FODOR'S GO LIST 2015
The top 25 places we think should be on every traveler's radar this year.More
Thanks to its proximity to forest, canal, and ocean, Panama City offers plenty of options for enjoying the outdoors, which include hiking in the world's largest chunk of urban rain forest, biking down the causeway, navigating the Panama Canal, and white-water rafting in the jungle.
Because of the silt that the Panama Canal dumps into the ocean and the sewage from Panama City, the beaches near the city are not recommended for swimming. Some of the country's nicest Pacific beaches are on Isla Contadora, a 90-minute ferry ride, or 20-minute flight from the city. For clear water nearer to Panama City, head to Isla Taboga, a 60-minute ferry ride from the Calzada de Amador, which is a popular day trip. The closest beach to Panama City is Playa Bonita (Playa Kobbe), which is 8 km (5 miles) southwest of the city, across the canal. It is the site of the Intercontinental and Westin Playa Bonita resorts, where the only option for beach access for nonguests is to make lunch reservations at the hotels' beachfront restaurants.
Bicicletas Moses. This bike shop rents an array of bikes for riding on the causeway. The shop is open Monday through Friday from 9 to 7:30, Saturday from 9 to 8, and Sunday from 8 to 7:30. Behind Las Pencas, Calzada de Amador, Calzada de Amador, Panama City. 507/211–3671.
Panama City has world-class bird-watching as close as the Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is home to more than 200 avian species and is 20 minutes from most hotels. There are several spots in nearby Parque Nacional Soberanía, which has more than 400 bird species, within 40 minutes of downtown, including Pipeline Road, where the Panama Audubon Society has held several world-record Christmas bird counts. Unless you're an expert, you're best off going with an experienced birding guide. Several local tour companies can set you up with a private guide or can book you onto an existing trip, which is less expensive. You may need to call several companies to find a trip for your dates, though.
Advantage Panama. This small nature tourism company offers early-morning tours of Parque Natural Metropolitano and day trips to Parque Nacional Soberanía. The company can also arrange custom trips to other protected areas. Llanos de Curundú No. 2006, Curundú, Panama City. 507/6676–2466. www.advantagepanama.com.
Ancon Expeditions. This company has excellent guides and offers day tours to protected areas near the capital, including exploration of the forest canopy of Parque Natural Metropolitano using a modified construction crane, bird watching in Parque Nacional Soberanía, and a popular boat trip on Gatún Lake that is great for families. Calle Elvira Mendez, Edificio El Dorado No. 3, Area Bancária, Panama City. 507/269–9415. www.anconexpeditions.com.
Eco Circuitos Panama. Since 1999, this ecotourism company has been offering birding tours to Parque Nacional Soberanía, near the city, and the San Lorenzo area, on the Caribbean coast, and spots in between. Albrook Plaza, No. 31, Urbanización Albrook, Albrook, Panama City. 507/315–1305. www.ecocircuitos.com.
Panama Audubon Society. The society runs one or two inexpensive bird walks, or overnight excursions per month. They require a bit of self-sufficiency, but can be a great way to meet local birders. Casa #2006-B, Altos de Curundú, Panama City. 507/232–5977. www.panamaaudubon.org.
Panoramic Panama. This small company offers birding tours to areas in nearby Soberanía National Park, and can set up customized trips. Quarry Heights, Casa #35, Cerro Ancón, Panama City. 507/314–1417. www.panoramicpanama.com.
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). This research institute offers full-day trips to Barro Colorado Island that combine bird-watching with general information on tropical ecology. Tours should be booked a couple weeks ahead of time, either through the STRI office, or one of the other tour operators, which charge more, but will pick you up at your hotel. Tupper Center, Av. Roosevelt, Cerro Ancón, Panama City. 507/228–8000. www.stri.org.
Although the canal is impressive when admired from any of the city's various viewing points, there's nothing quite like getting onto the water and navigating it amidst the giant cargo ships. People spend thousands of dollars on cruises that include a canal crossing, but you can have the same experience for $120 to $160, and spend the night in a spacious hotel room. Two companies offer partial transit tours, which travel through the canal's Pacific locks and Gaillard Cut, and occasional full transits, which take you from one ocean to the other. All transits are accompanied by an expert bilingual guide. Full transits include a Continental breakfast and a simple lunch. Partial transits travel between the islands at the end of the Amador Causeway and the port of Gamboa, on Gatún Lake, a trip that lasts 4–5 hours. Full transits take place once or twice a month and last 8–9 hours. Either trip is an unforgettable experience, fit for travelers of all ages.
