Things to do in Panama – Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

Panama has every kind of natural challenge you can think of (besides of course those that involve snow.) River rafting, swimming, mountain climbing, hiking, waterfall exploring, diving—there’s somewhere for all of that. Since Panama is so small, you don’t have to go physically far from the main highway to reach the thickest jungle of your life, get surrounded by howler monkeys, sloths and exotic birds and have lunch with a Ngäbe family that is using a stove made out of rocks and fanning the fire with a banana leaf.

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama for two years and later returned and lived in Panama City for a few months, and have been all over the country with both locals and tourists, discovering the best places and experiences along the way and developing a combination of “local” knowledge with a traveler’s curiosity. I have a lot of friends and Keteka customers ask how they can maximize their vacation time, so I decided to write a breakdown of things to do in Panama, including a combination of popular tours and activities, with more unusual, off-the-beaten-path experiences. This little guide should help you plan a trip of anywhere from a few days, up to a month in Panama.

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

An Indigenous Ngäbe Community in Bocas del Toro, Panama

What to do in Panama City

I actually wrote a whole blog post on what you should do with 24 hours in Panama City, so that should give you a more thorough overview on how to maximize your time there. Here is a quick summary:

Casco Viejo (The Old City)

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the oldest European settlement on the Pacific coast of the Americas, whose architecture and ambience is shaped by French, Spanish, and north American influences. This is unequivocally the best place in the city, day or night, to walk around and pop into little cafes. I also think it has the best nightlife in Panama City.

The Fish Market

This is right next to Casco Viejo and is my favorite place in Panama City to get dinner, since you can get a huge cup of ceviche for $5 and a beer for $1. Pair that with a nice perch on the grass overlooking the ocean and Panama City skyline and you’ve got perfect ambiance and fresh fish at an unbeatable price. (If you’re interested in learning more about local Panamanian food, check out this post about the best roadside spots).

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

 

Panama Canal

This is one of the most impressive feats of engineering in human history and a must-see while you’re in Panama City. While taking a boat through the Canal may sound tempting, I did this once with my family and thought it was pretty boring. The museum and observation deck at the Mirasflores Locks teach you a lot about the Canal’s construction and influence on the country (massive – it’s the reason Panama exists as a country!) and give you a chance to see boats raised and lowered by the locks up close.

Amador Causeway

Thrust into the ocean, overlooking the Panama City skyline on one side and the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal on the other, this is a great place to get lunch or dinner after a leisurely bike ride and/or a trip to the Frank Gehry-designed Biodiversity Museum.

Click Here to Get a Locally-Guided Tour of Panama City

Day Trips from Panama City

While I will always recommend extending trips outside of Panama City as long as you are able, if you need to be back in the capital the same night, you have access to a wide range of day trips, including beaches, islands, a pirate fort, and bat caves. Following are some of my day trip recommendations from Panama City.

Portobelo

Portobelo is a colonial fort city on the Caribbean coast of Panama and the northern mouth of the Panama Canal. Rich in pirate history, Portobelo was captured by both William Parker and Henry Morgan at different points in the 1600s and is the suspected burial site of Francis Drake (who was allegedly thrown into the deep harbor in a lead coffin). It also houses the Black Christ statue, which, according to legend, was removed from the shore in boats several times, only to mysteriously reappear. The statue is now a destination for thousands of Panamanians, who make a pilgrimage each year. The most devout walk for days to reach it, and when they get close, drop to their knees and crawl the remainder of the distance. For the least devout, Black Christ Day is essentially an excuse to get roaring drunk in the streets. Now a sleepy city of about 3,000 people, Portobelo makes for a day trip or half day trip of strolling through old forts, visiting the Black Christ statue, and sampling Afro-Antillean cuisine.

Isla Grande

A half day trip to Isla Grande is a perfect pair with a trip to Portobelo. Located nearby, this island has famously beautiful landscapes, a relaxed Afro-Antillean vibe, and clear waters that are perfect for snorkeling. A Portobelo and Isla Grande day trip is also easy to do from Panama City, since it is just a two hour drive each way.

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

Isla Mamey

Isla Mamey

This island is not as well known to tourists, but is a popular beach and barbecue destination for locals. It is also close to Portobelo, which makes it a good alternative half day trip to Isla Grande, but come prepared to rough it a little, as there are no facilities on the island and no infrastructure. This does, however, add to the appeal, and means that on weekdays, or any day during the off season (May-November), you may end up with the island to yourself!

Click here for a day tour of Isla Grande and Portobelo!

