Panama is the southernmost country in Central America, strategically situated on an isthmus that connects North America with South America. The country is perhaps best known for its Panama Canal, which is a waterway linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean – one of the most important shipping routes in the world. Today, Panama is one of the most underrated and overlooked tourist destinations in Central America, some say because it is nothing more than an American colony, but this is far from reality.
Not only has Panama regained control over the canal and there are no remaining American soldiers, but the country itself is a unique culture of several well-preserved indigenous groups, among them the Emberá, Kuna, Guaymí, Naso, Bribri, Buglé, and Wounaan, that you can immerse yourself in by visiting their traditional villages and markets. Panama is also every bit as beautiful and eco-filled as its neighbor, Costa Rica, only less crowded by mass tourism. The country is covered by dense cloud forests, lush tropical isles, towering volcanoes and mountains, and pristine turtle-nested beaches and coral reefs – most of which are large protected nature reserves and national parks. Panama is definitely a bit of a hidden eco-tourist treasure; not too many people know about it yet, something that is likely to change very soon.
Panama has been inhabited by indigenous natives for over 12,000 years, including by various pottery-making cultures like the Monagrillo. The country was first settled by the Spanish in the 16th century. At the time, the native population of Panama was estimated to be around two million people.
In 1821, like other Central American colonies, Panama broke from Spain. It then joined Colombia. In 1903, however, Panama declared independence from Colombia, partly upon the influence and encouragement of the United States. The U.S. was the first country to recognize Panama as a new sovereign state and provided military protection to Panama against Colombia’s attempts at invasion. Not soon afterwards, Panama granted the Americans the right to build and administer the Panama Canal in perpetuity in exchange for an annual rent under the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty, which was signed controversially without the consent of any Panamanian. In the 1960s, this treaty became a contentious issue, leading to several riots. The U.S. and Panama agreed, as a result, to a new treaty in 1977 that called for the withdrawal of U.S. control and administration of the canal by 1999. Panama took over control of the canal in 1999 as planned.
The main attraction of Panama is the famous Panama Canal, considered one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. The canal links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through a series of artificial lakes, locks, and channels that pass through rugged banks and a pristine rainforest. The canal can be enjoyed by taking a boat cruise through it, riding a train that runs alongside it, or driving to one of the canal’s locks.
Every corner of Panama is a natural attraction. In the country’s north are the Bocas del Toro Archipelagos, some of the most beautiful set of islands in the Caribbeans. So gorgeous are its sandy beaches, coral reefs, clear blue waters, and tropical forests that it seems almost sinful that they have not been enjoyed by more people. The region is inhabited by the indigenous Afro-Antillano who can speak English.
The Chiriqui Highlands in Panama’s northwest are similar to the cloudforests of Costa Rica. These highlands are covered by rainforest-covered slopes, fertile valleys of coffee plantations and banana groves, volcanic peaks, and town villages scattered throughout. The Parque Nacional La Amistad is one of the protected cloudforests, home to wildlife and exotic colorful birds like the quetzal. You can also hike or drive up to the peak of Volcán Baru, which offers views of the countryside below and the two oceans on opposite sides.
In the northeast, Panama offers the Kuna Yala coast or the San Bias Archipelago. This is a region inhabited by the self-governing indigenous Kuna and is incredibly gorgeous. You’ll find palm-fringed coral atolls off the coast of dense rainforests. But Kuna Yala is probably the best place in Panama to experience an indigenous culture. The villages of Kuna still live according to their traditional way of life. You can still see the men and women wear the distinctive traditional costumes worn by their ancestors.
The Azuero Peninsula in Panama’s southwest is another indigenous area you can visit and experience. The villages in this region still hold on to their rural traditions and folklore and hold several lively fiestas throughout the year. The peninsula is every bit as beautiful as anywhere else in Panama. The Isla Iguana and the Isla Cañas nature reserves are also just off the shores of the peninsula and have some great diving and snorkeling spots.
In the southeast, bordering Colombia, Panama offers the Darién Gap, home to Parque Nacional Darién (Darién National Park). This is a protected rainforest and one of the most biodiverse regions on earth, home to harpy eagles, macaws, parrots, and tapirs.
The eastern region of the Darién Gap that crosses over to Colombia is a very dangerous area, occupied by many Colombian guerrillas, traffickers, militiamen, and kidnappers. Also, the port of Colón is very poor and dangerous and should not be visited without extreme planning, preparation, and precaution.