A narrow, snake-shaped stretch of land that divides oceans and continents, Panama has long been one of the world’s greatest crossroads – far before the construction of its famous canal. Though its historical ties to the US have led to an exaggerated perception of the country as a de facto American colony, Spanish, African, West Indian, Chinese, Indian, European, and several of the least assimilated indigenous communities in the region have all played a role in the creation of the most sophisticated, open-minded and outward-looking society in Central America. The comparatively high level of economic development and use of the US dollar also make it one of the more expensive countries in the region, but the wildlife-viewing and adventure-travel options are excellent.
Cosmopolitan and contradictory, Panama City is the most striking capital city in Central America, its multiple personalities reflected in the frenzied energy of its international banking centre, the laidback street-life of its old colonial quarter, its polished nightlife and the antiseptic order of the US-built Canal Zone. Located in the centre of the country, it is also a natural base from which to explore many of Panama’s most popular destinations, including its best-known attraction, the monumental Panama Canal. The colonial ruins and Caribbean coastline of Colón Province are also within reach of the capital. Southeast of Panama City stretches Darién, the infamously wild expanse of rainforest between Central and South America, while to the north, along the Caribbean coastline, Guna Yala is the autonomous homeland of the Guna, who live in beautiful isolation on the coral atolls of the Guna Yala Archipelago. West of Panama City, the Carretera Interamericana runs through the Pacific coastal plain, Panama’s agricultural heartland. This region lures travellers intrigued by the folkloric traditions and nature reserves of the Azuero Peninsula, also a major surf destination, and the protected cloudforests of the Chiriquí Highlands on the Costa Rican border. The mostly uninhabited Caribbean coast west of the canal meets Costa Rica near the remote archipelago of Bocas del Toro, a popular holiday destination thanks to its largely unspoiled rainforests, beaches, coral reefs, surfing hot spots and easy-going vibe.
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