From clear turquoise seas to the coffee farms and cloud forests of Chiriquí, Panama can be as chilled out or as thrilling as you wish.
With a plethora of deserted islands, chilled Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best of beach life. 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 Guna Yala, where virgin isles sport nary a footprint. Meanwhile, surfers will be psyched to have world-class breaks all to themselves. Hello, paradise.
Panama City is culturally diverse and driven, rough-edged yet sophisticated. And there's much that's new or improved. Central America's first subway is operating, the historic Casco district has been beautifully restored and a massive canal expansion completed. Take in the city's funky particulars. Pedal the coastal green space, explore the Casco or attend an avant-garde performance and you will realize this tropical capital isn't only 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, an unruly troupe of screeching howler monkeys outside your cabin or a 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.
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. 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 Guna 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.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Panama.
Celebrating Panama as the land bridge that has permitted astonishing biodiversity in the region, this world-class museum is a visual feast. Exhibits tell the story of Panama's rich biodiversity through engaging, oversized visuals, examining human presence throughout time, how the Atlantic and Pacific evolved differently, and the interconnectedness of all species. A more abstract than literal approach creates a fresh view. World-renowned architect Frank Gehry, who created the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Spain), designed this landmark museum of crumpled multicolor forms. Audio guides come in five languages. There's also a botanical gardens of native plants in the works.
Natá's principal draw is this 16th-century cathedral, thought to be the oldest church built in the Americas still in use today. Indigenous artisans did all the woodcarving in the church, including the six side altars and the remarkable pulpit. A close look at the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary to the left of the main one shows the culture's influence in the sculpted fruit, leaves and feathered serpents on its two columns. Behind this altar is the crypt entrance. The columns in the nave are made of níspero, a hardwood found in Bocas del Toro Province, while the ceiling has been replaced with pine and cedar. The four bells in the belfry date from the 20th century. The originals, made of gold, were stolen years ago. To the left of the entrance is an 18th-century stone baptismal font. Ecuadorian artist José Samaniego created the Holy Trinity painting to the right of the altar in 1758. For many years it was kept hidden from public view, as it portrays three separate but equal Christ-like individuals and not the usual Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a considerable breach of Roman Catholic dogma. During a 1995 restoration, three skeletons were discovered under the floor beneath the painting. Their identities remain a mystery.
Established in 1988, this 132-sq-km marine park was Panama's first. Protecting 130 islands of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, including the coral-fringed Cayos Zapatillas, and the wetlands in the center of Isla Bastimentos, the marine park is an important nature reserve for mangroves, monkeys, sloths, caimans, crocodiles and 28 species of amphibians and reptiles. Get up-to-date park information from the ATP or Ministerio de Ambiente offices in Bocas del Toro town. To camp out anywhere in the park, you are required to first obtain a permit (US$10) from the latter.
This wonderful privately owned museum features the best collection of Panamanian art anywhere, an excellent collection of works on paper by Latin American artists, and the occasional temporary exhibition by a foreign or national artist.
One of Panama's top artisans, Dario López has been making colorful masks for folkloric dancers since the 1960s. These days most of his masks and satin costumes worn by devil dancers are exported to the USA and Europe. Masks typically cost between US$20 and US$100. To visit his home workshop, look for the gas station near the Parita turnoff on Carretera Nacional. His house is green and on the east side of the highway about 100m north of the station. In 2017 Dario was named Maestro Artesano (Crafts Master) and made commander in the Order of Belisario Porras in recognition of his half-century of artistic work.
The easiest way to visit the Panama Canal is to head to the Miraflores Visitors Center, just outside Panama City. This modern center features a four-floor interactive museum that looks at the canal's history, operations, expansion and ecology, an instructive 15-minute film and several viewing platforms, including the main one on the 4th floor with panoramic views of canal transits (the best times are from 9am to 11am and from 3pm to 5pm when transits are more frequent). There is a direct bus to the Miraflores Visitors Center from the Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City, but it is infrequent. Otherwise take a Paraíso or Gamboa bus from the terminal. These pass along the canal-side highway to Gamboa and will let you off at the ‘Miraflores Locks’ sign (US$0.35) on the highway, 12km from the city center. It’s about a 15-minute walk along the main road to the locks from the sign. You can also take a taxi; drivers will typically wait 30 minutes at the locks and then drive you back to the capital. Expect to pay no more than US$30 round trip, but agree on the price beforehand.
