A narrow, snake-shaped stretch of land that divides oceans and continents, Panama has long been one of the world’s greatest crossroads – far before the construction of its famous canal. Though its historical ties to the US have led to an exaggerated perception of the country as a de facto American colony, Spanish, African, West Indian, Chinese, Indian, European, and several of the least assimilated indigenous communities in the region have all played a role in the creation of the most sophisticated, open-minded and outward-looking society in Central America.
With a spate of deserted islands, chilled Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best of beach life. And a whole other world begins at the water’s edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in the Pacific, snorkelling the rainbow reefs of Bocas del Toro or setting sail in the indigenous territory of Guna Yala, where virgin isles sport nary a footprint. Meanwhile, surfers will be psyched to have world-class breaks all to themselves. The dazzling blue coastline and shimmering skyscrapers say Miami, though many jokes that you hear more English spoken in Panama.
Panama City is culturally diverse and driven, rough-edged yet sophisticated. There’s much that’s new or improved. Central America’s first subway is ready, the historic Casco district is renovated and a massive canal expansion nears completion. Take in the city’s funky particulars. Pedal the coastal green space, explore the Casco or attend an avant-garde performance and you will realize this tropical capital isn’t just about salsa: that’s just the backbeat.
You don’t have to make it all the way to the Darién to get off the beaten path – though if you do, you’ve hit one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. Go where the wild things are. Soak in the spray of towering waterfalls near highland Santa Fé. Visit one of Panama’s seven indigenous groups through community tourism. Live out your castaway fantasies in the Guna Yala or idle on a wilderness beach in Península de Azuero. Howl back at the creatures sharing the canopy. Panama is as wild as you want it to be.