More than anywhere else in Central America, Panama symbolizes a contradictory mixture of old and new, North American and Latin American, rich and poor - making it one of the most dizzyingly exciting and diverse spots to visit. Oh, and beaches are in abundance...
My first trip to Panama
I admit I didn't know much about the country before I arrived. I'd seen photos of the San Blas Islands which looked stunning (I can confirm they are), from watching Prison Break I imagined Panama City to look a bit like Miami (it does in parts), I knew Panama Hats confusingly come from Ecuador, not Panama, and of course there is the Canal (although I think I underestimated quite how important a role the Canal has played in Panamas past and present).
Having travelled through much of Central America, I found when I finally visited that Panama was definitely different from its neighbours. Here is a brief rundown of the highlights:
San Blas Island
There isn't really an adequate way to describe quite how special the San Blas Islands are. They're a cluster of some 350 islands along Panama's northern Caribbean coast, and only around 50 of them are inhabited. The region is semi autonomous, ruled by the Kuna Yala Tribe, who have their own rules and very little to do with what goes on in Panama City. There is one top chief, and each settlement has their own sub-chief as it were, who make decisions from the comfort of their hammocks in the main town hall equivalent.
It's very laid back - literally. There are no fancy hotels here, only a handful of comfortable Kuna run guest houses, which are perfect for those who want a real Robinson Crusoe Experience and don't mind going back to basics. The other option is to charter a Catamaran and cruise around as you wish. The setting is picture perfect, with crystal clear waters and deserted islands where you can moor up for a picnic on the beach, where you are unlikely to see anyone other than the odd Kuna fishing from their dug-out canoe...paradise.
Cities aren't for everyone, but Panama City quickly became one of my favourites (then again, I love big cities).
On one side of the bay, you have this incredible Miami-esque skyline, with skyscrapers tightly packed along the ocean front full of glitzy hotels, shops, restaurants and bars... ...but look the other way, and you have the crumbling old splendour of the Casco Viejo. As in Cartagena over in Colombia, the government is investing huge amounts into renovating this beautiful part of the city. At the moment, it's in that in-between stage - some of it has been restored, some of it is mid-way through, and the rest of it is still falling apart. If you head out in the evening, you'll find pop up bars and clubs in buildings which look ready for demolition during the day.
Again, up on the Caribbean coast is Portobelo, a charming little town near Colon. However, the real draw to this sleepy little corner of Panama is El Otro Lado, hands down the loveliest of all the hotels I visited. It's friendly, small, colourful and relaxed, the food is excellent and the infinity pool with views over the bay to Portobelo is particularly inviting.
There is masses to do to keep you entertained for a few days, from jet skiing, diving and fishing, to trips through the mangroves and visits to the Embera tribe. This feels like the real Caribbean and although there isn't a huge amount to do in Portobelo (there is a fort which is worth a visit) the people are charming and make you feel welcome. I would go back to El Otro Lado in a heartbeat if I had the chance.
I didn't feel I could leave out the Canal, seeing as it seems to play such a vital role in everything to do with Panama. Before I went, I admit I didn't really see the interest in watching a ship pass through a lock, but I quickly became a bit of a canal junkie and am quite fascinated by it! A nice leisurely lunch on the balcony of the Miraflores lock restaurant as the ships pass (at about 3pm in case you are interested) is definitely the way to do it though...