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Known almost exclusively for its Canal, Panama is gifted with an abundance of natural and cultural wealth that often goes unnoticed. Despite having set aside over 25% of its landmass for national and marine parks and indigenous people, Panama’s native treasures have largely been ignored. This in large part, is due to the country’s focus and dependence on cruise ship travel, for which it is well known. In 2019, over 300,000 passengers were greeted, sealing the canal as the country’s primary tourist attraction. The construction of a new cruise port on the Pacific coast will further cement its importance.
Panama's historical landmarks remain well preserved and the focus of attention. Casco Antiguo, the historic district of Panama City, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1997. With its picturesque buildings, restaurants, expansive balconies, churches, ruins, and museums, the historic community of Casco Antiguo has become one of Panama’s most popular tourist destinations. Among the many meaningful structures, you’ll find the Metropolitan Cathedral, Municipal Palace, Church of San Francisco, National Theater, Colonial Hotel, French Park, French Embassy, Arco Chato, and Convento de Santo Domingo ruins. Casco Antiguo is also home to numerous upscale restaurants, bars, boutiques, hotels, and souvenir shops. Street vendors, primarily of indigenous descent, congregate on street corners where they sell paintings, molas, etc.
For outdoor enthusiasts looking for unbridled adventure, Panama has lots to offer. The country's 1,500+ miles of coastline are home to some of Latin America’s most beautiful, white-sand beaches, providing a backdrop for the region's finest surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and sport fishing. Blanketed with lush, verdant rainforest—spanning the full width of the isthmus—Panama boasts nearly 1,000 bird species and is a bird watcher's paradise. El Valle de Antón, Bocas del Toro, Boquete, Volcan, Cerro Punta, and, in particular, Pipeline Road, have become synonymous with birding. In the country’s western-most province, the Chiriqui and Chiriqui Viejo’s thundering rivers deliver world-class rafting and kayaking, and the famous Los Quetzales Trail guarantees hikers a memorable experience as they traverse the slopes of Baru Volcano.
The Panama Canal is a fresh-water, lock-based canal measuring 50 miles in length and traversing north to northwest. Its water is obtained from a vast watershed that covers 1,150 sq miles and encompasses four different provinces: Cocle, Colon, Panama, and Panama West. Acting as a freshwater elevator, each vessel is lifted 85ft above sea level to reach the height of Gatun Lake, before being lowered back down to sea level on the Canal’s opposing side. This process is completed using a series of locks on both ends of the Canal. In 2016, two new sets of locks were inaugurated, allowing for the transit of larger ships.
Panama’s indigenous people, who comprise approximately 5-10% of the total population, still live on ancestral land, known as Comarcas, and cling to their traditional way of life. Guna Yala, or San Blas as it is most commonly known, has developed into one of Panama’s primary attractions. The Comarca’s 400+ islands, white sand beaches, and thatch-roofed huts lure tourists from around the globe. Famous for their beautiful, hand-knitted Molas, Gunas are a quiet, reserved, and hospital people, overly proud of and determined to preserve their culture and traditional, simple way of life.