1. Fact: You can see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean when standing on the 11,450-foot-high summit of Volcán Barú, the highest point in Panama.
See it: Two trails to the summit penetrate the wilderness of the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú. Learn more.
2. Fact: Nicaragua was the original location of the Panama Canal, but a stock crash in the U.S. nixed those plans. When the French failed to complete their own canal in Panama, the U.S. bought the land rights for $40 million, and after much toil and strife it became the marvel that it remains today.
See it: Canal Bay Tours offers partial and full transit tours on two ships: the 115-foot Fantasia del Mar, and the 85-foot Isla Morada. Partial transits are $99, full transits are $145. Pacific Marine Tours runs canal transits on the 119-foot Pacific Queen. Partial transits are $105, full transits are $165.
3. Fact: Seven different indigenous peoples still call Panama home, though they now represent a mere 6% of the population. The comarcas, as these populations are called, are self-administering sovereignties, and some can be visitied if you’re willing to go off the grid.
See it: The community of Unión Emberá, on the Río Majé in the southeast corner of Lago Bayano, receives a tiny fraction of the visitors that frequent the Emberá communities in Parque Nacional Chagres. To get there, the Burbayar nature reserve organizes visits as an add-on to overnights at the lodge. For a Robinson Crusoe experience, stay among the Kuna at Uaguinega (Dolphin Island Lodge; www.uaguinega.com). This lodge, on a small, private island, has the nicest rooms in Kuna Yala. They also offer excursions to nearby Achutupo, a Kuna community that sees few tourists, but is receptive to visitors.
4. Fact: Panama hats don’t actually come from Panama. Teddy Roosevelt was spotted wearing one at the canal and they’ve been misnamed forever more. If you’d like to bring back an authentic souvenir from Panama, skip the hats and check out the crafts made by locals.
See it: The Kuna women make beautiful, hand-stitched molas (patchwork pictures), which they sew to their shirt-fronts, but you can hang on your wall, or make into a pillow covering. The Ngobe-Buglé people sell jute bags, bead work, and chaquiras, a decorative ornament worn originally by the warriors during celebrations, now produced and sold to travelers as keepsakes. And the Emberá are known for wood carvings and baskets woven from palm and chunga fibers.
5. Fact: Hilltops became islands when the U.S. dammed the Río Chagres during the construction of the Panama Canal, creating Lago (Lake) Gatún. One such island is Barro Colorado, which was declared a biological reserve in 1923.
See it: Barro Colorado can be visited on full-day tours run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The $70 tour is worth the money, since the English-speaking guides do an excellent job. Lunch in the research station’s cafeteria and boat transportation to and from Gamboa are included.
6. Fact: Every year on October 21, tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to Portobelo to repent their sins in front of a statue of the black Christ said to bequeath fortune and blessings on the pious. Quite a legend has built up around this statue. No one is sure when it arrived in Portobelo (sometime in the 1600s) and its provenance is shrouded in mystery and small-town lore.
See it: Portobelo sits on the Atlantic coast, about 60 miles from Panama City. Unless you show up days before the start of the festivities, you should probably take the bus. You can catch one at the Albrook Terminal in Panama City, headed for Colón. Ask the driver to let you off at Sabanitas, and from there catch a bus to Portobelo.
7. Fact: Panama City’s city limits actually encompass a 655-acre rain forest, the Parque Natural Metropolitano, which is home to more than 220 bird species (including keel-billed toucans and mealy parrots) and 45 mammals (from sloths to agoutis).
See it: Take a taxi to the park (10-15 minutes from downtown) and start at the visitor center near the park’s southern end, next to El Roble and Los Caobas trails. You should visit as early or as late in the day as you can, as those are the times when the critters are most active. Bring insect repellent, stay on the trails, and watch where you put your feet — there are poisonous snakes in the area. You can walk five well-marked trails, covering a total of about 5.3 ki (3 mi). Park entrance fee is $2.
8. Fact: From 1919 to 2004, Panama had its own Alcatraz, a penal colony on Isla de Coiba, in the Pacific’s Golfo de Chiriquí. The institution housed some of the country’s most fearsome violators. After the prison was phased out, Coiba, 38 other islands, and their surrounding waters became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Today, the island remains mostly in its pristine natural state.
See it: You can stay overnight at the rustic ANAM (the National Authority for the Environment) ranger station on Coiba. The station has six air-conditioned cabins, with electricity and private baths. Spend some time on the white beaches, wade through the fresh-water rivers, do a little snorkeling in the warm ocean, and maybe even spot a rare scarlet macaw. (Park fee $10; 507/998-0615; www.anam.gob.pa; Spanish only.)
9. Fact: Panamanians love snow cones, better known as raspados in these parts. On scorching days, armies of cone vendors push their carts around the city. When you order, they hand scrape shavings from a block of ice into your cone, you choose from a variety of fruit flavors, get a squirt of condensed milk or honey, and go along your merry way.
See it: You’ll find vendors clustered around Avenida Balboa, which runs along the Bay of Panama, and also in the old district of Casco Viejo. The cones will cost you about 25 cents.
10. Fact: In the 1500s, the Spanish built a 50-mile cobblestone-paved route to transport Inca gold making its way up the Pacific from Peru to Spanish galleons anchored in the Caribbean. The path, called the Camino Real, linked Panama City in the south with Nombre de Dios (later Portobelo) in the north. Patches of it still exist.
See it: An eight-day tour with Ancon Expeditions will take you in a dugout canoe to an Embera village and through a rain forest on sections of the Camino Real. You’ll also tour Spanish forts and churches and snorkel for Sir Francis Drake’s lead coffin, which is said to have been sunk in the Bay of Portobelo. (Tour from $1,300)
Photo credits: (1) ©Istockphoto/Nancy%20Nehring; (2) ©Istockphoto/Graham Klotz.
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