Some countries are big. Some countries are small. Some countries are just narrow strips of land separating two gigantic oceans. Actually, only Pamana fits that description. That narrow strip, or in more technical terms, the isthmus of Panama, slammed the oceanic gates shut 12 million years ago, thus linking the North American and South American continent together. Since then, it’s just been doing it’s own thing and developing a lot of awesome things to do. You know, with a little help from humans. Jungles, mountains, beaches, energetic cities, and an iconic canal that splits it in half, Panama has a rich palette of experiences to choose from. Here are 5 you can only find in Panama.
Panama City probably isn’t the first place you’d think you’d find a Frank Gehry designed building. Designed in 1999 but finally completed in 2014 at a cost of $60 million dollars (Gehry charged no fee for the design), what’s going on inside is just as fascinating as what’s going on outside. The Biomuseo houses 8 different exhibits, all focusing on the amazing biodiversity of Panama.
Once you spend a day learning about the formation of the isthmus and its massive effect on the world’s climate and biodiversity it starts to make sense such a significant museum with an eye catching design would sit here in Panama City. For example, the formation of the strait created the Gulf Stream, leading to the current wet, warm climate of Western Europe. According to some scientists, this extra moisture also led to the Arctic ice cap. There's a lot to learn about how the landbridge that connected the two continents for the first time changed biodiversity too. The museum is surrounded by six acres of a intricately designed park, which brings some of the images mentioned inside the museum to life. And while you're outside, try to count all of the roofs on this one of kind building. I got 9. Oh wait, 13? I have no idea.
Coiba Marine Park
This is another great way to see Panama's abounding biodiversity. The Coiba Marine Park is a still a fairly new addition to Panama’s tourism offerings, as the island of Coiba was a penal colony up until 2004. By 2005, the island and the 37 islands surrounding it that make up the Coiba Marine Park had already been established as a UNESCO heritage site.
The toughest place to reach on this list, its shelter has also served as its savior. The coral is pristine. The natural protections of the islands have kept it from being damaged by severe storms caused by El Niño. Also, the flora and fauna are very well preserved due to it’s age as a park and the lower traffic numbers than you would expect to find in a place with such beauty. Being the second biggest coral reef in the Pacific and containing over 800 species of fish, scuba diving is the thing to do here. You may even come across a whale shark.
Surfing, hiking, and birdwatching are all popular activities as well. The penal colony itself is locked up, which means you can’t go inside, but you can observe what happens when we leave buildings to fend for themselves against the ever creeping jungle. Spoiler: the jungle always wins.
Surf Two Oceans In One Day
Some debate which ocean is better for surfing. Those on the Atlantic side put up a good fight, but they usually lose out to places like Hawaii, California, and the other surf spots that line the Pacific. No matter what ocean you think is better (Pacific), feeling the Earth’s tidal power push (or pull?) you along is an incredible experience, and Panama gives you the unique opportunity to see both sides in this debate with surf spots on the Atlantic and the Pacific. And you can do it all in the same day.
Santa Catalina Beach
On the Pacific side you have Santa Catalina that comes as a highly recommended surf spot, but there'll are plenty more all along the coast. On this side of Panama the surfing is good year round (+1 to Pacific).
If you want to surf the Atlantic, it’s best not to go in September or October. You’ll only find a flat calm sea ( -1). Sure to soothe your soul, but not great for surfing. There are a large amount of surfing spots near the Boscas Del Toros on the Atlantic side, which also offer beaches that will blow you away - wait, beaches don't do that - beaches that will make you the definition of serenity (+1). Back to the point, I think the conclusion we should reach is this: it doesn't really matter if you're pro-Atlantic or pro-Pacific, if you're the one surfing, you come out the victor.
The Kuna People on the San Blas Islands
The Kuna are an indigenous group of people living on the San Blas islands in Panama. While not completely forgotten by time, the Kuna have managed to keep their unique culture intact in the face of the growing forces of modernization by using tourism. As easily as hopping on a boat from the mainland you can explore their way of life and the beautiful seascape they’ve been living on for centuries.
Of course you can spend all day on the white sandy beaches alone, but there’s also much to be gained from interacting with the Kuna people. All cultures are different, yet the Kuna provide an interesting look into a very different way of life. The Kuna are one of the few matriarchal societies, as inheritance goes from mother to daughter. The Kuna women also bring in most of the income by making and selling their colorful "Mola" patterns to travelers. A few days might not be enough time to observe what this amounts to, which is why interacting with them will tell you everything you really need to know.
The experience will be an inclusive one, as the sleeping options are rustic and there isn’t a lot of traditional western food. This leads to an an all encompassing cultural experience with a spectacular backdrop you can only get in Panama.
Of course! When we started this article, you were probably only thinking of this. Now that we’re here, you may have forgotten about it as you got lost in the other great sights of Panama. The Panama Canal cuts through what the earth created millions of years ago, opening up a passageway from the Atlantic to the Pacific only us humans can use. Just a short distance away from Panama City, it's an easy and fun day trip with an opportunity to see an engineering marvel operate and ships get lifted 85 feet in the air. There are a lot of different ways to see the Panama Canal, and the surrounding jungle is an area worth exploring as well. In fact, the Panama Canal is so cool we wrote a whole article about it. Check it out.
Panama City Skyline
Just like crossing the Panama canal takes you from one ocean to another, reading this article has taken you from curious to enlightened. Or at least a little more informed. Besides all of these things, Panama has much more working in it’s favor. It’s cheap, it uses the US dollar as currency, and it’s extremely safe. And I didn't even get to mention Panama City, which might remind you a lot of Miami. I don't really know why, but Panama is still a relatively unknown travel destination. That is, unless you’re a cargo ship I guess. Which.. you're not... right? No, no, of course not.