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The Ultimate Panama Road Trip

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 10 March 2008 12:57
Panama Road TripPanama is a country rich with contrasts and some of the most remarkable experiences lie in the Republic's interior where quiet fishing towns and spanning mountain views sit below the tourism radar of large tour busses and domestic air flights. Panama's excellent infrastructure (even in remote regions) and manageable compactness as an isthmus make it the ultimate road trip destination.
Our ultimate Panama road trip spans one week and covers many of the nation's up-and-coming travel destinations not yet offered in guidebooks or by travel agencies. Our rough itinerary can be sandwiched by a quick trip to San Blas or the Pearl Islands but for the most part, it will demonstrate the intricate beauty Panama has to offer from an eye-level, real McCoy traveler point of view.

Day 1: Start off by renting your car as you fly into Tocumen International Airport where you can choose from a number of different agency options: we recommend you opt for an SUV, but if you're on a budget, small gas-efficient sedans are fine too. Stay into Panama City for the first night: As the country's capital, Panama City offers great dining, stellar nightlife, and more hotels (although not nearly enough) than any other province. If you're in town long enough, visit the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, the California-like Amador Causeway, or Casco Antiguo historic district. Get a good night's sleep and be ready to go early in the AM.

Day 2: Head westward out of the city, stopping at El Rey supermarket to stock up on drinks and snacks. Take the Inter-American (a beautiful 4-lane highway) out to El Valle (1.5 hours), a quaint eco-town set in the valley of an extinct volcano. Take a dip in the hotsprings, visit the giant waterfall, swing past the Nispero Zoo, and grab lunch at the local market (best on weekends) or at one of El Valle's cute roadside cafes.

Find your way back to the main road and continue west (about 50) minutes to the beach town of Santa Clara (the nicest, closest beach to Panama City). Rent a room for the night in one of the beach front cabanas or pop your tent on the sand. Enjoy a lazy dinner of fried fish, plantains, and fresh ceviche on the beach and wash it all down with a few cold beers as the sun sets. Digest in the droopy hammocks and let the ocean waves woo you to sleep. Life is good.

Day 3: Take a morning dip in the ocean; there's no feeling like it. Enjoy a nice breakfast of fresh mangoes and pineapples, then load up the car and continue out on the Inter-American west, stopping in Penonome (20 minutes) at the traditional Cuban cigar factory where you can buy a box of stogies from old women who just rolled them. How cool!

Get back on the road, hanging a left at the crossroads town of Divisa (under 1 hour), heading into the Azuero Peninsula, Panama's nucleus of culture and tradition. Meander down the coast stopping roadside for a lunch of roasted chicken in Chitre (about 30 minutes), handmade fireworks in Guarare, and an afternoon snow cone in Las Tablas. Eventually find your way down to the town of Pedasi (about 1 hour) for the night where you can choose from one of the cheap hotels on the main strip or set up shop on the beach and hang out with locals. If you arrive with enough sunlight, take a trip out the pristine Isla Iguana for snorkeling. There are also two luxury hotels on the beach to choose from which are worth the splurge if possible.

Day 4: Continue south into the Azuero Peninsula, stopping at renowned Playa Venao for a surfing lesson and a breakfast of fried tortillas, fried eggs and fried hot dogs. Only a bit further down the coast lies Isla Canas, a small island community where the leatherback turtles nest in season. Park your car in the gravel lot just off the main road, hit the metal tire rim hanging from the tree to signal a boat pick up, and spend the morning exploring an island not many foreigners have ever seen.

Hop back into the car and find your way down to the sleepy, yet time-honored town of Tonosi (about 1 hour from Pedasi) for a game of pool with the locals. Have lunch at the Hotel Boamy, a far cry from your local Mariott: have Bolivar and his wife prepare for you their special of the day. From Tonosi, take the little-traveled road (don't know the name) that cuts up through the peninsula towards Panama's hub-city of Santiago where you'll stay the night.

This road is beautiful (though rocky at times) and will serve as photograph central for a trip album at the end. Notice the men on the side of the road selling live birds and crabs on strings. Love them! Make your way to Santiago for the night, one of Panama's largest cities outside of the capital.

Day 5: Continuing on the Inter-American Highway, keeping an eye out for grilling stations along the side of the road who make killer strip steaks and smoked sea bass. Make your way up to Boquete (about 3 hours north-west); Panama's booming eco-village in the mountains. Explore the destination dubbed Anytown, USA with cool breezes and a whimsical vibe. Stay the night under a blanket in any of Boquete's boutique hotels.

Day 6: Drive down to the Pacific Coastal town of Boca Chica and explore outlying islands of Boca Brava and Islas Secas. This archipelago-of-sorts offers white sand beaches, tiny rock islands, and not another tourist in sight. Either rent out a local panga for the day or use the services of one of the areas luxurious boutique hotels. Get a massage, enjoy a great meal, and watch as the sun sets over some of Panama's most beautiful unknown lands.

Day 7: Spend the day driving back to Panama City. The route is straightforward, literally a straight shot along the Inter-American Highway (about 6.5 hours). Reach Panama City and immediately check yourself into one of the city's spas for a long massage, steam bath, and sauna session. Take a long nap before you hit one of the City's best restaurants for dinner. Panama City's bar and club scene will act as the perfect end to your ultimate Panama road trip.

Having a loose plan is the key to road trip success in Panama. It's a country full of contrasts and balancing luxury with ruggedness, beach with mountains, and planning with spontaneity is key. Do be sure to have some highlights in mind, but also be flexible as some of the best experiences are off the beaten path. Catch a last-minute cock fight in Tonosi for example, or wander into a jungle somewhere amidst Cocle to see a jaguar or hidden waterfall. Gas stations are fairly commonplace, though in more remote regions like Azuero, they should be expected only in the larger towns. Traffic should not be an issue, but do keep a few $5 bills handy for the occasional speed trap.

Suggested accommodations:

Panama City: Los Cuatro Tulipanes in Casco Viejo, luxury apartments for rent in historic district

Santa Clara: Las Sirenas, quaint beachfront bungalows with a/c and pool

Pedasi: Posada de los Destiladeros, unique beachfront eco-ish hotel

Santiago: La Hacienda, originally Mexican hotel oasis in Santiago. Hot water, cable tv, great food

Boquete: Rio Alto Suites, luxury living in Boquete's mountains

Boca Chica: Cala Mia, luxurious eco-resort on island of Boca Brava, amazing restaurant
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Great trip!
written by On the dot! , March 10, 2008
Awesome.
Maybe I'm wrong but you are one of the very few who writes about the wonders of the Azuero peninsula. All other bloggers who write about Panama countryside are very limited in their knowledge about this country's diversity. Their reports are limited to Chiriqui, Bocas del Toro and a few beaches in the province of Cocle. I'm really glad that somebody with a freer spirit and with a wider vision like you spotted and suggested the Azuero peninsula with all its charms.
Great.
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Amazing ideas
written by ChicagoKid , March 10, 2008
All i see advertised online is tour groups and vacation packages. But THIS is really a trip! Thanks for all the helpful insight. Will be sending all my friends your way!
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Felicidades
written by Panameno , March 10, 2008
I've lived here as an expatriate for 34 years and this is undoubtedly the most resourceful and unique site on the web. Congrats team.
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Thanks all
written by Mateo , May 02, 2008
Thanks for the wonderful comments folks! Good to see that people enjoy the site. Although it's hard to do this wonderful country justice through words, we hope you explore and enjoy the isthmus as much as we do! smilies/grin.gif
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 22:18
 
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