Panama is a compact country, an isthmus connecting Central and South America, bordered by both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The Pan-American Highway runs straight through from the border with Costa Rica but stops in the thick of the Darien jungle before reaching Colombia. In between, there is plenty to explore: a modern skyline, colonial old town, remote Caribbean islands, Pacific resorts, indigenous communities, surf beaches, misty highlands, tropical forests, nature reserves, old fortresses. The approachable size of the country and good air and road connections, however, means that you can check quite a few places off in one trip if you plan it right.
San Felipe, Panama City, Panama
On a narrow peninsula, Casco Viejo with its original brick streets and beautifully restored colonial architecture is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a wealth of restaurants and entertainment as well as historical attractions. Don't miss a promenade on the top of the fortress wall overlooking the sea. Other top attractions include the ruins of Santo Domingo Church and its flat arch (Arco Chato), the National Theater, the 17th century Iglesia de la Merced whose Baroque facade was brought from the ruins of Panama Viejo, The Iglesia San Jose whose golden altar was also salvaged from Panama Vieja and the Metropolitan Cathedral on Cathedral or Independence Square.
Caribbean Coast, Panama City, Panama
Picture-postcard beaches with powdery sands and protected coral reefs are scattered throughout the 378 islands, many uninhabited, in Panama's San Blas islands or Comarca Guna Yala, homeland of the country's most famous indigenous people. Scuba diving is prohibited in the turquoise Caribbean waters, but Kuna culture - including the famous molas - make this more than a beach destination. Regular air service from Panama City is available to several the larger islands, but the only way to get around the 100-square-mile paradise is by boat.
Panama Canal, Panama City, Panama
Called the eighth wonder of the world, the canal cuts 48 miles across the isthmus. The best observation spot on the Pacific side is at Miraflores Locks, a 15-minute taxi ride from the city center. The visitors' center has four exhibition halls, a navigator simulator, interactive modules, nifty canal models and an observation deck for watching the locks in action. The visitors' center is open 9:30 am-4:30 pm with an admission fee of $8 for adults and $5 for children. The terrace and dining room overlooking the locks is open daily 10 am to 10:30 pm.
Anton, Cocle, Panama City, Panama
An easy two-hour drive from the capital, El Valle is a favorite weekend retreat for wealthy Panamanians, because it is cooler than the lowlands and offers opportunities for cycling, horseback riding and hiking. Kids will like the Butterfly Garden, the "square" trees behind Hotel Campestre and the small El Nispero Gardens and Zoo where the nearly extinct Golden Frogs may be spotted. Located on the broad floor of an extinct volcano crater, it still has some active hot springs, although nothing fancy.
Pearl Islands, Panama City, Panama
One of the some 200 islands in the archipelago just off the Pacific coast, Contadora is the best known of the Pearl Islands because of its resorts and luxury weekend homes. It offers dazzling, often deserted, beaches and shady lanes. August to October, humpback whales and their young can be spotted in the surrounding waters. Whale-watching tours leave from the island and Panama City. Sometimes whales can even be seen from the beach. It is only a 20-minute flight or a 90-minute ferry ride from the bustle of the capital.
In the Chiriquí highlands only 37 miles (60 km) from the Costa Rican border, Boquete (bow-keh-tay) has year-round spring-like temperatures but is only a hour's drive from the beach. Some of the world's best (and most expensive) coffee is grown on nearby plantations nearly 4,000 feet (about 1,200 m) above sea level. A retirement haven for foreigners, it has a population of about 20,000 and a busy cultural life with a festival season between November through April celebrating flowers, coffee, orchids and jazz&blues. Outdoor activities like hiking, zip lining, bird watching, rafting and golf abound.
Veraguas, Panama City, Panama
Once a penal colony 14 miles (23 km) off the Pacific Coast, Coiba is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and glorious nature preserve with white-faced monkeys and scarlet macaws on land and teeming coral reefs off the beaches. Coiba National Park is really a collection of 38 islands and surrounding waters totaling 430,825 acres (nearly 18,000 ha). Unless you book a pricey fishing excursion, don't expect any frills. Small boats take an hour and 15 minutes to make the trip from Santa Catalina, a surfing village about five hours from Panama City. A handful of concrete cabanas can accommodate a few overnight visitors, who must supply their own food and drink. Beware of alligators and sharks.
The seven-crater Volcán Barú is Panama's only volcano - albeit mostly inactive - and reaches a height of 11,401 feet (3,475 m). From the top on a clear day, hikers are rewarded with simultaneous views of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Centerpiece of a national park of the same name, it is home to about 250 bird species, including the elusive quetzal. Popular, well-marked hiking trails can be tackled at midnight for a sunrise arrival, at dawn for an all-day climb or on an overnight to catch the sunset. Bring warm gear. Average temperatures range from 50°F (10°C) to 68°F (20°C) , and unpredictable weather can shut down outings. There is also a rugged 4X4 road to the top from nearby Boquete.
Gamboa, Panama City, Panama
About 45 minutes west of Panama City, the 11-mile Pipeline Road near Gamboa cuts through the jungle along the path of a never-used World War II oil pipeline. The first four miles along the narrow trail are almost flat, but the terrain grows hillier farther down. It has the reputation of being the best birding spot in the Americas but also makes for an easy ramble through the forest. After the first free mile or so, there's a $5 entry fee.
Panama Viejo, Panama City, Panama
The first permanent European settlement on the Pacific Coast, the city had 10,000 inhabitants when Henry Morgan sacked it in 1617. UNESCO named the 57-acre ruins a World Heritage Site in 1997.The museum is a 15-minute walk from the ruins with a handicraft market in the visitors' center. Open daily except Mondays from 9 am to 5:30 pm. Adult admission is $6.
Chagres National Park, Panama City, Panama
Spend a day or overnight in a virgin rain forest with the Emberá, one of Panama's indigenous peoples. An immersion program called Families Unplugged is also offered. The journey begins in a dugout canoe (30-60 minutes depending on water depth) to the village where music, tribal lore, lunch and informal conversations await. After lunch, village elders lead a short hike in which medicinal plants are discussed. The overnight allows more time for swimming in the river, exploring, or just hanging out in a hammock. Fees start at $250 for one on a day trip and $300 overnight but decrease if more in your party. Children 5-12, half price; under five, free.
Barro Colorado, Panama City, Panama
The daytrip to the Smithsonian Institution's research island Barro Colorado in the Panama Canal includes a 45-minute boat trip each way, a 2-to-3-hour guided tour of the rain forest and lunch along side scientists in the Smithsonian cafeteria. The early afternoon leaves times for questions and relaxing. The Smithsonian launch leaves the Gamboa dock precisely at 7:15 am weekdays Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and at 8 am on weekends with returns by 4 pm. Foreign Visitors, $80; Foreign Students, $50. Reservations must be made with the Smithsonian Institution in Panama City.