Wherever you are in Panama, you're never far from the sea. It offers the singular experience of being able to sunbathe on a white sand beach on the Pacific in the afternoon before crossing over to the other coast to watch a romantic sunset with the rhythms of Afro-Caribbean music gently wafting over the ocean breeze.
A 2,500 kilometer-long coastline is bathed by warm seas, which in turn makes for pleasantly tropical temperatures year-round. Just outside the capital on the Bay of Panama, vast beaches extend along the Pacific coast and provide a weekend escape for urban residents. Many are rustic beaches that gently slope towards the sea. Some are bordered by luxury resorts or beautiful villas surrounded by flower gardens, which are more difficult to access. Yet others, such as Santa Clara or Blancabeaches, unroll their tongue of pearl-white sand across several kilometers. These are ideal sites to sit on the sun-kissed sand and let the lapping waves caress your feet, while you take in the horizon that seems to stretch on forever.
In the heart of the Caribbean
In the northeast the Caribbean Sea washes up against the province of Bocas del Toro, gateway to an archipelago of the same name and a marine park famous for the beauty and richness of its coral reefs. It's easiest to reach the village of Bocas del Toro by flying, in a small twin-engine aircraft that affords an aerial view of the dense tropical vegetation that blankets the northern region of the country, giving the province its claim to "green gold". A few dirt roads wind towards secluded villages built on stilts, cluing that transportation is mostly on waterways. Canoes glide over turquoise surfaces and speedboat water taxis churn up a path of foam as they zip from island to island
To stay over in the small town of Bocas is to be submerged in an easy-going and cheerful Afro-Caribbean ambience. Once the buzzing headquarters of the United Fruit Company, all that are left are faded memories of that golden age, like a massive coffer for banana growers now stored empty in the Gran Hotel Bahía.
Instead, the Bocas of today has become a paradise for surfers and divers, lovers of Creole music, and ecotourists. They stroll in swimsuit and sarong down the narrow streets in search of a bar or a restaurant among the porch-wrapped and balconied houses whose vibrant colors fade under the tropical sun and rain. Or maybe they are looking to rent a boat to venture into the mangroves and meet up with a Ngöbe Indian guide for a lesson in the depths of the Amazon rainforest, among the red and green frogs, wide-eyed sloths dangling from a branch, and miniscule nocturnal monkeys hidden from sight in invisible niches. Upon returning to the beaches of Bocas, they will not leave behind the encounters with exotic animals, as starfish can be seen in the clear waters and they may swim alongside the playful dolphins that frolic beside the boats.
Those in search of solitude will enjoy a two-day getaway in an ecolodge engulfed by tropical vegetation. Modeled after the stilted huts of the Indians, the bungalows rise above the jungle undergrowth and are fully exposed to the sea. The crying out of the birds, rocking of the waves and slight bumping of a boat against the pillars of the pontoon are the sounds of the night, totally immersed in the heart of nature. Here you will sink into slumber after the sun has been swept beneath the horizon, leaving behind a sky tinged with pink- and purple-streaked clouds.
A Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure
Imagine over 350 coral islands that appear to be simply floating atop the deep blue Caribbean Sea. You are in the San Blas region, comprised of a long, narrow coastal strip on the edge of the jungle and an archipelago sprinkled across the balmy seas that border northeastern Panama. This is the politically autonomous territory of the Kuna, an indigenous group numbering approximately 40,000 whom inhabit forty-odd islands in overcrowded conditions of wall-to-wall huts. Fiercely independent, the indigenous population manages their lands exclusively and earns a living out of it mainly by fishing and selling coconut. Indians are now beginning to exploit the easy money from tourism by authorizing yachts to dock in this little piece of heaven on earth or playing host to tourists on uninhabited islets.
If you feel the spirit of Robinson Crusoe urging you on, take the chance and stay for a few hours—or even spend a night or two—on one of these islets in the middle of nowhere, where your only universe is a clear sand beach trimmed by turquoise waters and coral reefs. Long, silent hours stretch on as you drift into dreams while swaying in a hammock tied between two palm trees, or when you dive into the crystal-clear waters and join the fish in the magical world of the seabed.
No-frills lodging has been set up on a few isles to receive foreign visitors for just a few days. The Kuna, who actively seek to preserve their ancient customs, use this strategy to protect them against invasions of tourists on the islands they occupy. Such rough accommodation is a far cry from the all-inclusive resorts elsewhere. Visitors are offered a hammock, or a small shack for those who prefer privacy, and a menu of fried fish or grilled crawfish served on a banana leaf with a fried plantain and a freshly opened coconut as the beverage.
It is the females who maintain the ancient traditions, particularly in their form of dress and adornment. Hundreds of tiny colored beads are strung together and wrapped around calves and wrists so as to form geometric patterns. Other symbols are drawn onto the face in thin black lines, most prominently running down the ridge of the nose and highlighting the piercing at the tip of the nose. Additional jewelry includes golden necklaces, rings, and earrings. The Kuna woman drapes a bright red headscarf over her dark hair.
