Panama Feature

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Welcome to Panama

Five centuries after Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa's debut as Panama's premier tourist—he gets credit for "discovering" the Pacific Ocean—new waves of travelers are discovering this squiggly shape isthmus of a country. A record 2 million tourists passed through the visitor turnstiles for the first time in 2011.

Literally and figuratively, all roads lead to Panama City. Unless you sneak in from the west via Costa Rica, Panama's sparkling capital will be your first introduction to the country. Panama City mixes old and (mostly) new. Pay homage to the ruins of Panama Viejo, the first, now-abandoned settlement, and the Casco Viejo, which survives as a charming colonial quarter with new boutique hotels. You can also marvel at the dense skyline, the glitzy shopping, the fine dining, and the rocking nightlife in Central America's most cosmopolitan city.

Much of the center slice of the country can be done as a day trip from the capital putting Central Panama's rain forests, wildlife, colonial fortresses, hill towns, beaches, tropical islands, and indigenous communities within easy striking distance. (We recommend getting out of the city and overnighting at least one day here.) Of course, no trip to Panama is complete without a visit to its namesake canal. Partake of partial (once or twice a week) or full (once or twice a month) transits of the waterway. Landside, observation platforms at the Miraflores Locks just outside Panama City give you a perspective on the enormity of one of history's great engineering feats.

Booming Chiriquí is Panama's breadbasket and economic powerhouse. The western province provides you with a pleasing combination of lowland tropics and mountain vistas, and the greatest climate variation of any of the country's nine provinces. Here, you can enjoy some of Panama's top scuba diving, surfing, and sport fishing. To hike and bird-watch in the highland cloud forests head to Boquete, Volcán, Bambito, and Cerro Punta. Don't forget your jacket, you'll be surprised at how chilly it can be. The highland town of Boquete is also the heart of Panama's newfound real estate boom. Singled out in many circles as one of the world's best retirement destinations, it hosts an astonishingly international population.

The laid-back, tropical, archipelago of Bocas del Toro may remind some of Jamaica. There are around 250 islands and islets scattered over the turquoise waters of northwest Panama's Almirante Bay, but you'll likely just visit one or two of the largest. There are tons of options here—rain-forest hiking, bird-watching, surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, canopy touring, boating, visiting indigenous Ngöbe communities—but if you're like most visitors, you'll settle into island life right away, and choose your activities selectively so as not to play the crazed tourist in Panama's most relaxing destination.

Eastern Panama's Guna Yala and Darién regions are another story. Remoteness means you'll need reserves of time and, frankly, money to take in this lesser traveled sector of Panama. Accommodation here is rustic, though pricey—all goods must be flown or boated in—but few who make the trip express regrets. You may choose the utterly fascinating indigenous Guna culture. Their colorful clothing against a backdrop of coral beaches and sparkling islands evokes classic National Geographic photos, but remember the cardinal rule of travel here: You accept the Guna on their terms. It is never the other way around. The east's other adventure is the dense forest of the Darién and some of the country's best wildlife viewing. Proximity of the Colombian border and the wilderness conditions mean you should never visit the Darién without a guide.

Of course, all the top-notch tourist attractions lose their value if you can't access them, and here's where Panama truly shines in recent years. The current intensely pro-growth government is fighting corruption and making all citizens pay their taxes—both problems bedevil every Latin American government—and is investing that added revenue in infrastructure, tourist and otherwise. In particular, a flurry of highway construction has made getting around Panama easier than ever. The capital's sleek, efficient Tocumen International Airport is vastly improving in response to the tourism and economic surge.

Nothing symbolizes Panama's boom like the canal. The world-famous waterway marks its centenary in 2014 with an expansion that will permit every ship in the world to pass through its locks. "Post-Panamax" ships, so known because their size prevents them from using the canal, will be a thing of the past. Panamanians have done themselves proud since taking over operations in 1999, and, as an added benefit, they've made tourist visits to the canal easier than ever. The country's new economic development and rave notices in world tourism circles are cause for celebration as the canal turns 100 and Balboa's expedition marks its 500th anniversary.

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