Poor Panama. When I tell people where I’m going to travel next, they normally say “oh, cool!”. But when I said I’d be going to Panama, everyone just said “why?” — usually followed by some joke about tax evasion (remember the Panama Papers?).
I suppose most people associate Panama only with shipping or international finance, and don’t think of it so much as a travel destination. And that’s exactly why I wanted to go. While I briefly visited in 2013 during a longer trip through Central America, this year (in 2018) I had the chance to give Panama a much closer look.
And guess what? Panama is pretty amazing!
I loved its unspoiled nature and the mostly non-touristy vibe. It feels kind of like a more low-key version of Costa Rica — with great beaches, wildlife, and national parks — but without the crowds. While I do think countries like Guatemala and Colombia have perhaps a more expressive and vibrant culture, Panama is also known to be safer and easier to travel, so it can make for a gentle and fun introduction to the region.
Bocas Del Toro is Panama’s main holiday resort, and amazingly I’ve seen some itineraries suggest only going there. But for me, the real highlights were found in the many other places in Panama.
Old colonial fortresses and jungle hikes
- Rent a kayak to visit old forts across the bay
- Chill at Playa Huerta, a hidden beach home to howler monkeys
The small town of Portobelo once served as a key port from where the Spanish exported plundered Peruvian silver. It was eventually ravaged by pirates, and then invaded by the British (hence ‘Portobello Road’ in London). The ruins of all the fortifications are still there, with rows of rusty canons lining the old defense systems.
Portobelo is a sleepy town with a relaxed Caribbean vibe. Some tourists who are in a rush say there isn’t much to see here, but I loved staying in this off-the-beaten-track place that’s just a 90-minute drive north from Panama City.
I rented a kayak at Restaurant Casa Vela and paddled across the bay, where you can clamber around a second fortification. The forts here are UNESCO protected, but they aren’t ticketed or fenced off museums; they’re just there for you to explore! Squint your eyes a little and you can imagine its tumultuous history of pirates and galleons.
Several unspoiled beaches are hidden beyond the bay, none connected by road. You either have to rent a lancha (boat) or take a kayak there. I spent some time at Playa Huerta, which was teeming with life. I saw fishes jumping from the sea, colorful birds whizzing past, cormorants watching for prey, crabs dispersing as I walked through the sand, and even a family of howler monkeys swinging from the treetops.
If you’re coming on a day-trip just to tour the fort, then I think Portobelo might not be worth the 4 hours of driving from Panama City and back. But stay a night or two and you can do some cool stuff in the area. Portobelo is a quiet and simple place, and it might have been my favorite little spot in Panama.
By the way, if you’re planning to go to Colombia, then you should know Portobelo is one of the places from where you can book passage on a 4- or 5-day boat trip to Cartagena.
El Valle de Antón
Charming village inside a volcanic crater
- Don’t miss: hiking Cerro Cara Iguana at sunset
- Chill at the waterfalls and hot springs
El Valle de Antón is a cute mountain town ringed by verdant forest and jagged peaks. While you won’t be able to tell at first glance, once you hike up one of the mountains you’ll see that the town is located inside an ancient volcanic crater — one of the largest in the Americas.
The peaceful town, known locally simply as El Valle, is in itself rewarding to explore. It has lots of pretty little houses with flowery gardens. There’s a serpentarium, an orchid center, and a butterfly haven. Several waterfalls, swimming holes, and a hot spring are also within reasonable walking distance. These are maybe not the world’s most remarkable places, but they give you plenty of options for fun impromptu excursions. I stayed at the cozy Bodhi Hostel, which was a great base from which to poke around the area.
There are lots of great hiking trails running through the valley and up the crater edges. I loved hiking up the Cerro Cara Iguana at sunset — it’s a must-do! My guide had recommended to bring a jacket, and when we neared the peak it was clear why… the cold winds that are funneled along the rim will nearly knock you off your feet. But if you can brave these intense orographic winds, you’ll be rewarded with some epic views of the crater.
El Valle is about 2,5 hours west of Panama City, and I think it makes for a really nice stop.
