Panama: a rediscovered paradise

At the end of the seemingly endless series of steps there’s a reward — a big, jaw-dropping reward.

Las Yayas Falls is one of the eco-excursions in Panama’s Omar Torrijos Herrera National Park.

PANAMA CITY — At the end of the seemingly endless series of steps there’s a reward — a big, jaw-dropping reward.

A jungle-encased waterfall churns, splits and then concentrates itself into three spectacular tumbles of white water onto slick shiny rocks and then into the most calm and mountain-fed pool.

For such a volume of water free-falling and crashing, it’s hardly noisy.

In fact, the soothing sound is a fitting complement to the chorus of tropical birds that are celebrating the arrival of our tour group.

Of course, we had to swim in this perfect setting dappled by the sunlight making its way through the jungle canopy.

This is Las Yayas Falls in Panama — the tiny strip of a country connecting North and South America that’s caught the attention of Canadians as an all-inclusive beach resort and eco-adventure destination.

“Panama is exciting and new for Canadians,” says Vic Nakhleh, the Western Canada vice-president for Air Transat, the only airline that operates non-stop flights between Canada and Panama.

“It’s proving to be very popular. It’s different, but still delivers that tropical escape from winter that Canadians need and want.”

Air Transat has already started its flights and all-inclusive hotel packages from Toronto and Montreal for the season.

Flights and packages from Edmonton and Calgary start Dec. 21 and from Vancouver Dec. 28.

Prices for a one-week package, including round-trip air, resort accommodations, transfers between the airport and hotel, meals, drinks and activities starts at about $1,500 per person based on double occupancy.

This Latin American country tends to be best known for the Panama Canal, Panama hats and its nasty dictator Manuel Noriega (toppled in 1989).

However, its tourism offerings are starting to become world renowned.

It began with Central and South Americans enjoying the beaches and eco-adventures and then came the Canadians, Americans and Europeans who passed through the canal on cruise ships.

Ready for all-inclusive weeklong vacations in this paradise, Canadians have helped push resort and amenity infrastructure.

But Panama is still an emerging destination, which means it’s somewhere between the well-developed resort offerings of Mexico and the famous eco-tourism of Costa Rica.

It also means English — even among resort staff — isn’t widely spoken. While resorts, their beaches and eco-excursions in National Parks are pristine, you’ll pass plenty of litter-strewn roadside and ramshackle buildings to get to them.

In Chagres National Park runs a river of the same name that leads to Parara Puru, a Embera Indian community that provides an authentic step back in time.

My tour group arrived in Embera-steered dugout canoes at a village of thatched roof pavilions on stilts on the river’s edge.

Greeted by Embera people in traditional dress, the music and procession to the community pavilion begins.

There the group was treated to traditional dance and Embera “fish and chips” — a delicious meal of fried tilapia fish from the river and fried green banana stacked and presented in a rolled banana leaf.

Although the Embera don’t speak English, their smiles and gestures invite you to look around the cooking pavilion, the school house and village and buy woven bowls and baskets if you want.

The only nods to modern society are the odd cellphone (for emergencies and lining up tourism gigs) and a teacher brought in to teach the children Spanish.

My tour group opted for the Panama City and Royal Decameron beach resort combination that provides an incredible overview of the country.

That means starting the vacation at the Radisson Decapolis — a cosmopolitan hotel that matches the vibe of Panama City, which houses 1.7 million of the country’s 3.3 million population.

Rapidly growing with the money from the Panama Canal, international banks and people moving there from all over the world, the city has an impressive skyline of skyscrapers.

Downtown is the ideal place to begin the City and Canal tour that Decameron Explorer offers for US$65.

It covers the UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town founded in 1519; the Colonial Town nearby which sprang up in 1673 and contains a treasure trove of old churches, squares and buildings; and the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal.

If You Go …

Visit Panama, visitpanama.com

Transat Holidays, transatholidays.com

Decameron Hotels and Resorts, decameron.com

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