Panama, an S-shaped isthmus that measures little more than 77,700 sq. km (30,000 sq. miles), is just slightly smaller than South Carolina -- yet there is a huge diversity of landscapes and microclimates within this tiny nation. Costa Rica borders Panama to the west, Colombia to the east, and, in what can be vexing to the traveler with no sense of direction, the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean Sea to the north. Because Panama City faces southeast, travelers are presented with the uncommon view of the sun rising over the Pacific. At its narrowest point, Panama measures just 50km (31 miles) wide.
Besides the isthmus, Panama is made up of than 1,500 islands, many of them uninhabited and cloaked in thick vegetation. These islands are grouped into four regions. In the Caribbean Sea there are the Bocas del Toro and San Blas archipelagos; in the Pacific Ocean, Las Perlas Archipelago in the Gulf of Panama, and Coiba Island and its accompanying tiny islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí.
Panama is home to two mountain ranges, the Serranía del Darién in the east, and the Cordillera Central in the west, the latter of which is home to the highest peak in the country, the dormant Volcán Barú, at 3,475m (11,400 ft.). This is the only place in Panama where you are likely to experience brisk temperatures -- the rest of the country averages 75°F to 85°F (24°C-29°C) year-round.
Panama is a centralized nation, with about a third of its population of 4 million living in Panama City; in comparison, the population of the second-largest city, Colón, is approximately 200,000 residents. The country is divided into nine provincias, or provinces, three provincial-level indigenous territories called comarcas, and two sub-provincial comarcas. For the most part, sections of this guide are divided into general regions rather than provinces.
Panama City, the Canal & Surroundings
Beyond the urban streets of Panama City, the Canal Zone is characterized by a species-rich, dense tropical rainforest, hundreds of rivers, mangrove swamps, the Pacific Ocean coastline, and Las Perlas Archipelago in the Gulf of Panama. Thanks to the Panama Canal and its reliance on the local watershed, the rainforest in this area is protected as a series of national parks and reserves (Chagres, Soberanía, Sherman, and Camino de Cruces, for example). Visitors to Panama City are often surprised at how quickly they can reach these parks and surround themselves in steamy jungle and view a dazzling array of both North and South American birds and other wildlife. Near the city, the shore consists mostly of mudflats; visitors seeking beaches must head to the islands or drive about 1 hour southwest.
Considered the country’s cultural heartland, Central Panama in this book covers Panama City beaches, the Coclé Province, and the Azuero Peninsula. In Coclé, city dwellers flock to popular El Valle de Antón, a verdant mountain hideaway located in the crater of an extinct volcano (1,173m/3,850 ft. at its highest peak). The area is blessed with a mild climate that is a welcome respite from the humid lowlands. Southwest of the city, the Pacific Coast is another popular weekend getaway for its beaches and a few all-inclusive resorts. Farther southwest, the Azuero Peninsula has been largely deforested, but it is still a popular destination for its traditional festivals, handicrafts, and Spanish villages whose architecture dates back to the medieval era. The beaches along the peninsula are blissfully uncrowded any time of year.
Bocas del Toro Archipelago
In the northwest corner of the country, near the border with Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is one of the more popular and easily accessed Caribbean destinations, with a wide variety of hotels and amenities. The region is characterized by an eclectic mix of indigenous groups, Spanish descendants, Afro-Caribbeans, and, more recently, American expats; it is also one of the wettest areas of Panama. Outside of brief dry seasons in September/October and February/March, the rain is constant, so bring an umbrella or waterproof gear. Although the area has a few beautiful beaches, it also has dangerous riptides; visitors come more to scuba dive, snorkel, boat, see wildlife, or just soak in the bohemian vibe of Bocas Town, the capital city.
The Western Highlands & Gulf of Chiriqui
The Western Highlands—so-called for the region’s location and its Cordillera Central range—is a veritable paradise of fertile peaks and valleys, crystal-clear rivers, mild temperatures, and fresh air. The region is undergoing a palpable growth spurt as hundreds of North Americans continue to buy second and retirement homes here, so expect to hear a lot of English. The region centers around the skirt of Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano capped by a moist cloud forest. Farther south are the humid lowlands, the capital city (David), and the wondrous coast and islands of the Gulf of Chiriquí. This is Panama’s up-and-coming beach/ocean destination, with its highlight being Coiba National Park, comprised of some of the world’s most diverse and pristine islands for scuba diving and snorkeling.
The easternmost region of Panama is known as the Darién Province, a swath of impenetrable rainforest and swampland that is undeveloped save for a handful of tiny villages and indigenous settlements. It is Panama’s wildest region and the most difficult to reach: This is the famous “missing link” of the Pan American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Puerto Montt, Chile. The interior of the Darién can be reached only by foot, boat, or small plane—and herein lies the allure of adventure for travelers. Within the province lies Darién National Park, most of it inaccessible except for the Cana Research Station, an area revered by birders for the abundance of endemic and “show-bird” species such as macaws and harpy eagles, the largest raptor in the Americas. Along the Pacific shore is the famous Tropic Star Lodge; otherwise, lodging in the Darién is relegated to rustic shelters and tents.
The Comarca Kuna Yala (The San Blas Archipelago)
Though commonly referred to as the San Blas Archipelago, this semiautonomous region, or comarca, is named for the Kuna Yala, perhaps Panama’s most well-known indigenous group. The Kuna are recognized for their tightly knit culture, colorful clothing, and handicrafts such as mola tapestries. More than 300 lovely, palm-studded islands in turquoise Caribbean waters make up the archipelago in what is truly an unspoiled paradise. The San Blas is a very popular cruise stop; however, staying on the islands requires a sense of adventure—they can be reached only by small plane or boat. Lodging is largely rustic and alfresco, and there’s little in the way of activities other than swimming and swaying in a hammock.
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