Coiba was on my travel list for years! It was a sort of dream destination – spectacular yet somehow out of reach. One of the biggest stop points - how to get there?!
Turns out it is not so difficult! We left from Panama City, spent a night in the chill surf town of Santa Catalina, and took a boat early the next morning to Coiba.
Panama City to Santa Catalina. The journey requires patience, but it’s totally worth the hours on the road! In a car, the ride takes around five to six hours depending on traffic. Try to arrive during daylight, as the route can be confusing once you leave the Pan-American Highway. And, take a print map with you! We lost cell phone service en route (and with it our Waze directions) – and spent a few unnecessary hours zooming around Veraguas. You can take a bus, but you’ll need extra patience, as you’ll have to change buses in Soná. Check the departure times for the Soná -> Santa Catalina leg of the journey as well because the bus may stop running after a certain hour.
Travel tips: Bring enough cash with you. A number of places in Santa Catalina do not accept credit cards, and as far as I know, there is no ATM in town. Also, bring a flashlight! A number of roads aren’t lit in the evening.
Santa Catalina to Coiba. To get to Coiba, you’ll need to arrange for a boat or join a boat tour. The trip to the park ranger station (Estación Gambute) takes approximately one hour. There are several neat points on the Island to explore (more on that in an upcoming post!), but you’ll need a boat to reach them. One of the many amazing things about Coiba is its size – it is larger than Barbados! Usually boat drivers set their rates based on the stops you plan on taking, so it is worthwhile to do a bit of research beforehand. The Ministry of the Environment has several basic cabins on Coiba where you can stay overnight as well. There are basically no amenities on Coiba – you should bring water, food and everything you need.
Travel tips: Bring plenty of water, food and sunscreen! If you plan on hiking bring good walking shoes (the trails, especially during the rainy season, can get very slippery). If a storm is approaching, do not attempt to reach Coiba via boat. The waves can really swell between Santa Catalina and Coiba.
One of my favorite aspects of living in Panama City is the proximity to fabulous beaches and forests. Last weekend, my husband, some friends and I hopped in a car and headed to the Plantation Road Trail (about a 28km drive from downtown Panama City). After paying our entrance fee (US$3 for Panamanians, US$5 for foreigners) to the representative from the Ministry of the Environment, we set off on the trail.
The path was clearly marked and well defined, yet the towering trees that grew thicker and larger as we progressed made us feel as though we were venturing into the deep jungle. The screeches of monkeys, the joyful calls of birds, and the plethora blue butterflies fluttering along made the experience all the more exciting. A highlight was our encounter with a furry anteater, an “oso hormiguero,” along the trail. Very cool!
Several folks were out on the trail for a run or a mountain bike ride but for the most part we felt like we were exploring an area far removed from civilization.
The Plantation Road Trail is an easy out and back walk (about 6km each way) and connects to the Camino de Cruces. If you’re planning on hiking the Camino de Cruces it may be worthwhile to hire a guide as we’ve heard the trail is still a bit rough/difficult to follow in areas.
Plantation Road is located off Avenida Omar Torrijos Herrera. Google Map: https://goo.gl/XxCdeU
Santa Ana is gritty and unpolished, yet has a certain vibrancy and authenticity that is difficult to find on the normal Panama City tourist trek. Plaza Santa Ana with its awesome trees is a central meeting point in the neighborhood, and you’ll most likely find it abuzz with activity.
Santa Ana was akin to the Greenwich Village of Panama during its heyday in the early to mid-twentieth century. Famous poets, writers, artists, politicians and revolutionaries frequented its many cafes and bars. Panamanian independence movements were planned, large national protests and celebrations were carried out and some of the most esteemed literary works emerged from this vibrant section of the city. Famous international visitors included Pablo Neruda, Che Guevara and Eva Peron.
From its establishment, Santa Ana, which lies only 75m or so from the Casco Viejo, has been home to the working class and poor. The Casco Viejo was designed with only enough space for the elite families’ residences, and as a result, the majority of Panama’s population settled in the outskirts. Fires, population growth, economic upturns and immigration among other factors, however, led to greater mixing of economic classes and gave rise to a Panamanian renaissance in Santa Ana. But through its upturns and downturns, Santa Ana has maintained its sense of “pueblo,” of belonging to the people.
At LiveWalkPTY, we’re excited to announce that we’re about to start recording an audio tour for Santa Ana and Avenida Central. From retiree protests to café hopping with one of Panama’s most esteemed poets, there will be no shortage of intriguing stories to experience. Stay tuned for updates!
