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Self-drive Panama: Discover the Pacific Coast

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With its laid-back, peaceful ambience, sunny weather and genial people, Panama is an increasingly popular destination for visitors who want to widen their horizons beyond the capital city and the Canal.  It’s easy to see why - there’s a string of natural and cultural delights studding the mostly flawless Pacific coastline and its hinterland of cloud forest-clad mountains.

But what’s the best way to explore them? The charm of these highlights is enhanced by their feeling of remoteness, but they are in fact easily accessed by an expanding network of blissfully smooth highways and virtually vehicle-free paved rural roads. So we are excited by our new self-drive holiday, devised to guide you to discover our best-loved spots in Panama and rest up at a few of our favourite hotels and lodges. 

Driving is utterly pleasurable and mostly easy-going as you cruise along an innovative route we’ve devised from first-hand experience.  Armed with Wifi, your map and plenty of advice and tips exclusive to Journey Latin America, you will progress at a leisurely pace with plenty of opportunities to stop and discover hidden corners of this amiable country.

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Transfer to your hotel in the historic centre of Panama City, Casco Viejo.

Day 2

Guided tour of the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo

Day 3

Collect your hire car and drive to El Valle de Anton.

Day 4

Drive from El Valle to Chitre on the Azuero Peninsula.

Day 5

Drive from Chitre to Playa Venao via Pese and Pedasi

Day 6

At leisure in Playa Venao.

Day 7

Drive from Playa Venao to Boca Chica via Sona and Puerto Vidal.

Day 8

At leisure on Boca Brava Island.

Day 9

Further opportunities to explore Boca Brava.

Day 10

Drive from Boca Chica to Boquete via Cerro Punta.

Day 11

At leisure in the Boquete area.

Day 12

Drive from Boquete to David, drop off car. Fly back to Panama City.

Day 13

Guided boat tour on Gatún lake; transfer to the airport for your international flight.

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Places visited on this holiday

Self-drive Panama: Discover the Pacific Coast

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Panama City
Panama City

Panama City is more cosmopolitan than Latin, and enjoys a strategic position which has led to an eventful history, with immigrants arriving from all over the world. On the Pacific coast Panama la Vieja, the first Spanish colonial site of the city and a conduit for plundered gold and oriental silks and spices was sacked by pirates and abandoned. The city moved to what is now known as Casco Viejo where vestiges of colonial streets and buildings have been restored, cocktail bars and trendy restaurants have opened and a lively cultural hub has been established. The sky-scraper filled modern city, hub of commerce and international trade linked to the Panama Canal is an energetic quarter buzzing with shopping malls, sophisticated restaurants and entertainment. Away from the bustle along the Pacific coast, you’ll find relaxed resort hotels with a multitude of activities.

When to go

Situated well within the tropics, Panama City has a typical tropical climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. May-Nov is rainy season. The city lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are a few ATMs in the city where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply advances on a debit or credit card. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations. 

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

 A couple of days staying in Soberanía National Park, where residents include a large variety of mammals, amphibians and reptiles, as well as a profusion of bird species.

Getting there

There are flights via US and European hubs, the journey from London takes around taking around 13 hours.

Key events
Carnival, Feb-Mar. is celebrated with much gusto in Panama City: costumed revelry, music and dancing culminate in a big Shrove Tuesday parade.
Semana Santa, Easter. Celebrated with religious processions. 
Independence Day, 4 Nov. A huge parade through the old city. 

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Azuero Peninsula and Pacific coast
The Pacific coast of Panama is a relatively wild region as yet little visited by tourists but no doubt that will change as condos, hotels and second homes are encroaching on what were pristine shores. The beaches around Boca Chica promise excellent surfing. Just 50km offshore, the Pearl Islands compose an archipelago of over 100 tiny islands, mainly uninhabited. Traditionally popular with anglers in search of Pacific mackerel, red snapper and marlin these islands have grown in popularity due to the crystal clear water, stunning beaches, good diving and sailing.

Panamanians refer to the Azuero Peninsula as the ‘heartland’ of their country, with its mix of indigenous heritage, vibrant contemporary Spanish-inspired culture and cattle-raising. The region certainly sits slap bang in the centre of the country, on the Pacific side, and as such is often overlooked by those visiting the capital, canal or highlands of the west.

The Azuero has a rich history dating back to pre-Columbian indigenous groups, as testified by the many artifacts and ceremonial sites uncovered by archaeologists. Pottery discovered here is among the most intricate of all pre-Columbian craft, with brightly coloured bird and reptile designs. The indians did not survive the Spanish invasion though, and nowadays there is a distinctly Hispanic tradition, which is best observed in the region’s festivals and colonial architecture. The city of Chitre, the peninsula’s largest, hosts a number of important and popular fiestas, notably at Carnival. The historic villages of Parita and Las Minas are worth a visit, as is the Sarigua National Park, which has an important archaeological site but which is now almost a desert following the decimation of its forests.

The Pacific coast tends to be drier than other parts of the country, but its remote beaches are some of the best in Panama.

The Azuero Peninsula can be added to any Panama holiday or makes a great cultural addition when visiting neighboring countries. For an example itinerary see the Panama's Cultural Heartland - The Azuero Peninsula extension to our Signature Panama: Canal, Wildlife and Beach holiday.  

