As I drained the best cappucino I’ve had in my life at the Janson Family Coffee ranch on the slopes of Volcán, in western Panama—just shortly after having the pleasure of seeing hummingbirds thick as a cloud of mosquitos at Los Quetzales Lodge above the town of Guadelupe—that was when I really began to be not just amazed, but even disconcerted, at just how under the radar Panama is as a great place to travel.
Panama is a naturalist’s heaven, but for those who enjoy gazing upon man-made wonders, the Panama Canal is among the world’s most impressive. Mid-canal, at the unique Gamboa Resort near the famed Culebra Cut in the Canal, you can enjoy both at once, watching huge freighters glide through jungle teeming with caiman, turtles, toucans, howler monkeys and butterflies. At the Miraflores Locks on the Canal there is an excellent center where visitors can witness the awesome spectacle of ships moving through the locks on their way to the open ocean. At the nearby City of Knowledge you get a sense of a country working hard to move into the 21st century, establishing research partnerships with companies such as Sun Microsystems and Cisco. At the same time, Panamanians are acutely aware of their country’s cultural and ecological treasures and are working to preserve and enhance them.
Beach lovers, snorkelers, and scuba divers can roam from the San Blás Islands to the prison island of Coiba to the Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro. Accommodations range from hammocks in the San Blás to all-inclusive resorts such as the Decameron at Playa Blanca de Farrallón, a bargain compared to similar places in Hawaii or the Caribbean.
Panama City, on the southern end of the Canal, is a bustling and cosmopolitan place, redolent in miniature of Hong Kong, Honolulu, Havana, and Manila. It has the requisite five star hotels, such as the Inter-Continental overlooking the Gulf of Panama, but also a healthy selection of good boutique hotels with great food such as the Hotel DeVille.
But as usual the best thing about Panama was the people I met in my brief roaming about the country. I was listening to one man, who owns Finca Dracula, a place where an amazing number of orchids are grown, tell me in a funny and articulate way more about orchids than I know about flowers period, when it struck me that Panamanians themselves are a bit like orchids. And when he said, in defense of his own country’s natural wonders, “Costa Rica, Costa Rica! I’m sick of hearing about Costa Rica,” I had to agree with him, and completing his train of thought and my own, that the orchid of Panama would benefit greatly from the holy fluid of tourist dollars. And of course, those same visitors would be enriched, as one always is, in the presence of orchids.
About James’s Corner:
James O’Reilly is the publisher and series editor of Travelers’ Tales. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Palo Alto, CA, where they also publish children’s art games at Birdcage Books.