If you need an excuse to travel somewhere exotic with your friends, I strongly recommend 30th birthdays. Alicia introduced me to this brilliant plan when she declared we were going to Australia and New Zealand for her 30th birthday. Not to be outdone, when I approached the big 3-0, I declared that we were going to Panama.
Alicia had agreed before the words escaped my lips. And truth be told, the other ladies were not much of a hard sell either: Lex, fluent in Spanish and all-around business bad-ass, Dominique who looks exotic though you can never quite place where she is from, and Heidi, my brilliant cousin who is witty in both English and Spanish.
Reasons why travelling to Panama is fantastic:
1. You are on a landlocked island. With the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Pacific to the south, you can almost always see an ocean in the distance. In fact, if you scale to the top of Condé Nast, you can see both oceans from the same viewpoint. (Technically, we didn’t do this, but it does sound rather awesome.)
2. You can experience so many places in a single week. We explored the historic beauty of Casco Viejo in Panama City, ziplined over the rain forests and coffee plantations of Boquete, and lived on an island with our private water taxi driver who took us to tiny islands and to wild dolphin feeding spots. In one week. And it didn’t even feel rushed. It was one of those rare vacations when you feel like you’ve been there longer than you’ve been there, but in the best way possible.
3. The coffee. We had a caffeine-boosted afternoon at Cafés De La Luna in Boquete, learning about growing coffee beans, roasting, and tasting the goods.
4. Panama hats. Technically, these iconic hats originated in Ecuador, but just be a tourist about it and get one anyway.
5. Cosmic Crab. Book a ticket to go to Panama City, then book a local flight on David Air to Bocas del Toro. Get in a water taxi and say those two magical words: Cosmic Crab. What awaits you is a three course meal for something like $12. And amazing drinks. And the best company. We’re still Facebook friends with Dop, a Dutch woman we met there.
6. Chilling on tiny islands. Since you’ve already made it to Bocas del Toro to hang out at Cosmic Crab, you might as well stay around for a few days. We stayed at this fabulous solar-powered house that came equipped with a candy bar telephone to call a local water taxi driver. He took us to wild dolphin feeding areas, tiny islands we could circumnavigate in 45 minutes, outdoor seafood restaurants on stilts in the water, and white sandy beaches with starfish in the water and thatched roof bars on the sore.
7. Mixture of Old and New. From nearly hitting a sloth to crossing the road, to shopping around the streets of Casco Viejo, Panama was full of juxtaposing moments of old and new, modern and not-as-much. We loved every moment!
Extra Credit: Panama uses the American dollar so Americans don’t have to figure out exchange rates and complex math formulas while negotiating street vendors for treasures.
One extra tip for getting around the country: buses and rental cars are available, but the country is fairly spread out and mountainous. I’d suggest jumping from region to region using Air Panama. They will get you where you need to go, but not necessarily when you need to get there. We had an unexpected 6 hour delay while trying to leave Bocas, which gave us an excuse to hop in a water taxi and have one more fabulous night at Cosmic Crab.