There's more to the island nations of Costa Rica and Panama than tropical jungle, exotic wildlife and beautiful beaches. Opt to stay a few days in Panama City where you can see the entrance to the famed canal or soak up some sun whilst sailing the magnificent Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side. Below is a list of our must-see, best places to visit in Panama and Costa Rica.
The nature reserve of Monteverde is set atop the spine of Costa Rica’s continental divide. Located in the north west of the country, it is surrounded by volcanic mountains and lush forest. Preservation of the forest began in 1972 by a group of American Quakers. This spawned many subsequent parks and created a thriving ecotourism destination. The Monteverde reserve is now home to a research facility and a rustic lodge where visitors can stay. Monteverde is best known for its cloud forest. The forest stands at a high altitude which means it is surrounded by clouds that provide life-giving moisture. The moisture of the clouds and ever-present fog collects on branches of the tallest trees and drips down to the foliage below feeding entire ecosystems. A 13km network of trails with scenic overlooks runs through the forest and there is even a suspension bridge running 325ft long and 80-100ft high. Containing four ecological life zones, over 100 species of mammals, including the mysterious jaguar, 400 species of bird and 3000 species of plant, Monteverde is a naturalist’s dream.
Tortuguero is one of the most visited national parks in Costa Rica. Situated on the north east Caribbean coast, the park is made up of a network of canals and dense rainforests. The name Tortuguero can be translated as ‘Region of Turtles’, and Tortuguero beach is the most important nesting site of endangered green turtles in the western hemisphere. The national park was established in 1970 with the purpose of protecting the turtles. With its incredible biological variety of rainforests, swamps, beaches and lagoons, Tortuguero is also home to a diverse range of wildlife. Its forests are home to jaguars, sloths, monkeys and lizards whilst the rivers within the park are the dwellings of sensitive populations of manatees and crocodiles. The river and canal systems of the park make it a great place to explore by boat.
Manuel Antonio may be Costa Rica’s smallest national park but it is also one of its most diverse with 109 species of mammals and 184 species of bird. Established in 1972, the Manuel Antonio National Park is famous for its white sand beaches backed by evergreen forest. Situated on the Pacific coast, the park contains a variety of wildlife and twelve little islets off the shoreline, providing mating and nesting sites for a number of bird species. Punta Catedral is the best known island - with forest topped cliffs, it is connected to the mainland by a thin land bridge that divides two of the park’s beaches. The coral reefs along these beaches and islands present superb snorkelling opportunities and it’s also possible to try surfing, rafting, and kayaking, bird-watching and sport fishing. Visitors can also explore the mangrove forests and rocky islands along the park’s numerous hiking trails. Forested hillsides afford scenic vistas and are home to many of the animals, plants and flowers that are unique attractions of Costa Rica – sloths, monkeys, iguanas, toucans and scarlet monkeys.
Cahuita is a relaxing paradise located along Costa Rica’s exotic Caribbean coast. This stunning black beach town sits south of the Cahuita National Park. The National Park was set up in 1970 to protect the coral reef that runs along the coast, the largest reef in Costa Rica. The park is home to several ecological zones including swamp forest, rainforest, woodlands and coastal flora. Divers will find an underwater garden of marine life and the calm, warm waters are ideal for swimming and snorkelling. The wide array of fish found in these waters makes sport fishing another popular past time. Trails lead from the white sand beaches of the national park to the lush coastal rainforest behind, perfect for hikers and those who enjoy natural beauty. There is also a well maintained butterfly garden and a number of shipwrecks in the area. One of the best known is located north of the mouth of the River Perezoso, a ship believed to have transported slaves during the 18th century. According to local history, the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica was constantly visited by pirates. The village of Cahuita itself is a laid back and vibrant village with a unique Creole culture. With the unhurried parade of pedestrian traffic, the palm lined beaches and alluring Afro-Caribbean cuisine and way of life, Cahuita is a great place just to relax and soak up the atmosphere.
Panama City is the capital of Panama and the largest city in the country, sat between the Pacific Ocean and tropical rainforest. The city was founded by the Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Avila in 1519. In 1671, the city was destroyed by fire when pirate Henry Morgan ransacked the place. It was rebuilt and re-established two years later 8km away from the original settlement. The remains of the former city are now a tourist attraction known as ‘Panama Viejo’. The ruins consist of a number of early domestic buildings. The historic district of present day Panama City is an eclectic mix of architectural styles that displays the many cultures that have influenced the city over the years – Caribbean, Republican, Art Deco, French and Colonial. The district retains over 800 long-standing buildings, including the National Theatre, Plaza de Francia, the Metropolitan Cathedral and the St. Philip Neri Church. Modern Panama is a prosperous city with a dense skyline of high-rise buildings. The city also marks the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. The 77km-long ship canal joins the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and serves as a crucial route for international maritime trade. The canal makes it possible for vessels to reach to west side of the Americas without having to make the long and arduous journey around South America.
Bocas del Toro is an archipelago consisting of Panama mainland and nine main islands. The region is home to two national parks - Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, Panama’s oldest marine park, and Parque Internacional la Amistad on the mainland, half of which lies in Costa Rica. The islands of Bocas del Toro are dense jungles of vine tangles and forest palms that open up to pristine beaches. The rainforests are home to the elusive jaguar and the beaches are the nesting place of the hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback and green turtles. With its pristine waters and extensive coral reef ecosystems for a myriad of tropical fish, Bocas del Toro offers unbeatable opportunities for diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean Ocean. The region also offers a glimpse into an increasingly threatened way of life in the form of several communities of indigenous Ngobe Indians practising their traditional customs. The Ngobe tribes still rely heavily on fishing and live in traditional wooden huts built on stilts. The population of the region also consists of descendants of 19th century immigrants from Jamaica and Hispanics from other parts of Panama. The islands still maintain the charm of small town Caribbean life, and the lack of large hotel resorts preserves the idyllic beauty of the archipelago.