Famously divided by its canal, Panama’s tropical location has long beguiled everyone from tourists to volunteers, adventurers to retirees. Sandwiched between the Atlantic-Caribbean Ocean (to the north) and the Pacific Ocean (to the south), Panama connects North and South America, with Costa Rica providing the western border and Colombia the eastern.

With long golden coastlines, the country’s obvious attraction is its beaches, but it has much more to offer.With long golden coastlines, the country’s obvious attraction is its beaches, but it has much more to offer. A varied ecology of rainforests, cloud forests, mangroves, and swamps provides homes for myriad wildlife—from jaguars to sea turtles—and 1,200 types of orchids. The historic district of its capital, Panama City, is the soul of this glitzy, modern metropolis.

Gentle waves wash up on a long stretch of beach in Panama.

Along the Pacific coast of Panama. Photo © Lilly Lapcakova/123rf.

Thanks to enormous revenue generated by the canal, Panama is a relatively wealthy country, with a gross national income per capital of US$7,910 (2010 World Bank figure). Its economy is one of the fastest growing and most competitive in Latin America. All that prosperity is unevenly divided, however; one-third of the country’s 3.6 million people live below the national poverty line.

Volunteering is not as developed in Panama as in the rest of Central America, but there are certainly opportunities for those who want to travel here. Orchid lovers can help conserve native species at a nursery and conservation center. Surfers (or volunteers who dream of becoming one) can support efforts to better equip local communities to receive tourists. Volunteers enticed by sea turtles can head to the beaches July-mid-January to monitor nesting sites and protect hatchlings. Meanwhile, Spanish schools connect students and nonstudents alike with a variety of placements: working with children, the elderly, sea turtles, or on recycling projects, just to name a few.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.