San Blas

If you see a postcard or promotional poster about Panama with a tiny island in the middle of dazzling blue water on a cloudless day, you’re probably looking at the San Blas Islands. Located northeast of Panama City in the Caribbean, this archipelago is a semi-autonomous district (similar to a reservation in the U.S.) run by the indigenous Guna people. Of the over 300 islands, only about 50 are inhabited, and only a handful of those are open for visitors. As a result, the available islands are highly trafficked by tourists, but by virtue of being so small, you’ll almost certainly still have a pretty private experience.

The islands are difficult to reach via public transport, and if you haven’t arranged accommodation ahead of time, you won’t have a destination for the boat driver anyway, so it is best to use a tour operator that can get you from Panama City out to an island and a place to stay. You can do an all-inclusive weekend for as low as $100! Alternatively, if you have your own car, you can drive the three-ish hours from Panama City to the port, park your car there, and take a boat out to your island (but you’ll need a contact in order to set that up ahead of time). There are also plenty of small, independent operators that can drive you to the port and pick you up after your day trip or weekend on the islands. Just shoot me an email if you’re looking for a reliable driver: jack@keteka.com.

Note that the Guna do not like when people take pictures of them without their permission. They dress in multicolored molas (blouses) and have leg beads from about their ankles to their knees, which makes them extremely photogenic. Given the high volume of tourists to the same few islands, the same people end up getting photographed all the time, which would understandably get annoying. So ask permission, and don’t be surprised if they say no, or ask for a small payment in exchange.

Once on the islands, you basically just chill and enjoy the beach and sun! The water is warm year round, and there are plenty of places to snorkel, if you feel like being more active. Most of the little islands also have a volleyball net and at least a few locals that are willing to play if you put a game together. You’re allowed to bring your own food and drinks, but several of the islands also have small stores that sell snacks, beer, and other drinks. The accommodations are typically wooden huts with simple beds and a shared bathroom in the middle of the island. While rustic, the huts are also extremely relaxing, as they are typically right on the water, so you can hear the waves gently lapping at the shore as you drift off to sleep.

The Bayano Bat Caves

You’ll hear howler monkeys screaming as you approach, but that shouldn’t stop you from going into the Bayano Bat Caves. Waist deep in water, with your headlamp providing the only illumination around you, and bats swirling above, this is a legitimate adventure only three hours from Panama City. For the full experience, stay the night in a cabaña in the adjacent community of Pueblo Nuevo and enjoy meals cooked by the local tourism cooperative. (Not sure about bus travel in Panama? Here’s a guide to riding buses in rural areas).

Embera Villages – The Right Way

Indigenous Embera village tours have become popular options as day tours from Panama City or parts of shore visits from cruise ships. Unfortunately, while the Embera village community members host the tours, cook, and perform all of the cultural presentations, it’s common for them to get only 5-15% of the tour price. This low margin disincentivizes the community members in the long term and does little in terms of poverty alleviation or real job creation. Additionally, because of the large volume of tourists going to the same places, the authenticity of the experience degenerates over time.

It’s hard to strike the balance between cultural preservation and an increased influx of travelers, but the Embera village of Ella Drua just outside of Panama City is doing a good job of receiving tourism on their own terms and consistently delivering a fun, educational, and memorable experience. Their women-led tourism group came up with traditional food, dance, and storytelling that give a real and fascinating insight into the way the Embera people have lived for thousands of years. They also constructed a rancho (in this case, a stilted wooden structure with no walls and a roof made of penca leaves) for the express purpose of receiving travelers who want a deeper dive into the everyday life of the modern Embera people. This is community-based tourism at its finest.

Take Me to Ella Drua

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

Traditional Embera Dance

Coiba

This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most ecologically diverse places in Panama, perfect for hiking, snorkeling, and seeing monkeys and hundreds of species of birds in the wild. The former home to a prison that hosted hundreds of human rights atrocities, Panamanians refused to visit the island even after it was closed, inadvertently creating a perfectly preserved habitat. Now a national park, travelers can visit the island by either contracting a boat for the day, or by staying overnight at the ranger station.

There are a few Coiba access points from the mainland, but my favorite (and one of the easiest) is the town of Santa Catalina. This is a quiet surf town on the coast of southern Veraguas that has ample infrastructure to accommodate tourists, but is never overrun. A few hours south of the highway, getting to Santa Catalina requires a concerted effort, so only surfers and people that want to go to Coiba make the trip. Once there, it is easy to find local operators that run boats to Coiba and rent snorkeling equipment. There is typically a fixed price for the boats, so getting more people makes it significantly cheaper. It takes about two hours to get to the island by boat.

