Thinking about booking a trip to Panama but not sure where to go and what the country has to offer? Panama has a little bit of everything ranging from the big city, jungles, nature, watersports galore, history, and culture. Continue reading to find out the best places to visit in Panama to make for a memorable trip!
Knowing what regions, you want to travel to in Panama is key in planning a trip. Traveling between the regions is mostly by bus or car and can take up to a day from one city to another.
This guide is a snapshot of five spectacular regions in Panama that will likely inspire some wanderlust and make a stay in Panama a memorable one.
Where Is Panama?
You may have heard of Panama but not quite sure where it is located other than it sounds like an exotic place far away and home of the Panama Canal. The country of Panama is part of Central America or the section of land between North America and South America.
Panama is bordered on land by Costa Rica to the north and Colombia (in South America) to the south of it. With a unique position, the Pacific Ocean borders it on the west and the Caribbean Sea borders it to the east!
As you can see its location adds to the diversity in landscape and sights to see! If looking at a map, the country of Panama is long and slender with a few curves to it.
Best Places To Visit In Panama
The first stop for most traveler’s heading to Panama is Panama City itself. For good reason, Panama City draws in visitors from all over the world in an eclectic mix of people, cuisine and history.
Probably the most popular and recognizable attraction in Panama City is the Panama Canal that creates a water pathway from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean for ships of all sizes. The Panama Canal should be on every person’s bucket list!
There are two locations to view the impressive canal locks system, the Miraflores Locks and the Gatun Locks. At both spots, one can watch the moving of ships, especially the gigantic cargo ships passing through the canal all to bypass going down and around the tip of South America. It really is a must to see how the engineering feat works in action!
There is so much history in Panama City, more than I had realized prior to coming. To see the original part of Panama City, head over to Panama Viejo or the “Old Old Town”.
There you can wander the quiet grounds exploring the ruins going back to the 1500s. Sadly in 1671, Panama Viejo was destroyed by Captain Henry Morgan.
That resulted in moving the new settlement to Casco Viejo or “Old Town”. Although Casco Viejo is the newer Old Town, it still has the old feel and full of vibrant colored buildings that make it a charming spot to visit. It has a strong Caribbean vibe and from photos I have seen, reminds me of Havana.
If you are looking to connect with nature and take a walk on the wild side, there is both the Metropolitan Park and Gatun Lake. In both of these spots, you can wander the jungle and see all kinds of wildlife such as monkeys, sloths, birds, and coati.
Metropolitan Park is just a short drive from the heart of Panama City and is a great hike with incredible views of the city.
Gatun Lake is where the Panama Canal meets the Caribbean Sea and an adventure of its own!
For more details on what to do in Panama City, read my guide 10 Ultimate Things To Do In Panama City.
Travel To Panama City
Panama City is a major city because of the business the Panama Canal brings to this bustling hub. Most of the major airline carriers fly into Panama City’s international airport, Tocumen International Airport (PTY).
Once landing in Panama City, downtown Panama City is about a 30-minute drive. If you have wifi, getting an Uber is much cheaper than taking a taxi.
Where To Stay
Staying in or near the bay off of Avenida Balboa is a great location as you are close to the bay, shopping, Cusco Viejo and more. A few hotels that are in this area and excellent places to stay are:
Panama City Tours
Panama City & Canal Half Day Tour – In this tour you will get to see up close the Panama Canal lock system, explore the colonial Casco Viejo (old town) and Amador Causeway!
Panama Canal, Colon Rainforest & Fort Lorenzo – In this Panama City tour, you get to visit the famous Panama Canal and learn about the lock system and how ships pass through, visit the Colon rainforest with numerous wildlife sightings such as sloths and monkeys! Then spend some time visiting Fort Lorenzo with incredible views of where the Caribbean Sea meets the Panal Canal.
Panama City Canal Railway & Gatun Locks – Take a one hour train ride that travels along the Isthmus of Panama from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Then visit the Gatun locks to see up close ships passing through the Panama Canal!
San Blas Islands Day Trip – This tour will take you to the stunning white sand and turquoise waters of the San Blas Islands for the day. Swim, play and sunbathe on the prettiest beaches and get to see the island seen in the Netflix show Money Heist!
Santa Catalina is a quaint and chill surfing village about 6.5 – 8 hours west of Panama City. I wouldn’t exactly say that Santa Catalina is a town…
More of a village on the beach that is home to Panama’s best surf spot. Santa Catalina is definitely a watersport destination, prime for surfing, scuba diving, and sportfishing.
