With all the things to do in Panama, it’s easy to see why it’s becoming a travelers’ favorite.
Panama is a fun country to visit. Despite the heat and humidity of Central America that make traveling to Panama at times very tiring, you are bound to enjoy this country, which has a lot to offer.
Panama tourist attractions are many and varied – from tropical beaches, to jungle, hikes, incredible islands and a great capital city.
The country is developing quickly, perhaps a bit too much, and the contrasts between the poor majority of the population and a small extremely rich minority are out there, for everyone to see.
Panama City is the kind of place where a few drive around in a Ferrari or Lamborghini, and others who go dumpster diving or eat restaurant leftovers straight from customers’ tables.
Having said so, I still think that Panama is a fascinating country to visit. I have spent a month in Panama, but I took it extremely easy and traveled really slowly. The activities listed in this post can be easily enjoyed in just three weeks. Curious to find out more? Continue reading!
You should also read my post 22 Things To Know Before Visiting Panama.
The Best Things To Do In Panama
Explore Panama City
One of the best things to do in Panama is visiting its capital, Panama City. This is the most cosmopolitan capital of Central America. I think it actually is the most interesting and beautiful capital of the continent, indeed.
I wholeheartedly recommend going on a guided tour of Panama City to begin with, so that you get to know the city a bit. You can then continue exploring on your own.
Panama City is a constant work in progress. It is a huge construction site where new skyscrapers make an appearance in the skyline. The city is pretty much divided in two main parts: the modern town, with the skyscrapers, the modern buildings (and the traffic) and the old city, or Casco Viejo, where reconstruction works have been ongoing to bring it back to its original splendor.
You will love this contrast between modern and antique: one minute you are walking through history and the next you jump back into the future.
One of the top things to do in Panama City is admiring the skyline from the Paseo las Bóvedas in Casco Viejo. From there you can also see the Puente de las Américas (Bridge of the Americas), which arches over the waterway and where the ships line to enter the Panama Canal.
Walking around Casco Viejo is a must. The location of Casco Viejo was picked by the Spaniards following the destruction of the old city by Henry Morgan in 1671 – it was a point easier to defend than the one where the city used to be located before.
Casco Viejo is packed with lovely, tiny cobbled alleys. There are lots of derelict buildings, some of which are being renovated.
Nowadays, Casco Viejo – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003 – is a hip part of town. There are some great hotels, some of the best restaurants in Panama City, as well as bars and clubs. Make sure to go to the gorgeous Plaza Indipendencia, Plaza de Francia and the Iglesia de San José.
I am sure you will also enjoy the street art scene. There are many incredible murals in Casco Viejo.
These are the best tours of Panama City:
Panama City day tour – probably the most complete choice in terms of tours, as you get to see most of the city. Great value for money.
Hop On Hop Off sightseeing bus – this is an excellent way to see all the highlights of the city.
Panama City and Canal half day tour – you should visit the Canal, and this is the best tour that takes you there as well as to the city.
Panama City layover tour – if you are tight on time, this is the tour you want.
Visit Panama Viejo
Panama Viejo is what’s left of the old capital city. It was founded in August 1519 by Peter Arias and other people who moved there after leaving Santa María la Antiga del Darién and Acla. It was the first actual settlement on the Pacific Coast, and was first recognized as a city in 1521 – soon to become an important harbor for all the goods traveling from Peru to Spain.
The city was destroyed by a series of fires – in 1539 and 1563 – an earthquake in 1620 and the great fire of 1644. However, it was only after 1670, when it was attacked by Henry Morgan and his troops, that the old city was finally abandoned.
You will find Panama Viejo a bit outside of modern-day Panama City – it is one of the most important tourist attractions in the city.
For a guided tour of Panama Viejo, click here.
Attend the Panama Jazz Festival
Panama City is the jazz capital of Central America, and among the best things to do in Panama there is attending the Panama Jazz Festival which usually takes place each year in January. If you love jazz, it is a must!
Visit the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is one of the unmissable places to visit in Panama. Not far from Panama City, it is one of those attractions that anybody visiting Panama will love.
There is a very interesting museum that has a great exhibit of photos and documents on the construction of the Canal. Yet, it is undeniable that the most impressive sight is that of the huge ships that cross the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks.
Visiting the Miraflores Locks from Panama City independently is fairly easy – you can take a bus there. If you prefer a guided tour, there are several good ones too. These are the best tours of Panama Canal:
6 hour Panama Canal cruise – this tour lets you see the canal from the perspective of the boat: a truly unique experience.
Panama City and Canal half day tour – this is the best tour that takes you to the Canal as well as to the city.
