As a true adventurer, you will likely decide to try your luck at the open road and find any hidden secrets along the way just waiting to be discovered. If you’re looking for local favorites for shops, beaches, or the world’s tallest thermometer (I’ve seen it. It’s in Baker, California), then you need to consult an expert.

Here in Panama, I’ve had the luck of being able to travel the roads of Panama from Darien to Chiriquí and up to Bocas del Toro and back and can confidently say that there’s quite a lot to be experienced that may not be listed in your guide book. Panama runs northwest to southeast and is mainly traversed by the Pan-American Highway. This is the same highway that connects Alaska to South America along the Pacific Coast. Here in Panama, it is known simply as la interamericana. 

Starting in the southeast and ending in the northwest, here are the spots you should stop at and check out if you want to get an authentic experience of the Pan-American Highway in Panama:

Bayano Lake & Bat Caves

Three hours east of Panama City, there’s not much very noteworthy for travelers as you venture closer to the Darien province and the wild fronteir of the jungle that lays there. However a very neat spot that you shouldn’t miss is the bat caves of Lago Bayano. Boats heading to the caves leave from the Bayano Bridge and the town of Pueblo Nuevo can even put you up for the night. You can easily arrange this tour at: https://www.keteka.com/product/bayano-caves-and-pueblo-nuevo-3/

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Morning boat ride on Lago Bayano (https://www.keteka.com)

Or if you’re looking to just cool off before continuing your journey, a dip in the lake with the local muchachos is sure to be refreshing!

Quesos Chela

If you mention Quesos Chela to a group of Panamanians in Panama City, everyone will know what you’re talking about, and probably tell you their favorite empanada that they always buy there. Quesos Chela is by far one of the most favorite (if not THE most favorite) pitstops of Panamanians in the Panama City area who travel to the nearby beaches or interior west of the city. Located about an hour west of the capital in the town of Capira, Quesos Chela is a simple roadside shop that sells some of the best homemade cheese, empanadas, and fresh juices that are sure to bring a smile to any hungry traveler. Contrary to the million other stops, the empanadas are baked, not fried, and the cheeses are fresh and delicious. You can even order a chicheme (corn drink with cinamon and milk), which is one of the typically found beverages in Panama. They also have a variety of juices made from fresh local fruit.

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Quesos Chela, Photo courtesy of www.boqueteguide.com

If this hasn’t sold you than the next comment will; Quesos Chela has one of the nicest, cleanest bathrooms you will find along the entire Pan-American highway. That alone is sure to keep you coming back!

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Treats at Quesos Chela! Photo courtesy of www.thepanamaportal.com

The Artisan Shops of Penonomé

Sure, there are many opportunities in the big city to buy a nice looking Panama hat or mola, but where can you find affordable, authentic artisan products representing the interior culture of Panama? Look no further than Penonomé!

Technically the geographic center of Panama (halfway between each border), Penonomé is home to some of the most beautiful arisan work ranging from sombreros pintados (typical hats of Panamanian country folk, not to be confused with the Panama hat), wood carvings, soapstone carvings, ceramics, and typical dress known as pollera. You can get a real authentic experience at the central market in town in the hustle and bustle of downtown Penonomé, or for a quieter shopping experience, just visit the artisan store on the Pan-American highway near the entrance to the hospital.

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Artisan market in Penonomé, Photo courtesy of www.turismo.panamatipico.com

Las Lajas Beach

As you make your way west to Chiriquí, you can’t miss the stop for Las Lajas beach. No really, you can’t miss it. Across from the bus stop in San Felix, it’s hard to ignore the giant arch above the entrance road welcoming you as if you were about to enter Wally World. While it may seem that Las Lajas is a well known spot home to many hotels, it is often passed over by tourists who continue further on to Boquete. Of all the Pacific beaches, Las Lajas is a local favorite that you can’t miss. There are low cost cabins you can rent and even camping options, if you’ve brought a tent and are looking to stay the night!

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Stunning view of Las Lajas beach, Photo courtesy of www.laslajaspanama.com

 

La Cabaña Coffee Shop

Crossing the mountains from Chiriquí heading to Bocas del Toro, you will pass through the quaint little mountain town of Valle de La Mina. Here, one of my favorite spots to grab a delicious cup of coffee and enjoy the stunning views of the Chiriquí lowlands and Volcan Barú, the highest point in Panama. The shop serves espresso drinks, snacks, and some paistries and the friendly staff is always excited to receive visitors and share stories about the area. Whether you’re on your way to do a cacao tour in Bocas del Toro (which you can book at  https://www.keteka.com/product/oreba-cacao-tour/) or heading to Boquete after a weekend at the Caribbean, definitely stop in for a cup of coffee and a smile!

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Morning coffee at La Cabaña, Photo courtesy of www.thepanamaportal.com

Whether you decide to visit the spots on this list, or create one on your own, the Panamanian interior and the Pan-American Highway have a lot for the eager backpacker to discover. Panama’s roads are friendly so make your pitstops frequent. You should also ask locals what their favorite places are. Travel safely, and enjoy your trip along Panama’s Pan-American highway!