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Did You Know … ?

  • Explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa was in Panama when he first saw the Pacific (1513).
  • Writer Richard Halliburton swam the Panama Canal (1928), paying its lowest-ever toll (36 cents, based on his “tonnage”).
  • More bird species — 900-plus — have been recorded in Panama than in the U.S.
  • Ecuador-made Panama hats got their name after Teddy Roosevelt was photographed in Panama wearing one.
  • The first ocean-to-ocean railroad was constructed in Panama (1850-1855).

Vacations on an isthmus

Panama, a tropical country at the bottom end of Central America, measures only 50 miles across at its narrowest, but it is more than 400 miles long. In square mileage, it is about the size of South Carolina.

This sliver of a country is best known for the Panama Canal, but it also is a nation rich in natural resources of interest to tourists, with mountains, rain forests, rivers and lakes plus beaches on both the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts. Natural attractions also include hundreds of bird species, nesting sea turtles, whales, dolphins and coral reefs.

Active visitors enjoy options for climbing, fishing, hiking, rafting, scuba diving, surfing and swimming. As for the swimming, visitors must take care to avoid beaches with strong and deadly currents, which include some Pacific beaches and those in Bocas del Toro province.

Depending on destination, visitors are also entertained with bird-watching, viewing nesting turtles or spotting mammals of interest, such as monkeys and whales.

Panama is a multicultural society. A number of indigenous groups have maintained their traditions and languages. Comprising about 6% of the population, they welcome tourists to their communities. Much of the rest of the population is of mixed backgrounds — Amerindian, European and West Indian — and many are bilingual in Spanish and English.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle Panama, and they built colonial structures that tourists may admire today. Festivals and foods recall and celebrate traditions across several cultures, but one of the biggest events is the pre-Lenten Carnival.

Although tourists generally travel safely in Panama, some areas pose special risks, particularly the region closest to the Colombian border. Therefore, if visiting Darien National Park, plan with safety in mind. It’s also wise to see the latest security report from the U.S. State Department or the equivalent reports from another government.

Things to do for Venturers

  • See underwater wonders during dives at Portobelo on the Caribbean side, where the underwater scene includes numerous sunken Spanish galleons.
  • Head to Santa Catalina Beach or Venado Beach on the Pacific coast for some vigorous surfing. If you are expert at this, consider Playa Bluff on Colon Island in the Caribbean.
  • Participate in a mud hut building team, a rural tradition that is replicated at the annual Canajagua Folkloric Gathering in Macaracas, Los Santos province. The hut is built of mud and straw placed over a frame made from slender sticks from the madrone tree and red vines.
  • Attend Carnival, held four days before Ash Wednesday. One of the most traditional galas is staged in a town called Las Tablas in Los Santos province.
  • Climb the defunct Baru Volcano and spend the night in the valley formed by its crater.
  • Try whitewater rafting on one of these rivers: Chagres, Chiriqui Grande, Chiriqui Viejo or Mamoni.

Things to do for Centrics

  • For white-sand beaches, head to the San Blas Islands, Bastimentos Island (in the Bocas del Toro chain) or the Archipelago de Las Perlas.
  • At night, observe nesting turtles at Bastimentos Island Marine Park.
  • Bring the binoculars for bird-watching in a country with hundreds of species. The highlands of Chiriqui are a top spot for viewing quetzals,
  • Rent snorkeling gear to view the coral at the San Blas islands — where scuba diving is not permitted.
  • Get a jagua-juice tattoo while visiting an Embera Indian village. Learn about the indigenous culture there. (The tattoo washes off in a couple of weeks.)
  • Do your deep-sea fishing off Panama’s Pacific coast at the Gulf of Chiriqui or Gulf of Panama. If the timing is right (June to November), look for whales, too.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Order sancocho, a hearty stew with chicken, yucca and avocado; it is Panama’s national dish.
  • Shop for handicrafts in any town or city. Or if possible, shop at the source for such things as embroidered works called molas in the San Blas Islands, for tagua nut carvings, woven baskets and wooden carvings in Embera villages and bead jewelry in Ngobe-Bugle communities around Boquete and Bocas del Toro.
  • Swim in the Caribbean and fish in the Pacific on the same day.
  • Take a guided tour of the oldest parts of Panama City — the Panama Viejo archaeological site, plus the city’s Historic District.
  • Spend time watching ships transit the Panama Canal.
  • See a folkloric performance that shows off traditional polleras (dresses).

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Visit Panama at