Exploring Panama

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14 reasons to leave
the STRI bubble

February 14, 2019

by Katie Griswold

For many visiting researchers, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute becomes more than a job. It becomes your home and your primary social circle, so much that you sometime forget there is a world outside of work. But you would be remiss to skip out on all the opportunities beyond the STRI bubble. Here are 14 reasons to get out and go.

1.Panama city is an almost constant rotation of festivals and cultural events.

Posters around the city will announce the dates and locations of outdoor concerts, cinema premieres, theater performances, special museum exhibitions, music festivals, and more. Most events are free.

Panama City skyline. Credit: Miguel Bruna at unsplash.com

2. But it's said the real Panama exists outside city limits.

While they are both authentic parts of the culture, the sentiment is as though there are two different countries here: Panamá and Panamá city. Small towns in the campo reflect a more tranquil, family oriented lifestyle.

Vignettes in Panama Oeste. Credit: Katie Griswold

3. It's one of the best places in the world to practice your Spanish.

You might not speak much Spanish in your lab, but you will everywhere else. Panameños have hundreds of expressions you didn’t learn from your college 101 class. People are patient and polite, even when your grammar isn't perfect. Plus, reading will improve your fluency and vocabulary.

Cafe y Neruda en Boquete. Credit: Katie Griswold.

4. There are thousands of years of history to learn about.

People have been living in Panama for nearly 7,000 years, with 6 major indigenous groups and 7 different languages alive today. With over 400,000 native people actively practicing and conserving their histories, you cannot leave without learning about the ground you walk on. 

Stone monoliths in El Caño. Credit STRI Archives.
A Kuna woman selling molas. Credit: wikicommons.

5. More recent history is equally complex and interesting.

To name a few influences, the country has dealt with Spanish conquistadors; pirates; and the French, Colombian, and US militaries. Their negative and positive impacts can be observed in many museums and preserved buildings, especially along the Canal. Patriotic holidays are commemorated with parades, performances, and fireworks. 

Panama Viejo archaeological site. Credit: Jorge Alemán.

6. Escape from your routine is only a bus ride away.

Panamenos and travelers take advantage of a [plethora] of affordable transportation
options all over the country, from Diablo Rojo buses to water taxis.

Diablo Rojo. Credit: wikicommons / Motorized canoe near Boca Chica. Credit: Katie Griswold.

7. And finding a great place to stay is pretty easy.

Skip the corporate chain hotels and stay in local hostels for a fraction of the cost and twice the human connections. Each place does it’s own thing, but the standard look includes hippie art, hammocks, large outdoor kitchens, local guided tours, and an international cast of roaming backpackers. Tales of adventure abound.

Hostel Villa Vento Surf. Credit: Kayley You Mak.
Bonus: the best ones come with free pancake breakfasts. Credit: Charlotte Steeves.

8. But nothing compares to experiences you have with local friends.

If you get invited to a beach cookout, road trip, quinceñera, birthday, parade, or holiday celebration: the most memorable times you will have will be shared with your friends and their families. 

Baile con Polleras. Credit: Charlotte Steeves.

9. Camping is a great way to get a figurative and literal feel for the land.

Nothing quite like earth under your toes and stars over your head.

Credit: Ramiro Solis.

10. And there are unseen worlds to explore in the sea.

10/10 fish would recommend the national parks and marine protected areas. 

Portobello National Park. Credit: Ramiro Solis.

11. There are more secret hiking trails, waterfalls, and mountain overlooks than you will ever have time to discover.

This is when local friends and connections are especially appreciated. Not all trailheads or landmarks can be found on the maps. 

Credit: Ramiro Solis.

12. And the roads most travelled have pretty spectacular views, too.

Popular hiking routes have well maintained trails and are clearly marked. For less able bodied folks, a 4 wheel drive is sometimes an option. The islands of  Kuna Yala and Volcan Baru are two of the most iconic trips you can take. 

Kuna Yala. Credit: Angel Silva at unsplash.com
Volcan Baru. Credit: Charlotte Steeves.

13. Each province is totally unique.

Panama is packed with an incredibly diverse assembly of cultures, architecture, ecosystems, and geographical features.

Lizard Island, Pedasi. Credit: Katie Griswold
Altos de Campana, Panama Oeste. Credit: Katie Griswold

14. You are definitely going to wish you had more time.

But you can always apply for another fellowship…

Sunset in Santa Catalina. Crédit: Katie Griswold.
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