My primary goal of visiting was to scuba dive the Pacific Ocean’s underwater wonderland of Parque Nacional Coiba or the waters off of Coiba Island.
Compared to many other dive locations, Coiba Island is less traveled to and see’s less human interaction as it is an uninhabited island. Being a natural preserve protects the abundant wildlife in the park.
For this reason, diving Coiba Island’s pristine waters is an underwater paradise. You will get the chance to see massive schools of fish, sharks, eels, rays, and turtles.
Until I was researching my trip to Panama, I had never heard of anyone diving here. I am shocked at how under the radar the diving here is.
Diving Coiba is up there with some of my best dives, mainly because on every dive I was lucky enough to see massive schools of fish and sharks. On so many dives around the world, it seems that sadly seeing sharks on a dive is a rarity.
Although the coral isn’t as colorful or as impressive, the number of fish and wildlife makes up for it and more. I dived with Scuba Coiba which was an awesome group to dive with and I would highly recommend them.
As a bonus, we got to spend some time on the island for lunch between dives enjoying the gorgeous white sand beaches! By far, going to Coiba Island was one of the best places to visit in Panama…
Travel To Santa Catalina
The easiest and cheapest way to get to Santa Catalina from Panama City is by bus. From your hotel in Panama City, take an Uber to the Albrook bus station and catch the bus to Sona.
From Sona you will catch another bus to Santa Catalina for a total travel time of about 6.5 – 7.5 hrs, costing about $16.
Head out first thing in the morning so that you can make sure to not get stuck in Sona if later in the day. Note that by taking the bus in Panama, one should be open-minded and have fun with the experience.
They don’t load one person per seat, more like anywhere they can fit! It becomes a cozy and lively event which made it all the more entertaining!
Where To Stay In Santa Catalina
I recommend staying in the heart of the village unless you have a car or good with walking a distance. Staying a little further out is peaceful but it might include a decent walk back and forth.
I recommend staying at the Hotel Santa Catalina which has a great location on the beach with stunning views, a pool, and a restaurant. A few other places that I had researched and heard great things about are:
Coibahouse – this is a guesthouse with shared common areas
Located near the border of Costa Rica (37 miles), Boquete is halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Situated in the mountains of the Chiriqui Province, Boquete boasts a beautiful and lush landscape that is every adventurer’s playground.
It also happens to be one of the most popular destinations for retirees! Mainly because of the relaxed atmosphere and low cost of living.
Boquete is also home to Panama’s only volcano (Parque Nacional Volcan Baru) and the highest mountain at 11,398 ft.
If you are feeling adventurous, get up early and hike up to the summit of Volcan Baru to see views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea! Nowhere else can you view two oceans at the same time.
In order to make it to the top for sunrise, hikers usually take off at midnight making the most difficult part being the cool temps and hiking in the dark.
If you are not a fan of losing out on sleep or hiking for hours, there are tours that can take you to the summit via a 4×4 vehicle. Do check ahead on the weather because it might not be worth going if there is thick fog.
I had booked through Beyond Adventure Tours which offers several types of tours in and around Boquete. Unfortunately, I had to cancel as my dad had a health emergency to the hospital. So I’ll have to experience it for myself next time!
Since I had to cancel many activities while in Boquete, my friend Jeff Satterfield was so nice to let me share some photos of Boquete from his trip there. Check out Jeff’s stunning photography around the world at @jeffacrosstheworld on Instagram!
Boquete is well known for its delicious brew of coffee locally grown on the luscious green hills and cool mountain air.
To get a behind the scenes look at how coffee is produced in Boquete, join one of the many coffee farm tours and of course sip some fresh coffee.
The most expensive cup of coffee in the world happens to be home to Panama, known as Geisha coffee (it can cost anywhere from $9 to $15 per cup of joe!). If you couldn’t tell, Panama focuses more on the quality than quantity when producing coffee.
The Geisha coffee grows on Volcan Baru in Boquete with hand-picked coffee cherries. It then becomes a smooth delicious cup of coffee that tastes more like a floral and aromatic tea.
Geisha only gets pricier once it leaves Panama, so don’t miss out on trying the delicious coffee!
Other activities Boquete offers: hiking to waterfalls, river rafting, horseback riding, and relaxing at natural hot springs (a hot soak is a plus after a long hike!).