Nowadays, a woman wraps a piece of black fabric with yellow and green patterns around her waist and tops it with a blouse. In the past, however, they were naked and decorated their chest and back with tattoos, a form of art that represented the link between their terrestrial and spiritual worlds. Though forced by missionaries to wear clothing to be decent in the face of God, the tradition persisted in another form. The prohibited tattoos are recreated in symbolic designs sewn into overlapping layers of fabric. These colorful square pieces of fabric, called molas, are now the centerpiece of the women's traditional costume, worn over both the front and back of the blouse. Underneath the shade of palm trees, the women also sell these unique handicrafts to tourists.
An escape into the land of the Kuna is not only a retreat into the very heart of beauty in its natural state, but also an immersion into a native culture that remains authentic.
A rare encounter
Nevertheless, you don't have to go too far from the capital to discover other full-blood Amerindians living in symbiosis with their natural environment. Some twenty miles as the crow flies from the most traversed canal in the world, an indigenous community subsists on farming and fishing. Now that the Panamanian government has transformed their territory into a National Park, the Emberá Indians have turned to tourism to make a living. Situated no further than 40 km from Panama City, the communities can be accessed by canoe, guided by the same Indians. The trip there is part of the experience of getting back in touch with nature. The pirogue glides along the riverbanks, guided by an Indian perched at the prow who scans for shallow spots in the riverbed. Swooping amidst the crowded jungle growth and over the river are a kingfisher, a cormorant, a snowy egret.
Swirls of white smoke escaping into the sky announce that we have arrived at the village. Nude children splash in the water under the watchful eye of their young mothers, also naked from the waist up, who are cleaning fish in the river. A group of men wearing short loincloths that are braided with beads greet us by playing on drums, flutes, and unusual musical instruments made out of turtle shell.
The village is comprised of huts built on stilts in case of flooding, with thatched roofs and walls that open to the nearby jungle. Certain cabins are for cooking, while others are where families socialize and sleep at night. The tourists are gladly received by those in the huts and the children, who are eager to play with the newcomers.
A shaman leads those who are curious on a lesson in the depths of the jungle, where every tree is covered with orchids, bromeliads, and lianas. The guide explains the benefits of each seed, root, and leaf, which they grind up or steep in an infusion to calm abdominal cramps, heal a wound, or relieve labor pain.
Back in the village, a picturesque meal is laid out and waiting for us in the main maloka. Every one is given a cone of banana leaves with plaintain fritters and grilled fish drizzled with lemon. The village chief explains his people's customs before inviting the visitors to join them in dancing to the beat of the men's music. The young women look dazzling in their iridescent sarongs, with pendants of pearls and coins draped over their bare chest. A wreath of hibiscus flowers crowns their dark, waist-length hair.
They begin to joyfully spin in a circle, pulling a few tourists into the dance, much to the amusement of the children. At the end of their visit, each one takes with him a few handicrafts, one of the community's main sources of income. Sculptures carved from nuts, brightly painted figurines, woven fiber bags, miniature wooden canoes, and instruments are among the humble souvenirs of this unique encounter with a community living out a peaceful and yet-natural existence just outside one of the most modern and dynamic capital cities in Central America.
Information: There is no tourist office in Panama, but the website of the French Embassy in Panama [www.ambafrance-pa.org/] and this must-see webpage [www.visitpanama.com] offer valuable information.
Money: The currency is the U.S. dollar, at least for bills. Change is given in Balboas that are equivalent in value to the U.S. coins. Credit cards are accepted everywhere except in indigenous communities, where you need to pay in cash.
Lodging: Panama offers accommodation for all tastes and budgets. In Panama City the Deville Hotel [www.devillehotel.com.pa] offers a comfortable haven of peace in the center of the banking district, just steps from the Coastal Strip. In this boutique hotel you will be swept back to the era of when the canal was in construction under Ferdinand de Lesseps, as each suite is decorated with period furniture imported from the French colonies. On the Pacific coast, the Bristol Buenaventura hotel, part of the Plus Beaux hôtel du Monde group (a global leader in hotels), offers the finest comfort in a dreamy setting that exudes elegance, luxury, and refinement [www.thebristol.com/buenaventura]. In Bocas there is a full range of hotels. Those who want to let it all loose or laze away should go for a getaway at least for a few days at Al Natural Resort. Kayaking, windsurfing, and excellent surfing are included in the price of staying in the bungalows, which offer the possibility of living an extraordinary experience [www.alnaturalresort.com] Moreover, Michel Natalis has excellent advice on trips to take in the area.
Dining: Panama City is such a cosmopolitan city that a tourist who stays only a few days will find it difficult to describe Panamanian cuisine given the diverse eating options. At most you will be able to appreciate the undeniable freshness of seafood and tropical fruits. Meat lovers should let themselves be seduced by Os Segredos de Carne [www.ossegredosdacarne.com], whereas those who prefer fish will appreciate 7 Mares.
By Christiane Goor, Epoch Times