Sitting at the heart of the Americas, Panama has been mostly known for the Panama Canal for the last century. The next century could be defined by what awaits beyond the locks. Pristine beaches, lush rainforest and big city nightlife give a taste of the country’s outstanding assets. The US legacy means a mix of juxtapositions; English is widely spoken, yet one hour outside the city you’ll find indigenous Emberá paddle dugout canoes.
1. Panama City
Panama City is high-octane Latin America with ceviche, casinos and stacked skylines. But don’t miss the historical neighborhood of Casco Viejo, with its crumbling convents and cobblestones. It’s as much about today’s urban mix as the energy.
2. Panama Canal
One of the world’s greatest shortcuts, the Panama Canal cuts right through the Continental Divide, linking the Atlantic and Pacific. Just as stunning as the huge steel container ships passing through the locks are the legions of creatures watching from the jungle fringes.
3. The Highlands
Whether you came to see a resplendent quetzal, paddle a river, climb a volcano or pick coffee berries fresh from the bush, there’s magic in Panama’s misty highlands. Fuel yourself with mountain-grown coffee in Boquete, the town of eternal spring, climb to the top of Volcán Barú where views of both coastlines await, and hike through the cloud forests of Sendero Los Quetzales in search of the elusive creatures.
4. Parque Nacional Coiba
Once a penal colony, Coiba Island is now a national park teaming with life. Get up close to humpback whales and their calves, and see a massive variety and number of tropical fish while snorkeling. Add to that flocks of the vividly colored scarlet macaws which exist only in a few places in the world.
5. Parque Nacional Darién
The Darién represents the triumph of nature over human power. It was the first place in the mainland Americas to be colonized by the Europeans, but it’s now one of the wildest places in the hemisphere, even after hundreds of years.
6. Sailing Archipiélago de San Blás
Sailing through the Kuna Yala is a wonderfully calming experience, with just sand, water and sun found in every direction.
7. Archipiélago Bocas del Toro
It’s Panama’s number one vacation spot, and for good reason. Turquoise waters, dazzling corals and giant starfish wallpaper these laid-back islands known for fun and sun.
8. Fantastic Creatures
With more than 300 mammals and 900 bird species, Panama is crack for naturalists. Scarlet macaws, toucans, sloths and squirrel monkeys are just a few local stars. As a spectator sport, wildlife-watching is nothing short of thrilling, but it’s the calls, cries and rumbles of the rainforest that will stamp your memory forever.
9. Lost Beaches
Take your pick from ripping surf breaks to pristine tropical isles, Panama has thousands of beaches to suit any mood from escapist to hedonist. But many of these sandy stretches belong to the sea turtles come hatching season.
10. Indigenous Cultures
Panama’s native cultures are dynamic communities who have persevered through changing times. On the Caribbean, the Kuna boast the highest degree of sovereignty in Latin America. Emberá and Wounaan inhabit Panamá Province and the Darién. To the east, the Ngöbe-Buglé number in the hundreds of thousands, while the Naso has one of the few remaining monarchies in the Americas.
P.S. – Visit Panama and Costa Rica with us in February 2012. Click to learn more.