For a country about the size of South Carolina, Panama has a lot to offer in terms of cultural, historical, and natural attractions. Eco-tourism options include zip-lining and white water rafting, coffee plantation tours, and nature walks. Beach getaways run from sleepy bed-and-breakfasts to large-scale resorts directly on the water. Whether you have a few days or a couple of weeks to explore this beautiful Central American country, you will want to make time for these three significant cultural attractions.
The Panama Canal
This 50-mile (82 km) canal connects the Atlantic and the Pacific. A visit to this world-famous engineering feat is a great place to start your trip as an introduction to the geography and history of the country. The French were the first to try to build the waterway, but their project failed in the 1880s. President Roosevelt took up the project in the early 1900s, throwing his support behind a Panamanian independence movement from Columbia in exchange for the rights to build and run the canal. It took 10 years to complete and the project tested the managers’ engineering skills, who had to learn to dynamite mountains and find a place to put the removed earth. The construction also challenged the laborers’ health, with yellow fever and malaria-carrying mosquitoes killing many. You can see the lock and dam system in action from land, or as a passenger aboard one of the 30 ships which pass through the canal every day on a luxurious Panama canal cruise. Although additional locks have been added to the system, the original design was so structurally sound, many of the original parts are still in use today. The US maintained control over the waterway until it transferred to Panama in 1999, ending almost a century of US economic and military influence over the country.
The Old Town of Panama City was settled in 1673, two years after the original Panama Viejo town was attacked and destroyed by pirates. Because of its Spanish-style colonial architecture and the ruins of the first city, Casco Viejo was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Depending on your love of churches and food, you could spend an afternoon or a week wandering through the town, taking in the historic sites, eating local dishes such as ceviche (cold seafood dish) or yucca fruit, and sipping Panamanian geisha coffee in one of the plazas while you people watch. You can also enjoy the neighborhood at night, with its nightclubs and casinos to keep you busy.
San Blas Islands
Panama has forests, mountains, beaches, and plains, but if you can only visit one natural attraction, make sure it’s the San Blas Archipelago. Managed by the Guna people, these pristine islands and the preserved indigenous culture are so unique, they are highlighted as one of the 1000 Places to See Before you Die. Fans of Gilligan’s Island will feel like they have been stranded with the infamous crew on these palm tree-filled islands, with grass huts, where you can see all the fish swimming around your feet under the clear, blue water. Whether snorkeling, sitting on the beach or boating in the waters, you can be sure to enjoy an unforgettable day. Be sure to buy some local handicrafts to support the local people, whose long history respecting these islands has made them an oasis from the modern world. If your itinerary doesn’t allow you to take a couple of days in this island paradise, you can arrange a day trip to the islands from Panama City.
Panamanian culture is a direct reflection of its history, allowing you to enjoy a mix of African, Spanish, and indigenous cultures. The country’s reputation as being business-friendly has resulted in Dubai-like investments in high-rises in Panama City and a truly international population. But these changes have not affected the deep cultural traditions of the people, making the country a fantastic place to travel.