At the heart of the Americas, Panama is also the crucial link. The Panama Canal joins the Atlantic to the Pacific, wedding east to west in global commerce. In the last century the canal defined Panama. But what lies just beyond these locks could define the next. Pristine beaches, lush rainforest and big city nightlife give a taste of the country’s outstanding assets. Paradoxes are plenty – the US legacy means that English is widely spoken, yet one hour outside the city, indigenous Emberá paddle dugout canoes. The great canal expansion, slated for 2014, means even more business than usual. But for now, you can pick an empty islet and play Survivor for the day.
Panama City is high-octane Latin America with ceviche, casinos and stacked skylines. Sure, the traffic resembles a boa constrictor digesting one megalithic meal. But people are real here and beauty lives in the skewed rhythms, incongruous visions and fiery concrete sunsets.
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. On sticky evenings artist booths line the promenade, couples dine under parasols and skinny boys cannonball into the bay.
One of the world’s greatest shortcuts, the Panama Canal cuts right through the Continental Divide, linking Atlantic and Pacific. And it’s worth marveling. Just as stunning as the hulking steel container ships passing through the locks are the legions of creatures watching from the jungle fringes.
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 bird (this trail has been subject to closure due to trail conditions in recent years - check before you go).
‘Travelling for a year as a family around Latin America we have been to many amazing places and Coiba Island ranks as one of our favourites. We got up close to humpback whales and their calves, our young daughter adored the turtles and we loved the massive variety and number of tropical fish we saw snorkeling. Added to that we saw flocks of the vividly colored scarlet macaws which exist only in a few places in the world. It seems ironic that this little piece of paradise was once a penal colony.’ - Fiona, Andy and Amy H., travelers, UK
‘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. You would think that with its long history of human intervention, the Darién should be the most developed place in Panama, but it’s one of the wildest places in the hemisphere, even after hundreds of years.’ - Rick Morales, naturalist guide, Panama
6. Sailing Archipiélago de San Blás
‘No email, no calls, or high tech. Just water, sand and sun in every direction. Sailing through the Kuna Yala was one of the calmest experiences I have ever had. I recommend it to everyone looking to check out.’ - Meg, traveler, USA
No wonder it’s Panama’s number one vacation spot. 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.
Grab a copy of Lonely Planet's Panama travel guide and plan your next holiday - maybe Christmas on the isthmus?