Worlds Apart in Panama: Chiriquí and Kuna Yala, Two Distinct Destinations
Panama’s western Chiriquí province has a lot more going for it than its proximity to Costa Rica, although many first-time visitors do pop over the border to shop or renew their Costa Rican tourist visas.
They don’t have to travel very far, however, to figure out that Chiriquí has plenty of attractions, from its misty mountain forests flashing with the colors of birds on the wing to the pristine beaches of its Pacific islands.
Most travelers head straight for the mountain town of Boquete, the epicenter of Chiriquí tourism. It’s a gorgeous, tranquil place with a restaurant and lodging selection to match its natural assets. But the valleys of Bambito and Cerro Punta, on the other side of Barú Volcano, hold even more impressive landscapes, whereas the Gulf of Chiriquí, to the south, offers world-class surfing, fishing and scuba diving.
The provincial capital of David – a hot and rambling town of 80,000 with an oversupply of stores and a dearth of charm – is the local transportation hub, with regular flights and buses connecting it to Panama City and San José. It’s a good place to rent a car and head for the mountains or the tiny port of Boca Chica, from where boats depart to nearby islands. David can also serve as an inexpensive base for sportfishing, scuba diving or hiking the Los Quetzales trail, which winds though the cloud forest behind Barú Volcano.
The mountains north of David have enough trails to keep a hiker busy for weeks, but there is also plenty to see on four wheels. My favorite drive is the two-hour trip to Cerro Punta, 75 kilometers northwest of David, which takes you past massive Barú Volcano and up a narrow valley on its northwest slope.
Towering 11,450 feet above sea level, the massive, extinct Barú Volcano is literally Chiriquí’s biggest attraction. Its upper slopes and northern half are protected within BarúVolcanoNational Park, home to everything from cougars to resplendent quetzals. Its summit is a popular hiking destination – you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans from it on a clear morning – and one of the two trails to the peak begins near the town of Volcán, on the road to Cerro Punta.
Just north of Volcán, the road enters a steep, serpentine valley that holds the farming community of Bambito. This valley is packed with lush scenery that seems to grow more spectacular with each hairpin turn – patches of colorful impatiens, the boulder-strewn Río Chiriquí Viejo, steep hillsides draped with dark green forests, sheer rock walls bejeweled with bromeliads, ferns and orchids. After about 15 minutes, or 50 swerves, the road bursts into the expansive valley of Cerro Punta, a giant green bowl perched at almost 6,000 feet above sea level and covered with a patchwork of vegetable farms, pastures and cloud forest along the ridges.
The valley is surrounded by lush cloud forests where the tree trunks, branches, lianas and boulders are covered with thick carpets of moss, ferns, orchids and other flowering plants. A mobile mist, which the locals call bajareque, regularly engulfs the valley, resulting in fleeting rain showers and frequent rainbow sightings. The bajareque keeps the air cool – it can be chilly at night – and the pastures green year-round, which pleases the thoroughbred horses at the Haras Cerro Punta ranch.
Dirt roads wind into the surrounding mountains to the private reserve of Los Quetzales, an orchid farm called Finca Dracula, which has almost 2,700 orchid species on display, and the entrance to La Amistad National Park, a vast, binational park shared by Panama and Costa Rica. One such road heads to El Respingo, the trailhead for the Los Quetzales Trail, which descends through the forest of Barú Volcano National Park for nine kilometers to a farming enclave in the hills above Boquete. Most people who hike this popular trail have their luggage driven to a hotel in Boquete, where they spend the following nights.
Boquete sits at the bottom of a larger, more forested mountain valley, a mere 40-minute drive from David. The town of Boquete is an attractive community spread along the Río Caldera at an altitude of about 3,300 feet, which gives it a spring-like climate year-round. Paved roads loop through the coffee farms and forest patches that cover the mountains above town, past various hiking and bird-watching trails, while the road to the most popular route to the summit of Barú Volcano begins at the center of town.
