Panama is not only the geographical point where North America meets South America but also where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet in the country’s famed canal. The original meaning of the word “panama” means “abundance of fish,” and fishing is just one of the many water sports and activities that visitors to Panama can enjoy. More highly developed than neighboring Central American countries, Panama enjoys a modern infrastructure, making travel through the tropical paradise easy and convenient. Here are the top tourist attractions in Panama that are well-worth visiting.
Panama was inhabited by several indigenous tribes prior to settlement by the Spanish in the 16th century. It broke away from Spain in 1821 and joined a union of Nueva Granada, Ecuador, and Venezuela named the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada remained joined, eventually becoming the Republic of Colombia. With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, allowing the Panama Canal to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. In 1977, an agreement was signed for the total transfer of the Canal from the United States to Panama by the end of the 20th century, which culminated on 31 December 1999.
Panama´s strongest attraction is its diversity. In less than five days you can visit it all: beach, mountain, modern city and historic ruins. While in Panama city don´t miss the four "must do": the Panama Canal, Panama Viejo, Casco Antiguo (also known as Casco Viejo) and the jungles surrounding the Canal area.
Panama Viejo was the first city of Panama, founded by the Spanish back in 1519. It was the first city founded at the Pacific and it became rapidly a prosperous point where gold from the southern colonies would make it to the Caribbean and later on to Europe. It was attacked by pirates several times, the last of them by Pirate Henry Morgan who destroyed it forever in 1671. In 1673, a new city was built, but this time using the knowledge painfully acquired by experience. The Spanish by then knew well the risks of settling cities in tropical swamps: mosquitoes, tropical diseases and difficulty to defend its territory. The second city was founded at the opposite side of the bay in very different conditions: a rocky peninsula easy to defend and with crossed winds that would ensure the health of its inhabitants. This city is known today as Casco Antiguo, and it is here where the Republic of Panama was born as it is known today.
Casco Antiguo (or Casco Viejo), currently a UNESCO protected site, is Panama City´s second touristic destination and the reason is that its buildings reflect the diversity of Panamanian society. Although a Spanish colonial city, because of several fires and the influence of merchants from all around the world, it became a vibrant city with styles ranging from Caribbean to French and even Art Deco. Today, Casco Antiguo undergoes an interesting revitalization process. Boutique hotels have started to appear, and some of the best bars and restaurants of the city can be found here. It has also become Panama City´s artistic center with the recurrent art events and shows such as the Panama Jazz Festival, the Music Festival, Sobresaltos Dance Festival and many others.
Parque Soberania, Parque Chagres and Parque Metropolitano: fifteen minutes away from modern Panama City, you´ll be able to hike primary and secondary tropical rainforests. There are several activities you can do here, from birdwatching at Gamboa´s Pipeline Road to fishing at the Gatun Lake or visits of the caves at Madden. For those interested in research, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute offers visitors educational tours to Barro Colorado Island, one of the most studied jungles in the world.
The Panama Canal is probably the most important item in the traveler´s list. There are several ways you can experience the canal, it will depend on your level of interest. For the curious visitor, there are two museums devoted to it: the Canal Museum at Casco Antiguo, featuring Panama´s history as a crossroads of cultures, oceans and a bridge between continents and a second museum is located at the Miraflores Locks. This museum shows the technical aspects of the Canal. You can observe the transits at the balcony of the restaurant on the top.
Panama has an unlimited list of activities to do, but every traveler wants to find a beach to relax on. Luckily, Panama offers some amazing beaches all over the country.
Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side offers several islands. Isla Colon, the main island with Bocas town is a central hub for backpackers looking to party at the beach. The other islands, such as Bastimentos, offer more secluded getaways.
Boca Chica is on the Pacific side and is the entrance to the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, featuring hundreds of uninhabited islands with white sand beaches. Tours can be booked from Boquete or Boca Brava.
San Blas islands are on the Caribbean side, closer to Panama City. The indigenous group of the Kuna inhabit this autonomous region, and most travelers book a week-long boat ride, island hopping between the gorgeous white sand beaches.
Santa Catalina is a small beach town on the Pacific side, offering some of the best surfing in Panama. It also serves as the port to Isla Coiba.
HIKING AND BIRD WATCHING
Hiking: There are many hiking trails in Panama through the numerous National Parks. Most are accessible and easy enough to traverse with out a guide. However, due to the density of some of the rainforests, staying on the designated trail is recommended, if you don’t have a guide. To increase your chance of actually seeing wildlife, birds, or Quetzals in Boquete, you can hire a guide. In the Darien unguided travel can be dangerous. Because Panama is one of the top adventure destinations, there are many reputable tour companies offering guided treks throughout the country, with some of the best being in the charming mountain town of Boquete.
Birding: There are over 960 species of birds in Panama. Many are only found in this region. The Panama Audubon Society is a good source of information on the bird population by region. Boquete birding is not to be missed.
Quetzal Trail: Within the National Park, Boquete, the area around this trail, including multiple other shorter and easier trails, is perhaps the most famous hiking area in all of Panama. Visitors come from all over the world to have an opportunity to see the Resplendent Quetzal. Although the trails are easy enough to hike by yourself, unless you are an experienced birder, you might not spot a Quetzal. It is wise to hire a guide.
SCUBA and SNORKELING
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling: Both the Atlantic (Bocas del Toro) and Pacific (Gulf of Chiriqui) offer incredible water sport opportunities. For Caribbean coral and reef fish, go Atlantic. For rare pelagic species and the best whale watching in the world, go Pacific. Isla Coiba, named the Galapagos of Panama, offers over-sized scuba diving with sharks, turtles, big fish, rays, and crocodiles.