In the most recent Travel Trends survey conducted by Travel Leaders, expert travel agents cited Panama as the top up and- coming vacation destination in Central and South America, and with good reason. Many people are familiar with the Panama Canal, the impressive 98 year old manmade waterway that links two oceans and, in itself, is a reason to visit the Central American country. However, there is much more to Panama than the canal. The incredibly diverse landscape ranges from quiet beaches ringed with coral reefs to pristine rainforests and mountain peaks that lose their tops in the clouds.
Panama City, which lies at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, offers a vibrant atmosphere, stunning skyscrapers, great dining, and a convenient base from which to see the rest of the country. There are really three Panama Cities, all worth exploring: the modern city, Panama Viejo and Casco Viejo.
In the 1500s, development of the original Panama City was set back several times by fires and earthquakes. The city was completely destroyed by fire in January 1671 after being attacked by pirates. The ruins, located in the suburbs of the modern city, have are now a popular attraction called Panama Viejo.
After the destruction of the original city, residents conceived of a walled city that would protect against future pirate attacks. This is now the historic district called Casco Viejo, which is full of wonderful buildings and monuments.
Panama City is within easy driving distance of the beautiful Soberania National Park. The park, which stretches along much of the length of the Panama Canal, is great for hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, birdand monkey-watching, or simply taking in the beauty of the rainforest.
You’ll need to venture a bit farther from the city to tour Panama’s spectacular highlands. From the heights of Volcàn Barù National Park, it’s possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the coffee plantations around the charming town of Boquete.
Then, of course, there’s the famous canal, a true marvel of engineering. The Miraflores Visitor Center is a 20-minute ride from Panama City. It has a museum of interactive exhibits and an outdoor terrace where you can get a close-up view of transiting ships. Another way to experience the canal is to hop on a day cruise that will take you through one or more of the three impressive sets of locks. You can also take a cruise from Miami or Los Angeles that will sail through the canal as part of a longer itinerary.
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