Combines with

Panama City and the canal region (6hrs’ drive), a few days at a rural retreat in Boquete ( 5-6 hrs scenic drive) with a visit to a coffee farm; Boca Chica – 3hrs’ drive  to the west along a scenic road on the Pacific coast - the gateway to the Gulf of Chiriquí Marine National Park with its many luxuriant green islands, palm-tree-fringed white beaches and a variety of wildlife.

Getting local currency

The national currency, the balboa, is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There’s an ATM in Chitre where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, and amounts may be limited. You are best advised to acquire dollar bills before travelling to the province. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Getting there

At the moment (2015) there are no domestic flights by light aircraft from Panama City to Chitre although there is a usable airstrip there;  by road it’s a journey of about 3hrs.

Key events

Chitre: Carnival (Mardi Gras) with dancing and water flights; Fiesta de San Juan Batista, patron saint of Chitre, 24 June with bullfights (no killing); city foundation 19 October, with parades and costumes.
Parita: Corpus Christi, with masked dancers;
Ocu: Festival de Manito, August, a 3 day festival dedicated to the maintaining the region’s traditional cultures, with folklore groups; Festival of saint Sebastian, Ocu’s patron saint, January 20-23 approx, with folklore programmes and an agricultural fair.  

Language

Spanish, English and native tongues.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs. 

When to go

Situated within the tropics, the peninsula has a balmy climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. Although there is plenty of sun the drier months  tend to be Feb-Mar and Sep-Oct. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt. 

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Boquete and the Chiriquí Highlands
Coffee Plantation in Boquete Panama

Inland from David on the sultry coast, the highlands of Chiriquí province provide a welcome relief from the humidity. The cool mountain air, rugged mist-shrouded hills, Alpine forests and boulder-strewn rivers come together to create a delightful landscape, while the fertile volcanic soils produce an abundance of coffee and citrus fruits. Visitors flock to the attractive town of Boquete, a centre for outdoor adventures. The volcano Barú (3,475m) looms above the town and River Caldera runs through a steep gorge, while the La Amistad National Park straddles the border with Costa Rica with hiking trails, bathing pools and waterfalls.

When to go

Temperatures in the highlands (1,000m) are uniformly high at 25°C all year round but at altitude the air is much fresher than on the coast. The rainy season is Apr-Nov while Jan-Mar is fairly dry. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish.

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are  ATMs in main towns and cities (including one in Boquete) where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the  UK and amounts may be limited. You are best advised to acquire dollar bills before travelling to the province. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

A beach wind-down on the Caribbean Bocas del Toro archipelago, with 6 large tropical forested islands and scores of smaller ones. The islands have pristine beaches, coral reefs, and excellent snorkelling and diving.

Getting there

It’s a 1 hour flight from Panama City to David, from where it is a 1 hour drive up to Boquete (38 km) on a paved road.

Key Events
Feria de las Flores y del Café: Boquete, Jan. A festival to celebrate flowers and coffee takes place over a two week period starting the second week of the month, during the coffee harvest. It attracts vendors and visitors from well beyond the region.
Independence from Spain Day, Boquete, 28 Nov. A day-long parade of marching bands from all over the country.

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Panama Canal and Soberania National Park
Panama Canal

Panama is a fascinating country but the main draw for visitors is undoubtedly the 77 km Panama Canal linking the Pacific with the Caribbean. This colossal project was completed in 1914 and since then has transformed shipping routes world-wide. In addition to being crucial to international trade it is now a worthwhile tourist attraction. Soberanía National Park fringes the eastern banks of the immense artificial Lake Gatún alongside the canal and is blanketed with a dripping rainforest which explodes with vivacious wildlife, especially tropical birds. The Canal Zone also hosts hiking trails and a railway – the trails were built to transport looted gold - between Panama City and Colón on the Caribbean on mules; the railway was built to aid construction of the canal.

When to go

Panama’s Canal Zone and the rainforest have a typical tropical climate with high temperatures (over 30°C) all year round. May-Nov is rainy season and the flowering months are Apr-May. The region lies outside the main hurricane belt.

Language

Spanish

Getting local currency

Balboa. The national currency is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used. (There are some local coins equivalent to US cents). There are a few ATMs in Panama City where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK, amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply advances on a debit or credit card. Panamanians are sometimes reluctant to accept US dollar notes of higher denominations.

Time difference

GMT -5 hrs.

Combines with

A few days in multi-cultured Panama City, with its history of plundered gold, pirates, and international trade;  Portobelo, east of the Canal at the Caribbean end, a town built on a beautiful bay which much impressed Christopher Columbus who landed there. Its history of pirates and pillage is manifested in its ruined forts and the sunken galleons in the bay, a popular spot for divers.

Getting there

The southern, Pacific end of the Panama Canal is 15 km (20 mins by road) west of Panama City. Soberanía National Park is 28 km from the capital, a drive of 30 mins.

Speak to an expert Travel Consultant or send us your enquiry today.

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Self-drive Panama: Discover the Pacific Coast

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Self-drive Panama: Discover the Pacific Coast

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