If you ask people what they think of Panama, the ones who have never been will generally stumble, shrug, or bring up some negative like the rude taxi drivers in the capital or (generally) boring food. It’s not a country the uninitiated generally have on the bucket list unless they’re the type that geeks out about The Panama Canal or they’re lured by the retirement benefits.
I’ve written about Panama before though since I’ve been there three times, including on the advantages and costs of living there. There are many aspects to this varied country. In the capital the main tourist impressions are glitzy high-rises, hip boutique hotels, and luxury digs. I’ve written about exploring by small ship, doing coffee tours, and checking out the adventure travel options.
This is a bigger country than most people expect. It’s not all that wide, especially where the canal cuts through, but if you wanted to drive from one end to the other on the Pan-American Highway it would take you a few days even if you drove all day and didn’t stop. You probably wouldn’t want to do that though. There are, after all, 477 miles of Caribbean coastline and 767 miles of Pacific coastline to explore. That means lots of hidden beaches like this
The big tourism draw here though is the wildlife. This is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and one look at a map of the Americas will show you why. This little strip of land is the only connection between two continents, so a good number of the 900-some species of birds in Panama are migrating one way or the other and stopping here to rest a while.
Of course there are a lot of tropical birds that don’t go anywhere, whether it’s the Resplendent Quetzals I spotted on Mount Baru or the sea birds I always saw in abundance anywhere near the coasts, like this one just strolling along on Coiba Island.
The diversity extends to the plant life as well. Visit a market and you can see the wide bounty of food that can be grown here—from berries to coffee to pineapples to nuts.
This photo is a cashew on a tree: you can eat the fruit part, but that one cashew nut that clings to the bottom needs to be individually processed to remove the poisonous skin on the outside. (It can burn your fingers.)
They also grow sugar cane, which means there’s local rum. Ron Abuelo has been around since the 1930s and like most anything you eat and drink that’s domestic, it’s a bargain. (See this earlier post on boozing it up for cheap in Panama.)
If you go hiking in the highlands of the Chiriqui region, you can spot all kinds of wildlife and get a crash course in botany. Lots of orchid varieties you’ve probably never seen grow here, like this:
If you’re near the Pearl Islands or Coiba Islands, you can see hammerhead sharks under the water while scuba diving or go fishing for marlin and sailfish. Near the shore you will certainly see swarms of hermit crabs stripping coconuts clean and maybe a lizard like this cruising by your boat:
The souvenir shopping here is much better than in neighboring Costa Rica, where there’s not much handicraft history to speak of. Here you’ve got more indigenous people creating interesting basket and the famous molas like you see here:
The Panama Hats are actually not from Panama. They were just used here by canal workers and the name stuck. They’re really made in Ecuador. The woven hat that’s really from Panama looks like the array in this guy’s shop. He and his family make all of them that they sell.
Some other countries in Central America get more adventure travel press, but there’s enough to do in Panama to occupy you for weeks. Even if you don’t surf. Around 25% of the land in this country is protected or is a national park, so there’s no shortage of opportunities for hiking. Pick from lowland jungle areas filled with howler monkeys or volcanoes like Baru where you can spot rare birds, butterflies, and maybe a jaguar. (We saw fresh tracks anyway on my hike.) You can also climb that mountain for the sunrise and see both oceans.
One perception many people have is that the Panama Canal is just a man-made narrow ribbon going across the land. In reality, ships cross Lake Gatun in the middle, in an area that was flooded to make it deeper. There’s actually an incredible amount of wildlife around that lake and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center is on one of its banks. If you book the right tour, you can go kayaking in this area and spot 50 different birds without trying.
There are many tribal people who have mostly shunned the modern urban world. The Kuna people live on the San Blas islands and are known for their colorful embroidery work. The Embera Cocoe groups near the Darien Gap have traditionally tended to not wear much clothing at all. They’d rather cover their body with tats, like these musicians.
So…if you’re planning an overland trip down through the Americas or a spin through Central America, you might want to kick back for a while in Panama. It’s not the cheapest and it’s not the easiest, but you haven’t already seen 5,000 pictures of it already and it will probably surprise you on a regular basis.
Also, Copa Air has their hub in the capital city and they’re part of the Star Alliance for cashing in points. For guidebooks, my favorites are the Footprint Panama Handbook by Richard Arghiris and the Moon Handbook by William Friar.