Boquete is a bird-watcher’s Valhalla, with between 300 and 400 avian species fluttering through its mountain forests, coffee farms and gardens. Its most famous birding area is Finca Lerida, a coffee farm above town with nearly 500 hectares of cloud forest.
Cited in “A Guide to the Birds of Panama” as the best place in the country to see resplendent quetzals, Finca Lerida is also home to emerald toucanets, sulfur-winged parakeets, collared redstarts and hundreds of other feathered creatures.
For active travelers, Boquete has a canopy tour, mountain biking, horseback riding and several coffee tours. It’s also the departure point for rafting trips down the Río Chiriquí Viejo, a class III-IV river that churns though narrow canyons and virgin rain forest, making it one of most spectacular white-water trips in Central America.
But Boquete is also a great place to do as little as possible, as its best hotels and restaurants take advantage of the surrounding natural beauty to create environments conducive to relaxation, contemplation and, in the case of the restaurants, digestion.
But there is more to Chiriquí than its enchanting mountains. The rich waters of the Gulf of Chiriquí offer excellent sportfishing, scuba diving and surfing, as well as more than 20 uninhabited islands. Hotels in and around the tiny port of Boca Chica provide easy access to the islands of Gulf of Chiriquí National Park, which have idyllic white-sand beaches and reefs where skin divers may see moray eels, sea stars, parrotfish and other marine life.
Even more impressive are the more distant Islas Ladrones and Islas Secas, which boast some of the country’s best scuba diving. The Islas Secas are home to Islas Secas Resort, one of Central America’s best, and most expensive, ecolodges. Fishing lodges near Boca Chica provide access to world-class angling in the gulf, while the remote and rustic Morro Negrito Surf Camp, on a coastal island east of Boca Chica, lies near half a dozen surf spots with phenomenal waves, and very few surfers.
So the question facing travelers shouldn’t be whether or not to visit Chiriquí, but whether to spend one week or two there. If you want to sample all of the province’s varied attractions, you’ll need two.
It was my 10th trip to Kuna Yala, the autonomous territory of the Kuna Indians spread along Panama’s northeast coast, but it was no less of an adventure than my first. The 30-minute flight from Panama City took us over the misty rain forests covering the Serranía de San Blas, then the bluegreen Caribbean dotted with islands and light brown coral reefs, before descending to a coastal landing strip.
As my father and I climbed out of the single-engine plane, it was clear we’d left the skyscrapers and shopping malls of the country’s capital far behind. It was as if the short flight had taken us to another country, or century.
We were surrounded by lush foliage, the Caribbean’s calm waters and more than a dozen Kuna Indians – the women in brightly colored traditional dress – who chatted in their native tongue as packages and luggage were loaded off and onto the plane. The guide from our hotel greeted us and led us to a dock where we climbed into a small boat.
We then headed across the bay, past Kunas in dugout canoes, some powered by lateen sails, toward an island covered with thatch huts, coconut palms and breadfruit trees.
We would spend the next 24 hours in Kuna Yala – the “Land of the Kuna” – a world so different from our own, and yet so beautiful, friendly and fascinating that it is both exhilarating and serene.
The comarca (autonomous territory) of Kuna Yala stretches more than 200 kilometers along Panama’s northeast coast, comprising a thin strip of mountainous land and the more than 350 San Blas Islands.
About 50 of those islands hold tightly packed Kuna towns, but most are idyllic, white-sand cays shaded by coconut palms and surrounded by crystalline waters that hold vibrant coral reefs.
We began our day with a tour of the Kuna village of Achutupo, strolling down narrow, sandy streets flanked by mixed cane, wood and concrete buildings, while locals tried to sell us handicrafts and our guide explained a bit about Kuna culture.
