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Throughout the last century Panama was mostly defined by its canal, but what lies beyond those locks could very well define the next. Pristine beaches, lush rainforest and big city nightlife give a taste of the country’s outstanding assets. English is widely spoken thanks to the US legacy left by the canal, yet one hour of outside Panama City, the indigenous Emberá population paddle dugout canoes. The great Panama Canal expansion, slated for 2014, will mean even more business than usual, ¬but for now, it is hard to shake the feeling that you are in on a secret the rest of the travelling world has yet to discover.

Panama City
Panama City is high-octane Latin America with ceviche, casinos and stacked skylines. Sure, the traffic resembles a boa constrictor digesting one megalithic meal, but the beauty here lives in the skewed rhythms, incongruous visions and fiery concrete sunsets. Do not miss the historical neighbourhood of Casco Viejo, with its crumbling convents and cobblestones. On sticky evenings artist booths line the promenade, couples dine under parasols and boys cannonball into the bay.

Panama Canal
One of the world’s greatest shortcuts, the Panama Canal cuts right through the Continental Divide, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is worth marvelling at: just as stunning as the hulking steel container ships passing through the locks are the legions of creatures watching from the jungle fringes.

The Highlands
Whether you came to see a resplendent quetzal, paddle a river, climb a volcano or pick coffee berries fresh from the bush, there is magic in Panama’s misty highlands. Fuel yourself with mountain-grown coffee in Boquete, climb to the top of Volcán Barú where views of both coastlines await, or hike through the cloud forests of Sendero Los Quetzales in search of the elusive bird.

Fantastic creatures
With more than 300 mammals and 900 bird species, Panama is crack for naturalists. Scarlet macaws, toucans, sloths and squirrel monkeys are just a few of the local stars. As a spectator sport, wildlife watching is nothing short of thrilling, but it is the calls, cries and rumbles of the rainforest that will stamp your memory forever.

Indigenous cultures
Panama’s native cultures are dynamic communities that have persevered through changing times. On the Caribbean, the Kuna population has the highest degree of sovereignty in Latin America. The Emberá and Wounaan communities inhabit Panamá Province and the Darién national park. To the east, the Ngöbe-Buglé number in the hundreds of thousands, while the Naso has one of the few remaining monarchies in the Americas.

Parque Nacional Coiba
This national marine park contains Panama's largest island, the 493sqkm Isla de Coiba. It also has astounding biodiversity -- 23 species of dolphin and whale have been identified here, including humpback, killer and sperm whales. Several species of crocodile and turtle, and 15 species of snake roam the island, as well as myriad birdlife. Given the beautiful environment, it seems ironic that this little piece of paradise was once a penal colony.

Parque Nacional Darién
This 576, 000-hectare national park is where the primeval meets the present, and the scenery appears much as it did a million years ago. Even today, the local people maintain many of their traditional practices and retain generations-old knowledge of the rainforest. With the right planning, the Darién offers spectacular opportunities for rugged exploration. But while the south is home to Panama’s most spectacular rainforests, the north is home to its worst scenes of habitat destruction. Although most news items focus on the spilling over of Colombia’s civil war into Panama’s borders, the real battlelines surround the province’s rapidly disappearing forests.

Archipiélago Bocas del Toro
Located just 32km from the Costa Rican border, the Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro consists of six densely forested islands, scores of uninhabited islets and Panama’s oldest marine park. The laid-back Caribbean vibe is enhanced by the archipelago’s spectacular natural setting, with islands covered in dense jungles of vine tangles and forest palms that open up to pristine beaches fringed by reeds and mangroves. Beneath the water, an extensive coral reef ecosystem supports countless species of tropical fish while simultaneously providing some seriously gnarly surf breaks.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Panama’s highlights, beyond the canal’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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