Three million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama emerged from the sea and changed the world forever. It divided an ocean and united two continents, triggering one of the most important natural evolutions in the history of the world.
Today, this narrow land bridge between the two Americas is home to more species of birds and trees than the whole of North America. Discover its landscapes, culture and endless tourist activities, all within easy reach.
When to leave :
Panama can be visited all year round, but for the San Blas, the dry season from December to March is also the dry season for the Lobsters! The latter can sometimes reach several kilos!
Guna Yala – San Blas
Founded in 1938 as an autonomous indigenous territory, the region of Guna Yala (San Blas), with its simple beauty, culture, unique and exceptional islands and ancient forests offers an incredible destination away from the vast majority of tourists. Embarking on a sailboat with skipper is the best way to discover the archipelago.
The Guna Yala region is a long, narrow strip of tropical paradise that stretches 5,571 square kilometres along Panama’s Caribbean coast. It also includes more than 365 islands and white sandy beaches that make up the archipelago, among the tropical jungle that abounds with drylands and coral reefs along its coastline. It is a tranquil region that maintains the cultural identity of its ethnic group.
You have to imagine hundreds of small islands a bit like the Maldives but without hotels!
All these islands are maintained by their owner Gunas, while keeping their totally wild aspect. As soon as the boats anchor in the beautiful turquoise blue lagoons, the Gunas will fish for you extraordinary lobsters or multicoloured fish that the sailors will hurry to grill on the beach accompanied by coconut rice.
Please note that scuba diving with a tank is forbidden and that only moderate scuba hunting (roughly what you can eat per day) is tolerated. The Indians protect their environment and help to keep this paradise.
The icing on the cake is that the archipelago of 365 islands is bordered by the San Blas mountain range. The anchorages are magical in front of a deserted island against a backdrop of mountains covered with primary forests!
When kayaking up the Rio Diablo or the Rio Manglar, you can surprise toucans, fishing eagles, egrets, kingfishers, woodpeckers, spider monkeys and even crocodiles. Recently fresh jaguar and tapir prints have been discovered.
Only 10% of the islands are inhabited: these are the famous island villages with a staggering density where everyone earns their living as best they can on the sea! The other islands are either deserted or occupied by a few isolated families.
The San Blas are more of an anchorage destination than a sailing destination: each day 1 to 2 hours of sailing are offered.
Be careful to make the most of this paradise, only small sailing boats (catamarans) allow you to get as close as possible to the islets. The comfort is therefore reduced by rather small cabins but with a shower and individual toilet. It is thus in very small groups of 2 to 10 people that you will be able to discover the archipelago in the best conditions.
Meals are, as far as possible, based on the catch of the day (a variety of fish) or the purchase of lobsters and giant crabs (depending on the season) although supplies also include the best meat, tropical fruits and vegetables from the capital’s national market.
The most beautiful sailing area is located between Rio Diablo (Corazón de Jesús) and Porvenir, where the waters are calm thanks to the protection of the reefs.
Please note that everyone can discuss their preferred itinerary with the captain, but the captain remains master on board and will always decide for your safety and comfort.
The San Blas are clearly threatened by global warming due to industrial and civil pollution: scientists predict that in 40 to 60 years, the archipelago will be submerged! The Kuna Indians should then live again in the mountains bordering their territory.
The indigenous Gunas are famous for their molas, a traditional art form, where textiles are sewn into panels with multiple and complex layers using a reverse appliqué technique, available in the islands.
In the Guna language (dulegaya), mola means “clothes” or “blouse”. The complete dress traditionally consists of a skirt (dulegaya: saburet), a red and yellow headscarf (dulegaya: musue), bracelets for the arms and legs (dulegaya: wini), a gold ring in the nose (dulegaya: olasu), and earrings (dulegaya: dulemor).
The origin of molas goes back to the tradition of the Guna woman to paint their bodies with geometric patterns, using natural colours available.
After colonisation and subsequent contacts with missionaries, the Guna began to transfer their traditional geometric patterns onto fabric, first by painting directly and then using the technique applied in the opposite direction. It is unclear when this technique was first used.
It is assumed that the older molas are 150-170 years old. In addition to their geometric inspiration, the Guna in the last 50 years have begun to create realistic and abstract models of flowers, animals and birds.