Surfing hotspot & gateway to Coiba National Park
- Stay on Catalina’s surfer beach
- Snorkel and island-hop in Coiba National Park
There are many little surfer beach towns along Panama’s pacific coast. Many surfers and backpackers head for places like Playa Venao and Pedasi, though I skipped them in favor of Santa Catalina. This tiny beach town (with a population of just 350) isn’t only famed for its surf breaks, but it’s also a perfect launching pad for trips to the Isla Coiba nature reserve, which is sometimes billed as the ‘Galapagos of Panama’.
But I must admit that Santa Catalina didn’t quite live up to my expectations at first. Travel guides had made me expect a remote undiscovered place with amazing scenery. But the coast here is actually pretty mucky, and the town wasn’t quite as off-the-grid or special as I imagined.
But no matter. I soon grew to like Santa Catalina for what it is — and it definitely isn’t without its charms. The nearby Isla Coiba was also one of my big Panama highlights. It was once a brutal penal colony under Spanish rule, but has otherwise been completely isolated from the mainland. Still covered in ancient forests, it is an untouched refuge for countless species, including the Scarlet macaw (yep, those classic red-yellow-blue parrots).
The waters around Coiba are absolutely swarming with subaquatic activity, as I witnessed on my scuba diving trips there. It’s actually a bit of a mystery why these dive sites aren’t much more known in the diving community. I saw Mobula rays flying overhead, a whole row of sharks sleeping under a rocky overhang, and large schools of bigeye trevallies swirling around.
Above-ground Coiba is stunning as well. On snorkeling and hiking trips you can get close to all the flora and wildlife, and visit an abandoned prison on the island. I saw tropical birds fluttering past, hundreds of little crabs scuffling around the beaches, and dolphins breaching offshore.
In Santa Catalina I stayed at Ecolodge Deseo Bamboo, a guesthouse run by the most hospitable Italian man I’ve ever met. The lodge is located a 20-minute walk outside of town, but there’s a lovely shortcut through woods and pastures that takes you straight to the beach. I highly recommend staying there!
Panama’s hiking and adventure travel capital
- Hike the beautiful Lost Waterfalls trail
- Tour a coffee plantation
- Climb to the summit of Volcán Barú (usually a 2D/1N trip)
Boquete is a popular destination for visiting coffee plantations, hiking, and other outdoor adventures like horseback riding, ATV, or river rafting. The town is nice enough — and it’s fairly international due to tourism and local American retirees — but it’s really the surrounding area that draws people here. The road that takes you to Boquete basically just ends there; to its north is nothing but endless rainforest, and to its west is Volcán Barú (3,475m), the tallest mountain in Panama.
I went for an afternoon hike to the Lost Waterfalls, which is incredibly scenic and not too strenuous, passing through lush forest and stopping at three gorgeous waterfalls. Along the trail I was constantly met by butterflies and, to my delight, many hummingbirds as well. You can easily do this hike by yourself without a guide, and by taking a taxi to and from the entrance. It takes about 3 hours. For a longer hike, many people recommend the Sendero Los Quetzales trail (up to 7 hours).
Later, I and a few other travelers then wished to explore the area around Boquete independently, so we tried to rent some motorbikes. This is sadly not as much of a thing here as it is in Asia, and we found only one shop that could rent us some horribly disheveled bikes. We took a punt anyway, but upon returning they tried to slap each of us with a $100 fine for driving too far out of town (to a place they also sell tours to, i.e. they don’t want to undercut their own business). This wasn’t a great experience.
On our motorbike trip, we also visited the Finca Dos Jefes coffee farm, but it sadly wasn’t set up for drop-in visitors (only accepting tour groups). The owners were kind enough to show us around for a few minutes, but you’re really meant to pre-book one of their 2,5-hour tours ($30 per person). So if you want to learn all about the coffee growing process, be sure to book ahead. Another farm that does tours is the Finca La Milagrosa. I had the impression that Boquete highly prefers that you buy tours instead of doing anything by yourself.
