To fully grasp the beauty and diversity of the Panamanian culture, simply hop in the car and go. With some of the best roads in Central America and a rapidly-changing landscape, taking a road trip through Panama is the perfect way to discover the country’s unexpected culinary delights.
From beach restaurants to mountain refuges, here’s the route to an enchanted gastronomic journey through the tropical paradise.
For some of the best food Panama has to offer, hop in your car and hit the road © Angel DiBillio / Shutterstock
Leave the fancy fusion restaurants of the capital behind and venture into Panama’s heartland to discover some of the country’s most deep-rooted traditions. Skirting the Pacific Coast, just a few hundred miles from Panama City, the Azuero Peninsula will welcome you with native produce such as the iconic chorizo santeño (a local sausage), the lechona (marinated pig’s leg), the alfajores (cookies filled with dulce de leche and guayaba jam) and of course, empanadas.
The first pit-stop is to Restaurante Terry Detsi’s Beach, a Franco-Panamanian enclave right outside Pedasí. Located in the once glamorous Destilladeros Resort (currently closed to the public), the restaurant is a stone’s throw away from the hidden unspoiled creeks of Playa Escondida and Playa Destilladeros.
Besides serving exquisite prawn salad, fresh octopus bolognese and a staggeringly good hand-chopped gourmet burger, it's also a cabinet of curiosities for vintage racing car lovers and art aficionados. Have lunch at one of the rustic tables in the patio and enjoy a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from under the shade.
The red snapper at Panga Restaurant is a crowd favorite © Martina Gili / Lonely Planet
A 40-minute drive southward along a bumpy road will lead you to Playa Venao – Panama’s surfers’ paradise. Protected from the wind, on a quiet end of the beach, Panga Restaurant meshes harmoniously with the natural surroundings. With a big roof over the hammocks and dining area, this culinary gem was founded by high-profile chef Andrés Morataya. Through a ‘farm-to-table’ process, Morataya wants to redeem forgotten ingredients and bring old traditions back to life.
Morataya grows organic vegetables and herbs in Panga’s garden while sourcing other ingredients from local producers. Served directly from the ocean, the red snapper is a scarlet masterpiece that’s almost always on the menu. The grilled shrimp are so fresh you can eat them with the shell, sprinkled with sea salt and wild pepper seeds. Morataya also prepares homemade cheese curd, slow-cooked pork and beef, in full respect of what the land has to offer.
There are several routes from Playa Venao back to the hinterland. The most picturesque of them all is the scenic winding road that cuts back to Las Tablas from Tonosí, offering spectacular views over the pastures and steamy hills of the Los Santos province.
El Refugio La Brisa del Diablo is an unassuming spot with incredible food © El Refugio La Brisa del Diablo
Driving a couple of hours northwest, you’ll pass the city of Santiago and enter the verdant region of Chiriquí. Stop for a dip at the Cangilones, a natural canyon in the district of Guacala, before continuing your journey uphill. You’ll notice a cool mountain breeze taking over just as you prepare yourself to reach not only the peak of the mountain, but also your gastronomic journey.
With a simple sign hanging outside a stone house along the climbing road, the Refugio Brisa del Diablo could easily go unnoticed. But eating at this heavenly refuge’s restaurant will be the highlight of your trip.
Canadian owners Stéphane and Olga orchestrate this marvelous tale from behind the scenes. One moment you’ll spot Stéphane DJing retro tunes at the bar, the next it will be Olga moving lightly in and out of the kitchen with an unflappable smile on her face. Whether it be a sandwich with smoked coconut bread, your breakfast pancakes or a candlelight dinner, the food at El Refugio del Diablo deserves a Michelin-star.
Some of the highlights include grilled jumbo prawns with coconut and lemongrass sauce; pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon and filled with cream cheese and cherries in a Porto sauce; and, equally importantly, an excellent selection of wines. The intimate atmosphere of this haven coupled with the mind-blowing cuisine will make of this stop an unforgettable treat.
Overlooking the Barú Volcano, with a panoramic terrace and a jacuzzi, the two-room boutique bed and breakfast is an unusual combination of Afro-Caribbean and alpine elements. Adorned with carnival masks in papier-mâché, sea-shells and colorful tiles, the brightly-painted walls give a unique character to the place.
The menu at Bibi's Restaurant relies heavily on the day's local catch © Martina Gili / Lonely Planet
Leaving the mountains behind, hit the serpentine road that descends into the tropical forest as you head towards Bocas del Toro, the final stop on this journey. Passing through quiet indigenous villages, the way down to the harbor of Almirante is an intricate one. As you get closer to the coast, the view opens up to reveal a majestic panoramic view. With shades of green and blue blending with the mangroves along the shores of small scattered islands, the archipelago reveals its raw, natural beauty.
Take a ferry to the main island of Isla Colón and land in Bocas Town, a laid-back village filled with colorful houses on stilts, surf schools, hostels and bars lined up along the main street. During the crossing, you may spot the huge Chiquita ships that transport bananas to the mainland – living reminders of a century-long history of fruit production and colonization.
While you’ll be offered fried fish and patacones (plantain) on every beach, try out Bibi’s on Isla Carenero for an upgraded version of Caribbean food. Suspended over the turquoise waters on this corner of paradise, the restaurant relies on the local daily catch, with specials like octopus in garlic sauce, Peruvian-style ceviches and fresh lobster with coconut rice.
The atmosphere will liven up at sunset, as whimsical lanterns begin to shine along the docks of Bocas Town. The breezy terrace of the restaurant El Ultimo Refugio is a wonderful spot to end the holiday.
Among the restaurant’s fusion dishes, the sesame-crusted seared-tuna with pickled ginger vinaigrette is a winner, followed by the grilled octopus over eggplant purée with chorizo and fried carrots. Finish with the popular snicker peanut butter pie with a glass of aged Ron Abuelo as you sway to the beats of a live reggae performance.
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