Back in August, globetrotter and blogger Sacha Pytka of Soyons Ouf spilled her expert tips on Greek island-hopping with The Vivant. The jet-setter’s latest travel adventure was a winter stint in the wilds of Panama, where she kicked it with jaguars in the Summit Gardens zoo, camped in an Indian village in Darien, and hiked the trails of Taboga.
Here, Pytka shares her top Panama travel tips for novice travelers and jungle adventurers alike.
Casco Viejo. “If you’ve just arrived in Panama City for the first time and aren’t ready to go off the deep end, there are a few places you can check out for the day before returning to the safety of your hotel,” Pytka shares. “Casco Viejo is an historic neighborhood, and though a bit run down, it is quickly being restored to its former glory. Some of the coolest hotels, bars, and restaurants are popping up in this colonial neighborhood. Colorful walls and cobbled streets make this charming place a must-see while in the city.”
Miraflores Locks. “You can’t come to Panama without seeing the canal,” says Pytka. “The Miraflores Locks has an observation terrace that’s open until 5 p.m. To avoid the entrance fee I like to go later, when the terrace is closed, and head to the restaurant for a drink instead. There is a balcony where you can watch the ships come through while sipping a sunset cocktail.”
Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo. “The small Summit Gardens zoo is perfect to see all the wild things up close and personal,” advises Pytka. “Monkeys, gators, birds, jaguars, and other big cats—even a rare Harpy eagle, the national bird of Panama.”
Ferry to Taboga. “Isla Taboga is a 45-minute ferry ride from the city—only $5 each way. Though the town is pretty quiet, there are a few restaurants where you can take shelter from the sun or a sudden tropical storm. If you’re looking for a workout, there are a few hiking trails. But if you’re like me and prefer to laze around in the sun, there’s a great sandbar beach that forms at low tide. You can bring your own picnic or have fresh langostinos prepared and brought to you on the sand.”
FOR OVERNIGHT TRAVELERS:
El Valle. “An adorable mountain town only a half hour from the beach, El Valle de Anton is a sweet escape from the heat and bustle of Panama City,” says Pytka. “A cloud forest lays low over the valley, keeping the weather fresh—perfect for a little hike to a waterfall or a dip in the hot springs. The artisan’s market is a great place to stock up on souvenirs, like mola embroideries and tagua carvings, as well as local treats. There are many B&Bs to chose from at all price ranges, but the swankiest is Casa de Lourdes. Their restaurant is one of the best in town.”
Contadora. “Contadora is one of the Perlas Islands, located about 40 miles south of Panama City. There is a very unreliable ferry to the island, so unless you hire a charter boat, your best bet is to fly. Though the airstrip is tiny and a little scary, the island is beautiful and virtually empty. The beaches are mostly lined with private houses, second homes to the fancier folk of Panama. There are a few small hotels and B&Bs and one tiny store, but no one takes credit cards. There is no ATM, so come prepared.”
FOR WEEKEND EXCURSIONS:
San Blas. “If you’re looking for isolation and clear waters, go to San Blas. This protected region belongs to the native Kuna indians. You can pay to camp at most islands, but some have set up all-inclusive B&Bs with thatched roof cabins on the water. The Kuna free dive for fresh lobster and crab every day, which you can buy off their boats. If you’re camping, your hosts will more than likely prepare them for you. Just remember to bring your own butter! You cant find any there. Bring a snorkel—the clear waters and white sand beaches are irresistible.”
Darien. “Good luck in Darien! The most wild province in Panama, bordering Colombia, is definitely not easy to get to. A six hour drive, a lot of haggling, and three boat rides later—including one where we had to get out and push the boat upriver—we finally made it to the Embera indian village where we stayed the night. The next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to trek to a Harpy eagle’s nest. After four hours of following our guide through the most incredible forest, we made it to see the little baby staring down at us! Along the way we saw baby boas, ancient carved stones, wild plants, and found bullet casings. (Note: Darien has become a fairly dangerous territory, as Columbian rebels use this dense jungle to smuggle drugs out of South America). Despite this and the difficulties we encountered getting there, it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve had. The Embera were so welcoming and kind, and wanted us to spread the word.”
Chiriqui. “If you want fresh mountain air and outdoor adventures, check out Chiriqui! It’s a mountainous western province of Panama, bordering Costa Rica. The roads are dotted with fruit stands from local farms, and ranches where you can hop on a horse for the afternoon. It’s also home to Volcán Barú—a a great overnight hike for serious mountaineers and birdwatchers. The town of Boquete is famous for its coffee plantations, hot springs, and yearly jazz festival, but we stayed at Los Quetzales in Guadalupe. It’s a super charming eco-resort, with a handful of cabins scattered up the mountain. There’s no electricity, but there is gas. I managed to bake a birthday cake in our cabin!”
Bocas del Toro. “Bocas is the waterman’s paradise. It’s a series of islands on the Atlantic side, with incredible waves, dive spots, and deep-sea fishing, as well as some of the most beautiful beaches. The town of Bocas is full of surf hostels, B&Bs and fun bars, but neighboring islands like Carenero and Bastimientos are not to be missed. Water taxis will take you anywhere for two to five bucks depending on the destination, or you can hire a panga for the afternoon to take you on your own surf, fishing, and beach tour. New Years is particularly fun here.”