With a spate of deserted islands, chill Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best of all beach worlds. And a whole other world begins at the water's edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in the Pacific, snorkeling the rainbow reefs of Bocas del Toro or setting sail in the indigenous territory of Kuna Yala, where virgin isles wear nary a footprint. Meanwhile surfers will be psyched to have world-class breaks all to themselves. Hello, paradise.
The dazzling blue coastline and shimmering skyscrapers say Miami, though many joke that you hear more English spoken in Panama. Panama City is nothing if not culturally diverse and driven, rough-edged yet sophisticated. Always a work in progress, construction is underway to add a subway and complete the massive canal expansion. But it's the particulars that make it special. Pedal the coastal green space, explore the historic Casco or attend an avant-garde performance and you will realize this tropical capital isn't just about salsa, that's just the backbeat.
The Great Outdoors
In Panama, nature is all about discovery. Explore the ruins of Spanish forts on the Caribbean coast or boat deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe. Wildlife is incidental: a resplendent quetzal on the highland trail, the unruly troupe of screeching howler monkeys outside your cabin or the breaching whale that turns your ferry ride into an adrenaline-filled event. Adventure tourism means zipping through rainforest canopies, swimming alongside sea turtles or trekking to sublime cloud forest vistas. One small tropical country with two long coasts makes for a pretty big playground.
Lost World Adventure
You don't have to make it all the way to the Darién to get off the beaten path – though if you do, you've hit one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. Go where the wild things are. Soak in the spray of towering waterfalls near highland Santa Fé. Visit one of Panama's seven indigenous groups through community tourism. Live out your castaway fantasies in the Kuna Yala or idle on a wilderness beach in Península de Azuero. Howl back at the creatures sharing the canopy. Panama is as wild as you want it to be.
Why I Love Panama, Central America
By Carolyn McCarthy, Author
In a world where the wilderness and native cultures are disappearing, Panama – against all odds – continues with its essence intact. Trekking through exuberant rainforests, seeing indigenous culture and sailing between pristine tropical islands opened up my sense of wonder. The wildlife viewing is astounding – from expected places, like the waters of Isla de Coiba, but also in patches of preserved forest just outside the capital. For me Panama is a confluence – an explosion of nature, cultures and beliefs in that messy, musical arrangement that's everyday life in Latin America. All that energy feeds you, and you see the world in new ways.
Best places to stay in Panama
Discover Panama's swashbuckling history
Panama isn’t just about tropical headgear and the world’s greatest shortcut – its jungles and crumbling colonial ports conceal a history of gold and plunder on the Spanish Main. Explore the swashbuckling history of Panama and its rich wildlife with Lonely Planet Traveller magazine. Words by Roff Smith; photographs by Mark Read.
Panama’s best beaches and islands
Panama's best outdoor adventures
Panama destination guides
Multicultural Latin playground of sizzling salsa and international cuisine.
Island-hopping down Central America’s Caribbean coast
You don't always need suitcases full of cash to enjoy the Caribbean Sea – cradled in its western corner lie a number of idyllic island groups that are surprisingly easy on the pocket. San Blas Islands, Panama San Blas, Kuna Yala, Panama by Ben Kucinski. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.
Panama's best bird-watching and wildlife
Panama Canal Partial Transit Sightseeing Cruise
See for yourself how the Panama Canal works as you transit the Miraflores Locks, one of three locks used along the canal. The construction of the canal was one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken at the time, and it made an enormous impact on shipping in the region.
Panama City and Canal Sightseeing Tour
Enjoy a guided sightseeing tour and visit the most important sites and landmarks of Panama. Tour both the historical and modern areas of Panama City and visit the world-famous Panama Canal, whose impressive system of locks continues to fascinate visitors. Choose between a half-day or full-day tour.
Five amazing places to experience another culture
Learning about the culture and customs of other people is one of the great experiences of travel. Explore the planet's diversity with one of these locally owned and authentic tribal encounters. H'mong women by Maria Hsu.