A common day trip to Coiba includes snorkeling around several micro islands, which host perfectly preserved coral habitats, where you can see sea turtles, small sharks, and a huge range of tropical fish. It also usually includes one or two hikes. One of the best is a hike through a part of the jungle whose trees are filled with howler monkeys. This hike is best early in the morning, when the monkeys are out and about, which means either doing it after an overnight on the island, or contracting a very early boat.

Generally, I would say it’s worth planning to do a couple of days on Coiba island, but if you don’t have that kind of time, a day trip to Coiba (and overnight in Santa Catalina) is worth the trek down from the highway.

Boquete and Chiriqui

Boquete is one of the top destinations in Panama and while the center of town is a bit overrun with tourists and resident gringos, there are some activities definitely worth checking out if you plan to visit that area. Much of the Chiriqui province is cloud forest, which makes for excellent hiking, birdwatching, and ideal coffee growing conditions. It is also arguably the most pleasant weather in Panama – consistently in the mid-70s and (mostly) dry, as opposed to the high 80s and 90s and extremely humid. A 11,400 foot (3,500 meter) volcano and a pair of large rivers round out the adventure offerings for the area, giving you an opportunity for a challenging hike and great rafting and kayaking options.

Coffee

Panama has a global reputation for excellent coffee, including the famous Geisha, a variety of Arabica. At $70 for a 250g bag, it’s definitely a luxury/novelty experience for most, but fortunately, most of Boquete’s coffee is reasonably priced.

There are multiple restaurants and coffee shops in the center of Boquete that sell cups and bags of local brew, but one of the best ways to get to know the area’s roasts is through a tour of a coffee plantation. You can learn about the coffee process, from bean to brewing, and of course sample some at the end of the tours.

Hiking

The Boquete area’s temperate weather makes for some of the most comfortable hiking in Panama. Your hotel or hostel should be able to recommend a variety of hikes ranging from a couple of hours, to multi-day excursions. Whichever hike you choose, you will be surrounded by spectacular green cloud forest, and it doesn’t take much climbing to reach gorgeous views of the valley. Wherever you go, you will also be surrounded by tropical birds.

Birdwatching

Panama has more mammal, bird, and reptile diversity than Canada and the United States combined. The Boquete area is particularly special for birders because it is home to the Quetzal – a bird only found in the highlands of Central America. The Mayan and Aztec peoples considered Quetzales sacred, wearing their feathers during ceremonies, and modern birders consistently list Quetzales as one of the most beautiful and elusive birds on the planet.

Volcan Baru

One of the area’s most challenging and rewarding hikes is climbing the Baru Volcano. Its summit is one of the only places in Central America where you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans (though it has to be quite clear that day to see the Atlantic).

There are two sides to the volcano – the Boquete and the Volcan side. The Boquete side is a road, and easy enough to scale on your own. The Volcan side is a path with challenging terrain and few markings, so I highly recommend doing this side with a guide if you are looking for an extra challenge. To summit in time for sunrise, you should leave around midnight on the Boquete side, and around 10pm on the Volcan side. (This is a general recommendation, by the way, you should definitely consult a local guide and be honest about your level of fitness – if you leave too early, you’ll have to kill time on the summit in the dark, and it’s very cold; if you leave too late, you’ll miss the sunrise). If you want to take it slow and not worry about timing, you can also hike up in the late afternoon and camp near the summit. Whichever option you choose, bring layers, as the hike up will be chilly and the hike down quite warm (will be sunny by then); also bring a headlamp or flashlight, since you’ll be hiking in the pitch black.

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

Volcan Baru at Sunrise

Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking

The Chiriqui Viejo river offers over 35 whitewater opportunities for rafters and kayakers of varying skill levels. If it is one of your first times on a river, you can enjoy Class 3 rapids, which are fast, but not crazy. If you are more experienced, communicate that to your guide and he or she will aim you towards the more exciting stuff. Most whitewater rafting/kayaking day trips include a lunch and are led by guides who know the river as well as you know the interior of your house.

The Best of Boquete – In One Day

Los Quetzales Lodge

This is one of my favorite hotels in the world. Located at the base of the cloud forest, surrounded by farms sloping up the sides of the mountains, this eco-lodge has a range of rooms, including suites with built-in fireplaces, modest dorm rooms, and full cabins surrounded by cloud forest. Its restaurant features fresh, organic vegetables, grown right on the property, and a menu of dishes that taste homemade. During the days, you can easily access a range of hikes in the surrounding national park, go horseback riding, birdwatching, or simply relax at the spa or in your comfortable room. This is also a better option for those who want to enjoy Chiriqui, without being surrounded by other tourists (as is more often the case in Boquete). To get there, take the Cerro Punta bus (not the Boquete bus) from David.

