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Largely undiscovered, Panama is the perfect destination for adventurous travellers and nature-lovers. With thousands of desert islands, indigenous tribes and natural wonders, there are lots of unique experiences waiting to be discovered. Here’s our round-up of the best off-the-beaten-track experiences.
San Blas is an archipelago made up of 360 or so tropical islands off Panama’s northern coast, home to the Guna Yala indigenous people. Getting to San Blas is not the easiest thing – and probably for a reason. The Guna people want to preserve their land and they control tourism. San Blas is one of the few places in the world where, if you travel by boat, you can actually stay on an island by yourself. Picture something like Robinson Crusoe’s hideaway, with the whitest sand, warm crystalline, turquoise water and coconut palms. A true little piece of paradise, and one of the most unique experiences to have in Panama.
The Darién National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as a drug smuggling corridor between Panama and Colombia, and is rarely visited by outsiders. Home to poisonous frogs, coral snakes, scorpions and spiders, it is not a hike for everybody. As you walk in the mud you may discover fresh jaguar tracks, and you’ll for sure be able to spot some of the most extraordinary birds you’ve ever seen (the Darién is one of the world’s top bird watching destinations). Though it’s hazardous, if you find a local guide and you prepare for the adventure, hiking the Darién Gap will truly be a one-in-a-lifetime experience.
One of the highlights of visiting Panama is the possibility of approaching indigenous tribes. The Emberá, a semi-nomadic people, live in the Darién province. Friendly and welcoming, they open the doors of their villages to select groups of visitors who come to discover their way of life. You can either go on a day tour, or immerse yourself totally and spend the night at the village, watching adults creating traditional handicrafts, women cooking and children playing.
The Barú Volcano is a dormant volcano and one of the only places in the world where you can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans at the same time. Close to the beautiful mountain of Boquete, the volcano is a coveted attraction but also an extremely challenging hike. In order to make it to the summit before the sun rises high above the clouds, many people choose to start climbing around midnight.
Santa Catalina is a true gem on the Pacific Coast of Panama right in front of an archipelago made up of 38 islands including the stunning marine park of Isla Coiba. Known for its scuba diving and snorkelling excursions, it’s similar to some of Ecuador’s Galapagos islands thanks to the extremely diverse exotic underwater life on offer.
Playa Venao, located on the Pacific Coast of Panama, is considered one of the country’s best beaches for surfing. With waves that break both left and right, and a sandy floor, it is a good place for beginners to start but also a favourite destination for advanced surfers. One great advantage is that it’s possible to surf all year round – another is that it is a vibrant beach community, with lots of hostels, eco-lodges and bungalows, so get ready for some beach parties with like-minded travellers.
The Panama Canal is the country’s biggest source of revenue as well as one of the most impressive engineering marvels of all times. Following its recent expansion, it has now doubled its capacity. Approximately 80 kilometres (49.7 miles) long, the canal flows between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, going from the capital to the city of Colón. There are many ways of visiting the canal, though the most exciting one is to cross it from end to end by boat.
From June to November, whales migrate the Panamanian Pacific Ocean to mate. These spectacular humpback whales are visible from a few key spots in the country, including the beautiful Pearl Islands, not far from the shores of Panama City. Bottlenose and pantropical spotted dolphins can also be seen. Panama is committed to protecting whales, and backs the moratorium on whale hunting from the International Whaling Commission.
Home to some astonishing natural wonders, the archipelago of Bocas del Toro is a sanctuary of raw beauty made up of nine main islands and hundreds of islets and cays. The best way of getting to know the tropical chain of islands is to get on a wooden motorboat in Bocas Town, on the main island of Isla Colón, and to hop from one island to the other. You will discover paradise beaches, exotic marine life, the coral reefs of the Zapatilla Islands, subterranean lakes and dolphins playing along the shores, where the warm waves meet the mangroves.