Miraflores locks, Panama Canal © @thyngum
Covering a land-bridge which links North and South America, the Republic of Panama is best known for its 40-mile (65km) shipping canal, which is cut along a gap between mountains, linking the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The country is largely unexplored by tourists, only a few hardy adventurers, researchers, and spirited travellers have enjoyed its amazing diversity of flora and fauna, secluded beaches, tropical beauty, and historic treasures. The name Panama means 'abundance of fish and butterflies', in an indigenous language, which gives a good indication of the wonders to be found here beyond the fascinating capital, Panama City.
Panama has a significant history stretching back thousands of years, from its eight indigenous peoples (including the colourful Kunas of the San Blas Islands), to its turbulent colonial occupation. Spanish forts still stand guard on the coastline, overlooking the blue waters once patrolled by famous pirates like Henry Morgan. Despite some cultural interest, however, it is the natural beauty of the isthmus that is the biggest draw to visitors. Around 30 percent of Panama is made up of 15 national parks and forest reserves and 10 wildlife sanctuaries. These include the incredible Parque Nacional Darién, just a short drive from Panama City, which is arguably the most magnificent wilderness area in Central America. Made up of archipelagos of about 1,500 offshore islands, their white soft beaches lapped by crystal clear waters and surrounded by virgin rainforest, this is an untouched paradise for diving, snorkelling, deep-sea fishing, water sports, and sunbathing.
Those 'in the know' can be forgiven for keeping the delights of Panama a secret from the flood of modern tourism, because this has preserved the beauty and atmosphere of this overlooked part of the world where the sun nearly always shines and it is possible to swim in two oceans in a single morning.