It may be compact, but Panama still provides abundant variety. From the forward-looking capital, which blends history, nature and modernity to appealing effect, you can head out to Soberania National Park’s bird-rich rainforests, discover the unspoiled waters of the Pacific coast and unwind in a delightfully sleepy Caribbean archipelago.
Gulf of Chiriqui
Bocas del Toro
Soberania National Park
Home to more than half of the country’s eight million people, Panama’s eponymous capital is full of surprises. What seems a typical skyscraper-studded metropolis hugging the Pacific coastline contains some impressive treasures. Step back in time in a brace of UNESCO-favoured historic districts: Panamá Viejo, the ruins of the first Spanish settlement founded in 1519, and character-crammed Casco Viejo, begun in 1673 after pirates sacked the original town. Once you’ve had your fill of cobbled lanes, incense-scented churches and vibrant markets, escape to Parque Metropolitano, the city’s slice of rainforest, where you might spot sloths, coatis and tamarins. Then admire a technological wonder at Miraflores Locks, where you can see giant ships on their journey between the Pacific and the Caribbean along the Panama Canal. Stay at the beguiling Hotel La Compañia in Casco Viejo, where an eclectic mix of heritage buildings shelters a plethora of modern luxuries.
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GULF OF CHIRIQUI
Running from the border with Costa Rica to the Azuero Peninsula on Panama’s rugged Pacific-washed south-west margins, the Gulf of Chiriquí has been described as the country’s ‘Lost Coast’. There are dense mangrove forests thrumming with wildlife, tiny islands fringed with dazzling white sand and one of the region’s largest coral reefs. Its sheltered waters – part of not one but two national parks, one of them UNESCO-inscribed – are a refuge for a dizzying array of marine life. Here, you can snorkel over colourful corals barely metres from the beach or dive among deep-sea pinnacles in the company of dolphins, sea turtles and manta rays. In season, head out to sea by boat or kayak to spot humpback whales and their calves, which migrate to these balmy waters from both the Arctic and Antarctic. Savour the peace and tranquillity from the comfort of Islas Secas, an intimate and luxurious eco-retreat on its own private archipelago.
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BOCAS DEL TORO
In Bocas del Toro – or just Bocas to the locals – life moves at a gentler pace. This cluster of nine islands and countless islets off the Caribbean shore, not far from the border with Costa Rica, is the perfect place for an indulgent pause at the end of an in-depth exploration of Panama or a wider journey around South and Central America. With limpid turquoise waters that hover at 26C (79F) year-round, a diversity of coral reefs, and pristine sandy beaches for gentle swims or catching a wave, it’s bliss for water babies. Inland forests humming with native wildlife, from arrow frogs to three-toed sloths, provide adventures for outdoor-loving land-lubbers, while culture hunters will be drawn to its indigenous communities for an insight into their centuries-old traditions. Base yourself at beautiful Nayara Bocas del Toro, an adult-only Bali-inspired over-water villa resort on its own island, a short hop from laidback Bocas Town.
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SOBERANIA NATIONAL PARK
Shadowing the east bank of the Panama Canal from just north of Panama City to Limón on Lake Gatún, the 55,000 leafy acres of Soberania National Park brim with vivid squawking birdlife. Maximise the spotting possibilities by following the 11-mile Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto) trail, which has previously held the world record for 24-hour species counts; there are 400 or so living in its old-growth forests, including orange-chinned parakeets, violet-bellied hummingbirds and keel-billed toucans. You can follow in the footsteps of early Spanish adventurers on a stretch of the ancient Camino de Cruces, created in 1527, along which pack mules once carried plundered gold and silver from South America to the waiting galleons on the Caribbean coast. A spider’s web of other trails caters to walkers of all ages, interests and levels of fitness; the gently sloping Plantation Road, for instance, offers dense rainforest, streams and cascades, plus glimpses of some of the park’s varied wild inhabitants.
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