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When Mike Hackworth signed up for a missions trip to Panama three years ago, he had some serious doubts. His daughter, Lilly, then a high scho…

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Costa Rica and Panama are neighboring Central American countries that are roughly the same size and include comparable natural attractions: gushing waterfalls, gorgeous beaches and rich biodiversity. However, Costa Rica is a firmly established retreat for tourists and expats alike, demonstrated by nearly three million foreign visitors in 2017. Meanwhile, Panama received 1.8 million visitors — many of which don't stray far from Panama City and the Panama Canal. Not only does this mean you won't have to vie for space on Panama's scenic treks and secluded beaches, but prices are considerably lower, especially for hotels.

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Hikers, take note. Panama's hilly and densely forested landscape lends itself to exploration on foot. Just two hours from Panama City, El Valle de Anton is a picturesque valley spanning a massive dormant volcano crater. Several well-maintained trails extend from the village through the forest and past waterfalls to the crater rim's highest point, known as La India Dormida (the sleeping Indian woman).

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Between the water-filled mainland and thousands of islands, Panama is gifted with some of Central America's finest stretches of sand. Choosing the most picturesque beaches in Panama is certainly challenging. The golden-sand beaches on Cayos Zapatillas are certainly contenders. It's not uncommon to spot sea turtles in the tranquil, turquoise water just offshore these sister islands. Virtually all of the San Blas islands also tout idyllic beaches. Tiny Isla Perro is worth seeking out for its powdery sand and snorkel excursion out to a gunboat shipwreck.

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Whether you base yourself on Panama's Caribbean or Pacific coast, you'll have access to vibrant reefs and remarkable shipwrecks to explore. The aforementioned Bocas Del Toro islands are one of the premier diving destinations in the country. Beginners should check out the shallow reefs at Hospital Point, while more advanced divers can descend to depths of 100 feet to spot grouper, snapper and a variety of reef fish at Manuel's Wall.

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Panama's Caribbean coast is gifted with calm azure sea and loads of tiny islands and islets. To the west, Bocas del Toro comprise Panama's most popular islands and isolated beaches, hiking opportunities and snorkeling and diving at Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. Hiring a wooden motorboat to island hop is the recommended way to take in the archipelago's mangrove forests, stunning beaches, and hidden coves.

MEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Lafayette College at Bucknell, CBSSN, 6 p.m.; North Carolina at Florida State, ESPN, 6 p.m.; Norfolk State at Caroli…


In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from exile on the Island of Elba and headed back to France in a bid to regain power.

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