The narrowest and southernmost country in Central America, Panama is one of the travel world's best-kept secrets. There's so much to discover here, from Pacific surf and uninhabited islands, to indigenous communities and the jungle-clad Darien province. If Panama isn't already on your bucket list, here's why it should be:
Panama is home to seven distinct indigenous groups, which make up around 12 per cent of its population. Most live on ancestral lands and still hold onto their traditional culture and language. One of the best-known groups is the Guna people. With an open attitude to tourism, the Guna allow tourists to freely enter their autonomous island territory of Guna Yala (also known as the "San Blas" archipelago). Exploring their Caribbean coast home via dugout canoe and discovering more about their culture, colourful textiles and traditional dance celebrations is the number reason why Panama is on my bucket list.
Peppering both its Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, Panama's offshore islands are treasure troves for adventurous travellers. Although home to the Guna people, most of the 378 islands of the San Blas archipelago (Guna Yala) are uninhabited, with empty beaches and seldom-visited shores. Further north, the tiny islands of Bocas del Toro have intriguing national parks, colourful clapboard houses and remote islets. Over on the Pacific coast, the Pearl Islands opposite Panama City offer white sands, whale watching and uninhabited shores.
Central America's most modern and cosmopolitan city, the country's capital is a metropolis of skyscrapers, shopping malls and international business. The pedestrian walkway at Avenida Central is a good place to experience local life, and the reclaimed waterfront area of Cinta Costera has street vendors, skate parks and coastal views. For old-world Spanish architecture, head to the colonial quarter and UNESCO World Heritage site of Casco Viejo. Here, crumbling ruins, boutique hotels and restaurants line the cobbled streets, along with cafes, wine bars and historic churches.
The Panama Canal
No trip to Panama would be complete without experiencing the Panama Canal. This 48-mile artificial waterway carves its way between two continents, creating a vital passageway for cargo ships and cruise liners. An engineering marvel that took 17 years to complete, the canal has connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans since 1914. You could take a boat tour through the canal itself, or visit the Miraflores Lock Visitor Centre in Panama City for 3D films, exhibition halls and observation decks.
With more than 1,500 miles of coastline, it's no surprise that Panama's huge choice of beaches ranges from accessible city sands, to far-flung hideaways. Some of the best are found on the offshore islands. The Guna Yala (San Blas) archipelago is a premier beach destination, with powdery sands, swaying palms, coral reefs and azure waters. The beaches of the Bocas del Toro islands are also firm favourites, with famous beaches like Playa Larga, Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach. Closer to Panama City, more developed stretches like Coronado are a complete contrast, with watersports, beach bars and restaurants on hand.
A dreamy destination for all levels of surfer, Panama serves up everything from beginner breaks to pro-level waves. You can even surf the Atlantic and Pacific coast on the same day. Famous Pacific spots include the beach and reef breaks at Morro Negrito; the popular surf competition hub of Playa Venao; and the beach town of Santa Catalina, which has one of the longest beach breaks in Central America. On the Caribbean side, Bocas del Toro has lots of options for experienced surfers. You can surf all year round in Panama but April to October tends to bring the best conditions on the Pacific Coast, or December to April on the Caribbean side.
Scuba and Snorkelling
Panama's underwater life is outrageously diverse. On the Pacific coast, UNESCO-listed Coiba Marine Park is visited by humpback whales, reef sharks and whale sharks, while the sheltered waters around the Pearl Islands lure angelfish and rays. On the warmer Caribbean coast, Bocas del Toro has kaleidoscope reefs with incredible corals that attract snappers, nurse sharks, sea turtles and more. Scuba diving isn't allowed in Guna Yala but you can experience everything from sharks and stingrays to zebrafish and squid by snorkelling.
Chiriqui Cloud Forests
Panama's central mountain ranges form the Continental Divide, separating the Pacific from the Caribbean. Cool and green, the cloud forests of Chiriqui are home to Panama's highest peaks, its only volcano and some of its longest rivers. This is the place to go trekking, mountain biking and birdwatching, or to experience some of the best whitewater rafting in Central America. The main town of Boquete is the best place to stay, with its lush vistas, friendly locals and famous "geisha" coffee, which is made from some of the world's most expensive beans.
Located in southern Panama, on the border of South America, the vast Darien region is one of the world's wildlife hotspots and one the biggest protected areas in Central America. Toucan, tapirs, sloths and harpy eagles all call this natural Eden home, as do endangered night monkeys, jaguars and spotted pacas. It's also inhabited by the "Embera" and "Wounaan" people – indigenous groups with generations-worth of rainforest knowledge. A guide is essential for experiencing the Darien safely.
Panama's cuisine is little-known beyond Central America but there's plenty here to tempt foodies. Staples include "arroz con pollo" (chicken and rice), fried yuca and seafood, but ceviche would be top of my list – white sea bass, octopus, shrimp and squid ceviche are common in Panama, and are typically prepared with lemon juice, cilantro, peppers, onion, celery and sea salt. Other national dishes include "sancocho" (chicken soup made with cilantro and a root vegetable called name), "ropa vieja" (shredded beef served with coconut rice), "carimanola" (fried meat buns) and tamale de maiz (corn dough).
Bursting with opportunities and adventure, a trip to Panama could involve everything from sunbathing on the beaches and surfing the Pacific breaks, to exploring uninhabited islets, climbing through cloud forests and creeping through the Darien. A country that only made it onto my radar recently, Panama is now firmly on my bucket list.