Think Panama and what springs to mind? The canal? Cigars? Straw hats? Probably all three. However, for those in the know, this slender Central American nation is much more than that; it is a land of wildlife-rich rainforests and remote indigenous communities; Miami-esque promenades and paradisiacal beaches; verdant volcanoes and the impenetrable wilderness of the Darien Gap.
Firstly, the canal. Though considered to be the star attraction (thousands flock here to watch container ships passing through the locks) the wild landscapes it scythes through are an altogether more exciting prospect. Here you can hike volcanoes, zip-wire over forest canopies, raft down rapids and meet one of the country’s largest indigenous groups, the Kunas, who eke out simple, traditional lives on the sumptuous San Blas Islands.
The Caribbean coastline features another facet of Panamanian culture. Jamaicans and Barbadians, drafted in to build the canal, ended up settling here and an Afro-Caribbean vibe endures to this day. The nearby Bocas del Toro islands, meanwhile, are the definition of Caribbean island ideal with their palm-fringed beaches, limpid lagoons and sleepy eco-lodges.
The wildlife is also spectacular. Whale watching in the Golfo de Chiriquí is a must and you never forget scuba diving or snorkeling alongside turtles in the Coiba National Marine Park. Its birdlife surpasses neighbouring Costa Rica and the most treasured sightings are the iconic harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird, and the endangered great green macaw.
With so much natural beauty to imbibe, it is easy to overlook the bustling capital, Panama City. But don’t. A metropolis divided starkly between the past and present, it is a city where crumbling colonial buildings stand in the shadows of high-rise steel and glass towers. It feels a little bit like Miami and the locals certainly give their US counterparts a run for their money in the hedonism stakes. Come join the party.