On our trek from Colorado to Panama, our favorite stop was the Comarca de Kuna Yala. This independent Panamanian state is the most indigenous place in the Caribbean. The people are amazing! Few tourists make it here because it is so remote, but that is key to its charm. The Comarca de Kuna Yala gets my five-star A+ recommendation as an independent backpacker destination, especially for those who speak Spanish.
The Kuna Yala people migrated from South America to the Caribbean coast of Panama to escape the Spanish, finally settling in the Archipiélago de San Blas. As their unique history was explained to me by a village elder, the Kuna Yala people would have been exterminated by Panamanian forces in the early 1900s if it hadn't been for the American military in the nearby U.S. Canal Zone who intervened on their behalf. As far as I know, this is the only time the American military ever did anything to help preserve indigenous culture (to assert their dominance over Panama and not to help the Kuna Yala per se). But thanks to this fortunate turn of events, the Kuna Yala ended up with an unprecedented degree of political autonomy, more like a separate country than a state of Panama. Each populated island has a chief with real power, making many laws which are all enforced, including a total ban on commercial fishing, scuba diving, and lobster traps. As a result, seafood remains abundant and cheap. The people are happy and proud, with fascinating cultural traditions. We are already looking forward to our next visit. It is the only place on the planet I can think of with pristine beaches and welcoming indigenous people, where I have complete confidence that if I return in twenty years, it will be more or less the same.
Bocas del Toro and Bastimentos are home to a friendly and laid-back Caribbean culture. In the misty mountain highlands, we stopped over in beautiful Boquete. And we found Panama City to be one of Central America's more interesting capital cities. The American influence has provided relatively good roads, clean drinking water, and other infrastructure. Panama uses US dollars as their national currency, but things are still cheaper than Costa Rica. Get here if you can.