"A man, a plan, a canal - Panama." This classic palindrome (can be read the same forward or backward) reveals the good news and the bad news for Panamanian tourism. The good news is that everyone knows the name of their country; the bad news is that it's always connected to and limited by the canal.
The reality is that Panama has the best of Central America. The rainforests are the most remarkable and extensive, indigenous tribes are respected and sheltered, the bird watching outstrips everywhere but the Amazon, the snorkeling and diving match anywhere in the Caribbean, and the sport fishing is so good that just one Pacific coast bay can claim more world records than anywhere in the world!
It's easy to see why the canal has dominated the world's view of Panama. The idea of a water route carved across the isthmus to the Pacific came back to Europe with the first explorers in the 16th century. The isthmus was part of the Spanish Empire from 1538 to 1821, then part of independent Greater Columbia.
The trans-Panama railroad was built by 1855, and in 1880 an ill-fated French attempt to dig a sea level canal began, only to fall apart in 1900 after 20 years of deaths and financial disaster. The U. S. backed the establishment of an independent Panama in 1903 and took over the French project, which they completed in 1914.
Without a doubt, the Canal is the #1 draw for visitors to Panama. It is truly one of the wonders of the modern world, and a trip through the locks is as amazing today as it was when the canal opened. But there's much more to do and to see in this beautiful, tropical country.
Panama City, near the southern end of the canal, whose axis is actually northwest-southeast, is a fascinating mixture of deteriorating colonial buildings and shining modern high rises.
The main museums are here along with the Summit Botanical Gardens and two national parks.
The Pacific coast has the best diving and snorkeling, particularly around Coiba Island. Pinas Bay, on the remote Pacific coast near the Darien Gap, has yielded more world record marlin and other ocean fish than anywhere you can find. Surfing off the Azuero Peninsula and sea kayaking around any of the Pacific islands have become popular.
The San Blas islands on the Caribbean coast east of the canal are cultural sanctuaries for the Kuna Indians, an indigenous tribe that operates their territory independently from the rest of the country. They still make, wear, and sell colorful traditional blouses, called molas, using a reverse appliqué technique. Good diving and snorkeling throughout the islands during the springtime from April through June.
On the other side of the canal are the Bocas del Toro, an archipelago of islands off the north west coast. Some are protected within the Parque Nacional Bastimentos, where you'll find nesting sea turtles on isolated beaches with great swimming, snorkeling, and diving.
Opportunities to explore the rain forest are everywhere - on islands, along the coasts, and on mountainsides. The best forests are in the south in the Parque Nacional Darien, where bird sightings are incredible, but because of nearby guerillas and refugees from Columbia, only go with a guide who is familiar with the park.
See the Canal, there's too much history and amazement to miss it, but don't hesitate to get into the rest of Panama, a country that has become a world-class tourist destination.