There’s a whole lot more to Panama than its famous canal. Hiking, rafting, surfing and diving are just a few of the excellent adventure activities on offer, and it’s a brilliant destination for birdwatching with over 970 species soaring in its skies. From touring Panama City to sampling inventive cuisine from entrepreneurial chefs, there are countless ways to truly experience Panamanian culture. Here are ten of the best.
1. Scuba dive underneath the Panama Canal
Feeling adventurous? You can actually scuba dive (PADI qualification permitting) underneath the Panama Canal in the Gatun Lake. Once submerged, divers can see some of the remains of old communities and railroads that still exist under water. This all happened during the flooding of Gatun Lake during the original Canal construction.
2. Visit a little piece of paradise
Panama might be the least populous country in Central America but there are plenty of opportunities to mix and mingle with the locals. In fact, there are roughly nine different indigenous tribes in Panama, including the Kuna (Guna), Wounaan, Bokota and the Ngobe among others. A little piece of paradise, the San Blas Islands are home to the Kuna people, who have maintained political autonomy from the mainland – Panama Vacations can organise day trips spent with a local guide from the community.
3. Experience Panama’s past, present and future through food
Panama City is having a culinary renaissance of sorts, with Casco Viejo hotspot Donde José leading the pack. The restaurant seats only sixteen patrons at a time, and reservations fill up fast. Head chef Jose Carles breaks the menu into sixteen courses, each using Panamanian ingredients and cooking styles – many of the dishes are smoked because cooking over fire is common in rural Panama, and he endeavours to use the entire animal as is customary throughout the country. There’s also a drink menu that goes alongside several of the dishes, ranging from wines to craft cocktails.
4. Walk inside a bat cave
Panama’s biodiversity is astounding, and as well as in the skies and under the seas, where thousands of different species can be seen in their natural habitats, it also extends to the underground. Enter the Nivida Bat Cave, located on Isla Bastimentos, which is about ten minutes from Bocas del Toro by boat. Once inside the cavern, there are hundreds of bats, so come prepared for the pungent smell. Even better? The Spanish-language school Habla Ya leads tours.
5. Tour the Panama Canal by train
Forget the boat; opt for a train tour instead. While many tourists do wind up sailing along the Panama Canal, it’s pretty much downhill after the first lock. In fact, this might very well be the lowlight of your trip. Instead, hop on the Panama Canal Railway that dates back to the early nineteenth century and travel back in time.
6. Take a tour led by former gang members
Not only is Casco Viejo a World Heritage Site and the most picturesque part of the city, it's also a window into Panama City's past. A tour group called Fortaleza Tours takes travellers beyond the monuments and deep into the heart of the city. As former gang members, these tour leaders have a story for every street. You’ll see first hand how the neighbourhood has completely transformed from a hotbed of crime into a same place.
7. Celebrate Mardi Gras
Sure, Rio de Janeiro is a safe bet for experiencing Carnival madness but don’t rule out Panama. As the country’s most celebrated festival, there is plenty in store for first-time partiers. The heart of the action – think decadent costume, loud music and plenty of dancing – tends to take place in a town called Las Tablas. There’s a bit of rivalry between the “High Street” and the “Low Street” when it comes to flats and costumes, so expect the best of the best. If staying in Panama City, there’s plenty going on there as well, especially on Via España.
8. Swim in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean in one day
Due to Panama’s geographic position and generally modest landmass (80 kilometers separates the two oceans), it’s possible to swim in both the Atlantic and the Pacific on the same day. There’s an abundance of beaches just south of the Interamericana (the main highway going through Panama City), and for an Atlantic swim, head northeast to Guna Yala for white sand and palm tree paradise.
9. Spot one of the world’s largest flying predators
The majestic and slightly daunting harpy eagle can be seen in Panama’s remote Darien region, along its border with Colombia. What makes them so scary? For starters, they stand three feet tall and can have a wingspan of up to two metres. Due to habitat loss or destruction, they’ve mostly disappeared from other destinations in Latin America so Panama is the best place to see them in action. Plus, the harpy eagle is the country’s national bird.
10. Indulge on fresh strawberries
Chiriquí Province is becoming a travel hotspot thanks to its ideal climate and agriculture. Besides lush forests, hiking trails and sandy beaches, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with strawberries. Since the soil is so fertile, coffee, oranges and other vegetables are grown here as well – stop by the Finca El Pariente strawberry farm for a closer look.
Explore more of Panama with The Rough Guide to Panama. Megan is the author of Bohemian Trails. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.