Famous for what has been dubbed a man-made wonder of the modern world, the Panama Canal, the small country of Panama is also a natural wonder. Forming a narrow land bridge between North and South America, this small country of 28,734 square miles is packed with national parks, marine and marsh preserves, wildlife refuges and nature trails. From several vantage points atop the country's mountains it is possible to see the waters of the Pacific and the Caribbean, then hike or raft down the mountainside past coffee plantations and tropical forests. Birdwatchers and surfers, along with other outdoor enthusiasts, are drawn to this verdant, tropical retreat.
With 14 national parks and 10 wildlife refuges, Panama is home to both South and North American species of flora and fauna. Darien National Park, a 1.4 million acre protected area, is the largest park in Central America and the Caribbean. The variety of wildlife and the plants and trees of the tropical forest makes the park a major destination for ecotourists.
Just under 50 miles across at its narrowest point, divers and snorkelers can enjoy both the Pacific ocean and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Isla Contadora and San Jose island, just south of Panama City are popular dive spots. Coiba Island Marine Park in Panama Bay is a prime spot for watching and photographing humpback gray whales, while on the Caribbean side of the country nature lovers head to Dolphin's Bay in northern Panama to observe bottlenose gray dolphins.
With 950 species of birds, Panama is a mecca for birdwatchers. The Audubon Society has said it is possible to view 500 species in a single day on Pipeline Road, near the town of Gamboa, according to tourism officials. La Amistad International Park near the Costa Rican border is home to about 425 species of birds, which can be spotted from the park's eco-trails. The area is also home to several indigenous communities.
Kayaking, tubing and canoeing are popular pastimes in Panama. Kayakers enjoy maneuvering on the Chagres River in Chagres National Park. The park's two mountains, Cerro Jefe and Cerro Azul, on clear days offer views of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Whitewater rafters are challenged by the waters of the Chiriqui River in the northwestern province of Chirique.
Panama's beaches attract surfers and windsurfers, but they also entice less motivated visitors to pitch their tent and hang a hammock. Las Perlas Islands, just 15 minutes by boat from Panama City and also accessible by air taxi, are popular for their mix of lively beach action, top flight resorts and quiet, peaceful beach retreats.
Just twenty minutes drive from the capital is Metropolitan National Park where visitors and residents alike can escape the city to jog, bike or hike the refuge. Another popular place to jog, bike and rollerblade is the Causeway, a man-made land bridge between Panama City and offshore islands that was created when the canal builders excavated the ship channel.