling point, including surfing and some of the finest Scuba diving in the country. You’ll find similarly excellent diving opportunities off the coast of Coiba Island, whose dark history included being a brutal penal colony for political prisoners.

Across the isthmus to the southeast, the Azuero Peninsula is notable as Panama’s traditional cultural heartland. The peninsula juts south into the Pacific Ocean, creating a ring of beaches that are perfect for surfing and relaxing. The light-colored sandy playas near the east-coast village of Pedasí regularly attract body boarders, while the beach at Venao is one of the best surf spots on the Pacific coast. Other beaches along the more rugged west coast of the peninsula are spectacular, but rarely draw large crowds.

Finally, the beaches located on the San Blas Archipelago are among Panama’s most remote, and often listed among the finest beaches in the world. Read more about them in the Indigenous Experiences section below.

COOL MOUNTAIN TOWNS

Boquete

The central spine of the Panamanian hills, which stretch west from the canal to the Costa Rican border, has always delivered relief from the heat and humidity of the coastal lowlands. The charming towns that were settled at these higher elevations have historically attracted visitors eager for more temperate micro-climates, but also drawn to the outdoor adventure Eden that surrounds them.

To the west, in the foothills of the Baru Volcano, pretty Boquete is arguably the most famous of Panama's mountain towns. The area’s engulfing natural beauty includes world-famous coffee plantations, highland hiking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and watching for Panamanian wildlife that includes some 500 species of birds.

To its east, Santa Fe is a slow-paced, rural center of coffee plantations, organic farms, and orchid gardens that is equally ideal for nature lovers. Hiking, horseback riding, and birdwatching are also favorite pastimes here, especially within Santa Fe National Park (which flanks the town on three sides).

Even further east, El Valle de Antón is a vacation-home outpost for Panama City's wealthy class. The come here looking for climatic ease and abundant nature, but also proximity to the city and great beaches. Nestled into the caldera of an ancient volcano, the town is surrounded by hiking and horseback trails, and sprinkled with waterfalls and hot springs.

COLORFUL COLONIAL PANAMA

Things to do in Panama

Today’s Panama doesn't have a great deal of architectural reminders of the 16th- and 17th-century era, when the Spanish and British colonial powers were vying for influence and plunder. Each side was in the unfortunate habit of pillaging and burning any infrastructure that was under the control of (or captured from) the other. Nevertheless, pockets of historic colonial charm remain in towns, village, and cities all across Panama.

At the top of the list is the old town of Panama City, which is called Casco Viejo. This historic area was built in 1673 (following the destruction of the older city by pirates), and is presently undergoing major revitalization and gentrification. Today, after decades of neglect, new orange roof tiles and pastel-plastered facades bring with them new cafes, restaurants, galleries and upscale shops. As a result, Casco Viejo's Plaza Bolivar and Plaza de la Independencia are becoming hubs of evening social activity, and the promenade around Plaza de Francia arguably provides the best sunset views in the city.

Not far from Colón, at the opposite end of the Panama Canal, the town of Portobelo retains quite a bit of its colonial allure, although much of it is in a state of decay. During its historical heyday, Portobelo was the repository for Inca treasure before it made its way in galleons to Spain. Today, four crumbling forts (one of them right by the waterfront) and the Customs House still remain. The latter has now been rehabilitated as a small, but interesting history museum. New shops, restaurants, and B&Bs are helping to breathe life back into the encircling central village area, where the early 19th century Church of San Felipe still shelters a statue of black Christ and attracts thousands of pilgrims every October 21.

Back on the Azuero Peninsula, the heart of Spanish colonial culture in Panama and birthplace of Panamanian folklore and tradition, there are many reminders of the country’s colonial past. In some cases, the two-story and terraced architecture is straight out of the 16th century. But many of the region's towns – including Villa de Los Santos, Guarrare, Las Tablas and Macaracas – and most of the little villages were founded before Europeans even stepped foot in the Americas.

These somewhat off-the-beaten-track locations are all great places to visit. They are genuinely Panamanian, especially during any of the 500 or so cultural festivals that are celebrated throughout the year, the largest of which is the Carnival celebration in Las Tablas.

PANAMA’S INDIGENOUS PEOPLE

The Emberá

Yves Picq - Wikipedia

To understand the history of Panama's indigenous peoples, the best approach is to experience their cultural traditions directly. The country's seven unique indigenous cultures account for approximately 13% of Panama's population and largely live in special, semi-autonomous, indigenous-majority administrative regions called comarcas. Two groups, in particular, have established fantastic ways for visitors to learn about their traditional lifestyles.

The Emberá and Wounaan, who were once collectively known as the Chocó people, inhabit large parts of the dense rainforest of the Darién Province. It is located in eastern Panama, which is arguably one of the wildest land areas in the Western Hemisphere. Groups of Emberá have created accessible traditional villages and graciously opened them up to outside visitors, an excursion you’ll enjoy when you travel to Panama with IE.

Mostly reached by dugout longboats, the villages are collections of thatch houses, many of them on stilts. Here, the residents perform traditional dances and music while clad in native dress (loincloths for men and wraparound cloth for women, some of whom go topless). They also lead hands-on explanations of cultural practices, serve a delicious lunch (often of fish and local fruits and vegetables), and display handcrafted souvenirs for sale, including the baskets and wood carvings for which the Emberá are known.

Also located in eastern Panama (but very distinct from that of the Emberá), the comarca of the Kuna people includes a long stretch of Caribbean coastline. But most Kuna live on 49 larger islands in an archipelago of more than 360 tropical outposts just off shore.

These islands, known as the San Blas Archipelago, include the world-class beaches mentioned earlier as well as eco-friendly, visitor-ready facilities, which are sometimes just modest huts on a beach. The Kuna are recognized for their colorful, multi-layered, handmade cloth, called molas, which is sold widely in the area and elsewhere in Panama. Buying directly from the Kuna is a great way to ensure that the local community keeps most of the money you spend.

ONE-OF-A-KIND MUSEUMS

Biomuseo

Putting everything together – either as a great point of departure highlighting all the fascinating things to come or as a contextualizing summary of everything you’ve seen in Panama – is the comprehensive and memorable, Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo.

Colorful both inside and out, the museum lays out in immersive, interactive detail the degree to which the narrow land bridge that became Panama has knit together the Americas and played an outsized role in the natural, social, economic and political development of the world.

Upstairs and inside the museum, Panama's unique biodiversity and natural history are on display. Downstairs and outside, multiple kiosks trace the social, cultural and political history of Panama and its people. This includes the area’s indigenous inhabitants, the Spanish and other European colonial powers, and the melting pot mixture of modern-day citizens.

The museum is located on the near end of Panama City's Amador Causeway, a spit of land connecting four islands and formed by deposits of rock excavated during the construction of the Panama Canal. Today the causeway is a 2.5-mile long promenade that provides exceptional views of the city and ships awaiting passage through the canal.

In their own way, the museum and causeway are a fitting miniature of Panama itself. It is a small construct, perched on a narrow strip of land, that ties together a remarkable flow of natural, social, and political currents. Exercised over time, it is these influences, exhibited at the Biomuseo, that make modern Panama such an amazing place to visit.

Ethan Gelber is a professional writer who has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices and quality in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog and is co-founder of the travel content curation site Outbounding.