Few countries of Panama's size (it's smaller than South Carolina) can pack such a diversity of landscapes and travel experiences. Panama's rugged interior of jungle and volcanic terrain slopes down to sandy beaches, with deserted islands dotting both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Between Panama's natural wonders, underwater adventures, cultural sites and buzzing capital, there's plenty to fill a lengthy travel itinerary. What's more, American-based travelers can fly to Panama in about three hours from Miami - and you won't need a visa. Read on to learn more what makes Panama such an exceptional destination, including where to go and what to do in Central America's new tropical playground.
There are thousands of islands to explore
Panama's Caribbean coast is gifted with calm azure sea and loads of tiny islands and islets. To the west, Bocas del Toro comprise Panama's most popular islands and isolated beaches, hiking opportunities and snorkeling and diving at Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. Hiring a wooden motorboat to island hop is the recommended way to take in the archipelago's mangrove forests, stunning beaches, and hidden coves. Further east, the lesser-known San Blas islands reside just off the coast. Although the archipelago is part of Panama, the indigenous Kuna tribe has maintained self-governing rights. Around 50 of the archipelago's nearly 400 islands are inhabited, so it's not hard to find your own private beach - or an entire island for that matter.
Across the country, the Pacific coast is home to hundreds of islands too, including Panama's biggest islands. Coiba Island is the largest in Central America. The island's forested interior is home to unique subspecies of howler monkeys, birds, and agouti - a rodent resembling an elongated guinea pig. The island ecosystem also possesses endemic flora and thriving coral reefs, which are protected as a UNESCO site. In the Gulf of Panama, the Pearl Islands are another largely undeveloped archipelago ripe for adventurists and island hoppers. A bounty of isolated coves and white-sand beaches await, especially on the largest of the archipelago, Isla del Rey.
The food is flavorful and diverse
You'll be hard-pressed to find many Panamanian restaurants outside of Panama. That's what makes Panama's cuisine all the more exciting. A visit isn't complete without sampling a bowl of sanocho, a chicken-based stew that incorporates a combination of corn, yam, plantains, and various herbs and spices depending on the region. Often, sanocho is served with a side of rice, but crunchy patacones (mashed and fried plantains) also offer a delicious pairing. Given Panama's lengthy coastline, it's no surprise that seafood is a staple. Whether chopped up into zesty ceviche or grilled with a side of rice and plantains, expect some of the freshest catch around. An abundance of tropical fruits are on offer, including papaya, pineapple, coconuts, and rambutans. Drink 'em juiced or eat 'em whole.
You'll find world-class diving and snorkeling
Whether you base yourself on Panama's Caribbean or Pacific coast, you'll have access to vibrant reefs and remarkable shipwrecks to explore. The aforementioned Bocas Del Toro islands are one of the premier diving destinations in the country. Beginners should check out the shallow reefs at Hospital Point, while more advanced divers can descend to depths of 100 feet to spot grouper, snapper and a variety of reef fish at Manuel's Wall. More pristine reefs await off the coast from Portobelo National Park's mangrove forest on Panama's Caribbean side. On the Pacific side, highlights include swimming with whale sharks in Coiba National Park or spotting humpback whales off the Pearl Islands. A one-of-a-kind diving experience awaits in Panama's interior at Gatun Lake. The massive artificial lake was created by damming the Chagres River as part of the Panama Canal's construction. Divers can explore the abandoned towns and equipment that were left behind, including an entire train.
Panama is a trekking paradise
Hikers, take note. Panama's hilly and densely forested landscape lends itself to exploration on foot. Just two hours from Panama City, El Valle de Anton is a picturesque valley spanning a massive dormant volcano crater. Several well-maintained trails extend from the village through the forest and past waterfalls to the crater rim's highest point, known as La India Dormida (the sleeping Indian woman). Afterwards, sooth your aching legs in the thermal baths at Pozos Termales. The western highland town of Boquete is well-known for hiking as well. Nearby, Baru Volcano National Park rises to Panama's highest point at 11,000 feet. A more moderate option, the Lost Waterfalls Trail, rewards hikers with three cascading waterfalls in less than three miles. Don't forget to pack a dry bag.