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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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).
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.
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.
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.
Geared toward ecotourism and environmental education, this is an excellent facility for birdwatchers and nature-lovers. Since you are probably here to watch wildlife, it’s worth making an effort to roll out of bed early – 6am to 8am are the best times. With advance reservations, groups can set up special night tours.
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 impressive Gatún Locks, 10km south of Colón, raise southbound ships 30m from Caribbean waters to Lago Gatún. Just the size of them is mind-boggling: three sets of double lock chambers stretch on for 3km. Each chamber could have accommodated the Titanic with room to spare. With the opening of the Agua Clara Visitors Center, the viewing stand opposite the control tower has unfortunately now been closed.
At the tip of the southern point of Casco Viejo, this beautiful plaza pays homage to the French role in the construction of the canal. Its large stone tablets and statues are dedicated to the memory of the 22,000 workers who died trying to create the canal.