Panama Canal Miraflores Locks tour – a very good tour of the Panama Canal during which you get incredible views of Miraflores Locks.
Make sure to also read my post A Guide To Visiting The Panama Canal.
Hang out in Bocas del Toro Archipelago
Considered to be one of the ultimate Caribbean destinations, Bocas del Toro is definitely among the best places to visit in Panama. This tropical archipelago is a favorite of backpackers, to the point that it can get very crowded on certain times of the year.
Panama has invested a lot on Bocas del Toro, but while some of the islands have been developed in a sustainable way, other destinations have suffered the effects of uncontrolled development.
It is not uncommon to see big piles of garbage around Bocas Town, the biggest town on the archipelago – something that takes away a bit of Bocas del Toro charm, in my opinion.
If Bocas Town is crowded and dirty, Isla Bastimentos is all about nature and incredibly quiet. The main village there is Old Bank – no more than a few houses along a dirt road, no cars, and lots of jungle.
It is a nice place to relax, walk around (though it often rains and it is better to wear rain boots or good hiking shoes, or else it is impossible to walk) and admire nature.
The best way to discover Bocas del Toro is definitely by boat. A guided tour can take you to the main beaches and swimming spots where you can snorkel and admire marine life.
In Bocas del Toro you can practice all sorts of water sports such as kayaking, snorkeling and surfing. There are some hiking trails (though hiking in the humid heat is not ideal) too.
Some of the best Panama beaches are to be found in Bocas del Toro, such as Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach (on Isla Bastimentos).
You should also read my post A Guide To Bocas Del Toro, Panama: 12 Best Things To Do.
Relax in Las Lajas
Las Lajas, on the Pacific coast, hardly makes it on the list of places to visit in Panama. Yet, of all the Panama beaches, this is the one you are likely to enjoy the most. It is off the beaten path compared to the rest of the country and really enjoyable.
The main beach here is Playa Coronado, also referred to as Playa Las Lajas. This is a 20 km (12.4 miles) long beach of fine light brown sand (it’s actually a mix of black and gold sand), lined with palm trees.
The water is really warm so it hardly provides a break from the heat, but it is fun to play among the waves. Just don’t expect the clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea here! On the plus side, it’ s a fantastic sunset spot.
You can also bike along the beach and observe the crabs as they go in and out of their holes.
Portobelo is a lovely fishing village with a nice Caribbean feel and a fantastic, quiet bay. It’s a place where boats headed to San Blas on their way to Colombia dock. The village itself is a nice place to explore and relax and a good starting point for visits to nearby beaches and sites.
The main attraction is the Fuerte San Jeronimo, part of a larger fort that was built here by the Spanish military between the 17th and 18th centuries to protect the Atlantic trade.
You should also check out the Aduana – the Royal Customs House of Portobelo – and the beautiful Iglesia de San Felipe. From Portobelo, it’s an easy boat trip to Playa Blanca, one of the nicest swimming beaches in the area.
I recommend spending a couple of days in Portobelo to take in the lovely atmosphere. If you are tight on time, you can consider visiting on day trips from Panama City. The following are all good options:
This tour to Mamey Island and Portobelo takes you around the UNESCO-recognized coastline to see historic sights, snorkel and spend time soaking up the beautiful scenery.
This other tour allows you to explore Portobelo town before taking you to a private beach on Isla Grande.
I also recommend this catamaran sailing tour that takes you around from Panama City (or you can also meet in Portobelo). You’ll explore Portobelo and then head out to the secluded Playa Blanca, snorkel, and kayak around mangroves.
You should also read my post A Guide To Portobelo, Panama.
Sail the San Blas Archipelago
Sailing across San Blas is thought to be one of the unmissable things to do in Panama, but it is easier said than done. Even on good days, the Atlantic Ocean is rough and it takes a good stomach not to feel sick.
There are various companies doing the crossing to Colombia via San Blas by sailboat, and depending on the season it may be necessary to book well in advance. The starting price for the crossing is $600 USD, which generally includes food but not alcoholic beverages, but you can bring those on board.
Some companies offer cheaper prices, but in my experience paying a cheaper price may sometimes equate to getting ripped off – having a really small boat that carries too many passengers, for example – meaning that there is no room to move around, to stay on the deck, etc.
Make sure to do your research and read all the reviews before booking your San Blas sailing trip!
There are also companies that offer to do the crossing via speed boat, where passengers only spend 3 hours per day on the boat and sleep and eat on the small islands.
This is the best option if you don’t enjoy sailing so much and since more time is pent on the islands, it’s a great opportunity to get to meet the local communities.
