Tourism is a rapidly growing industry in Panama, attracting more than one million visitors every year. The ease of travel into and around the small country allows visitors to experience two oceans, enjoy the mountains and rainforests, learn about native cultures and sample the vibrant nightlife -- all within a short vacation period. And, of course, no trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal, one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, which changed the world’s shipping routes by eliminating the need for a long and treacherous journey around the southern tip of South America, and cut the sea distance from New York to San Francisco from 14,000 miles to only 5,900 miles.
One of Panama’s key attractions is its diversity, and some of the top attractions -- in addition to the canal -- are the capital of Panama City, Panama Viejo, Casco Antiguo (also known as Casco Viejo) and the jungles surrounding the canal area. Panama City, easily the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, is a modern, sophisticated metropolis that closely resembles Miami and has established commerce, arts, fashion and dining.
Panama Viejo was the first city of Panama. Founded by the Spanish in 1519, it rapidly became a prosperous point where gold and silver from the southern colonies would make it to the Caribbean and on to Europe. The city was repeatedly attacked by pirates, and finally destroyed in 1671. Today, the old stone streets and some ruins of Panama Viejo remain, and the area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Following the destruction of Panama Viejo, the new capital city was built a few miles away.
Casco Antiguo (or Casco Viejo) is Panama City´s second touristic destination, featuring buildings that reflect the diversity of Panamanian society, colonial-style government buildings, cathedrals and museums. Although a Spanish colonial city, because of the influence of merchants from around the world, it became a vibrant city with styles ranging from Caribbean to French and even Art Deco. Today, boutique hotels have started to appear in Casco Antiguo, and some of the best bars and restaurants of the city can be found here. It has also become Panama City´s artistic center with the recurrent art events and shows such as the Panama Jazz Festival, the Music Festival, Sobresaltos Dance Festival and many others.
Fifteen minutes away from modern Panama City, visitors can find Parque Soberania, Parque Chagres and Parque Metropolitano, where hiking and birdwatching are popular activities. For those interested in research, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute offers visitors educational tours to Barro Island, one of the most studied jungles in the world.
For most visitors, the Panama Canal probably tops their “must-see” list. There are several ways to experience the canal, depending on the level of interest. For the curious visitor, there are two museums devoted to it -- the Canal Museum at Casco Antiguo, featuring Panama´s history as a crossroads of cultures, oceans and a bridge between continents, and a second museum, located at the Miraflores Locks. This museum shows the technical aspects of the canal, and visitors can observe the ship transits from the balcony of the restaurant on the top. Another way to experience the canal is to cross it -- either a partial crossing, which takes four hours, or a complete crossing, which might be done in eight.
Panama also offers a wide assortment of adventure and “off the beaten path” travel, including Bocas del Toro, with its powdery white beaches and surfing; the mountainous region of the Chiriquí Highlands, home to the charming town of Boquete, the habitat of the Resplendent Quetzal and some of the best coffee in the world at the plantations in the highland cloud forests; and Boca Chica, a small fishing town known as the departure point for world-class sport fishing in the Gulf of Chiriqui.
Panama also includes 1,500 islands on both its Pacific coast to the south and the Caribbean coast to the north. Many of these islands, such as the Archipelago de San Blas, are home to the native Kuna people. The islands of San Blas have beautiful beaches and are great for snorkeling, diving, swimming and escaping reality.
American, French and Spanish food is available in most restaurants in the major cities. Native cooking is similar to creole cuisine -- hot and spicy. And the local seafood is excellent and in abundance. The popular native dishes include ceviche (fish marinated in lime juice, onions and peppers), patacones de plátano(fried plantain), sancocho(Panamanian stew with chicken, meat and vegetables), tamales (seasoned pie wrapped in banana leaves) and empanadas (turnovers filled with meat, chicken or cheese). Top-rated restaurants include Guari Guari in Bocas del Toro, Maito in Panama City, and Rene Café in the Casco Antiguo section of Panama City.
Panama has a tropical climate, and temperatures and humidity are uniformly high throughout the year, although the temperature rarely tops 90° for more than a short time. Temperatures on the Pacific side of the isthmus are somewhat lower than on the Caribbean side, and breezes tend to rise after dusk in most parts of the country. Temperatures are markedly cooler in the higher parts of the mountain ranges, and frosts occur in the Cordillera de Talamanca in western Panama.
Climatic regions are determined less on the basis of temperature than on rainfall, which varies regionally from less than 50 inches to more than 120 inches per year. Almost all of the rain falls during the rainy season, from April to December. Although rainy-season thunderstorms are common, the country is outside the hurricane track.