Panama has been called Central America's next must-see destination. Long stifled by the oppressions of the Noriega dictatorship, Panama has worked tirelessly to shake off a scarring reputation. Good thing: The political instability of the Noriega years obscured the country's enviable assets, including a kaleidoscopic landscape with some of the region's most glorious Caribbean beaches, pristine rainforests, and peaks blanketed in cloud forests. The sizzling cosmopolitan capital of Panama City has been compared to Miami or Hong Kong. Better yet, Panama is relatively free of tourists -- for now.
Panama City bustles as a thriving commercial hub where modern skyscrapers and architect Frank Gehry's Biodiversity Museum share sightlines with 18th-century architecture. Colón is a large duty-free zone, but the city struggles with poverty and crime. Opt instead to see El Valle de Antón, a locale abloom with flowers nestled in the crater of the world's second-largest extinct volcano and ringed by steep, verdant peaks.
The jungles of Panama's lowland rainforests harbor a sweltering tropical ecosystem. East of the canal, the Darien covers an untouched expanse of pristine forest, pure rivers, and intricate ecosystems. The Chiriqui Highlands and the Valle de Anton nurture dense cloud forests. Along the Pacific Coast where the mouths of rivers meet the ocean, extensive mangrove forests and swamps provide rich breeding grounds for marine wildlife.
Eating and Drinking
Panama melds Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and Spanish traditions in a fusion of tropical flavors. Look for the plump, juicy fruit of guava, pineapple, papaya and banana. It's a casual dining scene of beachfront cafes, diners, and roadside stands, or fondas. Platters are typically anchored by servings of rice cooked with coconut milk, beans, and fried green plantains. The national dish, sancocho, is a starchy chicken stew seasoned with cilantro. Indulge in the greasy goodness of empanadas: crunchy cornmeal pastries stuffed with meat.
Much of the country's complex ecosystem of rainforests, virgin beaches, rugged peaks and underseas coral-reef gardens lies in protected national parkland less than two hours from the capital. Soberania is the diverse rainforest home of more than 500 bird species, the coatimundi and the three-toed sloth. Coiba is a gem of a coral reef rimmed in white-sand beaches. Isla Bastimentos blends virgin rainforest and turquoise seas with two castaway islands complete with sugary sand and excellent snorkeling.