San Blas Adventures used to have the monopoly of speed boats, but now there are more companies offering to do the trip, like Mia San Blas and San Blas Frontera. These companies work in cooperation with the Kuna Yala indigenous communities, so these will be benefiting directly from the tourism.
If you are tight on time, you can go on a day trip to San Blas departing from Panama City like this one that you can book via Get Your Guide. It’s a long day – you leave from the city at 5:00 am. But worth it and it comes highly recommended.
Make sure to also read my post A Guide To Sailing San Blas Islands, Panama.
Visit Santa Fe and San Francisco
If you wish to get off the beaten path, one of the best things to do in Panama is to head to Santa Fe and San Francisco. They are so off the tourist track that not many people actually speak English there.
Santa Fe is a lovely small mountain town located at 457 meters (1,500 feet) above sea level, with a pleasant climate and where you can enjoy activities such as hiking, birdwatching and even tours of the coffee plantations.
San Francisco is home to the Iglesia de San Francisco de la Montana, which dates from 1727. Not far from it, the Balneario El Salto is a wonderful swimming hole.
Buy a Panama Hat
Panama hats (the one that President Roosevelt wore during the inauguration ceremony of the Panama Canal) are actually originally from Ecuador, but that should not stop you from getting one in Panama!
In fact, one of the best things to do in Panama is heading to a local market like Santa Ana to check out how they are made.
Hike around Boquete
When I visited Panama I was desperate for a respite from the terrible heat and humidity of the capital and the coast, and I could only find it in Boquete. This nice town is very chilled. Now a hotspot for many expats who can count on good restaurants, cafés and nice hotels, it’s also a popular destination among locals.
The main reason to visit Boquete (other than the cooler weather) is the variety of hiking trails – there are several that depart right from town, and an easy taxi ride will take you to many more.
During a hike, you can enjoy local flora and fauna – it’s a great place for birdwatching. There are many waterfalls too – some with lovely swimming holes where you can refresh for a moment or two.
The best hike is definitely that of Volcan Baru, but you need a guide for that. Another nice hike is the Sendero Los Quetzales (Quetzales Trail), which starts in the Volcan Baru National Park.
Spend time in the Gulf of Chiriqui
One of the best things to do in Panama if you want to get away from the main tourist track is to head to the Gulf of Chiriqui, on the Pacific Coast.
The most impressive place here is the Isla Palenque, a fantastic destination with a unique culture, gorgeous beaches and lots and lots of wildlife. Indeed, this is a prime destination in Panama to spot humpback whales.
Learn how to kitesurf in Punta Chame
Diving, snorkeling and surfing are all things to do in Panama, but did you know this is a great kitesurfing destination too? Fair enough, you have to get a bit off the beaten path for that – Punta Chame, a peninsula on the Pacific Coast about 1.5 hours drive from Panama City, is the place to do it.
Similarly to Las Lajas, this is a really long, wide beach with super shallow and warm water. It’s perfect if you are just looking to learn to kitesurf. Several kitesurfing schools can be found that offer lessons. The best time to visit if you are looking for solid wind is between December and April.
Check out the birdlife at Isla Coiba
If you enjoy surfing, you will definitely enjoy Bocas del Toro where there are a few good surf spots. Other than that, Santa Catalina on the Pacific Coast is another surfing hub. But there’s more to it than just good waves.
Not far from Santa Catalina, you can actually visit Isla Coiba, now Coiba National Park. This is a fantastic place to visit if you are into birdwatching, with around 200 bird species calling it home.
You will also be able to see crocodiles, snakes and turtles. It’s a nice place to go diving too – the best sight is usually whale sharks.
Get to know the Embera People of Panama
Officially recognized as one of the country’s Indigenous Peoples, the Embera live in an area known as Comarca Emberá-Wounaan, whose capital is Unión Chocó. Also known as Chocó or Katío Indians, the Embera live between Panama (around 33,000 people) and Colombia (around 50,000).
Once nomadic communities that settled along the rivers of the two countries, nowadays the Embera are mostly settled.
The Embera are an egalitarian society, with no such thing as leaders or chief. They practice ceremonies and rituals that are unique – based on shamanism.
Getting to know this indigenous community is one of the most interesting things to do in Panama. There are many guided tours that will take you to visit them – just make sure you book something that is responsible, and that benefits the community too.
Several guided tours depart daily from Panama City. Below are some good options:
Embera Indigenous Village Experience – the best rated tour of the Embera Community, it also includes a canoe boat ride on the Chagres River.
Embera Village tour – this tour is actually very similar to the one mentioned above, but the group is smaller.