I stayed in Boquete for 2½ days and then had to push on as I was nearing the end of my trip. If I’d had more time, I might have stuck around at least a day or two longer, as there is a lot to do in Boquete. Much of this does involve taking organized day-tours though, so make sure to budget for this.
San Blas Islands
Disconnect from civilization on deserted islands
The San Blas Islands deserve a special mention, as I think they’re some of the most pristine islands you’ll find in Central America. Tourism at the archipelago is regulated by the indigenous Kuna, who have a degree of autonomy over the region.
The San Blas Islands can only be visited on organized boat tours. These usually include a visit to a Kuna village, but don’t expect some kind of anthropological experience here (obviously, they do get visitors all the time, though it depends which islands you go to). I think your best chance to properly enjoy the San Blas is to go on a 3 day / 2-night trip; travelers I meet who’ve done a cheap and quick day-trip are usually a little disappointed as the less remote islands are just a lot busier.
I was lucky to visit the islands back in 2013 during a chartered yacht trip to Colombia, which had us regularly anchoring at small uninhabited islands. Wandering around the islands will give you a magical castaway feeling. While snorkeling, I swam right above an enormous manta ray, which hovered above the sea floor like a mysterious alien.
One of the islands we stopped at was inhabited by local Kuna people, who were there to harvest coconuts. Our captain had a good relationship with the families, which meant we were warmly welcomed to their island. It felt a little more personal than what we might have gotten on a quick day-trip.
That’s why if you’re going to do San Blas, I recommend to do it right. With a multi-day trip, you’ll have plenty of time for swimming, snorkeling, and stargazing at night.
Kind of dull, but… there are also worse places you could be
- See the Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal
- Spend an hour or two at Metropolitan Natural Park for hilltop views of the city
I’ll say one thing for Panama City: in terms of safety and general pleasantness, it definitely beats any other capital in Central America. From the skyscrapers in its business district to the numerous condos at the seafront promenade, it might even faintly remind you of a city like Miami.
Sadly it also lacks a crucial element: warmth and soul. Despite being nicely organized and relatively worry-free, Panama City doesn’t quite do it for me. Maybe it’s the one place in Panama that actually conforms to the stereotype, as it seems much more concerned with business and finance than with culture. It somehow feels like it’s a bit hollow inside, much like the countless skyscrapers standing empty that were built only for money-laundering purposes (…allegedly).
Yes, there is the old historical quarter of Casco Viejo, but it’s a bit of an artificial annex that seems mostly for fine dining and late-night cocktails. I couldn’t help compare its desolate streets with the much more lively colonial old towns of Havana in Cuba or Cartagena in Colombia. The historical buildings have been beautifully restored, but I also think the area is a bit overhyped.
I went to the Miraflores Visitor Center to see the Panama Canal, but the museum isn’t all that insightful, and the movie you queue up for is just a cheesy infomercial. I might have found the center much more worthwhile had any ships passed that morning, as the observation deck does seem pretty cool.
For a more local experience, I really liked getting seafood at the Mercado De Marisco Cinta Constera. On the weekends, it’s jam-packed with Panamanians gorging on fresh catch from the adjacent harbor. The Metropolitan Natural Park is also pretty amazing — it feels like a true wildlife refuge despite being just a 10-minute drive from downtown. One of its hills gives you a great panoramic view of the city (better than Ancon Hill).
Still, I’ve come through Panama City three times now and it hasn’t quite captured my heart. With so much else to see around the country, I think spending one night might be enough. Maybe it just didn’t click for me.
Bocas del Toro
Panama’s party place and Carribean holiday resort
- Enjoy the party scene in Bocas Town
- Or… escape to Playa Bluff, Isla Bastimentos or Isla Selina
- Take a trip to Bocas Marine National Park (Cayo Coral & Cayo Zapatilla)
This Carribean archipelago near the border with Costa Rica is clearly Panama’s main holiday resort (with direct flights from Panama City). Bocas Town on the main island is a bit of a party place, home to an abundance of cocktail bars, clubs, party hostels, and sports bars — as well as surf shops, dive centers, Western-style restaurants, and t-shirt stores.
