Hats off to Panama

With amazing surf, life-changing coffee and great shopping, Panama is a Latin American must-see.

This precarious slither of land linking Central to South America is most famous for its canal. But with jungles filled with wildlife, stunning beaches, lush mountains and metropolitan cities and party towns, it’s a shame so many people pass straight through it.

Ask a friend what they know about Panama and vague talk of the canal soon follows. This famous waterway linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans is a manmade wonder. Snaking through jungle and tough terrain; this 50-mile engineering marvel transports around 15,000 vessels each year.

A cruise along the entire canal doesn’t come cheap, so most people just head to  Miraflores Lock in the capital, Panama City. There’s a little museum and shop to potter around in while you wait for the next gigantic ship to squeeze by. Seeing the lock in action is fascinating, but it barely scrapes the surface of what this place is all about.

Panama City is a throbbing metropolis of noise and excitement. Locals love their music, and whether you crash a party on the beach or head out to a club until the early hours, it’s likely you’ll be dancing until dawn.

Rum is the drink of choice, and although there is a very North American twist to the place (the dollar, the fast food, the cars, the shopping) this is the Caribbean, and people like to have a good time. Take a bus to the heart of the country, where leafy towns nestle in the mountains and everyone buys their coffee straight from the farms. This is one of the top places in the world to retire, and it’s easy to see why. Away from the sun, sea and sex of the resorts and big cities, pretty towns like Boquete will revive you.

Surfers are spoilt for choice in Panama. Whether you want to challenge yourself in the water or spend most of your time in the beach bars, both coasts have plenty to offer. Some beaches are black from volcanic activity, some are mainly private beaches for high-end resorts, and some are really just about the parties.

Bocas Del Toro is a crazy archipelago of debauchery. Visitors take water taxis to different islands to find the right vibe. Clubs in the main town jut out into the sea, and revellers plunge into the makeshift swimming pools after a few too many cocktails. White sand beaches call out along the coastline, and a hangover is soothed with fresh coconut water and a snooze under a palm tree. For total bliss, head to Red Frog Beach (named after the cute little amphibians that life in the trees) and hire a tent. A night around the fire pit under a discoball-studded night sky will explain why so many gringos never get around to coming home.

There are no direct flights to Panama from London. Fly via Miami for £762 return with British Airways.

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