Update: LiveWalkPTY Santa Ana is now available! Download it today on the Apple App Store or Google Play!
In addition to the hard-to-miss Cinta Costera, one of my favorite spots to walk, jog or run is Parque Omar. Further from most hotels and a bit off the tourist path, it is easy to miss. The Park’s 3.5km loop offers some gentle, mini-hills, a nice sampling of Panama’s plethora of tree species as well as some great green space for wind sprints and stretching.
Before becoming Parque Omar, the space was home to Panama’s first golf club. In the 1970’s, under the rule of General Omar Torrijos, the club was made into a public park. As you run/explore, you’ll see numerous sculptures, artistic endeavors, and historic buildings.
After your run, stop by one of the juice stands near the front of the park to try a new fruit (they have the widest range of juices I’ve seen in Panama City – have you ever heard of borojo?!) or go for the all-time, electrolyte-filled classic, the agua de pipa (coconut water).
The park is usually open from 4am to 10pm, but it is worthwhile to double-check the hours before heading out as the schedule occasionally changes for construction etc.
If you’re looking to run a race while in Panama, see: http://www.corredoresdelistmo.com/web/ Running is increasingly popular in Panama City, and it seems that there is a race almost every weekend!
The Aji Chombo, the black pepper, the famous Panamanian scotch bonnet! Ranging from 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville Heat Units (far outpacing the jalapeno's 2,500 to 8,000 units), this national sauce adds kick to any dish! The recipe for this smoking sauce is attributed to Antillean-Panamanians who largely traveled to Panama to work on the construction of the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal.
Rio Abajo was originally home to Afro-Antillean canal workers, and the food reflects the neighborhood’s heritage. Between 13th and 14th streets on Via España, you’ll find a row of fondas (inexpensive restaurants that are usually family run) offering traditional Afro-Antillean Panamanian dishes. We chose to stop at Donde Francis, a sparsely decorated, open-air restaurant (tip: if it looks like it is going to rain, choose a seat in the center of the restaurant as the rain sometimes flies in!). A friend from Rio Abajo also highly recommended neighboring Donde Fanso.
Don’t let the informal appearance dissuade you – this place has mouth-watering cuisine! We tested five-star bacalao (salted cod) with ackee, perfectly cooked arroz con coco y frijoles (coconut rice with beans) as well as the ever-famous saus (pigs feet soaked in vinegar and chile peppers – pigs feet ceviche, almost!). My Panamanian family tells me that I will not be fully Panamanian until I can devour a juicy pig’s foot, but I still have yet to find the stomach to consume one of these treats. My fellow diners, however, ranked the saus at Donde Francis as excellent.
During the week many of these fondas offer just the basic staples, catering to day workers who stop in for a simple bite to eat. From Friday evening to Sunday, the menu expands and changes according to what’s fresh. Aim to arrive early for a weekend meal – the fondas are small and tend to fill up. Most of the fondas also offer carryout. Bring cash, as many of these fondas do not accept credit cards.
Donde Francis and Donde Fanso are located between Calle 13 and Calle 14 on Via España. There is parking available just behind the restaurants as well as nearby Metrobus stops.
The all-time, well-priced classic? El Trapiche! With its principal branch along Via Argentina as well as an outpost at Albrook Mall, El Trapiche has all of the classics! Go here for sancocho (typical Panamanian chicken soup), corvina (sea bass) and fried yucca (a tuber typical in the region), limonada con raspadura (sugar-cane lemonade), tamal de olla (a tamale soup) among other classics. El Trapiche also serves the typical Panamanian breakfast: hojaldre (fried dough without the sugar – also referred to as a Panamanian pancake on some menus) and a thin beefsteak. Talk about a hearty start to the morning! The restaurant is typically filled with as many locals as tourists.
For gourmet Panamanian cuisine, I love Riesen. Owned by a young Panamanian chef and operated on the first floor of his home, the menu offers inventive twists that give new life to Panamanian classics and local ingredients. I particularly enjoy the appetizers here - churros made from ñame root, hojaldres dressed with pork and guava barbeque sauce, daintly prepared torrejas de maiz (corn fritters) . . . and leave space for dessert! The Mama Lllena, literally the full mama, is a rum drenched, delicious Panamanian bread pudding creation. The menu changes monthly and the restaurant is small – I’d recommend making reservations beforehand. This is our go-to splurge restaurant when we have visitors in town.