Unfettered by tourist crowds, Panama’s natural gifts shine. Although most backpackers to Central America set their sights on tourist-soaked Costa Rica and Guatemala, it’s hard to shake the feeling in Panama that you’re in on a secret the rest of the traveling world has yet to discover. Although the ‘gringo trail’ has already swung south to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro, the careless overdevelopment plaguing most Costa Rican beach towns is still refreshingly absent here. In fact, Panama’s highlights are still very much off-the-beaten-path destinations, though it’s likely that this will change in the years to come.
Blue-green seas, foggy highlands and snaking rivers that fringe a great tropical wilderness. This is Panama as the explorers found it, and as much of it remains today. Many outsiders assume that Panama is all about its capital and commerce. But while the country is racing toward rapid-fire development, the resources Panama has always had and oft neglected have started to attract attention. A third of the country is set aside as protected areas and national parks, and indigenous groups have survived with their cultures largely intact.
Until its anticipated tourism boom explodes, however, Panama remains accessible to backpackers on a budget, and there’s no shortage of beaches, mountains and rain forests to explore. The Archipiélago de las Perlas in itself could occupy your entire trip, with its endless islands and islets, sublime beaches and pristine waters. Parque Nacional Volcán Barú is home to Panama's only volcano and some incredibly scenic trekking opportunities, while the Interior is a veritable bonanza of colonial towns, exquisite handicrafts and the country's friendliest people. Panama is also home to one of Central America’s most independent indigenous groups, the Kuna, who live autonomously in the Comarca de Kuna Yala; as well as one of the last true frontiers in the Americas, the infamous Darién Province.
Although the canal has defined Panama for the last century, it’s what lies just beyond this engineering marvel that could define the next hundred years. Pristine beaches, lush rainforest and big-city nightlife give a taste of the country’s outstanding assets. Always a creature of potential, Panama lives with a sharp contrast between its urban and rural counterparts. Panama City is all sparkling skyscrapers, cement mixers and scaffolds, yet an hour outside the capital, indigenous Emberá paddle dugout canoes. Ironically, many residents welcomed the 2009 world economic crisis in relief, and that megadevelopments and real-estate speculation would slow down for a pace as a consequence. For Panama, it’s time to get back to natural assets.
Ready to go?
These tours & activities make it easy:
- Experience the best of Panama on a 14-day adventure
- Find beach bliss and idylic islands on a tour of Costa Rica & Panama
- Travel through Panama on a 24-day journey
- Discover how the Panama Canal works
Last updated: Jan 17, 2013
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21 March 2013
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