One of the joys of visiting Bocas is touring the 'Monkey Farm' botanical garden a couple of kilometers northwest of the center. Painstakingly carved out of 10 hectares of secondary rainforest over almost two decades, it contains hundreds of species of local and imported trees and ornamental plants, and is teeming with wildlife. Co-owner and guide Lin Gillingham will point out howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, sloths and various bird species. Tours, on Fridays and Mondays, must be booked in advance; garden tours depart regularly while birding tours are on demand.
This national marine park contains Panama's largest island, the 503-sq-km Isla de Coiba, as well as astounding biodiversity; more than two dozen species of dolphin and whale have been identified, including humpback, killer and sperm whales. Several species of crocodile and turtle, and 15 species of snake roam the island as well as myriad birdlife. Santa Catalina is the best place to base yourself if you're interested in reaching the park.
Founded on August 15, 1519, by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, the city of Panamá was the first European settlement along the Pacific. For 150 years it flourished as Spain exported Peruvian gold and silver to Europe via Panamá. In 1671, Captain Henry Morgan sacked the city and it was relocated to the present-day Casco Viejo. Today much of Panamá Viejo lies buried under a poor residential neighborhood, though the ruins are a must-see. The center of power resided at the Casas Reales, a complex ringed by timber ramparts and separated from the city proper by a moat. Within the complex were the customs house, the royal treasury, a prison and the governor's house. Despite the obvious historical importance of the site, past governments have allowed sections of the property to be used as a landfill and for horse stables. Only scattered walls remain of the once-impressive structures. The Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, built between 1619 and 1626, is the best-preserved building of the ruins. In traditional fashion, it was designed so that its two side chapels gave the cathedral a cross-like shape as viewed from the heavens. The bell tower was at the back of the church and may have served double duty as a watchtower for the Casas Reales. The main facade, which faced the Plaza Mayor (Grand Plaza), is gone – only the walls remain. Also facing the Plaza Mayor were the Cabildo de la Ciudad and the Casas de Terrín, houses built by one of the city's wealthiest citizens, Francisco Terrín. Immediately north of the cathedral are the massive ruins of Casa Alarcón, the town's best-preserved and largest known private residence, which dates from the 1640s. Just north of the former residence is the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo, the best-preserved church of the ruins. The convent dates from the 1570s; the church was built 20 or more years later. Arriving a decade or so after the Dominican friars were the Jesuits, who built the Iglesia y Convento de la Compañía de Jesús, whose stone ruins are likewise visible today. Just west of the Jesuits' facilities are the spacious ruins of a church and convent, the Iglesia y Convento de la Concepción, which were erected by the nuns of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción (Our Lady of the Conception). Most of the ruins, which cover the better part of two blocks, were part of the church – little remains of the convent. Between the nuns' church and the sea was the city's sole hospital, the Hospital de San Juan de Dios. Unfortunately, much of the hospital's remains were scattered when Av Cincuentenario and a side road were put in. Also bordering the avenue, two blocks west of the hospital's ruins, are the remains of the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, the facilities erected by the Franciscans. The church faced the sea and stood on a massive base. Continuing two blocks west along Av Cincuentenario, you'll arrive at the ruins of the Iglesia y Convento de La Merced. Erected by Mercedarian friars in the early 17th century, the buildings survived the fire that swept the city following Morgan's assault. However, the church's facade is missing because the friars dismantled it and moved it to Casco Viejo, where it can be seen today. Further west and paralleling the modern bridge is the Puente del Matadero, a horribly over-restored stone bridge that took its name from a nearby slaughterhouse, and marked the beginning of the Camino Real to Portobelo. A much more significant bridge is the Puente del Rey, which is visible from Av Cincuentenario near the northern edge of town. Built in 1617, it may be the oldest standing bridge in the Americas. About halfway between Puente del Rey and the Iglesia y Convento de Santo Domingo lies the Iglesia de San José, which belonged to the Augustine order. Marking this building as special were its vaulted side chapels, an architectural feature seldom seen in Panama. Enter via the entrance furthest west to access the visitor center and museum. The terrain is extensive and best suited to able walkers. Golf cart tours are sporadically offered when there are enough guests to fill the cart.