While Panama is known mostly for its famous canal, the country's natural attractions offer an irresistible lure to far-sighted travelers. This oft-overlooked country offers some of the finest birding, snorkeling and hiking in the Americas.
Panama's charms include its stunning coastline of palm-fringed beaches, its astounding wildlife - boasting an incredible diversity of tropical birds - and its proud, vibrant indigenous peoples, such as the Kuna. While in Panama, you'll find it hard to shake the inescapable feeling that you're in on a secret the rest of the traveling world has yet to discover.
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Bordering Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, the isthmus of Panama is the umbilical cord joining South and Central America. Panama's arched shape reflects both its role as a bridge between continents and as a passageway between oceans. At its narrowest point, it is only 50km (30mi) wide, but it has a 1160km (720mi) Caribbean coastline on its northern shore and a 1690km (1048mi) Pacific coast to the south. The famous canal is 80km (50mi) long and effectively divides the country into eastern and western regions.
Along both coastlines, there are literally hundreds of islands where you can indulge in all of your island-hopping fantasies. The two major archipelagos are the San Blás and Bocas del Toro chains in the Caribbean Sea, which are famous for their Kuna population and tropical beaches respectively.
Rainforests dominate the canal zone, the northwestern portion of the country and much of the eastern half.
What To Do
Most people come to Panama for the riches of its rainforests, rivers and islands. There are spectacular outdoor adventures to be had, whether you want to snorkel coral reefs or surf 4m (13ft) faces, hike the incredible mountains or experience the rich diversity of 900-plus bird species.
What To See
Panama buzzes with butterflies, bees and salsa beats.
Flanked by archipelagos, Panama is only 30km (20mi) wide at its narrowest, you can swim in the Pacific and the Caribbean on the same day! Pass through mountain springs and rainforests in the cool highlands, and don't miss Panama City for incredible Spanish architecture and Latin beats.
Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo
With more than 15,000 plant species, these botanical gardens were founded in 1923 to introduce, propagate and disseminate tropical plants from around the world into Panama. In addition to trails marked with plant species, there is a small zoo, which was originally setup to help GIs identify animals while they were out serving in the jungles.
The Canal is both an engineering marvel and one of the most significant waterways on the planet. Seeing a huge ship nudge its way through the narrow canal with vast tracts of virgin jungle on both sides is truly an unforgettable sight. As impressive as it is now, an ambitious expansion plan is underway to completely transform the canal.
Parque Arqueológico del Caño
This is one of only two archaeological sites in the country that are open to the public. Its museum displays objects that were found nearby. There's an excavation pit in the park as well; it contains a burial site where five skeletons were found in the exact same position as visitors see them today.
Parque Nacional Soberanía
This 22,104ha (85 sq mi) park is one of the most accessible tropical rain-forest areas in Panama. It extends much of the way across the isthmus, from Limón on Lago Gatùn to just north of Paraíso. It features hiking trails, the Río Chagres, part of Lago Gatùn and a remarkable variety of wildlife.
Parque Nacional Volcán Barú
Volcán Barú is Panama's only volcano and the dominant geographical feature of western Panama. It has not one but seven craters. Its summit, at 3478m (11,410ft), is the highest point in Panama, and on a clear day it affords views of both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Ingenio de Azúcar Santa Rosa
The Santa Rosa Sugar Refinery, located 15km west of Aguadulce, is a must-see if you’re in the area from mid-January to mid-March. During grinding season, the refinery processes over 6500 tons of raw sugarcane per day.
Carnaval is celebrated over the four days preceding Ash Wednesday and involves music, dancing and a big parade on Shrove Tuesday. The celebrations in Panama City and Las Tablas are the most festive, while the Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations at Villa de Los Santos, on the Península de Azuero, are equally renowned. The Festival of the Black Christ at Portobelo on October 21 includes a parade of the famous life-size statue of the Black Christ, and attracts pilgrims from all over the country.