The Panama Canal that was finished 1914 is a 77 km (48 mi) ship canal that joins the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. It is an engineering marvel, called by many locals 'Eighth Wonder of the World'. It stretches south - north from the town of Balboa near Panama City, through the Gatun Lake to Limón Bay (Bahía Limón) near Colon.
There are several ways to explore the canal: full canal transit on a cruise boat - takes travelers from ocean to ocean through all three sets of locks, shorter tour that cruises through Miraflores Locks (sometimes also the Pedro Miguel Locks) - a convenient half-day trip from Panama City, or a visit to the Miraflores Locks visitor center where tourist can observe transiting vessels from a distance of only a few meters and learn about the history and current operations of the canal.
An interesting option is an eco-tour on the Gatun Lake, offered by some tour agencies. In addition to seeing a great variety of wildlife (birds, monkeys, sloths, crocodiles etc.) as well as unique and rich flora, tour participants can observe large ships passing this part of the canal.
Panama City, a very multicultural place, is known to be the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. The city is a center for international banking and trade recognizable by its skyline of glass and steel towers and newly developed high rise condominiums.
The Old City, Casco Viejo, is the historic part of town, filled with colonial style buildings,
pedestrian walkways, historical plazas, cathedrals (like the 1688 Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) and museums including the most famous Panama Canal Museum.
Another attraction in Panama City is Panama Viejo - the site of the ruins of the old city. The old city was founded in 1519 and it is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Together with the historical district of Panama City Panama Viejo is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Panama City, particularly its Central Avenue, is also a superb shopping destination. Lastly, for many tourists the city serves as an excellent base for day trips to the Canal and the neighboring islands.
Darién National Park
Darien National Park is located in the western Panama, in the sparsely populated wilderness of the Darién Gap that separates the rest of Panama from Colombia. The total area of the park is 597,000 hectares (1,475,219 acres) that embrace an exceptional variety of habitats – sandy beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, as well as lowland and upland tropical forests. The park that since 1981 has been included in UNESCO's World Heritage sites, is famous for its remarkable diversity of wildlife, including several hundred bird species and more than 100 species of mammals. The park is also home to two Choco Indian tribes.
Although certain parts of Darien have bad reputation due to the presence of Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers and are definitely not recommended to visit for safety reasons, there are tour companies that organize safe treks and expeditions to explore the Darien wilderness as well as the life of indigenous Indian people.
Portobelo San Lorenzo
Portobelo is one of Panama's best known historical sites. An old colonial garrison town, it was was once the greatest Spanish port in Central America. The San Lorenzo fortifications that face the harbor have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1980.
Bocas del Toro, Diving and Snorkeling
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro is one of the country's most popular ecotourism destinations. It is located on the northwestern coast of Panama, with the main island Isla Colón and the main city (on this island) Bocas del Toro, also called Bocas Town.
The region is a paradise for diving and snorkeling enthusiasts. It includes Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park which is an underwater reserve offering hundreds of species of tropical fish and magnificent coral reefs.
Other excellent diving and snorkeling centers are: Isla Grande near Portobelo (with its unique underwater attractions: a 110-ft cargo ship and a C-45 twin-engine plane) and San Blás Islands, located off the northeast coast.
Panama is an increasingly more and more popular destination for beach vacation lovers. Although most of both Pacific and Atlantic coastlines don't have nice, sandy beaches, there are some exceptions, particularly on the many Panama's islands. Comarca de Kuna Yala with San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast are considered to have the best beaches in Panama featuring picture-postcard views, powdery white sand, coral reef, and turquoise waters. The downside is the accommodation that is quite rustic.
Other favorite beach destination is Isla Contadora (Contadora Island) at the northern end of the Pearl Island Archipelago, about 48 km (30 mi) off the Pacific coast. The island offers several white sand beaches (including Panama's only nude beach), a runway, a couple of grocery stores, a few restaurants, good choice of accommodation and turquoise waters, ideal for swimming or snorkeling or scuba diving; tourist can also hire boats to visit uninhabited beaches on surrounding small islands.
Worth mentioning are the beaches near Santa Clara & Farallón on the Pacific coast. They offer not only blue waters and clean white sand, but also the convenience of relative proximity to Panama City (about 2 hours drive). The large Royal Decameron all inclusive resort is a very good value for the money.
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