Panama may be best known for its canal, but this minuscule Central American nation is also home to quiet backroads and beautiful beaches. Add to that towering volcanoes, lush forests and a wide variety of tropical birds and you've got the perfect destination for a two-wheeled holiday. Gili Rosenberg gives us the specifics of why bike touring in Panama is so much fun.
On our first day of a five month trip across Central America, leaving Panama City, we were faced with oppressive heat, heavy traffic, broken glass and a flat tire. By the side of the road, we noticed a handwritten sign and a cooler. There started our romance with pipas, or coconuts. Soon enough, drinking coconuts became a daily ritual. We either bought them, they were given to us or we found them along the way.
It turns out that there are different varieties of coconuts, of different sizes and flavours. They all have in common their ability to quench a cyclist’s thirst, and even more so if they have been kept in an ice cooler. We were always amazed at the locals’ ability to crack a coconut open with a few strikes from a machete while holding on just inches away from where the blade hit. It was even more amazing when that person happened to be a young child. For best results, ask for the coconut to be cracked open so that you can eat the flesh.
The Azuero Peninsula
Get ready for some quiet countryside, beautiful beaches, and towns completely devoid of tourists. We spent a week cycling a loop around the Azuero Peninsula, which returned us to within 11 kilometers of where we had started, and it was totally worth it. On a trip to Isla Iguana we spotted magnificent frigate birds - the males sport a balloon-like bright red sack on their necks. A less obvious highlight for us was the prevalence of “yoghurt Pedasi”, and a chance to visit the factory.
The road to Santa Catalina
The 65km long detour to Santa Catalina felt like a trip to the end of the world. The road became progressively smaller and quieter until it was just a narrow country lane that roller-coasted into town. Our arrival was a bit of a shock after the quiet road and spending more than a week in the Azuero with barely a tourist or English signage in sight. While in Santa Catalina, take the opportunity to catch a boat ride to Isla Coibita, for some snorkelling and postcard-perfect beaches, or take some surfing lessons from the kids at the nearby beach, perfect for beginner surfers.
Panama City and the Canal
Panama City combines the new, with its tall skyscrapers in the modern centre, and the old, with dilapidated colonial buildings in Casco Viejo. Then there’s the fish market, which we made sure to visit daily for magnificent ceviche (for just over a dollar). Finally, there’s the nearby canal, perhaps the thing that Panama is most famous for, and an incredible feat of engineering. Watching the huge boats go through the Miraflores lock is very impressive.
This cute town is located in the crater of an extinct volcano and is surrounded by lush forest. It’s a great place to kick back for a few days, to hike in the hills nearby or to watch the many types of colourful birds. Getting there was a bit of a slog, but we found it to be totally worth it. Harry, the owner of our hostel, had a pet sloth named Sammy, which they had rescued when his mother was electrocuted. Leaving El Valle, Henry and his daughter joined us on their tandem and showed us the backroads leading towards Penonome, which might or might not appear on your map, often times those are the best experiences.
About the Author
Gili and Maya and now with their son Neil love cycling and cycle touring (and for Neil: anything that is bike related).
They take any opportunity they can to go on their next cycling vacation. Their longest trip was crossing Central America (through all seven countries) over five months and with a lot of time to explore.
After Neil was born they decided it wouldn’t stop them from doing what they love, so they’d just take him along for the ride. They cycled for three months in South Korea and Japan starting when he was 7 months old. When Neil was 18 months old, they cycled in France, and just before he turned two they headed to New Zealand for a month of cycle touring. When they're not bicycle touring, Maya and Gili ride around their home city of Vancouver. Neil, who is now two, scoots around happily on his balance bike.
Maya is also a passionate educator. She combines her two passions into a cycling education non-profit program for young kids learning to ride on balance bikes called Kids on Wheels.
You can follow their family adventures on their blog: Life in MAGIcLand.