Thinking of making that first trip to latin america? Typically a region geared more for the seasoned traveler, there are a few gems in this territory that make for a great first-time family vacation.
Although Belize and Costa Rica merit honorable mentions and Argentina remains a great getaway for couples, look no further than Panama for that first exotic, multi-generational vacation to Latin America.
From nature trails to island-hopping, here's a small sampling of Panama's offerings that we've put together to get your first Latin America venture off on the right foot.
A Haven for Nature Lovers
Panama offers an abundance of eco-gems for nature-loving travelers. In fact, about 29 percent of Panama's land area is protected in 14 national parks, more than a dozen forest reserves and 10 wildlife refuges.
Panama is home to approximately 1,000 species of birds, as well as 220 mammals and 354 reptiles and amphibians. The country also owns hundreds of islands and miles of protected coral reef, sheltering a vast amount of marine life. From the remote rainforests of Darien National Park to Metropolitan Park, bird lovers can get their visual fix. One of the most notable sites is Cana in the Darien, the rugged Cerro Azul mountain range with stunted forest sheltering unique species.
For marine life, there are great snorkeling and diving opportunities in the Isla Bastimentos National Park of Bocas del Toro, with a protected coral reef and mangrove swamps. Also, several species of sea turtles climb onto the beaches of Bocas del Toro to lay their eggs. Snorkelers may explore the reefs belonging to the Kuna people of San Blas.
Although they are not your traditional sand-covered islands, many of Panama's islands offer an exotic, unspoiled feel while also offering some of the country's unique culture.
One of the most popular island territories is the San Blas Archipelago, which is composed of about 213 islets, nearly all made entirely of coral. You could spend almost an entire year traveling through the insular area of each one. There are no roads into the region, but small planes fly to more than a dozen landing strips daily. Off the northeast coast of Panama, palm-lined beaches, coral-ringed islands and jungle-cloaked mountains make San Blas look a lot like paradise, but the main reason for going there is to spend time with the Kuna Indians.
Although there are hundreds of islands near the Panamanian coasts and in the two major archipelagos of San Blas and Bocas del Toro in the Caribbean Sea, some of the best snorkeling, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing are found in the Pacific's protected waters beside Panama's Coiba Island. —Joe Pike