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10 Cool things about Panama

As a tourist destination, Panama wears many hats. Having just returned from this fascinating Central American country, here are 10 things I learned:

l) Panama is the southernmost of the countries in Central America, bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia.  The Caribbean Ocean is to the north (yes, north) and the Pacific is to the south.  Hence the disorienting experience of sunrises over the Pacific.

2) The population of the country is about 3 million, with a million in the capital, Panama City.

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3) Panama is way more accessible than it used to be.  Sunwing Airlines, for example, offers non-stop service from Toronto year round and in winter from Montreal, Quebec City and Bagotville, QC. Plus lots of hotels to choose from.

4) One of the Panama’s biggest – and certainly its most famous – attraction is the Canal, this year celebrating its 100th anniversary.  Eighty per cent of visitors to Panama say they want to see the canal, and during my recent visit to the impressive visitor centre,  complete with theatre, shop and running commentary, I rubbed elbows with international tourists including nuns and parents holding babes in arms. Clearly it’s not just for engineering dweebs. (Amazing factoid: average toll per transit is US$100,000.)

5) Speaking of dollars, Panama is one of the few countries in the world not to print its own money.  The currency is officially the Balboa, but US bills are used.  There are balboa coins but US coins are accepted too.  Travel with lots of small bills for tips and street market shopping. ATMs will ding you about $3 per transaction.

DSC046586) Shopping is big in Panama. The malls in Panama City make Toronto’s Eaton Centre looks like a suburban strip mall:  the Allbrook Mall alone boasts 700 stores and I spotted Louis Vuitton and Payless Shoes.  Tip: Take your passport with you on your shopping expeditions as you may be asked to show it.  There’s also great street market shopping for crafts and souvenirs including Panama hats.  More about that later.

7) If you prefer the great outdoors to the great indoors, Panama is a wonderful eco-touring destination.  43 per cent of the country is forested and there are over 1,000 species of birds.  Move over, Costa Rica!

8) However you do your sightseeing, local tourism types recommend taking a tour rather than renting a car.  While the impressive, 4 lane Pan American Highway is as good as anything you’d find in Canada (and with fewer potholes), once you get off that, the roads are not very well marked and English is not widely spoken. Plus the drivers in Panama City have nerves of steel and apparently find leaning on the horn is a good stress-reliever.

9) Having said that, Panama City is a must-see. Its towering skyscrapers could rival those in Hong Kong;  while the charming Old Quarter, or Casco Viejo, is a delightful combo of New Orleans and Old Havana. A nice combo, and one that’s offered by Signature Vacations, is 5 nights at the all-inclusive Riu Playa Blanca on the Pacific Coast with 2 nights at their downtown Panama City hotel.

10) Panama hats are everywhere, in elegant boutiques and open air market stalls.  For best quality, look for at least 15 “rounds” of weaving on the crown. The light-coloured, woven straw hats are unisex and flattering – and of course the perfect souvenir of your visit.

Martha Chapman

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