Enter the Panama Canal through the colonial city of Colon, which is home to many descendants of the Afro-Caribbean workers who helped build it. Its main attraction is the Colon Free Trade Zone, established in 1948 and housing over 1700 companies. You’ll find anything and everything here, from pharmaceutical products to toys. While it’s mostly wholesale, things such as cosmetics, clothing and jewellery can be bought individually. However, Colon is known to be dangerous, so exercise caution.
South of Colon lie the Gatun Locks, which raise ships up 29.5m from the Caribbean waters into Gatun Lake. One of three sets of locks along the Panama Canal, they are well worth seeing for their mind-boggling size – 1,820,000cu m of concrete went into their construction. A viewing platform gives tourists the chance to see the locks in action. The Gatun Dam is 2km from the locks – another crucial element of the canal.
Barro Colorado Island
A wildlife sanctuary twice the size of New York’s Central Park, this 4000-acre tropical rainforest is in the middle of the Panama Canal and home to a range of flora and fauna. Visitors can only enter the island accompanied by a guide from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The organisation conducts day tours twice a week, but these are often booked out months in advance. The tour involves hours of hardcore hiking, but you’ll be rewarded with sightings of toucans, leopards and three-toed sloths.
For more lush rainforests, the nearby town of Gamboa has plenty of hiking and birdwatching and the Barro Colorado tours leave from here. The Gamboa Rainforest Resort is right in the heart of it. The resort offers a variety of jungle adventure tours, including an aerial tram, guided boat tours and fishing trips.
Soberania National Park
Lying on the banks of the canal, this national park is about 45 minutes from Panama City and contains 22,258ha of rainforest. It’s popular with birdwatchers, being home to 525 species, as well as 105 species of mammals, 80 species of reptiles and 55 species of amphibians. The Pipeline Road trail is the best place to spot them all. About 1.6km from the entrance, the Panama Rainforest Discovery Centre includes a 30m observation tower.
Once you’ve made it to Panama you’ll probably be all natured-out. Head to Avenida Balboa, an expensive stretch of real estate – in fact, the most costly kilometre of road in the world. It runs along the coast and offers shopping, restaurants and hotels, and is the financial hub of the city.