The Best Things to Do in Panama: A Guide to Sights, Stays, and Fun

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best things to do in Panama

Panama is a country that has long been at the crossroads of trade and transport in Central America, as it is a relatively narrow country that has the Caribbean Sea on its north and eastern side, and the Pacific to the south and west. While historically there was a trade in moving goods across Panama to avoid sailing around the whole of South America, the Panama Canal allowing boats to cross from one ocean to another was a game changer.

While Panama may be a fairly narrow country, it also has terrain that is hugely varied, and visitors can go from the tropical rainforest to the high mountains and native settlements in just a few hours — and fortunately for what we’re here to talk about, there are tons of great things to do in Panama for any sort of tourist trip.

What Are The best Attractions in Panama?

While there are several different features that can make a trip to Panama an attractive proposition, one of the biggest attractions is the wonderful coastal areas that have beautiful beaches to enjoy. Bocas del Toro and Chiriqui are both popular destinations here, and you will also find some great scuba diving and snorkeling sites around these destinations, where you can spot some of the huge variety of fish species present in the Pacific and Caribbean seas. The country is also popular for its sailing and fishing, with several islands that you can visit by boat, along with exploring the water on both of the country’s coastlines.
best things to do in Panama, the canal
Despite being a fairly small country, Panama has a wealth of historical sites that are worth visiting, from the traditional architecture of Panama City’s Old Town, through to the fortifications along the Caribbean coast. While it may be a newer attraction for visitors to Panama, it is also worth taking a look at one of the biggest engineering achievements in the world, the Panama Canal. There are visitor centers that can be found at the Miraflores Locks, near Panama City, and also at Agua Clara in the city of Colon. The sheer amount of shipping traffic here is impressive to see.

Another of the key areas for visitors coming to Panama is the range of activities that can be enjoyed in the inland region as well, with the volcanic mountainous area being home to great adventure sports along with the coffee growing region. A visit to Boquete will allow people to see how the famous coffee of Panama is produced, while also having a great range of tasting opportunities. Among the sports to be enjoyed in Panama you can enjoy mountain biking, rock climbing, white water rafting and hiking, while there are also some exciting zip-lining courses that offer a thrilling way to see the rainforest areas.

Best things to do in Panama: Old Town Panama City

Old Town Panama City

Panama City

The capital of Panama lies on the southern Pacific coast of the country, and is also located at the southern end of the Panama Canal, which is well worth a visit when you are in the city. The Miraflores Locks is one of the most amazing and impressive engineering feats allowing ships to change their level in the water, rising and falling by around 54 feet before they are allowed to proceed on their way. There is a small visitor center here which also has a viewing platform, where you can see the regular ship traffic passing through.

The city is actually built very close to the original settlement that was built here in the sixteenth century, and one of the sites worth visiting is the ruins of this original settlement, which was destroyed by the pirate Henry Morgan in the seventeenth century. The historic center of Panama City itself is known as Casco Viejo, and this includes many of the buildings that were rebuilt in the current location after the sacking of the city. There are plenty of grand historic buildings to be seen, while there are also several museums worth visiting here as well.

Best things to do in Panama: Soberania National Park

Panama City is also an important commercial city, and it is also here that you will find the greatest density of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues in the country. However, if you prefer to see the natural surroundings of the city, both the Metropolitan Natural Park and Soberania National Park are very close to the city itself. These both offer some good hiking paths, where you can spot some of the natural species found in the surrounding areas. In the Metropolitan Park, there is also a route up a nearby hill that offers some fantastic views back over the city.

As you would expect in a cosmopolitan city there are plenty of accommodation options, and here are a few worth considering:

Budget – Hotel Acapulco – Just a few blocks from the seafront and the city center, this convenient hotel has a bar and restaurant on-site. Rooms are simply furnished, and feature air conditioning and free Wi-Fi, while the front desk is open 24 hours. Rates start around $31 per night.

Mid-range – Best Western Plus Panama Zen Hotel – Located in the financial district, the highlight of this hotel is the infinity pool with views out over the city’s skyline. Rooms are comfortably furnished with flat-screen TVs and air conditioning, while there is also a bar and restaurant. Rooms from $50 a night.

Luxury – Hard Rock Hotel Panama Megapolis – This stylish hotel has rooms that have been nicely decorated, with some having balconies with ocean views, and others having a view of the city skyline. There is a great pool complex with a pool bar, and great options in terms of the restaurant and bar. Prices start at around $105 per night.

Central Panama

Spreading as a band from the Caribbean Coast in the north to the Pacific Coast to the south, this part of the country surrounds Panama City, and also includes several island groups off the Pacific Coast. This is a varied area geologically, with the two stretches of coastline sandwiching a central area that includes a thick rainforest along the spine of the country. One of the interesting historical sites in this part of the country is in the city of Portobelo, where you will find a World Heritage Site including an impressive fortress where some original cannons can still be seen from the old city that was sacked by the pirate Henry Morgan in the seventeenth century.

