Panama’s most notable feature, the Panama Canal, not only plays a huge part in the country’s economy, but also its identity. The famous waterway, however, is not the only geographic feature of note in this narrow Central American nation. Vast natural areas are found throughout the country, and national parks cover nearly one third of the land. This includes many ecologically diverse islands that are found off both the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines.

Eco-tourism is becoming a powerhouse industry in Panama, much like it did in neighboring Costa Rica over the past few decades. Costa Rica’s well-developed nature-tourism industry has caused land prices to climb to the point where developing anything other than a multistory resort hotels is not financially possible. Panama’s prices are much lower, making it possible for developers to build resorts within the natural surroundings rather than on top of them.

Despite instances of violence in the past — the U.S. invaded to oust drug-smuggling dictator Manuel Noriega in the late 1980s — Panama is one of the safest destinations for tourists in Central America. It is also one of the most accessible, with visits to beaches, jungles, nightclubs and shopping centers all possible within a 12-hour period.

Panama City, a bustling, international town that is one of the most ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan places in the Americas, is the heart of the isthmus. Despite having the word “city” attached to its name, Panama’s capital is far from completely urban. While its economic clout is most visible in tall buildings, the environment is not completely left out of the picture. Evidence of this is found in an urban green space that is more akin to a nature preserve than a public park. At the very least, Panama City is the perfect base for nature-themed excursions to the coastline, islands and interior jungles.

Stay Green

Panama City does not have an extensive menu of eco-friendly boutique hotels, but, as a major economic hub, it has all the major hotel brands, including Marriot , which has been recognized for its environmentally friendly practices.

It is far easier to find overtly green accommodations outside of the city. Traquilo Bay , a resort on Isla Bastimentos, a popular island in the Bocas del Toro, is a perfect example of Panama’s new breed of eco-resorts. It offers well-appointed, luxurious accommodations, including cabanas or guestrooms, surrounded by landscapes that have been minimally altered. The resort’s website boasts that more than 75 percent of its grounds are never manicured. Other similar upscale resorts are popping up throughout the country.

Something more spartan? The Darien National Forest, in Southwestern, is home to some of the country’s more rustic guesthouses . However, because of the Darien’s legendary wildness, they are not easily accessible without a guide or a permit to stay in the park.

Eat Green

Panama City’s population is remarkably diverse. With numerous cultural influences comes a varied and exciting eating scene. Many kitchens use local ingredients with international cooking styles to create fusion dishes. For true local fare, small eateries serve comida corriente , a set meal consisting of local favorites at low prices.

Hardcore organic fans have a few options. Super Gourmet is a well-known venue for both buying organic groceries and eating organic food. Its popular deli serves up quality organic fare and highlights the progressive, cosmopolitan side of the city. There are several vegetarian options as well.

See Green

Panama’s Bocas de Toro islands feature some of the most unique wildlife in all of Central America. Sitting off the country’s Caribbean coastline, these islands are often considered an ideal location for biologists studying the evolution of plants and animals. Some people come simply to spend time on the uncrowded white sand beaches, perhaps tearing themselves away from the idyllic tropical setting to don a snorkel and take in the colorful marine landscapes off the coast. The mangrove swamps and inland areas are as attractive as what’s happening under the waves. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has a base here, and it offers visitors a chance to get beyond sightseeing and experience the Bocas from an educational standpoint.

For a much more adventurous jungle experience, the Darien National Forest , a dense 1.4 million-acre jungle that borders Colombia, is known for its impenetrable landscapes and unique wildlife. Though it is half a country away from Panama City, it is the ultimate destination for true nature lovers. Few people visit this region, which is inhabited only by local indigenous groups.

Be Green

Panama City’s Metropolitan Park is a haven for wildlife within the city limits. Located along the Panama Canal, this impressive tropical garden is best known for its unique bird species, but it is also the home of larger mammals not usually found near urban areas, including pumas, sloth and tapirs.

Some of the most untouched forests in Panama are located along the Panama Canal. This may seem a bit ironic — one of the world’s largest man-made constructions sitting so close to untouched nature — but the canal-side forests are uncut because they act as a watershed that is necessary for the canal to remain in operation. Because of this, canal cruises , seen mainly as an activity for mainstream tourists, are actually a reasonable pastime for eco-tourists as well.

Panama City is the perfect base for a visit to Panama. The urban experiences of this metropolis are underrated, and the city’s proximity to nature makes it easy for eco-tourists to access the country’s best eco-tourism areas.

MNN homepage photo: tonisalado/iStockphoto

Destination of the week: Panama City
Panama City's famous canal, wild jungles and pristine beaches make it a top eco-tourism destination.