Panama is a curious but exhilarating combination of cultural influence. It lies at the centre of the world, a narrow strip constituting the last part of a natural land-bridge between the North and South American continents. A captivating mix of the historical and the modern, the natural and the manmade, Panama is an anomaly of a Latin American country, and visitors will find it fascinating.
Panama’s most famous feature is certainly the mighty Panama Canal, and many flock here throughout the year to travel through it or merely to watch in awe as huge container ships pass through the giant locks. Panamanians are rightfully proud of their canal, and it is shown in a display of glory. But Panama is also full of beautiful wildlife, varied terrains and much to see and do, whether your preference is lying on beaches, trekking through wilderness, sporty activities or exploring cities.
Panama City is divided quite definitively between its shiny new skyscrapers and its colonial Old Town. Crumbling, peeling ghosts of once-grand buildings stand next to gentrified hotels and embassies in the Casco Viejo (old town), allowing a glimpse of a more prosperous past, whereas further north the high-rise chrome-and-glass monsters indicate where the current wealth lies. Panama City is enthralling to wander round, with street markets and local life aplenty on view.
Panama is far from just an urban jungle. One of Panama’s largest indigenous groups, the Kunas, are among the most visited of the tribal peoples of Panama, because they tie in very nicely with another major tourist attraction: the San Blas Islands. Often used as stopovers during an incredible journey by boat en route to Colombia, the San Blas Islands are tiny pieces of tropical paradise which are owned and inhabited by the Kunas. With their traditional way of life, the Kunas provide a fascinating insight into what life in Panama was once like.
Another facet of Panamanian culture is to be found along the Caribbean coast – many towns, islands, cities and villages along this area were settled from Jamaicans and Barbadians, and the region has a definite Caribbean vibe. In particular, the Bocas del Toro islands in the north of Panama are an example of such an area and are popular both for the beach activities and traveller-friendly atmosphere.
Wildlife is spectacular in Panama. The Coiba National Marine Park holds a stunning amount of rare animals, particularly marine-dwellers, and the scuba and snorkelling is excellent. The Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí, likewise, is one of the best places in Central America for whale-watching.
Panama has been a pivotal trade route for 500 years, first under Spanish rule, then as part of independent Gran Colombia and modern Colombia, and in the 20th century, as an independent nation. However, the Panama Canal Zone, completed in 1914, was an American Protectorate for many decades. It was only in 1977 that the Americans agreed to turn over the canal to full Panamanian control by 1999.
Today, Panama is more settled in its own skin and embarking upon ambitious new projects. The Panama Canal traffic volume is constantly rising each year, and the canal itself is to expand substantially by around 2014.