5 Unexpected Things To Do In Panama

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When someone mentions Panama, the first thing that pops into travellers’ minds is the 80-km waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—the Panama Canal.

Listed as one of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ “Seven Wonders of the Modern World,” the Canal is certainly a must-see for anyone visiting the Central American nation, but there is a lot more to Panama than spectacular feats of engineering.

With an eye for adventure, we’ve rounded up the top five unexpected things to do in Panama:

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1. Have a beach day on volcanic black sand: Long stretches of Panama’s stunning Pacific coast are lined with unique black sand, darkened by volcanic ash from an eruption by Volcàn Barú thousands of years ago. Take a day trip to Playa La Barqueta near Las Olas Resort—just a short drive from David, Chiriquí, a popular ex-pat community close to the Costa Rican border—and you’ll find an endless stretch of remote, pristine beachfront with only a few locals nearby. Just be sure to pack some sandals—the black sand and scorching sun make for a fiery walk to the water.

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2. Trek through a cloud forest: You may know about rainforests (does the Amazon sound familiar?), but not many people know about cloud forests—an abundance of vegetation growing on mountain tops with constant, low-level cloud cover, and a favourite place for howler monkeys, sloths and tapirs. Take a trek through the cloud forest on Volcàn Barú, the country’s active volcano in Boquete, and you’ll find The Lost Waterfalls: Three Cascades with dramatic 300-foot cliffs, crystal clear pools and a hidden cave.

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3. Ride the waves in Santa Catalina: What was once a secret beach in a small fishing village has turned into a thriving surf community on Panama’s south west coast. Offering some of the best surfing in Central America with 15-foot waves, and one of the longest waves to crash a coast, Santa Catalina is a tropical paradise for beginners and experts alike. If you’re looking to learn or improve, join Santa Catalina Retreats for some surf lessons in the warm Pacific spray, taking relaxation to a new level with a post-surf yoga session.

 Photo: @jagerknights

Photo: @jagerknights

4. Snorkel the coral gardens in Bocas del Toro: There aren’t many places where you can roll in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea on the same day, but Panama is one of them. After a drive through the mountains (or a short flight from David and Panama City), prepare to marvel at the beauty of the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and take a catamaran cruise for the best views. Opt for Jager Knights for an unforgettable experience with Captain Maga, diving along vibrant coral reefs, swimming with jellyfish and watching bottlenose dolphins play in Dolphin Bay lagoon.

 Photo: @andresmadrigal

Photo: @andresmadrigal

5. Take a trip down memory lane: Though its civil engineering and ever-growing collection of skyscrapers put Panama on the map as a destination for the modern traveller, there’s enough history in Panama City’s Casco Viejo (Old Town) to designate it a UNESCO World Heritage site. Settled in 1673, the centuries-old cobblestone streets are now filled with vibrant music, traditional food and a wealth of arts and culture. Be sure to check out the National Theatre; the remains of the Compania de Jesus Convent, which housed the first university and synagogue in the city; and take a walk on the original sea wall, with unrivalled views of the Panama City skyline.

Sarah Harris