Where to go

The S-shaped isthmus of Panama, just 80 km at its narrowest and 193 km at its widest, is one of the world's great crossroads - its destiny has been entirely shaped by this junction. To the north there are connections and links with the great civilizations of Central America and Mexico, while to the south, the wilderness of the Darién leads to Colombia and the great wealth of South America.

For thousands of years, people and animals have used the Panamanian corridor as a channel of communication. At the time of conquest, the Spaniards used it as a crossing point between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and forays north and south along the coast. In part Panama owes its creation to this positioning (the outcome of a squabble between Colombia and the United States in 1903), and the make-up of its population and their distribution has been affected by this corridor ever since. Today, over 40% of Panamanians live in two cities - Panama City and Colón - which control access to the canal. International control continued until 31 December 1999, when the Canal Area, formerly the US Canal Zone, was returned to Panamanian jurisdiction.

Panama City is a modern city, spread round the Bahía de Panamá. From the hilltop lookout of the unique Parque Natural Metropolitano, visitors enjoy spectacular views of the banks and high-rise buildings of the capital with the Canal in the distance. The rubble and ruins of Panamá Viejo lie to the east, the city's original location sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan. The younger replacement of Casco Viejo dates from 1673 and is slowly being restored to its former glory.

The city lies at the Pacific end of the
Panama Canal
, a feat of engineering that lifts ocean-going liners 26 m to Lago Gatún on the 67.5-km voyage between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The financial cost of the canal was staggering; the price in human terms was over 22,000 lives. The Canal is surprisingly beautiful, consisting of the river-fed
Lago Gatún
, which is reached by a series of locks on the Pacific and Caribbean sides. Within the lake is
Reserva Biológica de la Isla Barro Colorado
, to which animals fled when the basin flooded.
Parque Nacional Soberanía
, which forms part of the watershed of Lake Gatún, is an easier trip, just 30 minutes from the capital.

At the Caribbean end of the Canal is
, the country's major port for container traffic, shipping and, for the dedicated shopper, the second largest tax-free zone in the world. To the east is
, the site of flamboyant 16th- and 17th-century markets, where warehouses filled with Peruvian gold and silver were guarded against pirate raids. Off the coast lies the marine burial site of the British buccaneering seaman Sir Francis Drake. Quiet, beautiful beaches await the visitor today. Further east, the 365-island
Archipiélago de San Blas
of crystalline waters and palms continues its autonomous existence under the guidance of the Kuna nation. The islands can be visited and hotels, lodges and simple cabinas are opening to cater for the growing tourist interest.

The Pan-American Highway runs almost parallel to the Pacific coastline from Panama City to Costa Rica, running through agricultural zones, Pacific beaches, colonial towns and mountain landscapes. The
Península de Azuero
is dotted with old colonial towns, beaches perfect for surfing, and nature reserves of wetland birds, nesting turtles and quiet solitude. Open pastures and savannahs give way to sugar plantations on approach to
, the hot and humid third city of the Republic. It is an attractive city, both colonial and modern with good communications and an ideal base for the mountain resorts of
. Up in the cooler
Chiriquí Highlands
dominated by
Volcán Barú
, there is good hiking, horseriding, river rafting and other adventure sports.

North of the
Talamanca Mountains
, banana plantations stretch across the northern Caribbean lowlands that surround
Laguna de Chiriquí
. The offshore islands of
Bocas del Toro
and the
Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos
are home to nesting turtles, birds and other wildlife. Once cut off and difficult to reach, the islands are growing in popularity. If lying around relaxing on idyllic beaches isn't appealing enough, the snorkelling and diving on the unspoilt reefs is excellent.

in the east is the most inhospitable part of Panama where all roads, including the Pan-American Highway, eventually just peter out. With no land links between Panama and Colombia, the fit and adventurous are tempted to cross one of the world's last great wildernesses by foot or boat to the border and Colombia beyond. While not impossible, several high-profile kidnappings have occurred. It is extremely dangerous.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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