Monkey Island and Embera Village tour from Panama City – another great option that combines visiting the indigenous communities with a nice wildlife experience.
Useful Information To Plan Your Trip To Panama
When to visit Panama
A quintessential tropical country, Panama has two seasons: the dry season from December to April, and the rainy season. Visiting Panama in the rainy season implies more difficult conditions on the road, but also cheaper prices.
Please note that while on the Pacific coast the distinction between dry and rainy season is very clear, the same can’t be said for the Caribbean coast, where rain occurs on a regular basis also on the so-called dry season.
Arriving in Panama
The only international airport in Panama is that of Panama City. You will be issued a 90 days visa upon arrival but will be required to show proof of departure from the country in the form of a plane ticket back to your home country.
Crossing the border
The only border crossing in Panama is that with Costa Rica. The process of crossing the border is relatively easy, provided that you show proof that you are leaving the country.
There is no border crossing between Panama and Colombia – crossing the Darién Gap is dangerous and would require excellent survival skills.
The area is under the control of guerrilla fighters and drug traffickers, not to mention dengue fever is also an issue, along with other diseases that are spread in tropical countries and for which I recommend getting travel vaccinations.
Make sure to read my post How to – questions and answers on Latin America border crossing.
The only way to get from Panama to Colombia is thus to either take a flight or to sail across San Blas. There used to be a ferry service but it was recently suspended until further notice.
Viva Colombia is a budget airline that connects Panama City with Bogotà and Medellin at very reasonable prices.
Currency in Panama
The official currency in Panama is the US dollar. This makes things a whole lot easier for travelers. One thing to point out though is that there still are some coins that circulate in Panama which are not accepted in the US.
I tried to use some Panamanian dollar coins in Miami and I was told off!
Safety in Panama
I didn’t have any problems when I traveled in Panama, nor did I experience any danger. Having said so, crime is certainly an issue in some parts of Panama, such as in Colón (which is the main connection point between Panama City and Portobelo, and a major free port) and in the above mentioned Darién Gap.
I also noticed that drugs were flowing freely in Bocas del Toro.
Make sure to avoid streets that have little or no illumination at night and not to walk around alone at night.
Transportation in Panama
Panama City has a good public bus system that connects all the main parts of town, as well as a newly opened underground system.
Long distance buses are generally comfortable and punctual, and tickets can be bought in advance via agencies or even online. Shorter distances are usually covered by chicken buses, common in all of Central America.
These have a fixed route and they stop to let passengers on and off along the way, so they can be quite slow – yet a very good way to mix in with the locals, not to mention very cheap.
Make sure to check out my post Everything You Must Know About Chicken Buses.
Eating and drinking in Panama
Food in Panama is somewhat similar to that of the rest of Central America – at least to my tastebuds. The easiest (and cheapest) thing to eat is chicken with patacones (fried plantains croquettes) and rice.
Yet, one of the top things to do in Panama is eating fresh seafood. Panama City has a great restaurant scene and the fish market is a great place to have some good seafood.
Fruit in Panama is fresh and delicious – you can have fresh fruit, or fruit smoothies.
Water is not potable, and it is best to avoid it especially in Bocas del Toro.
Beer is the most common alcoholic drink. Aside from bottled beer, La Rana Dorada in Panama City is a great brewery.
What to pack for a trip to Panama
You will be better off traveling with a backpack rather than a suitcase. Roads can be bad, making it hard to carry around a suitcase. I love the Osprey Ariel 65, because it fits me perfectly. The Berghaus Wilderness 65+15 is great too, but bigger.
Here’s what I recommend packing:
- A pair of Havaianas– perfect to go to the beach and walk around in the city.
- Walking shoes – My favorite are Converse All Stars. Otherwise, I recommend a pair of good sandals – in the heat of Panama it is important to stay comfortable.
- A few pairs of shorts
- A sun dress and a skirt.
- A few t-shirts as well as tank tops.
- A waterproof jacket, because it often rains, even during the dry season, especially in the Caribbean side. I love one by North Face.
- A bikini, because obviously.
- A toiletry bag– to carry shampoo and conditioner, a soap or shower gel, toothbrush and toothpaste, a good sunblock, deodorant, and mosquito repellent.
- Pharmaceuticals – paracetamol, motion sickness pills for that sea sickness, and Imodium.
- A quick dry towel – this is one of the smartest things to do in Panama.
I also take recommend taking day pack to hold your personal belongings such as sunglasses, camera, powerbank, wallet and travel documents, and even a travel guide book (you can’t really rely on wifi to search for places).
Finally, I also recommend getting a good travel insurance for your trip to Panama. Get yours here.
Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.