The Panama Canal is approximately 82 kilometres long and connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This waterway was dug in the narrowest area of the isthmus.
The Canal uses a system of locks and chambers with entrance and exit gates that function as lifts and raise ships to the level of Lake Gatun (27 metres above sea level).
The ships then sail through the canal to reach the opposite coast.
The most beautiful locks to visit are those of Gatun.
A helicopter flight over the locks under construction of the canal including the ascent of the Rio Charges and a landing at the san blas islands is one of the main attractions.
Portobelo was once the largest Spanish port in Central America. Gold from Peru and treasures from the East that entered Panama City were transported overland by mules to the fortifications of Portobelo.
During the annual trade fair, galleons loaded with goods from Spain came to exchange gold and other products from the New World.
However, like Nombre de Dios, Panama and Fort San Lorenzo, Portobelo was the target of constant attacks by pirates and English privateers. Considering that the city has been destroyed several times throughout its history, it is remarkable that most of the colonial fortresses remain standing.
The city is bustling with life every 21st October for the Black Christ Festival, one of the most dynamic and spiritual celebrations in the country.
Fort San Lorenzo
This fort was built by the Spaniards to protect the mouth of the River Chagres, which was extremely important to the conquerors for transporting gold and silver from Peru and Bolivia to the Caribbean coast.
From the city, the treasures were transported by a short path and then across the River Chagres to the Caribbean Sea and from there to Spain. For these reasons, this vital trade route was guarded by a fort on a cliff.
The historical importance of the fort has been recognised by international organisations such as UNESCO and in 1980 the fortress and nearby fortifications were declared World Heritage.
Old Panama is the name used for the architectural remains of the monumental history of the first Spanish city founded on the Pacific coast of the Americas by Pedro Arias de Avila on August 15, 1519.
This city was the starting point for the expeditions that conquered the Inca Empire in Peru in 1532 and was also a stopover point on one of the most important trade routes in the history of America.
The importance of this trade route led to the creation of the famous fairs of Nombre de Dios and Portobelo, where most of the gold and silver that Spain took from the Americas was exchanged.
The fire caused by Governor Juan Perez de Guzman and the theft and looting caused by the pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 led to the relocation and construction of a new city in 1673, which today is known as the Casco Viejo or Colonial Panama.
Old Panama is one of the most accessible places in the urban city and can easily be visited while walking along the cobbled streets.
A new archaeological project was recently launched on the site to protect and restore the remains. The project is managed by a foundation which is a joint force between the government, a civic club and private enterprise.
Old Panama was declared a historical monument by Law 91 of 22 December 1976.
Casco Viejo is the historic centre of Panama City and a peaceful and charming neighbourhood of narrow streets decorated with flower-decorated balconies and two- and three-storey houses.
At its end we find the Plaza de France, a monument dedicated to the French builders who started the Panama Canal and the beautiful French Embassy.
Around it, visitors to the monument have a view of the Causeway, the Bridge of the Americas and part of the metropolitan city of Panama.
Next door is the National History Museum and the ancient Metropolitan Cathedral, with its sparkling towers inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
Nearby is a small museum dedicated to religious art, the former Convent of Santo Domingo, where visitors can see the famous Arco Chato, which is said to have helped engineers convince that Panama was a country with proof of earthquakes.
In the church of San José is the famous Golden Altar, carved in wood and laminated with gold leaf. Another beautiful building in the Casco Viejo is the Presidential Palace, which can be visited from Monday to Sunday.
Panama is home to many indigenous cultures that play an important role in the country’s cultural diversity. There are 7 of them: the Ngöbe, the Buglé, the Guna, the Emberá, the Wounaan, the Bribri and the Naso. These cultures are further divided into four major Indian groups: the Gunas, the Emberá/Wounaan, the Ngöbe-Buglé (the Guaymies), and the Teribe Naso/Bribri.
In general, Panama’s indigenous cultures have maintained a traditional way of life and have autonomous control with their own government.
A visit to these different indigenous ethnic groups is a must when visiting this beautiful country. It will give you a better understanding of how they have managed to keep this beautiful wilderness intact.