Travel To Boquete
Traveling to Boquete from Panama City, Santa Catalina or David, taking the bus is quite easy and economical. Because I wanted to travel at specific times, I chose to book a ride with Hello Travel Panama shuttle service.
From Santa Catalina to Boquete which is about a 5 hr drive ($35) versus a 6.5 – 7 hr drive by bus. The shuttle was with other travelers from Santa Catalina and was a comfortable and pleasant trip with Hello Travel Panama!
Where To Stay In Boquete
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a small grouping of islands right off the coast of mainland Panama’s Caribbean coast and is absolute paradise!
Both inhabited and uninhabited tiny islands dot the crystal-clear turquoise waters that welcome visitors to come and stay.
It’s not hard to see why Bocas del Toro should be on anyone’s list of places to see in Panama. Practically every beach looks like a postcard picture that would make everyone at home long with envy!
The main island that most refer to as Bocas del Toro or Bocas Town (or just Bocas) is actually called Isla Colon. Although this is the busiest part of Bocas Del Toro, don’t expect a big modern city.
It is very much a chill and charming town where the pace of life is much slower. For me, that was the appeal. To be able to slow down and enjoy the remote beauty that Bocas has to offer.
Isla Colon offers the most places to stay, restaurants, and activities but if given the time head over to Isla Bastimentos. Just a 10-minute water taxi from Bocas Town, are palm tree-lined beaches that are even more remote and relaxed from Bocas Town.
The closest beaches to visit is Wizard Beach that is a relaxing spot to bask in the sun. And for surf lovers, Wizard Beach is a top surfing spot. A little further along the island is Red Frog Beach.
From its name, it became the place to see red poison dart frogs but sadly they are rare to see these days. That being said, it is a stunning beach that has more offerings than Wizard.
Further out, a highlight to visiting the 6km stretch of Playa Larga or Long Beach is seeing Hawksbill, Green Sea and Leatherback turtles that come to lay their eggs (March to September). Beware that the currents at this beach can be rough, so always be cautious when entering the water.
Long Beach is also part of the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos that is a nature reserve for sloths, monkeys, croc’s and many other species that can be seen throughout the mangroves.
Back on Bocas Town, snorkeling and diving is a must as the Caribbean Sea is home to so many species of fish, turtles, coral, and sharks.
For divers, there are both beginner and advanced dive spot locations so it is a great region for all to explore.
There are numerous places to eat and kick back with a Panama beer throughout Bocas Town but a few of my favorite spots for food were Sweet Love Shop & Tea House and Café Del Mar.
I ended up visiting Sweet Love daily for great coffee, a chill vibe to relax, and killer crepes! On one rainy morning, I stumbled upon Café Del Mar and had one of the best breakfast burritos ever!
If you are up for a little adventure, get on a bus or take a taxi to Bocas del Drago in search of Starfish Beach. I took a taxi ($40 roundtrip) and scheduled the taxi to pick me up at a specific time to head back (otherwise you could find yourself stranded). I also didn’t pay until the ride back to ensure I indeed had one!
Once dropped off at Bocas del Drago, expect a 20-40 minute walk to Starfish Beach. Or if you are eager to see the starfish, you can catch a water taxi over which is both quick and cheap.
I preferred to walk through the beach/jungle path and make myself feel less guilty about lying on the beach drinking beer all day!
There are a few restaurants or rather beach huts that offer food, drinks, and chairs to rent. The highlight of visiting this remote beach is the starfish that you can see in the shallow waters.
As tempting as it might be to get a picture holding a starfish, please don’t be a jerk! Try not to disturb them as it does have a negative effect on them and their environment.
Travel To Bocas Del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a chain of islands and requires flying in or taking a boat from mainland Panama. Since Bocas del Toro is one of the furthest regions from Panama City, flying here via Air Panama is nice to avoid an extremely long bus ride.
The Isla Colon International Airport (BOC) is located in Bocas Town for easy convenience.
From Boquete, you can take a shuttle (Hello Travel Panama) to Almirante where boats leave about every 30 minutes (or when filled up) to Bocas Town. Busses can take you to Almirante from various cities also.
Keep in mind that the last boats heading from Almirante to Bocas Town leave ~ 6:00 pm. So make sure you get to Almirante by car or bus well before that.
Due to the high amounts of rain on Bocas del Toro (hence the tropics), be aware that boats might stop running if the water is too rough.
