(Travel Pulse) Panama’s most famous attraction may be its legendary canal, but to truly experience this destination in a meaningful way there are a number of other compelling, must-see stops.
Casco Viejo is among the most colorful urban experiences to be had. A UNESCO Heritage site, Casco Viejo is Panama City’s old quarter, a place where buildings date back to the late 1600s.
Though many of the properties are now crumbling or undergoing restoration, they are charming and a visual feast nevertheless. What’s more, the area has become one of the hippest parts of the city, home to boutique hotels, numerous coffee shops and unique restaurants showcasing the talents of many up and coming local chefs. It is the place to go to sample Panama’s vibrant culinary scene and to explore local culture on foot.
Searching for untouched nature and culture? Panama’s San Blas Islands offer all of that and more. The archipelago of approximately 365 islands and cays are spread over an area of about 100 square miles. Only about 49 of the islands are inhabited, home to the native Kunas, a gentle group of people who work hard to protect the islands from massive tourism and to keep them healthy and beautiful.
The most common way to explore the San Blas area is by sailing from one island to the next. However, it’s also possible to book flights from Panama City to various local airports.
Yet another notable option when visiting Panama is Gatun Lake. While technically part of the Panama Canal, the lake is an intriguing attraction in its own right. Located to the south of Colon, in the beautiful valley of the Chagres River, this large, artificial lake was created between 1907 and 1913 by the building of the Gatun Dam. Today, you can explore the lake by boat and still skim your hands across the top of the submerged forest of trees. (At the time it was created, Gatun was the largest man-made lake and dam in the world.)
A variety of local operators offer Gatun Lake tours designed to showcase the surrounding flora and fauna and allow participants to get up close to friendly capuchins and howling monkeys that call the rainforest around the lake home. The trips also provide an excellent opportunity to observe numerous colorful, rare local bird species, so bring your binoculars and a good camera.
For hiking fans, Panama’s Soberania National Park is an ideal option. Not only is it one of the country’s finest birding locations, its 55,000 acres protect a bounty of important local animal species including 525 species of birds, 105 types of mammals, 80 different reptiles and 55 species of amphibians. Just a short drive (about 45 minutes depending on traffic) from Panama City, Soberania National Park is the country’s most easily accessible swath of rainforest.
And one last stop, this one for museum lovers, Panama City’s Biomuseo is designed to showcase the country’s natural history. Backed by the prestigious Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the exhibits cover Panama’s waters, forests and other natural resources. There are eight galleries at the museum and a biodiversity park that is a living extension of the main building.
What’s more, the unique and colorful museum was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, making the structure itself worth the visit.
Information about all the possibilities in Panama can be found on the Visit Panama website.