But despite Bocas being quite a busy and commercialized place, I think it also manages to be pretty funky and cute. Bocas Town was originally established in the early 1800s by a banana company that later became Chiquita Banana. A lot of the original houses are wooden and brightly painted with little verandas. Adding to the Carribean vibe is that many of the locals don’t speak Spanish but an English-based patois similar to Jamaican.
These days I get more excited about quieter locations (hello, aging backpacker here) but Bocas Town is clearly a vibrant place that lets you have a lot of unpretentious fun. It’s firmly on the Central American Gringo Trail and has gained a bit of a reputation as a place where backpackers get stuck.
But Bocas Town is just a small part of Bocas del Toro. Other less developed islands are easily reached by water taxi (most ranging from 10 to 40 minutes away). I spent some time at the Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos, which is a really nice spot for some lazy lounging. Isla Solarte is mostly uninhabited except for a couple of isolated lodges, including the legendary Bambuda Lodge hostel which needs to be booked well in advance.
If you leave Bocas Town and go onto the island of Colon itself, you can also find a lot of charming and quiet spots. I stayed at the Nomad Tree Lodge in the jungle canopy, where you can get some soothing rainforest vibes. From there I hiked to Playa Bluff, a totally wild and undeveloped beach that also happens to be a protected hatching ground for sea turtles. You can keep hiking north along this coast all the way up to the north tip of Isla Colon. It’s incredibly scenic, and I was lucky to encounter several sloths on the way too.
Keep in mind most beaches around Bocas del Toro are not ideal for swimming. There’s lots of big waves and undertow. But there’s plenty to do on and around the water including kayaking, snorkeling, and so on. Don’t miss doing a snorkeling day-trip to Zapatilla Island.
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Planning your Panama trip
Planning a route: Panama is a little stretched out, which is a bit annoying if you want to cover many places. Another annoying thing is that the only main artery is basically the Pan-American Highway along the Pacific coast. There is no continuous road on the Carribean coast, so you can’t truly make a circular route. As I had limited time, I started in Panama City and ended in Bocas del Toro, then took a domestic flight back to Panama City. The bus from Bocas to Panama City takes about 12 hours, which isn’t too bad, but on a shorter trip that does make for quite a bit of backtracking.
I’ve highlighted some of the places mentioned earlier in the map below.
Getting around: Major destinations are covered by larger local express buses which are pretty comfortable and fast. Shorter routes might be covered by so-called chicken buses, i.e. colorfully painted converted US school buses. These are slower but are pretty fun to travel with if you’re looking for a local experience. Some of the popular travel nodes are also connected by private minivan shuttles run by tour companies. For instance, I saw these between Santa Catalina and Boquete, and between Boquete and Bocas del Toro. These are clearly more expensive than the local buses, but they usually also let you skip one or more transfers and save some time.
Budget: You can get by decently on a backpacker budget of about $40/day. Meals in tourist restaurants are usually at least around $10, but you can have set meals in local places for $5 – $6 if you look around (cooking in hostels can also save you money, of course). I did a lot of scuba diving and other activities which can add up fast. To get the most out of your Panama trip something like $50 – 60 a day will be more comfortable. Panama isn’t a dirt cheap country by any means, though it’s certainly cheaper than Costa Rica. I have some more info on cost of travel in Central America if you’d like to see a comparison.
What to expect: Panama is fun and the wildlife is amazing, though it doesn’t maybe have as much instant wow-factor as other countries I’ve been. If you’re looking for the most vibrant culture in Latin America, there are maybe other places to consider (like Colombia). And if you’re looking for grand landscapes and epic Mayan ruins, then I have to recommend Guatemala.
Still, while maybe lacking such instantly spectacular landscapes I do love Panama for all its details — not to mention that it’s quite laid back and low-stress, and not as overpriced or overtouristy as Costa Rica. If you’re into the wildlife, the Carribean vibes, the funky surfer towns, and the relative ease of travel, then Panama might well be your perfect introduction to Central America.