While on Isla Colon, you can get around everywhere by walking, bike, or taxi. To further attractions, taxis and water taxis are the best bet.
As I was heading back to Panama City after Bocas, I chose to fly to save time. It was well worth it at around $110 (one-way) on Air Panama.
Flights from Bocas (BOC) go in and out of Panama City at the domestic airport, Albrook Airport (PAC) not the international one that you likely flew into!
Where to Stay On Bocas Del Toro
Lula’s Bed & Breakfast is an excellent place to stay in Bocas Town with a great location in walking distance to the waterfront, restaurants, and bars.
I liked that it was a little bit further from the noisier part of town giving a peaceful island vibe. The owner’s Chad and Josh were so helpful in booking a room and very welcoming upon arrival.
Lula’s Bed & Breakfast offers both comfy and charming rooms that make for a pleasant stay. I really enjoyed the upstairs balcony that is a perfect spot to relax with a beer, read a book or visit with other guests.
The morning breakfasts started the day off just right with a yummy assortment of fresh fruit, eggs, toast, and Panamanian coffee. I particularly enjoyed eating at the communal table getting to know other travelers. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again!
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands lie in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of both Panama and Colombia. The islands have crystal-clear blue waters and white sand beaches that almost seem unreal. Some only go to San Blas Islands for a day, a few days or sail among the different islands.
Because of its calm waters and lack of hurricanes, it is an ideal place to sail. I really want to go back and sail these islands one day!
San Blas Islands are a group of over 350 islands with about 49 inhabited by native Kuna Indians (or Guna’s). Even though they are part of Panama, Guna’s have their own culture and law that is different from the rest of Panama.
These islands are relatively undiscovered compared to other gorgeous islands mainly because they are completely run by the Kuna Indians.
Tourists are really only allowed on a handful of islands and are required to pay a fee to stay. The Guna’s are protective of their islands for good reason and keep a tight control on expanding tourism.
Staying on the San Blas Islands is a simple way of living so don’t expect big resorts or lots of beach amenities. Instead, there are small eco-accommodations in a very natural state and most likely off the grid from wifi service. Think of it as a step up from camping!
But if you are looking to get away from your fast-paced life, you will be rewarded with the most pristine beaches, snorkeling heaven and solitude. Due to logistics and the fact that everything is run by the Guna’s, it is easiest to book your transportation and accommodations with a tour operator.
As you can see, there is such a diversity in the places to visit in Panama that are all wonderful!
Tip: If you are looking for just a taste of the San Blas Islands then the San Blas Islands Day Trip tour from Panama City will take you to the stunning white sand and turquoise waters of the San Blas Islands for the day. Swim, play and sunbathe on the prettiest beaches and get to see the island seen in the Netflix show Money Heist!
Travel To San Blas Islands
If you are in Panama City, you can either take a bus or fly directly into one of three locations in San Blas. But because of limited flight times, the most likely option is by bus or sailing.
By bus or on a tour, it will take about 3-4 hours so I would recommend spending at least one night in San Blas. Otherwise, you will be spending most of the day in a vehicle.
Where To Stay
To see the highest-rated places to stay, check out San Blas accommodations on Trip Advisor. And if you are looking to sail the San Blas Islands, look into I Travel By Boat. They can cater to your sailing needs!
When To Visit Panama
Panama is a great place to visit year-round but the best months to travel are between December – April. Those are the driest and warmest months.
But expect some rain as Panama is of a tropical climate and there isn’t any way you can avoid it. Temperatures will vary a little bit by region, so check ahead to determine the best time to go.
Got Travel Insurance?
Until this trip, I had always heard that it was wise to get travel insurance before going on a vacation. But I always thought that would be extra money to spend and not needed as my medical coverage would be enough. Well, I was wrong to ignore those recommendations! Granted for most trips, nothing goes wrong but it just takes one bad accident or hospital visit to change your perspective.
On this trip to Panama, I traveled with both of my parents. My dad unfortunately, got severe pneumonia and struggled to walk and breathe. Let’s just say we got him to the hospital in David just in time. He was there four days and it was the scariest few days as not many spoke English and we weren’t sure how bad it really was. In the end, he was treated and we were on our way again but we lost out on a lot.
Because we had to cancel excursions and activities, we were out that money. Since this trip, let’s just say I will always purchase travel insurance for every trip going forward and for peace of mind! Get a no-obligation quote from two trusted travel insurance companies for peace of mind on your next trip!
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