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Punta Caracol's cabanas hover over the crystal waters of the Caribbean in Bocas del Toro
Punta Caracol's cabanas hover over the crystal waters of the Caribbean in Bocas del Toro
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Panama Spotlight

In this country where continents meet, there exists an incredible diversity of landscape, culture, and peoples

By Victoria De Silverio

April 8th, 2010

One recent afternoon in Boquete, Panama, at the Panamonte Inn & Spa, the country’s oldest hotel, an iguana was on the loose. Word reached the kitchen, and from behind the swinging doors emerged a silver-haired maître d’, a young chef, and three cooks in aprons and bandanas. The men sized up the situation. “Iguana?” one asked. “El dragon!” corrected the reptile’s caretaker, a Frenchman holding an empty box. On his way to the hotel, he had rescued a pair of alarmingly large iguanas from a man by the side of the road. Dangling by their tails, with their squat legs bound behind their backs, the iguanas had been saved from a fate that no doubt involved a steaming pot and garlic. But now one of the prehistoric beasts had escaped its cardboard co-op to explore the amenities of a brand new suite. The general manager, a beanstalk of a Welshman, watched in amusement as the macho iguana whisperers accepted the rescue mission. Welcome to Panama.

A “bizarre and beautiful little country,” Graham Greene once wrote about the country. The squiggly bracelet connecting two continents is so perplexing, its history so rife with treason and intrigue, that a dry understatement must suffice. As both a barrier and a bridge, Panama has been a magnet for seekers, scoundrels, and visionaries – from Spanish conquistadors to English privateers Sir Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan, from gold-hungry ’49ers and French and American entrepreneurs to the 70,000 Panama Canal workers, not to leave out a fair-weather CIA operative–dictator, and sneaky bankers and prospectors.

Now, after 20 years of stable democracy and autonomy over its canal, the nation is experiencing its moment of reinvention. With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Panama has recently ushered in vast investments in its infrastructure and the renaissance of Casco Viejo, Panama City’s captivating colonial section. Diversity in geography, ecology, and culture is the reigning theme on the isthmus and the presence of so much of it provides visitors with chances for adventure. Crossed by rugged volcanic mountain ranges, covered with large tracts of pristine rain forest, and bounded by two coastlines and some 1,500 islands, Panama bears a name meaning “an abundance of fish and butterflies.” In an area smaller than South Carolina live more bird species than in all of North America and more plant and tree species than in North America and Europe combined. Seven indigenous peoples thrive here.

Choosing among all the possible attractions can be difficult, though quick and easy plane rides, good roads, and short distances make the editing process less painful. We’ve focused on three destinations worth exploring: Casco Viejo; the verdant, coffee-famed mountain town of Boquete; and the unspoiled Bocas del Toro region, a land of beaches, jungles, and traditional cultures. Together, these present a vivid picture of Panama’s natural and man-made wonders, its people as well as its history, and the many who have passed through it like so many ships through the famed canal.

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