Make Panama Your Next Destination
Panama might not be the first place to visit on your travel bucket list, but the city's urban zones have been brought up to world-class city standards, but there are still nowhere like the tourist numbers you'll find in neighbouring Costa Rica. Fly into Panama City then explore its split personality. There's a cosmopolitan mix of bars and excellent restaurants in the thrusting modern district while the laid-back old town (Casco Viejo) now has a number of cool boutique hotels and local watering holes (it still maintains its romantic air thanks to its slightly dishevelled colonial buildings, which were featured in 2008's Bond film Quantum of Solace). Due to the revenue the Canal generates, Panama hasn't had to rely on tourism and the lack of charter flights means tourists are less common, so you get a warm welcome when you make the effort to visit.
On the outskirts of the city is the Panama Canal, one of the most amazing pieces of structural engineering in Central America. Wait, come back - while that might not sound like your sort of tourist destination, its history is fascinating, and the excellent little museum there details all its trials and tribulations, explaining how 22,000 people died working on it over 10 years (panamacanalmuseum.org). It's also surrounded by rainforest and a canal safari, where you'll watch suspiciously as crocodile sidle alongside your boat, and monkeys leap onto the roof - is a must.
But then, east or west? Caribbean or Pacific? the beaches of Bocas del Toro, on the Caribbean side of Panama, are stunning - eat freshly caught fish cooked in spicy sauces, and snorkel among the starfish. The people are welcoming, and the living is easy. But you can't stay too long, to the east is the San Blas archipelago, part of the Kuna Yala, and autonomous territory populated by the Kuna Indians. They do an impressive line in the beaches too.
If you are into wildlife, step right up. With more bird species than the US and Canada combined, 16,000 types of butterfly and an array of four-legged beasties, Panama has been on the must-visit list of National Geographic types for some time. Adrenaline junkies love it for its rainforest zip wires, jungle trekking, volcano climbs, and whale diving. The problem with Panama is trying to fit it all in. The dry season runs from December to April and is the best time to travel.