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January 02nd, 2014

Panama: a beginner's guide

Panama has only enjoyed complete sovereignty since December 31, 1999.

With freedom from Spain in 1821 came a series of other quasi-colonial influences, and it was only in 1903 that Panama achieved its separation from Colombia - though the US retained a military presence for many years more.

Top five attractions 
  • The Panama Canal, an astounding feat of engineering and surprisingly beautiful to look at thanks to the surrounding rainforest.
  • The town of Boquete.
  • Nearby cloud forest-covered peaks for hiking, rafting, visiting coffee plantations and hot springs.
  • Bocas del Toro archipelago, where pristine tropical forests lie on deserted beaches, for the moment at least.
  • The beaches of Kuna Yala’s 378 islands - only 49 inhabited. Clichéd tropical perfection (used in the Survivor TV show) but also home to autonomous Kuna communities who have insisted on renaming the area Kuna Yala, rather than San Blas.

Best city 
Panama City is Central America's most cosmopolitan city, with a particularly energetic nightlife; high-rise, modern architecture abuts colonial buildings, and beaches and rainforests a short taxi-ride away.

Souvenir to buy 
Multi-layered, richly coloured textiles called molas made by the Kuna indians.

Quirky Panama 
In the shadow of the Barú volcano, there is a farm called Finca Dracula, and the only thing you see there are black orchids.

‘Getting to Know the General’ by Graham Greene. Greene was a close friend of Omar Torrijos, former president. In this book of reminiscences he debunks the stereotypes about military rulers and explains Panama's unusual relationship with its Central and South American neighbours.

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