23 NOVEMBER 2018 • 5:13PM
The waistline of the Americas, Panama is often overshadowed by its better known neighbours – Costa Rica and Colombia – much like a middle child sandwiched between an older and younger offspring.
Yet contrary to public perception, Panama offers cruise passengers more than merely a massive canal. The central America nation serves up palm-studded beaches, fabulous cuisine, UNESCO World Heritage sites, cloud forests and coffee farms, nightlife that’s as buzzy or as laidback as you’d like and adrenaline filled adventures (read: zipping through rainforest canopies).
Factor in warm hearted locals and you have, arguably, the most alluring of all the countries of Central America.
Cruise port location
Cruise ships dock in Colon, the second largest city in Panama which sits 60km (40 miles) northwest of Panama City at the Caribbean entrance to the famous canal. The two main cruise ship docking areas are the modern Colon 2000 (which, as its name suggests, was constructed at the start of the millennium) and the nearby Cristobal Pier.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
If shopping is your bag, then Colon’s two cruise terminals (both within easy walking distance) won’t disappoint. As the Caribbean’s second-largest duty free port, Colon 2000 is home to a supersized shopping mall selling jewellery, electronics, cosmetics, perfumes et al for a fraction of the usual retail price.
Meanwhile the smaller Cristobal Pier, approximately five kilometres from Colon 2000, is the place pick up local craftwork (think woven baskets and embroidered tablecloths), while catching a folklore show.
Colon proper is best avoided: despite the government’s best efforts to give the city a facelift, it remains a largely unattractive destination, with a (tad overhyped) reputation for danger.
Panama boasts an efficient bus system with regular (comfortable) buses to the country’s most captivating destinations. Keep in mind, however, that unless you have a good grasp of Spanish, it can be difficult to communicate your destination to the driver.
Taxis tend to be your best bet for short distances: they’re cheap and plentiful – just be sure to settle on a fare before getting in, as Panamanian taxis don’t have metres. Uber is a reliable alternative.
If you’re not fussed about flexibility and/or exploring independently, book a ship-sponsored excursion before arrival.
What to see and do
Whether you want to let your hair down in Panama City, the county’s dynamic capital, top up the tan or meet the indigenous groups with their ancient traditions, Panama can provide.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Don’t get stuck around Colon. Instead take a taxi or arrange an excursion to Portobelo, a charming colonial town that once served as the greatest Spanish port in Central America, to explore the ruins of several Spanish forts.
Of course no visit to Panama is complete without visiting the eponymous canal, an awe-inspiring modern engineering marvel that was built by the U.S. between 1904 and 1914. Spend even the smallest amount of time chatting to a Panamanian and you’ll soon discover that they are mightily proud of the world's most famous shortcut that links the Atlantic and the Pacific.
However if you all want to do is laze on a beach, look to Langosta with its sparkling white sand. Sometimes referred to as Playa La Angosta, the grand dame of the province's beaches offers a welcome respite from gritty Colon.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Spend a morning on the viewing platform at the impressive visitors’ centre at Miraflores Locks, watching colossal cargo ships cruise through the Panama Canal.
Ticked off this bucket-list item? It’s time to check out Panama City, Central America's most cosmopolitan capital whose skyline is dotted with steel skyscrapers and colossal cathedrals to consumerism. That said, it is possible to step back in time over in Casco Viejo – which was built after an Englishman, Captain Henry Morgan, ransacked the original Spanish settlement back in 1671. Film fans will recognise this UNESCO world heritage listed barrio (neighbourhood) from Bond flicks Quantum of Solace and The Tailor of Panama. Amble along the quaint cobblestone streets, pausing to admire the pastel-coloured colonial buildings (Panama’s past is reflected in its architecture), before stopping for a sundowner on the rooftop of Tantalo.
If you’re staying put in Panama for a few days, seek out the San Blas islands. Perched of the coast of Panama, these 365 islands are controlled by the fiercely independent self governing Guna Yala (the first indigenous group to gain autonomy in Latin America) and are the perfect place to play at being Robinson Crusoe.
Eat and drink
Local specialties to sample include a dish of Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), patacones (fried plantains), zesty ceviche (spiced fish, cooked with onions and lemon juice) and, finally, flan (a rich egg custard dusted with caramelised sugar). Coca Cola cafe, Panama City’s oldest cafe, is a good place to get stuck into these staples.
Don’t leave Panama without…
Purchasing a Panama hat. These brimmed hats were actually invented in Ecuador but have been associated with Panama since the 19th century when workers on the Panama Canal wore them to protect their heads from the tropical sun.
On a visit to the Panama Canal construction site in 1906, US President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed wearing a Panama hat. The picture went on to appear in The New York Times and subsequently the headwear became known as Panama hats.
Step back in time in the old city centre of Casco Viejo, Panama City CREDIT: ISTOCK
Need to know
At present, there are no direct flights from the UK. The quickest route is around 15 hours and usually includes a short stop in either Madrid or the States.
Let’s face facts: Panama is unlikely to ever make into the list of the ‘World's safest destinations’ but don’t be deterred from visiting: most of the violence is between the different pandillas (gangs) and tourists are rarely, if ever, targeted.
Simpy exercise the same caution and common sense as you would anywhere in Latin America and avoid wandering alone, off the beaten track, at night.
Best time to go
Panama is subtropical and warm year round. There’s rainfall on the Caribbean coast year round; on the Pacific side, mid-December to mid-May is driest.
Shops are usually open for business from Monday-Saturday, save for public holidays when they close. Museums typically open Tuesday-Saturday, with some also open on Sunday mornings.