San Blas Archipelago
Concierge.com's insider take:
This string of 365 islands off the Caribbean coast is, hands down, the best reason to visit Panama. The indigenous Kuna people run it as a semi-autonomous region, and it's one of the only places in Central America where much of the population still wears traditional dress. People live here as they always have, in simple thatch-roofed huts shaded by coconut palms. Women stitch molas —brightly colored cloths embroidered with animals or geometric patterns. The men use spears to catch much of the seafood served in Panama City restaurants.
Visiting the islands requires taking a small plane from Panama City, then a transfer by dugout canoe to a smaller island, where you'll stay in spare lodgings and dine on local fare (mostly lobster and other fresh seafood). There's not much to do but explore the village and take trips to deserted islands for snorkeling and swimming. You can arrange a trip on your own, but it's much easier to explore with a tour company. Ancon Expeditions offers excellent two-night trips to San Blas, where visitors stay in the Dolphin Island Lodge, a cluster of simple cottages owned by a Kuna family (507-269-9415; www.anconexpeditions.com). For more active explorers, Mountain Travel Sobek runs multiday kayaking trips around the archipelago (888-687-6235; www.mtsobek.com).