Mention Panama and most people think of the canal. This small country which links North and South America and connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, however, is home to a great deal more than an impressive canal, and with direct flights from Cayman to Panama City beginning on 28 May this year with Cayman Airways, there are plenty of reasons to visit this Central American republic.
Visitors from Cayman craving a bit of big city atmosphere will not be disappointed in Panama. Panama City is a frenetic, multicultural city boasting sky scrapers, bumper to bumper traffic, a charming old quarter, fine dining and world class shopping opportunities. A must for retail-starved Cayman residents is the Multiplaza Pacific, the largest mall in Central America with some 280 shops including a wide variety of designer and brand name stores. The Allbrook Mall is also a great place to spend a day treating yourself to some non-essential purchases.
The engineering feat of the 20th Century, the Panama Canal continues to be the number one attraction for visitors to the country. A monumental watery stairway, ships have been crossing from one ocean to another through this complex system of locks for almost a century. The Miraflores locks – one of three sets of locks – are open to the public and visitors have the chance to see vast, transcontinental ships being raised (or lowered depending on the direction of travel) a total of eight metres as they journey from one ocean to another. A visitor’s centre provides accompanying information and videos and it is even possible to take a mini cruise through the canal.
Panama may be small in size, but it’s huge in diversity, and even bigger in biodiversity. You could be enjoying the sophisticated shopping and dining of Panama City in the morning and find yourself in a largely untouched wilderness in the afternoon.
Panama boasts great swathes of tropical forest, mountain ranges criss-crossed by rivers, Pacific and Caribbean coasts, and more.
It’s in the rainforest that you will find the greatest variety of life – both in terms of flora and fauna: towering trees, shrubs, ferns, mosses, vines and more provide shelter to exotic birds like toucans and resplendent quetzals; monkeys can be seen jumping from branch to branch and those with a keen eye might spot a sleeping sloth. In addition to the 300 mammals and 900 bird species recorded in Panama, you are likely to see colourful frogs, butterflies and countless insects.
Coast to Coast
Panama boasts an impressive 2,210 kilometres of coastline, with the Caribbean Sea off its northern coast and the Pacific Ocean off its southern coast. In addition to the coastline of the isthmus, there are over 1,000 islands scattered across both sides, making Panama the ultimate destination for those seeking deserted beaches, untouched tropical islands and abundant marine life. The idyllic Bocas del Toro archipelago near the border with Costa Rica consists of six densely forested islands and many uninhabited islets where nothing happens fast. Lush forests, pristine beaches, schools of fish and some great surf breaks are all there for the taking. Development is occurring fast however, so visit sooner rather than later.
In the Pacific, the Isla de Coiba, once a penal colony in the gulf of Chiriqui, is now a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because access was severely restricted while it was a penal colony, 80 per cent of the island’s natural resources have flourished, untouched by human activity. Eco tours, scuba diving and fishing trips can be arranged although there is only one place to stay overnight on the island.
The 350-odd San Blas islands, which are strung out along some 160 km, are home to the indigenous Kuna Yala tribe who have self governing authority over the islands. The Kuna continue to practice their ancient customs and traditions, largely unaffected by the outside world. Just a 20 minute plane ride from Panama City, you might feel you have stepped back in time a thousand years. It’s a unique opportunity to meet indigenous people who still speak their own tribal language, have their own distinctive dress, music and dance.
You can also find your own idyllic island to spend a Robinson Crusoe day on, with superb snorkelling thrown in.
Colon Free Trade Zone
Local business people have the opportunity to make some useful contacts and enjoy discounted wholesale prices at the Colon Free Trade Zone, a free trade zone where tax deductions and other incentives are granted to both sellers and buyers.