The Kuna, who number about 70,000, have been living on the San Blas Islands for about four centuries, after migrating there from South America. They are a fiercely independent people who were never conquered by Spain, and who managed to wrest their autonomy from the Panamanian government more than 80 years ago.
Their autonomous comarca is ruled by a congress of chiefs, or sahilas, called the Congreso General Kuna, which sets the local law and works to preserve Kuna culture. Only Kunas are allowed to own land or businesses in the comarca, so the approximately one dozen hotels scattered across it are relatively rustic, but authentically indigenous.
Our guide pointed out the thatched town hall where villagers gather at night for regular meetings, during which sahilas sing the ancient songs of their oral history and religion from hammocks at the center of the hall. He also showed us a hut full of ceramic pots used to make chicha, a corn beer drunk during elaborate puberty celebrations of local girls – one of the most important rites in Kuna society.
One of the most striking things about Kuna culture is the traditional dress used by women and girls. The eye-catching costumes include colorful skirts and scarves, intricate beadwork on the calves and forearms, and a blouse decorated with handstitched molas (appliqué fabric pictures).
Molas are the most popular handicraft sold by the villagers who roll out to greet us, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy a few of the colorful depictions of fish, birds, monkeys, dolphins and other creatures as we explored the town.
After a tasty lunch of king crab and rice, we headed to an uninhabited island with a small beach, where we swam in the sandy shallows and snorkeled over a nearby reef.
The vast coral garden was awash with an array of colorful marine life, including damselfish, angelfish, parrotfish and yellowtail snapper swimming amid the sponges and stag-horn coral. I dove deep, past massive brain coral, anemones and softly swaying sea fans, to discover lobsters, squirrelfish and a moray eel lurking in caves.
Scuba diving is illegal in Kuna Yala, but the abundance of shallow, protected reefs and wrecks makes it a world-class skin diving area. The province holds countless coral reefs with dozens of coral varieties and hundreds of fish species.
All hotels have snorkeling equipment for guest use, though it isn’t always in the best condition, and trips to snorkeling spots are included in the rates. Some lodges have good snorkeling just offshore. Kuna lodges are expensive for what you get, but rates include all meals and two daily tours. Skin diving enthusiasts may want to visit the province with San Blas Sailing, which offers cruises that visit remote islands and reefs few people get to.
By the time my dad and I had feasted on a lobster dinner and enjoyed a simple presentation of Kuna folk dancing by the hotel staff, we were exhausted. Nevertheless, we ended the day on the back porch of our bungalow, admiring the view of the ocean and nearby island in the moonlight, soothed by the sound of wind rustling through palm fronds above us and small waves sloshing over the nearby coral platform. It was a great day, an unforgettable day – just the kind of adventure that foreign travel should be.
Panama is easy to get to and explore thanks to flights by several airlines, and daily bus service.
Copa (www.copaair.com, 2223-2672 in Costa Rica, 507-217-2672 in Panama) has several daily flights between San José and Panama City.
Taca (www.taca.com, 2299-8222 in Costa Rica) has daily, direct flights between San José and David or Panama City.
Air Panama(www.flyairpanama.com, 2222-0433 in Costa Rica, 507-316-9000 in Panama) has several direct flights between San José and David per week, and several daily flights between David and Panama City.
Flights to Kuna Yala depart Panama City daily at 6 a.m. on Air Panama and Aeroperlas (www.aeroperlas.com, 507-315-7500).
By Bus: If you don’t mind a long bus ride, you can take the eight-hour trip between San José and David with Tracopa (2222-2666 in Costa Rica, 507-775-0585 in Panama); or the14-hour trip between San José and Panama City with Tica Bus (www.ticabus.com, 2223-8680 in Costa Rica, 507-314-6385 in Panama) or Panaline (www.panalinecr.com, 2256-8721 in Costa Rica, 507-314-6383 in Panama).
Several companies make the six-hour trip between David and Panama City, with departures every hour or 90 minutes; try Padafont (507-774-2974).
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