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Even before the construction of its famous canal,
's strategic location at the wasp waist of the Americas and at the meeting place of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans made it one of the great crossroads of the world. A narrow, S-shaped isthmus that stretches some 750km between Costa Rica and Colombia, Panama remains a vital
of international commerce, but is rarely visited by travellers. In part this is because the land bridge to South America, the Darien Gap, remains virtually impassable; in part because the use of the US dollar and the relatively high level of economic development make it a more expensive country to visit than other places in the region. But above all it seems that Panama suffers from a serious image problem. Although the last US troops have now left Panama and the canal is in Panamanian hands, to most outsiders the country remains a virtual colony of the US, artificially created in order to facilitate construction of the canal, while its culture is seen as a desperately compromised imitation of North America: urbanized, anglicized and Coca-colonized. Yet while it is true that no other country in Central America has been so dominated by the US - Panama owes its very existence to US intervention - in fact the North American cultural influence, though strong, is but one among many. Spanish, African, West Indian, Chinese, Indian, European - all have contributed to a
compelling cultural mix
, creating perhaps the most cosmopolitan, open-minded and outward-looking society in Central America. At the same time, it is also home to some of the most unassimilated and culturally fascinating indigenous societies in Central America - within 30km of the high-rise banking district of Panama City, for example, the indigenous
still practise subsistence agriculture in the rainforest and hunt for their supper with blowpipes.
Most travellers who make it down to Panama are surprised by its outstanding
. With 1600km of coastline on the Pacific and 1280km on the Caribbean side, Panama boasts unspoiled beaches and coral reefs to match any in the region. And although it is Costa Rica that has achieved world renown as an
destination, in terms of pristine wilderness and ecological diversity Panama has little reason to envy its neighbour. A biological bridge between continents, Panama supports an astounding biodiversity, including over nine hundred species of bird, more than in the whole of North America. Over half the country is still covered by dense tropical rainforest, and large areas are protected by a system of national parks and nature reserves.
Although the government is keen to promote international tourism, for the moment Panama remains one of the best-kept travellers' secrets in Central America. Of course, this means that in comparison to, say, Costa Rica, the
for visiting the protected wilderness areas is much more limited. But while this may put some people off, for others it simply adds to the sense of adventure - visitors to Panama's national parks are unlikely to have to share them with more than a handful of other people. Moreover, wherever you travel in Panama, the absence of a travellers' "scene" means you will be forced into much more direct contact with local people, an experience which, given the natural warmth and open-mindedness of most Panamanians and the fact that they have not yet become jaded with foreigners due to the impact of mass tourism, is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding aspects of any visit to this underrated and misunderstood country.
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