Portobelo, Panama: World Heritage Site

Portobelo, Panama: World Heritage Site

One of the interesting sites to visit in the western inland part of this region is El Valle de Anton, a town that is tucked inside a large volcanic caldera. There are a range of different hiking opportunities that can be enjoyed in this part of Panama, while there are also some lovely hot springs to try, while the town’s unique natural surroundings also offer a home to an Orchid Nursery and an Amphibian Conservation Center that are worth a visit. Another inland attraction is the Gamboa Nature Reserve, an area of rainforest that is good for activities such as birdwatching and nature hikes, while there is also an aerial tram, which offers good views over the forest canopy.

For more traditional holiday activities, the Pearl Islands and Taboga are a short boat trip from the mainland, with some stunning beaches that offer golden sand, swaying palm trees and clear waters at the right time of year. Scuba diving is one of the more popular activities here, while sailing and fishing are also popular among visitors to this area of the country. On the island of Taboga, you can also find a small old church that is said to be the second oldest in the whole of the western hemisphere.

Here are a few accommodation options in this part of Panama:

Budget – Hospedaje y Pension La Cubana – A simple hotel in the heart of Colon on the north coast, this hotel offers simply furnished rooms at a good price. Rooms have air conditioning and Wi-Fi, with parking on-site. Rates start from $35 per night.

Mid-range – Marina Hotel At Shelter Bay – In a great location for exploring Fort San Lorenzo near Colon, this hotel has tastefully decorated air conditioned rooms with flat screen TVs and satellite channels. There is easy access to the marina for sailing, while there is also a nice swimming pool and a good bar and restaurant. Rooms from around $85 per night.

Luxury – Mar & Oro – Located on Contadora Island this hotel is just off the lovely Cacique Beach, and offers a lovely terrace overlooking the ocean, a swimming pool and great sun loungers to relax. The rooms are nicely decorated in a nautical style, with air conditioning and a free breakfast each morning. Rates start at $150 a night.

The Caribbean West

The west of Panama is divided by forests and the La Amistad National Park which runs down the center of this part of the country, and the Caribbean West stretches north to the Caribbean coast. Certainly the largest settlement and the biggest resort here is Bocas del Toro, which is on an island just a short distance off the coast. There are a range of great beaches to choose from that are just a short walk or boat ride from the town, while the area is also particularly popular for scuba diving and nature watching cruises. Bocas has also developed a reputation for having a lively nightlife in the clubs and bars along the seafront.

With the waves washing in from the Caribbean, there are several beaches here that are popular for surfing, including Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos Island. There are also specialty marine tours that allow you to spot particular animal species, including trips to see the local manatee population in this part of the Caribbean. For a different look at the Caribbean West of Panama, a trip into the remote La Amistad International Park, which runs into Costa Rica as well, offers some great hiking where you can see a wide range of animal species, although you will find the regular mist of the cloud forest to be a bit of a hindrance, but one that gives the forest an almost eerie atmosphere.

Places to stay in Panama

Here are some of your accommodation options in the Caribbean West:

Budget – Bambuda Lodge – A short walk from the town center, this hotel has a large swimming pool along with a bar and restaurant. Rooms are simply furnished but offer comfortable accommodation with some rooms having a private balcony. Rooms begin at $25 a night.

Mid-range – Cosmic Crab Resort – Set on a series of platforms held above the ocean on stilts, this resort offers cabins that are directly above the waters of the Caribbean. Rooms are brightly painted and furnished in a rustic style, with air conditioning and a quiet atmosphere. Rooms from $50 per night.

Luxury – Red Frog Beach Island Resort – As the name suggests, this hotel is just yards from Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos Island, and offers a lovely swimming pool and an on-site spa. Rooms are pleasant and spacious, with air conditioning and Wi-Fi, with a restaurant and bar on-site as well. Rates start at around $290 a night.

The Pacific West

Lying to the south of La Amistad International Park, this part of the country has an excellent range of coastal resorts, while also having several inland towns and tourist destinations offering another perspective on Panama. David is the second largest city in Panama and is a jumping off point for many visitors, being just off the Pan-American Highway and having good bus connections to the rest of the country. The city has a small beach area at Los Olas, but is more important as the port for exploring the islands off the southern coast of Panama.

Boca Chica is one of the main coastal destinations in this part of the country, with great fishing and scuba diving just off the coast, with the Coiba National Marine Park having a huge range of corals and marine species. There are several islands worth visiting here, with Isla Palenque being one of the real highlights, boasting lovely beaches and waters around the coast, and lush forests as soon as you venture inland. For marine animal tours, both Islas Secas and Islas Paridas are a good base if you are looking to join one of the whale-watching tours that are available here.

