Panama - Panama is the dark horse of Central America, known chiefly for its canal, the 1989 US invasion, exaggerated rumours of crime and the name it donated to a style of headgear. Travellers have tended to steer clear of the country or whizz through on their way to or from South America, but they miss a country that is no more dangerous than many others in Latin America, which is blessed with a diverse ethnic mix, some superb beaches, a partying spirit and cheap prices.
Environment - The isthmus of Panama is the umbilical cord joining South and Central America. It borders Costa Rica to the west and tumultuous Colombia to the east. Panama's arched shape reflects both its role as a bridge between continents and as a passageway between oceans. At its narrowest point, it is only 50 km wide, but it has a 1160-km Caribbean coastline on its northern shore and a 1690-km Pacific coast to the south. The famous canal is 80 km long and effectively divides the country into eastern and western regions.
There are 1600 islands near the Panamanian coast. The two major archipelagos are the San Blas and Bocas del Toro chains on the Caribbean coast, but most of the islands are in the Pacific. Panama has flat coastal lowlands and two mountain chains running along its spine. The highest peak is Volcán Barú at 3475 metres high.
Tropical rainforests dominate the canal zone, the eastern half of the country and the Darien Gap. The highlands have alpine vegetation and mountain forests; the west coast is predominantly grassland. There is a mixture of South and North American fauna, including armadillos, anteaters, sloths, tapirs, jaguars and deer.
Panama has two seasons. The dry season lasts from January to mid-April and the rainy season from mid-April to December. Rainfall is heavier on the Caribbean side of the highlands, though most people live on or near the Pacific coast. Temperatures are typically hot in the lowlands (between 21 and 32 degrees Celsius) and cool in the mountains (between 10 and 18 degrees). These vary little throughout the year. In Panama City, the heat is tempered by sea breezes.
Culture - Panama's arts reflect its ethnic mix. Indian tribes, West Indian groups, mestizos, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Swiss, Yugoslav and North American immigrants have all offer contributed ingredients to the cultural stew. Traditional arts include woodcarving, weaving, ceramics and mask-making.
Spanish is the official language, though Panamanian Spanish uses lots of slang and is spoken rapidly, making it difficult to understand. US influence and the international nature of the canal zone reinforce the use of English as a second language. West Indian immigrants also speak Caribbean-accented English. Indian tribes have retained their own languages. Panama is predominantly Roman Catholic, but there are sizable Muslim and Protestant minorities and small numbers of Hindus and Jews.
Events - Carnaval is celebrated over the four days preceding Ash Wednesday and involves music, dancing and a big parade on Shrove Tuesday. The celebrations in Panama City and Las Tablas are the most festive. The Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations at Villa de Los Santos, on the Península de Azuero, are equally renowned. The Festival of the Black Christ at Portobelo on 21 October includes a parade of the famous life-size statue of the Black Christ, and attracts pilgrims from all over the country.
Warning - Panama City can be an intimidating place, but like many other cities crime is a problem only in certain areas. Travellers should be wary of walking around the district of San Felipe at night. The city of Colón is a slum renowned for street crime. It's best to avoid the place altogether unless you need to catch a boat from the port. If this is the case, try to avoid walking on the street, even during the day. The Darien Gap is largely unpoliced and frequented by smugglers and Columbian guerrillas. If you trek in this area, make sure you are fully aware of both the natural and human dangers.
Panama Canal - The Canal is both an engineering marvel and one of the most significant waterways on earth. Stretching 80 km from Panama City on the Pacific coast ot Colón on the Atlantic side, it provides passage for over 12,000 ocean-going vessels per year. Commercial ships pay an average of US$30,000 to navigate the passage, bringing millions of dollars of much-needed foreign currency into the local economy. Seeing a huge ship nudging its way through the jungles of Central America is a bizarre and memorable sight. The easiest and best way to visit the Canal is to go to the Miraflores Locks, on the north-eastern fringe of Panama City, where a platform offers visitors a good view of the locks in operation. There's also a museum with a model and a film about the Canal. Boats leave Balboa, a western suburb of Panama City, for a five-hour tour through the locks to Miraflores Lake.
Isla Taboga -This small peaceful island, 20 km south of Panama City, has a good beach, snorkelling, an attractive village, a pelican colony and few thoroughfares bigger than a footpath. Known as the Island of Flowers, because at certain times of the year it is filled with the aroma of sweet-smelling blooms, the island is a favourite retreat from the city.
Boquete - Known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural environment, the small alpine town of Boquete is nestled into a craggy mountain valley 35 km north of David. It's a fine place for walking, bird-watching, horse-riding, and enjoying a respite from the heat of the lowlands.
Archipiélago de San Blas - The islands of the San Blas Archipiélago are strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the Golfo de San Blas nearly all the way to the Colombian border. The islands are home to the Cuna Indians, who run the 378 islands as an autonomous province, with minimal interference from the national government. They maintain their own economic system, language, customs, and culture, with distinctive dress, legends, music and dance.
Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro - Several of the pristine islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipiélago in the Caribbean Sea are protected by the marine Parque Nacional Bastimentos. The park offers great diving, snorkelling and swimming and its beaches are used as a nesting ground by carey, canal and green turtles.
Isla Grande - It would take all the exotic Caribbean cliches to describe this remote and beautiful island off the Caribbean coast near Portobelo. Only five by one and a half km in size, it is inhabited by 300 people of African descent who make their living from fishing and coconuts.
Activities - There are 1600 islands in Panama, so there's plenty of opportunities for snorkelling at diving. The best place is the Parque Nacional Bastimentos, around Bocas del Toro, or off Isla Mamay, west of Isla Grande, but there is also good snorkelling off the San Blas archipelago and Isla Grande. There are surf beaches along the Pacific coast: the best are at Playa El Palmar near San Carlos; Playa Venado, on the southern tip of the Península de Azuero; and the comparatively remote Santa Catalina, opposite the Isla de Coiba.
Panama's highest peak, Volcán Barú attracts plenty of hikers. The best base for climbing the volcano is Boquete. There is a historic trail in the Parque Nacional Soberanía on the shores of the Panama Canal which follows the route of the Spanish conquistadors. The most famous trek is through the Darien Gap into Colombia, but this is both arduous and dangerous and should not be taken lightly.
Getting There & Away - Panama has flights to all Central American countries, and both North and South Amercia; Miami is the principal hub for flights to Panama. Copa is the national airline. There's a $US15 departure tax on international flights. There are three land border crossing between Panama and Costa Rica; Paso Canoas, on the Interamerican Highway, is the most popular, followed by Guabito-Sixaola near the Caribbean coast. There are buses to the border which connect with local services on the Costa Rican side. Despite the huge amount of shipping passing through the Panama Canal, it's hard to catch a ride on a boat. There is, however, an overnight ferry from Colón to Cartagena every two days. You can walk through the jungle of the Darien Gap into Colombia but this one to two-week journey requires planning, guides and is only for self-reliant travellers who are aware of the dangers in the area (guerrillas, getting lost, etc). Alternatively, you can skirt the northen coast of South America by catching boats from the San Blas archipelago and Puerto Obaldía.
Getting Around - Panama has a number of domestic airlines and a good domestic flight network. There's an inexpensive bus system servicing all accessible parts of the country. The country's train service, which really only amounted to a line between Panama City and Colon, was destroyed in the 1989 invasion and is in the process of being rebuilt.
Boats are the principal mode of transport in several parts of Panama, particularly between the San Blas and Bocas del Toro archipelagos. Cuna Indian merchant vessels carry cargo and passengers along the San Blas coast, between Colón and Puerto Obaldía. Cars can be rented in Panama City and David.