Live the native life with the Kunas in the San Blas Archipelago
Long before Panama started speaking Spanish – or indeed was called Panama – the Kuna people were among the major tribes on the isthmus. They were saved the plight of many Native American tribes because there was relatively little gold to be found, and the country’s jungles are especially dense. Since the 1920s they have enjoyed legal autonomy.
If you want your own Robinson Crusoe experience, the San Blas Archipelago is the place to do it. You can hitch a ride on a boat with the Kuna and be left on a private island to write your novel/watch the clouds/count stars. Just hope they remember to pick you up again!
Carnaval de las Tablas
For most of the year, Las Tablas is the place to go for a traditional Indian Spanish Cowboy experience: a real sense of old-school traditional Panama. During carnival, however, this is one of the wildest places in Latin America.
The town divides into two groups: Calle Abajo and Calle Arriba, each competing to have the most extravagant party, with the best fancy dress and the most impressive floats.
Sunday afternoon in Portobelo
On 21st October each year, Panamanians make a pilgrimage to the crumbling colonial town of Portobelo for the Festival del Cristo Negro. After praying to the Black Christ at the Church of San Felipe, the life-size wooden sculpture is paraded through town.
Less than 100km from Panamá City, Portobelo was once a thriving port, where gold and other goods would start the perilous journey to Spain. As the plunder business dried up, and various raids by British pirates took their toll, the fortresses were left to crumble, which is how you will find them today.
If you visit on a Sunday afternoon, you can enjoy the colourful spectacle of the Congos de Portobelo – a tradition brought over with African slaves – where local women sing and dance along with drummers.
Ceviche at El Mercado del Marisco
This is the iconic taste of Latin America’s Pacific Coast. The most basic ingredients of ceviche are super-fresh raw fish and lime or lemon juice. Beyond that, everyone has their own recipe, often including red onion, chilli, coriander and a host of other options.
In Panamá City, the Mercado del Marisco (Fish market) by La Cinta Costera is the place to go. The fish go from swimming in the sea to swimming in tasty marinade in just a couple of hours, so you really won’t find a tastier ceviche.
Chill out on Isla Grande
Due north from Panamá City, this glorious Caribbean island offers the perfect beach experience for a weekend. There’s not much to do except eat fish, chill out under a palm tree and perhaps go for a swim. Snorkelling is highly recommended.
Or get active on El Causeway
The Amador Causeway connects Panamá City with the islands of Naos, Perico, Culebra, and Flamenco in the Pacific Ocean. Built with rocks excavated during the construction of the Panama Canal, the Causeway is a popular spot for jogging, cycling, chilling or enjoying a drink as the sun goes down.
Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park & Isla Coiba
Panama is one of the most naturally diverse and abundant places on the planet, but many of the most exciting species can only be found underwater.
The Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine offers you the chance to spot hawksbill and leatherback turtles, hammerhead sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, orcas, tiger sharks, manta rays and dolphins, along with a spectacular array of multicolored fish.
Nearby Isla Coiba was the Panamanian Alcatraz for many years. The upside of this dark history was that the wildlife was left undisturbed and is flourishing as a result. Combine a lack of habitation with a sheltered location off the Pacific coast, and you get an astounding natural hideaway.
To watch, read, listen
Historias del canal (2014)
Quantum of Solace (2008) Director: Marc Forster (The scenes that are supposed to be in La Paz, Bolivia are actually in Panamá City’s Casco Viejo)
The Panama Deception (1992) Director: Barbara Trent
Panama City cinemas
You can find the best local cinemas in Multiplaza (Cinepolis) and Multicentro (Cinemark) right in the city centre.
Con la Llave en el Suelo by Ricardo J. Bermúdez
Getting to Know the General by Graham Greene
The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré
Siembra by Ruben Blades & Willie Colón
The Journey by Danilo Pérez
Kamikaze by Los Rabanes
Danilo's Jazz Club in Casco Viejo is one of the coolest destinations in the city, and is run by a legendary local jazz musician. Nearby Platea is another popular jazz spot. Some of the finest bars and clubs in the city are Istmo Bar, La Rana Dorada, Barlovento, Tantalo and Altabar. Libar is a cool nightclub, and Baños Públicos (Plaza Herrera) is a top destination for rock music. As the name suggests, the building used to be a public toilet. For the latest tips, be sure to ask the staff at our local school, who will point you in the right direction.