By Jisel Parilla
Contributing writer to Latinworld.com
Panama City is best known as being home to one end of the Panama Canal, but if you’re looking for adventure and fun around the city, there’s more to do than watch cargo boats transit for hours on end. Thanks to its small size, day trips from the city are plentiful and varied, so rent a car, hire a driver or take a bus; you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
If you decide to hire a taxi, my two favorite drivers are Mondi (6625-4631; ) and Hector 6686-8127 (cell); 237-6220 (home). Neither speaks English, but both are reliable and charge fair rates.
Isla Grande and Isla Taboga: On the Caribbean side, Isla Grande has a nice beach ($2 fee) as well as a few restaurants and bars to keep you busy for the day. On the Pacific side, check out Isla Taboga. There’s a good Mexican restaurant here at the Vereda Tropical Hotel, a decent beach and not much else, but it’s pleasant enough if you’re just looking to get away from the city and spend a day at the beach.
How to Get Here: Isla Grande: Rent a car or hire a taxi from Panama City. Take the Corredor Norte, turn onto the Transistmica Highway past Portobelo to the pier at La Guaira. You’ll have to take a $3 water taxi from here. To Isla Taboga: Take a 30 minute ferry from Isla Naos at the Amador Causeway. Tickets are $11 round trip. Call 314-1730 to confirm departure times – they change slightly from time to time.
Gamboa: Gamboa is great for nature-lovers and families traveling with small children. Soberania National Park is perfect for a hiking, and bird-watching opportunities abound on Pipeline Road. Those wanting to take it to the water can try a fishing excursion or a jungle cruise on Lake Gatun. If it’s too much effort to scope out wildlife in its natural habitat, the Summit Gardens Park and Zoo makes it easy, and kids will love seeing exotic animals such as tapirs and jaguars. If it’s a cultural experience you’re looking for, check out the tiny Embera Indian villages that dot the Chagres River. You can shop for crafts, learn about traditional dances and enjoy a tasty Embera lunch.
How to get here: It’s about a 45 minute ride from Panama City to Gamboa. Ancon expeditions, a very reputable Panamanian tour company, offers jungle and Embera tours for about $100 per person. Fishing excursions start at $200 for two people (Cahill’s Fishing; ), but you’re pretty much guaranteed to catch something. If you want to visit the parks, you can hire a driver (about $35-$40 roundtrip – up to $150 if they wait for you and take you to multiple destinations), or rent a car from Panama City. You can get here for cheap on bus, but if you’re not going to the Miraflor Locks at the Canal, you’ll have to take a taxi from here to wherever you’re going.
Colon: This city has a bad reputation for being dangerous and unattractive, and the truth is, unless you’re a large-scale merchant looking to do a little shopping in the duty-free zone, there’s really not much to do. Instead of spending time in Colon, I recommend taking the train on the Panama Canal Railroad. The roundtrip costs $22 and takes 1 hour each way. It’s definitely the nicest way to see the Gamboa area, and kids will enjoy its “old-time” feel. Keep in mind that the train leaves Panama City (from the Corozal Train Station) around 7am and doesn’t leave Colon until 5pm, so you’ll have to take a taxi from Colon to Gamboa, the Canal, or wherever you plan to visit for the day.
The Pacific Beaches: The Pacific beaches (Playa Bonita, Playa Gorgona, Playa Coronado, Playa el Palmar Santa Clara and Playa Blanca) are close enough to visit as part of a day trip. Playa Gorgona and Playa Coronado are the closest to the city. The beaches can get crowded on weekends but are strangely empty on weekdays. They’re definitely not as picturesque as Panama’s Caribbean beaches, but there are four golf courses, plenty of restaurants and a few excellent all-inclusive resorts – some as cheap as $60 a night — if you want to make it a weekend getaway. If you have a chance, try Restaurant Vista Mar, considered one of Panama’s best restaurants and known for their fresh, Mediterranean style seafood.
How to Get Here: You can rent a car from Panama City, hire a driver or take a bus. If you’re driving yourself, cross the Puente Centenario to get to the Interamericana Highway. Beaches are pretty well-marked by highway signs. It’s also pretty easy (and cheap) to take a bus to the beaches. Buses leave from the Albrook bus station and drop you off about 2km-5km from whatever beach you’re going to. From there, it’s a short $4-$5 taxi.
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