Bordering Costa Rica on the Pacific coast of Panama is the province of Chiriquí, an emerging sustainable tourism destination that provides an incredible variety of unique travel opportunities, and is home to our gorgeous island: Isla Palenque. A beautiful region of undiscovered terrain, and one of the best places for those seeking Panama adventure opportunities, Chiriquí offers some of the most varied scenery in an already diverse country.
Travel to the region
Most visitors journey to Chiriquí by air through David, the third-largest city in Panama. Due to the growing real estate and ecotourism markets, this city’s international airport has recently added regular flights to Costa Rica and charter flights from the US. Expansion is underway that will allow for regular direct flights to and from many US cities.
Some visitors choose to travel by car through Chiriquí; the overland trip from Panama City to David usually takes about 5 hours. For those who enjoy road-tripping, there are plenty of scenic stopping points, good roadside stands, restaurants and markets featuring local produce and indigenous handicrafts to ensure a pleasant drive.
I’ve tried it both ways — my personal preference is flying, for convenience and the chance to take in gorgeous views of the country from above.
Chiriquí flora and fauna
Chiriquí boasts a multiplicity of plant and animal species among its diverse ecosystems. Chiriquí’s topography ranges dramatically and includes the tallest mountain in the country, the 11,398-foot (3474-meter) tall Volcan Baru located in the cool cloud forests of the highlands, as well as more than three dozen islands in the archipelagos of the Gulf of Chiriquí.
National Geographic Traveler, among other top travel publications, has registered astonishment at the lush scenery of the region, describing the area as chock-full of “mangroves, beaches washed by high surf. Stupendous diving and fishing. Myriad emerald isles strewn like jewels in a sapphire sea.”
In my first exploration of the province, particularly on my first boat ride out to Isla Palenque, I caught myself wishing I had a second pair of eyes. The splendor of the rolling green hills and jungle rising high above the blue sea was unlike anything I had seen before.
The Gulf of Chiriquí
Sometimes called the “Lost Coast,” the Gulf is well-known among insiders for its world-class sport fishing, surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. The area’s unspoiled and largely undiscovered coastal and marine environments rival the best on the Pacific coasts of Central America and Mexico. If you’re looking for adventures on the high seas, you won’t lack for things to do in Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí.
Isla Palenque neighbors the Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí, a protected archipelago of more than 25 islands and islets home to an extraordinary number of marine species including humpback whales, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, and multiple species of sea turtles and rays. This national park invites responsible travelers to immerse in a spectacular marine environment through sustainable sport fishing, scuba diving, surfing, kayaking, with endless opportunities for island hopping to boot.
Just a two-hour boat ride from your Isla Palenque beachfront property is Coiba National Marine Park where you’ll find the best diving in Panama on the second-largest coral reef in the Pacific Ocean. Scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have proclaimed Coiba an unparalleled destination for discovering new species. “It’s hard to imagine, while snorkeling around a tropical island that’s [so close to] the United States, that half the animals you see are unknown to science,” Smithsonian project coordinator Rachel Collin says. Its unique location protects it from the damaging winds and other effects of El Niño, making it able to sustain the uninterrupted evolution of new marine species including whale and tiger sharks, sperm whales, sea turtles, angel rays and giant schools of fish. It is also the last refuge for a number of threatened terrestrial animals, such as the crested eagle and several sub-species of howler monkey, agouti, and possum.
In the shadow of the 11,398′ (3,474-meter) high Volcan Baru, the Chiriquí highlands stretch out in expanses of lush, rolling green, inviting nature- and adventure-loving travelers to discover ancient cloud forests, tour world-famous coffee plantations, and glimpse rare bird species such as the elusive resplendent quetzal.
Communities of the Ngobe-Bugle people, a colorful native tribe, are also found throughout the region and are welcoming to visitors interested in learning about their indigenous culture.
A favorite among nature-lovers and retirees, Boquete tops the “best places to retire” lists for both International Living and AARP and remains a haven for expatriates. Its reputation as an ecotourism and real estate hotspot has continued to grow in recent years, thanks to the favorable climate and Alpine-esque charm of this mountain town.
Day-trips to the highlands from Isla Palenque are easy to arrange, and we’ll offer an expedition to Boquete at our resort for those interested in touring the world-famous coffee plantations, hiking or zip-lining. It’s about an hour drive from our nearest port of Boca Chica to Boquete. Last year’s Island Interns had the chance to partake in a few excursions in the highlands during their summer on Isla Palenque.
Chiriquí’s bright future
Chiriqui has seen many improvements in its physical, economic, and social infrastructures over the past decade. Roads are being constructed and widened, new high-quality health care facilities have been built, and major retailers such as Costco, Target, and Home Depot have opened Panamanian versions of their stores nearby. Much of this activity is centered in the city of David, Panama’s third-largest city and a commercial capital.
Ongoing improvements include David’s airport, Enrique Malek International, whose recently-completed expansion will allow direct international flights, which may mark the tipping point for the area in terms of tourism and development. Many local businesses have rallied together to gain flights directly from the US to David, Panama; to stay up to date on their progress, please visit davdirect.org.