Canal Bay Tours. This tour company offers partial and full transit tours on one of three ships: the 115-foot Fantasía del Mar, which has air-conditioned cabins and a large upper deck; the 85-foot Isla Morada, which has one large covered deck; and the 117-foot Tuira II, which has two covered decks. Partial transits cost $115 for adults and $60 for children; less frequent full transits, $165 adults and $75 children. Bahía Balboa Building, next to Nunciatura, Punta Paitilla, Panama City. 507/209–2009. www.canalandbaytours.com.
Panama Marine Adventures. Panama Marine Adventures runs canal transits on the 119-foot Pacific Queen, a comfortable ship with air-conditioned cabins and two large decks. Partial transits cost $120 for adults and $65 for children; full transits, $175 adults and $75 children. Villa Porras and Calle Belén, No. 106, San Francisco, Panama City. 507/226–8917. www.pmatours.net.
Summit Golf Resort. The resort has an 18-hole, par-72 championship course designed by Jeff Myers that is hemmed by the rain forest of Camino de Cruces National Park. It's 30 minutes from most hotels, and is open to nonguests. Greens fees are $90, golf cart included, and club rentals cost $35. The course is open 6–6, and the earlier or later you play it, the less you'll sweat. 20 km (12 mi) northwest of town on road to Gamboa, Gaillard Rd., Panama City. 507/232–4653. www.summitgolfpanama.com.
The hiking options near Panama City range from the 40-minute trek to the top of Cerro Ancón to more demanding expeditions into the vast lowland forest of Parque Nacional Soberanía. The Parque Natural Metropolitano has five well-marked trails covering a total of about 5 km (3 miles), which range from flat stretches to a steep road up to a viewpoint. Parque Nacional Soberanía has several trails ranging from the historic Camino de Cruces to the shorter Sendero el Charco, which is on the right after Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo.
Advantage Panama. The company can arrange custom tours for hiking enthusiasts. Llanos de Curundú No. 2006, Curundú, Panama City. 507/6676–2466. www.advantagepanama.com.
Eco Circuitos Panama. Half- and full-day tours are offered that include hiking in Parque Natural Metropolitano, Parque Nacional Soberanía, or the hills around El Valle de Antón. Albrook Plaza, No. 31, Urbanización Albrook, Albrook, Panama City. 507/315–1305. www.ecocircuitos.com.
The Bay of Panama has good sportfishing, but the best fishing is around and beyond the Pearl Islands, which are best fished out of Isla Contadora, a short flight, or ferry ride from the city. Day charters are available out of Panama City and usually head to the area around Isla Otoque and Isla Bono, which are about 90 minutes southwest of the city. You have a chance of hooking mackerel, jack, tuna, roosterfish, or wahoo in that area (billfish are less common there than in other parts of the country). A closer, less expensive option is light-tackle fishing for snook and peacock bass in Gatún Lake, the vast man-made lake in the middle of the Panama Canal. The lake is full of South American peacock bass, which fight like a smallmouth bass but can reach 8–10 pounds.
Panama Canal Fishing. This is the premier operator for freshwater fishing on Gatún Lake, which is famous for its peacock bass. Tours can be catered to serious anglers, beginners, or families, since they also include wildlife observation and views of ships on the canal. An all-inclusive day of fishing for two people costs $345 and $25 per extra angler, up to six per boat. They also offer snook and tarpon fishing on the Bayano River. Panama City. 315–1905 or 6678–2653. www.panamacanalfishing.com.
Panama Fishing and Catching. Captain Tony offers bass and snook fishing on Gatún Lake ($450); snook and tarpon fishing on the Bayano River ($490); and deep-sea fishing charters in the Bay of Panama for mahi mahi, jacks, wahoo, tuna, sailfish, and ocassionally marlin ($1,500–$2,000 per day). Panama City. 507/6622–0212 or 507/6505–9553. www.panamafishingandcatching.com.
Aventuras Panama. Aventuras Panama runs white-water rafting trips on the Chagres River (Class II–III), which flows through the rain forests. The full-day trip requires no previous rafting experience, is available from May to late March, and costs $175 per person. A shorter, more challenging trip on the Mamoní River (Class III–IV), which flows through an agricultural area, is available from June to January, and costs $125. They also offer kayaking tours on Lago Gatún, the Chagres River, and alone the Caribbean coast near Portobelo. Edif. Celma Of 3, Calle El Parcial, 1½ blocks west of Transístmica, Panama City. 507/260–0044 or 507/6679–4404. www.aventuraspanama.com.