Bocas del Toro

A Warning About “Bocas Island”

I have strong feelings about Bocas del Toro, that may clash with what you find other places online. In short, the main island (technically Isla Colon, but everyone calls it “Bocas Island”) is a shitshow, packed with partying tourists and drug dealers and tour operators hustling for your business. To be fair, there are some cool bars right on the caribbean, which I thoroughly enjoy visiting in the late afternoon and around sunset. Once the sun goes down though, I’m not a big fan of Bocas Island – the party culture is over-the-top and I think that time could be better spent enjoying one of the province’s many incredible island getaways. So if you want to party, go to Bocas Island and have a good time. If you are looking to enjoy nature and culture with all of your available time in Panama, pass through Bocas Island (which you’ll typically need to use as a hub) on your way to a more authentic Bocas experience, like the following two listed here.

The Oreba Chocolate Tour

Rio Oeste has arguably the best chocolate tour in Panama. Co-created by a Peace Corps volunteer (and one of our original founders), the Oreba chocolate tour is 100% owned and run by a local, indigenous Ngäbe cacao working group, which produces exclusively shade-grown, organic cacao that they hand-roast into chocolate. During the chocolate tour, a member of the coop will take you on a three hour excursion through the surrounding jungle (where you may get a chance to see sloths!) and walk you through the traditional cacao production process, which involves hand-grinding the beans on a smooth rock and then roasting them over a “three rock fire.” During the tour, you will get a chance to try both raw cacao and finished chocolate. Their dark chocolate is one of my lifetime favorites and the bars and bags of nibs are both perfect for munching. They also sell “bricks” of cacao, which are great for making brownies or hot chocolate. This experience is easily accessible from Bocas Island.

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

Tourist Cabaña on Isla San Cristobal

Isla San Cristobal

If you want a taste of how local Bocas islanders live, San Cristobal island is a perfect introduction. This indigenous Ngäbe community blends traditional and modern habits into their everyday lives, creating a fascinating contrast. A local women’s cooperative receives travelers and offers a range of cultural experiences, including cooking, traditional dances, and weaving chakra bags out of leaves. There are also a host of hiking options around the island and a rustic, but comfortable cabin available to tourists who want a longer and more immersive experience. A short boat ride from Bocas Island, San Cristobal makes for an excellent day trip or overnight.

Click Here to Discover Awesome Tours on the Caribbean!

Comarca Ngäbe Bugle

If you want a legitimately off-the-beaten-path experience, you should visit a Ngäbe community on your way from Panama City to Chiriqui or Bocas. Most indigenous tourism in Panama is dominated by the Embera, given their vibrant traditions and proximity to Panama City. On the other side of the country, most travelers will see Ngäbes (whose women are easily identified by their brightly colored patterned dresses) in either Chiriqui or Bocas, but will never actually interact with them. The reservation where most Ngäbes live is right next to Chiriqui (the Boquete area) and most travelers unknowingly drive right past it on their way from Panama City to David.

The Ngäbe are the biggest indigenous group in Panama, and the poorest. Descended from warriors, they proudly talk about how they fought the Spanish so ferociously that the conquistadors eventually had to just leave them alone (but not before pushing them out of the best farm lands in Panama). While many Ngäbe communities are quickly modernizing, there are people that still hold on to their language, legends, and cultural traditions.

The community of Bajo Cerro Ñame is one community that retains such traditions and just recently began to offer packages to tourists to experience their ancient culture. Through a mix of activities (like hiking and horseback riding) and simply living like a local, a couple of days in Bajo Cerro Ñame will teach you quite a lot about how many modern indigenous live around the world today.

Things to do in Panama - Tips to Help You Maximize Your Vacation Time

Hopefully this post has helped you hash out the things you’re going to do on your trip to Panama. There is, of course, much more of the country to discover outside of what is mentioned here, and you can find a more complete list of experiences by browsing through all our tours in Panama. I also wrote a post about the cultures of Panama, if you want to know more about what you might experience on your trip there. And again, if you want any help figuring out your itinerary, or have any general questions about travel in Panama, please don’t hesitate to email me at jack@keteka.com – helping people find the best experiences in Latin America is what I do!