Welcome to my place ... Panama

Incredible tropical fruit like nowhere else, great beaches and a world-famous canal

Ruth and Ignacio with Rubén, who is just over two, and Sebastian, six months, in Panama where they live

Ruth and Ignacio with Rubén, who is just over two, and Sebastian, six months, in Panama where they live

 

Ruth Craig is originally from Drogheda, Co Louth. She moved to Panama in 2014 with her husband Ignacio for her job with Unicef, which supports the rights of children all over the world. They have since had two Irish-Spanish-Panamanian sons, Rubén, who is just over two years old, and Sebastian, who is six months.

What do you like about living in Panama?

The heat. There are two seasons here – rainy and dry or winter and summer, but essentially they are defined by the rainfall. In summer, which runs from December to March more or less, you can be almost guaranteed dry weather and for the rest of the year, various amounts of buckets of monsoon rain. But it is still always warm day and night, whether you are on dry land or in the sea. The sensation of only ever having to wear T-shirts and shorts feels liberating.

The heat also lends itself to the simplicity of life here and the incredible tropical fruit, papaya, coconuts, pineapples, watermelons, mangoes and lychees are in abundance and have incredible flavour – a pineapple doesn’t taste the same anywhere else.

Where is the first place you bring people to when they visit Panama?

The Panama Canal. That is what probably springs to mind when most people think of Panama. It is really a spectacular feat of engineering and it’s really nice to watch the huge ships roll through it on their way to the open water. It is open 24/7 and costs a small fortune for most boats to pass through (the average cost for a ship is $150,000, but it can get much more expensive for the bigger ships). It has been a major point of controversy with the US over the years. The canal was handed back to the Panamanian government in 1999 by the US and since then the Panamanian government have built an extension which allows for even bigger and more ships to pass through. The extension was opened in June 2016 much to the delight of the country.

The top three things to do there that don’t cost money are...

Going to the beach: Panama has incredible beaches on both the Pacific and the Atlantic side. The Caribbean is warm and it can feel like taking a bath in its calm water. The towns on the Caribbean side have a distinct relaxed feel. The Atlantic is a little more rough and ready, but with fabulous long beaches and fantastic diving. You can see humpback whales, turtles, manta rays, sharks, whale sharks, starfish and fabulous coral and multicoloured fish. Both coasts of the country are home to some spectacular beaches, incredible tropical islands and natural parks.

Visiting the rainforest: There are some great walks in the rainforest very near Panama City. You just need your walking shoes to be able to get into the thick of it on some of the walking trails. If you arrive early, you can see and often hear howler monkeys, see spectacular blue butterflies, which are often the size of a small plate. Add to that sloths, spider monkeys, anteaters, wild pigs, snakes and a host of incredible birds. It is said that Panama has more birds than the US and Canada combined. Panama is also home to jaguars, which are nocturnal and a challenge to see.

Strolling around el Casco Viejo: Casco Viejo is the old colonial part of the city. It has a colonial and tropical feel. Lots of restaurants and cafes now occupy the renovated buildings and there are street stalls and beautiful old churches to visit. There are also fantastic rooftop terraces for drinks at night. It’s great to go for something to eat or drink or just stroll around and enjoy the vibe.

Where do you recommend for a great meal that gives a flavour of Panama?

There is a restaurant beside the canal which I would highly recommend at nighttime called Atlantic and Pacific Co. It does typical Panamanian dishes, like Sancocho, which is like a chicken broth with local herbs and vegetables. And ceviche, a refreshing raw fish/prawn cocktail, to quite a high standard. The real attraction is to get to enjoy the canal without the crowds. You can sit outside in the terrace and eat and drink as the mega ships roll in and out. It’s a very unique experience.

What is the best place to get a sense of Panama’s role in history?

The Biodiversity Museum. This museum will give you a good overview of the role that Panama played uniting both North and South America,when the country first rose up from the sea. It explains how animals from both continents met for the first time and the types of animals that existed at that time. It’s a great eye-opener and gives an idea of the role that Panama played in history long before the canal as well as an overview of what the country has to offer now.

What should visitors save room for in their suitcases after a visit to Panama?

A Panama hat, of course. You can buy different colours of the typical Panama hat which is normally a beige hat with a black ribbon around the edge. Also coffee. The famous geisha coffee, which is said to cost up to $25 (€22) a cup in Japan, hails from Panama. Or some traditional mulas made by the native Guna Yala women. These are original artwork to decorate your home with, as a reminder of Panama.

If you’d like to share your little black book of places to visit where you live, please email your answers to the five questions above to abroad@irishtimes.com, including a brief description of what you do there and a photograph of yourself. We’d love to hear from you

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