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Panama unveiled

Panamanian street vendor handcrafts molas
Panamanian street vendor handcrafts molas
Pamela Mones

To the uninitiated, the Republic of Panama might seem like a step-child to its more familiar neighbor, Costa Rica. But one visit to its capital, Panama City, is certain to catapult the country to the top of your bucket list of places to go.

While many think they've seen Panama aboard a cruise ship passing through the famous canal bearing its name, they have scarcely skimmed the surface of richness the city, beaches, mountains, rainforests, and towns promise. Bordered to the north by the Caribbean Sea, the east by the Republic of Colombia, the south by the Pacific Ocean, with Costa Rica to its west, Panama City is a bustling metropolis with shopping malls, lavish hotels, and an abundance of casinos scattered throughout the city.

The approach to the city from Tocumen International Airport, about 15-30 minutes from downtown, reveals a skyline, albeit on a smaller scale, akin to New York City.

While the Panama Canal is perhaps Panama's most 'notable' attraction, the country has a vast storehouse of history, culture, and diverse topography that will offer endless opportunities for adventure and exploration - hiking, scuba diving, boating, and more.

Often people escape the heat and frenzy of the city by traveling to the mountain region to places like Boquete, where sweaters are often needed in the cool of the evening temperatures.

Size-wise, Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina. Its government is based on constitutional democracy, and Spanish is the native language. Aside from taxi drivers, most larger hotels and restaurants have English-speaking employees.

While Panama's official currency is the balboa, the U.S. dollar is readily accepted, and is equal in value to the balboa.

The climate, as you might expect, is tropical, meaning hot, humid, and cloudy, with a rainy season that runs May to January, with a short, dry season January to May. Temperatures year-round range between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit (although 'global warming' may change that). And while the rainy season suggests it rains all the time, usually rains last an hour or two, and often intermittent throughout the season.

If you think you want to rent a car to travel around the country - don't. Unless you are willing to navigate through chaos of scant traffic lights and relentless lane mergers, a taxi is the most economical - and perhaps the safest -way to get around. Be prepared to negotiate the price before you accept the ride, however. The ride from the airport generally costs under $20.

Panama currently is undergoing an amazing upgrade to its transit systems, and current efforts to expand the Panama Canal, to enable larger cruise ships and cargo vessels to go through the canal, portends enormous growth potential for the country.

Perhaps least known about Panama is its status as an international banking center - home to some of the world's largest banks and huge multi-national corporations.

The country's relative low cost of living makes it an attractive haven for retirees. According to many reports, Panama is considered a top retirement destination, largely due to its friendly approach towards retirees. Pensioners currently receive discounts of as much as 50% off entertainment; 35% off boat, bus, and train fares; 25% off airline tickets; and other benefits.

Panama's reputation may have been tainted under the rule of its former president, Manuel Noriega, decades ago, but the country currently has a stable government and peaceful relations with most other countries. The current focus on developing tourism as a source of additional revenue is making Panama an attractive option for both visitors and investors.

While many may have been unaware of Panama's financial standing in the world, and its modern structures, the country's contribution to textile design is significant among those who have an interest in fabric arts - particularly molas. The technique of making molas involves layer-upon-layer of colorful fabric being 'cut through,' and then folding under the raw edges, which are then hand-stitched - resulting in vibrantly-colored intricate designs - from fanciful birds and other animals, to historic buildings and maps of the country.

The creation of molas is attributed to the indigenous Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, who incorporate mola panels into their native costumes worn during special celebrations.

Although molas are now created from cloth, the designs originally were painted directly on their body, rather than on fabric. According to historical reports, when Spaniards colonized the country and missionaries came, the Kunas transferred their art from painting on their body, to painting directly on fabric... to where today this process of reverse applique on fabric remains hugely popular.

While the exact age of molas is uncertain, it's thought they are around 150-175 years old. Highly collectible as framed art, as well as more functionally as clothing, purses, tote bags, and other textile products, molas, perhaps, will be Panama's most engaging artistic legacy, and the Kuna Indian's most dramatic contribution to the world of textile design.


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