For years, popular destinations like Peru and Costa Rica have dominated the market for tourists in search of eco-vacations and opportunities to get up close to nature, wildlife and indigenous cultures.
Panama, most well known for its famous 48-mile canal and a capital city dominated by skyscrapers and nightclubs, often gets overlooked by the eco-travel crowd.
The Central American country, however, has much to offer those who venture beyond its bustling capital city, ranging from rainforest excursions to stunning remote beaches and unique cultural experiences.
One of the most unforgettable experiences involves taking a one-hour flight from Panama City to the Bocas del Toro islands. Located on Panama’s southern tip, in the Caribbean Sea, the area is a beach lover’s paradise.
Top choices here include the remote Starfish Beach (where you can spot many of its namesake creatures) and Bluff Beach or Playa Bluff, which is known for being secluded, pristine and completely crowded. Another not to miss option in Bocas del Toro is Bird Island, where you may very well lay eyes on a rare red-billed tropicbird. Being densely forested, the islands also provide an opportunity for truly unspoiled hiking.
Yet another experience unique to Panama involves spending some time at an Embera village. Indigenous to Panama, there are about 33,000 Embera people in the country. Many still live in very simple, traditional villages deep in the rainforest and are proud of their culture and traditions, offering tours of their communities.
Both day tours and overnight options are available, providing an extraordinary opportunity to learn about the Embera way of life, including watching shamanic and celebrational dancing and sharing a traditional, home-cooked meal. Overnight tours allow for an even richer experience and more opportunity to get to know the Embera people.
And finally, while many travelers opt to explore the Panama Canal via a large cruise ship, passing through its famed locks, far fewer experience the canal and its many rainforest-lined offshoots via small boat, which allows for close encounters of wildlife.
Along the way, you may spot monkeys, Green iguana or a Three-toed sloth. Osprey and Keel-billed toucans are also among the wildlife showcased during the excursions.
Many of the small boat canal tours also visit Gatun Lake, which was formed in 1914 to give way to the Panama Canal.
When created, it was the largest man-made lake in the world. Today, you can still see tree-tops underneath the water, as you pass over the lake, making for yet another remarkable Panama moment.