Panama is a country of phenomenal flora and fauna, secluded beaches, tropical beauty and historic marvels. Yet for all its wonders it remains -- from a traveler's perspective -- oddly overlooked. While the country is known mostly for its famous canal, there are also a number of natural attractions to enjoy on a Panama tour including wonderful birding, whitewater rafting and snorkeling opportunties. Acting as a land bridge between the Americas, Panama's biodiversity has been said to be three times higher than the United States, Canada, and Europe put together. More than 29 percent of the country's landscape includes 15 national parks, forest reserves and 10 wildlife sanctuaries. Panama has quickly become a favorite site for enthusiastic birders, scientists, research institudes and the spirited traveler.
Nearly a century old, the Panama Canal, with its lock-and-lake waterway, remains one of the greatest engineering marvels ever built. It stretches from the city of Colon to the Pacific shorelines in Panama City. One of the canal's main attractions is the Gaillard Cut. Builders faced unprecedented challenges as they carved their way through solid rock for nearly 9 miles. Another man-made wonder of the canal is the colssal Lake Gatun, whose creation displaced over 50,000 people and submerged acres of forest.
Just outside Panama's vibrant and modern capitol city is Panama la Veija, or Old Panama. Founded in the early 16th century, it is the oldest Spanish settlement in the Pacific. Its wealth came from Spain's bullion pipeline, which ran from the goldmines of Peru to Europe via Panama. Later sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in search of those same riches, Old Panama is now comprised of captivating ruins of yesteryears.
Bocas del Toro is located along Panam's eastern Caribbean coast. The archipelago consists of 9 islands, 52 keys and over 200 islets. While mostly virgin tropical forests, the region also includes several towns, as well as the protected waters of the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. Its crystal waters are flooded with an array of wildlife. Diving is easily accessible and offers brilliant parrot fish, angel fish, slender needle fish and more. La Amistad Biosphere is also found in Bocas. This 407,000 hectare International Peace Park is shared between Costa Rica and Panama and contains some of the country's richest biodiversity with 7 of the 12 life zones. Quetzales, harpy eagles and 90 species of mammals are among the many animals to reside in this protected forest.
San Blas consists of over 360 islands off Panama's Caribbean coast, only 60 of which are inhabited. Private fine white beaches, crystal blue shoreline -- the islands are virtually self-governed by the local Kuna people. These friendly people are strong in tradition and are devoted to preserving their heritage and tranquil environment. One of the ways they sustain this preservation is through their beautiful hand-stitched molas, Kuna's word for blouse. Today's molas are inspired by the landscape and politics, along with regional legends and culture. The San Blas Islands also offer great diving, snorkeling and swimming, and a comfortable stay a quiet eco-lodge.
Chiriqui providence boasts Panama's tallest mountains and some of the country's longest rivers including the Rio Chiriqui and the Chiriqui Veijo. These rivers are renowned for easily accessible non-stop Class III-IV rapids. The steep canyons and the thick jungle provide a breathtaking setting for the adrenalin packed rafting trip. The town of Boquete is also found in Chiriqui. Nestled at the foot of Volcan Baru, this charming town is surrounded by coffee farms and La Amistad Peach Park. Boquete offers dozens of hiking opportunities, bike rides or a visit to a local coffee plantation.