For most of us, Panama is the canal. But beyond the engineering juggernaut lies a fascinating country with colonial architecture, plentiful rainforests and a rich multi-ethnic history peopled by conquistadors, missionaries, indigenous tribes and runaway African slaves. By all means see the canal, but don’t stop there.
Whether you arrive by cruise ship or plane, the waterway is without a doubt a major attraction. Satisfy your curiosity on a Panama Canal tour: You’ll experience your vessel rising 85 feet from sea level to Gatun Lake. The vast man-made lake now harbors isolated monkey populations on islands you can see during jungle boat lake cruises.
Prefer to keep your feet on land? You can view ships transiting the waterway at Miraflores Locks, just outside the city. The site offers a historical museum and a panoramic restaurant, where you can watch gigantic vessels hoisted from one level to the next on their way through the waterway.
After your Panama Canal tour, visit Panama City, which straddles the cosmopolitan and the wild. Behind its thicket of glinting downtown skyscrapers, Casco Viejo, the original Spanish quarter, is a collection of crumbling colonial mansions, grand churches, narrow streets, sleepy plazas and landmarks dating back to the 1500s. The area is a reminder of centuries when time moved at a crawl—until the completion of the canal sped things up and brought the world to Panama’s door.