This tiny mountain town 53km north of Santiago lies in the shadow of the Continental Divide. At an altitude of 500m, Sante Fé is cooler than the lowlands, and much of the surrounding forest is as it was when the Spanish founded the town in 1557. Santa Fé has fresh, clean air and bucolic surroundings, yet it sees few foreign visitors.
One of world’s richest biomes is the 5760-sq-km Parque Nacional Darién, where the primeval meets the present with scenery nearly unaltered from one million years ago. Even today in the Darién, the Emberá and Wounaan people maintain many of their traditional practices and retain generations-old knowledge of the rainforest.
Santa Catalina is one of Central America's top surf spots. Indeed, the right and left breaks here are comparable to Oahu’s Sunset Beach on a good day. The fishing village has a laid-back feel, with limited dining and nonexistent nightlife. Enjoy it while it’s still remote, undeveloped and home to some seriously wicked surf.
Comarca de Guna Yala
Imagine a turquoise tropical archipelago with one island for every day of the year. With white sand and waving palms, these Caribbean islands cheat no one’s version of paradise. The Comarca is home to the Guna, the first group in Latin America to gain indigenous autonomy.
Isla Contadora (Counting House Island) was once the accounting center for pearls before they were shipped to Spain. In more recent times, multimillionaires have made the island their refuge; when Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was ousted from Iran in 1979, he removed his large fortune to Isla Contadora.
Archipiélago de Las Perlas
Named for the large pearls found in its waters, the Archipiélago de Las Perlas comprises 90 named islands and more than 100 unnamed islets, each surrounded by travel magazine–worthy white-sand beaches and turquoise waters. Home to the palatial mansions of the rich and powerful, Isla Contadora is the best known.
One of Panama’s oldest settlements, the hot city of Chitré is hardly geared up for travelers, but it’s an agreeable stop on the way down to the peninsula's beaches. The capital of Herrera Province, it’s the largest city on the Península de Azuero, and the cultural and historic capital of the region.
The capital of Coclé Province is a bustling crossroads city with a rich history. Founded in 1581, Penonomé blossomed so quickly that it served as the temporary capital of the isthmus in 1671 after the destruction of the first Panama City (now known as Panamá Viejo) and until Nueva Panamá (today's Casco Viejo) was founded a few years later.
The Canal Zone is home to a number of impressive attractions, especially if you’re into wildlife-watching, hiking and birdwatching. On a day trip from Panama City, you could visit the Miraflores Locks and finish at the Parque Nacional Soberanía and the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center.
Las Tablas is ground zero for the street dancing, booze-soaked celebrations and all-out mayhem associated with the festivals of the Península de Azuero. Home to the country’s most famous Carnaval, Las Tablas is the best place in Panama to sample some seco (alcoholic drink made from sugarcane) and seriously cut loose.
Volcán is the first sizable town that you pass heading north along the route to Parque Internacional La Amistad. Clinging to the southwest flank of towering Volcán Barú, Volcán has a pleasant feel and serves as a good base for eating and sleeping and as a springboard for excursions.