Things to do in Panama: Diving in Coiba_National_Marine_Park

Coiba National Marine Park

While many people travel here for the beaches and water sports, just inland is the tourist hub of Boquete, which has a wealth of activities and attractions to explore. If you enjoy outdoor sports, some of the activities include hiking, rock climbing and white water rafting on the Chiriqui River, while even more thrills are available at a ziplining course taking visitors flying through the trees of the cloud forest. This part of Panama is also famous for its excellent coffee, and there are several plantation tours that can be enjoyed, along with some tasting sessions as well.

There are plenty of places to stay here as well, including:

Budget – Bed and Breakfast Little Italy – A short distance from the city of David, this B&B has a swimming pool and terrace to relax. The rooms are simply furnished with air conditioning and a refrigerator, while there is a free breakfast included. Rooms start from $35 a night.

Mid-range – Downtown Suites – An ideal base for exploring Boquete and the surrounding volcanic landscape, this hotel has spacious rooms with a kitchenette, along with Wi-Fi and flat screen TVs. The hotel has a lovely garden and also a Jacuzzi for relaxing after a hard day’s exploring. Rooms from $60 a night.

Luxury – El Regalo Resort – Offering superb accommodation in Boca Chica, this hotel is a grand mansion with traditionally decorated rooms that are sumptuously decorated and furnished, with grand bathrooms. A pleasant beach is just a short walk away, while the lovely infinity pool is a great spot to relax. Rates begin at $135 a night.

Eastern Panama

The east of Panama is largely rural and is relatively undeveloped, with little in the way of traditional tourist resorts, and more indigenous settlements and rural villages. The reason for this is that while there is a border with Colombia to the east of the country, it is actually densely packed by forest from Caribbean to Pacific, with the Darien Gap being a 60 kilometer wide stretch of forest that has no overland connection between Panama and Colombia. The intrepid traveler may be able to join small group trips into the Darien National Park which has an impressive biodiversity, but this should be done with care as the people encountered here can often be guerrilla fighters or drug traffickers.

The exception to the rule of tourism in Eastern Panama is the San Blas Islands, which is a collection of islands and islets off the Caribbean coast, which is an independent area of the country administered by the Kuna people. These islands are generally quite rustic, but some do have some lovely beaches where you can relax under the palm trees. The islands are popular for sailing and fishing, while there are also some scuba diving spots in the area as well. Puerto Obaldia is the largest town in this part of the country, but has little to offer tourists, apart from being a good location to catch a boat over to Colombia, or as a landing point when traveling from the other side of the Darien Gap.

Places to stay in this part of the country is likely to range between basic and passable, with the natural surroundings being the main attractions here.

Budget – San Blas Lodge – Situated in the Kuna village of Achutupu, this lodge has simple rooms with easy access to the beach. There is a restaurant and bar on site, while there are also some nearby areas to explore on foot. Rooms from $36 a night.

Mid-range – Hotel El Porvenir – Located in Playon Chico, this beachfront hotel is a good base for water sports, including snorkeling and swimming in the ocean. Rooms are simply furnished, and all food is included in the price. Rooms begin at $90 a night.

How To Travel To Panama And Getting Around The Country

By far the most common access point to Panama is Tocumen International Airport, which is just a short trip from Panama City, although David Airport does have some flights from Costa Rica. As expected, there are no overland connections between Colombia and Panama due to the Darien Gap, although you can take boats that will conduct you around the gap from Colombia. As it lies on the Pan-American Highway, there are also bus routes that connect the major cities of Panama with Costa Rica to the west and north.

Once you are in Panama, a car can be a very useful tool to allow you to explore outside of the major cities, although it is important to always be careful, while the Pan-American Highway is a very popular road-trip. Buses along the Pan-American Highway are generally well maintained and cheap, while any other routes will usually need the more colorful (in more than just their decoration!) chicken buses, where you never know who you will be sat next to. If you are planning to head to the islands or especially if traveling in the east of the country, domestic flights are often one of the best ways to explore.

Food And Drink In Panama

Like much of South America, the influences of Panamanian cuisine come from a variety of different sources, including the indigenous population, the Spanish conquistadors, and also more recently from North American Food. Probably the most common dish that you will find during a trip to the country is Sancocho, a hearty chicken stew that includes yucca, plantains and several different herbs. As you would expect in a country with two long coastlines, the seafood here is well worth seeking out, with the Panamanian version of ceviche, raw chunks of fish marinated in citrus juices, being a particularly common option.

Probably the most popular alcoholic drink in this part of the world is ron ponche, a rum punch that is served with fruit juice over plenty of ice, making it refreshing and tasty on a hot day. There are also a range of local light beers that are found throughout the country, including Atlas, Panamá and Cristal among the most common brands, and are usually served very cold. If you prefer non-alcoholic options, the coffee in Panama is of course excellent, while there are also plenty of fresh fruit juice vendors in most towns. A pipa is a common popular drink, where a hole is chipped into an unripe coconut, and a straw is poppe.

best things to do in Panama best things to do in Panama

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.