7 best places to visit in PANAMA
Curious about the best places to visit in Panama? Often referred as “Crossroads of Americas”, Panama is an underrated destination in Central America that many people wouldn’t consider going to.
While it’s best known for the Panama Canal, there’s so much more to Panama than its canal.
Panama has some great diving spots, lush tropical forests full of exotic birds, shiny skyscrapers and remote islands with gorgeous beaches.
Panama is one of the most developed countries in Central America, and one of the most expensive. But it doesn’t mean that travelling to Panama will break your bank. In fact, it’s still a budget destination by European standards.
Sounds like a place you would want a visit?
But what exactly to see in Panama?
To help you with the task of planning we’ve created this list of some of the best places to visit in Panama.
7 best places to visit in Panama
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is Panama’s most famous and most important landmark. The Panama Canal is a waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. It was a massive construction project, and now it’s a vital waterway that saves time and money for cargo companies and shipowners.
Before the construction of the Panama Canal, ships had to sail around Cape Horn in South America to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel with a unique structure. As the canal is situated 26 metres above the sea level, there are canal locks on both sides of the canal. The locks lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake, and then lower the ships at the other end.
While it may sound a bit boring for some (especially if you aren’t into engineering!), the canal is definitely worth a visit.
But don’t show up randomly; find out what time the boats are crossing the canal as they aren’t going through it non-stop.
Panama City & Casco Viejo District
Panama City is the capital and largest city of Panama.
Panama City is not just a necessary starting point in Panama. Panama City is one of the most vibrant, exciting and cosmopolitan Central American cities. And, in my opinion, is one of the most underrated capitals in the world.
Glitzy and modern, diverse and lively, it’s a city with loads of things to do.
Explore Avenida Balboa. It is Panama’s modern business district with busy roads and shiny, modern skyscrapers.
Colonial Old Town of Casco Viejo is a must visit, too. It’s a historical district of Panama. With its colorful renovated colonial buildings, it’s a perfect place for a photoshoot.
The most famous church in Casco Viejo is Iglesia San Jose which is famous for its altar of gold.
Featuring ancient ruins, Panama Viejo is a remaining part of the original Panama City, the former capital of the country.
Together with the historical district (Casco Viejo) it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Enjoy the views of Panama City from Ancon Hill — a 199 metres high hill that overlooks Panama City.
Soberanía National Park
Soberanía National Park is a very popular national park and one of the best places to visit in Panama.
Located some 25 km from Panama City, it is the most accessible tropical forest in the country.
The national park is located along the shores of the Panama Canal and is one of the finest bird-watching sites in the country.
Some 525 bird species are found here. The majority of them can be found along Pipeline Road. It is 17.5 km long, and passes through old-growth and secondary forest. With a bird species list exceeding 400, Pipeline Road is the best place to see tropical birds in the Americas.
The park is also home to 105 species of mammals.
The Pearl Islands is a group of more than 200 islands and islets, many of which are tiny and uninhabited.
Until recently the Pearl Islands were a luxurious getaway, limited to the elite. It is still far from being a backpacker’s paradise, but it’s more affordable now for a mid-range tourist.
The islands are known for its white-sand beaches and turquoise waters.
At 234 square kilometres, Isla del Rey is the largest island of the group. But it’s not the most popular among tourists.
The most notable island is Contadora Island which is known for its luxury resorts and hotels.
Snorkeling, scuba diving and whale watching are some of the most popular activities for visitors.
Bocas del Toro
If Pearl Islands is more of a luxury getaway, Bocas del Toro is a budget destination.
Thanks to abundance of affordable accommodation, Bocas del Toro is a popular destination for young backpackers, and Bocas town is the biggest backpacker hub in Panama. It is also renowned for having some of the best party scenes in Panama.
Bocas del Toro is famous for its Filthy Friday Bocas which is Central America’s first and only island hopping party crawl. The party is taking place on 3 tropical islands every Friday from 11:30am to 9:00pm. It is one of the best things to do in Panama for backpackers.
What else to do in Bocas del Toro besides partying?
Visit Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. It is a very popular beach in the area. Isla Bastimentos is a great place for diving and surfing, as one of the best coral reefs in the Caribbean can be found there.
Starfish Beach is another very popular tourist attraction in Panama. Not only is it one of the best beaches in the Bocas area, but also a place where to see huge starfish. When you see one, do not pick it up and lift it out of the water: it’s fatal! Starfish are extremely fragile, and can breathe only underwater. Also, bacteria on your hands can kill these animals.
If you don’t come across a sloth during your trip to Panama, one of the ways to see a sloth is to visit the “Sloth Island”, where you can spot sloths from the boat (you aren’t allowed to set foot on the island).
San Blas Islands
San Blas, also known as Guna Yala, is an archipelago off Panama’s eastern coast and one of the best places to visit in Panama.
Consisting of more than 300 islands, it’s a gorgeous island escape. The islands are known for their lovely white sand beaches and turquoise seas.
The islands are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. And the people are one of the highlights of the trip to San Blas. Their unique culture that has changed little in centuries is truly amazing. The islands have a matriarchal society, and the women of San Blas are known for making hand-made textiles named Mola.
The tourism at the San Blas islands is regulated by the Kuna people and the islands can only be visited on organized boat tours.
Be warned — San Blas is not for those on a budget. Even the simplest rustic huts on San Blas are expensive. The organized boat tours are pricey, too.
If you are on a budget but still want to visit the islands, consider taking a day trip. It will be a loooong day, and it will set you back around 130 EUR. You’ll visit multiple islands and enjoy multiple activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding and snorkelling.
Boquete & Baru Volcano
The mountain retreat of Boquete is often referred to as Panama’s adventure capital. Also it is well known for its delicious coffee.
If you love coffee, do not forget to try Geisha coffee! It is one of the most expensive and exquisite coffee beans in the world. It is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, but it was imported from Costa Rica to the Boquete region. The coffee has become very popular in recent years due to its unusual and distinct taste.
But there’s more to Boquete than coffee. It offers plenty of hiking options and numerous other activities such as rafting, zip lining and rock climbing.
One of the best things to do in Boquete is to hike the Baru Volcano. With a height of 3475 meters, it is the highest point in Panama. But please do not hike Baru Volcano alone. It’s not safe. Join a guided tour instead.
Panama travel tips
- You don’t need a visa to travel to Panama. Citizens of the EU (and many other countries) may enter Panama for a maximum stay of 180 days without a visa.
- The driest time of the year is between December and April. It’s considered the best time to visit Panama. Avoid travelling in November, which is the wettest month.
- Panama is one of the most expensive countries in Central America, but it’s not a very expensive destination by European standards. There are a few exceptions such as San Blas and Pear Islands, but all in all it’s a budget destination.
- A cheap food-stall meal will set you back around 2-5 EUR, and a cheap double room — 25 EUR. Dorms are quite cheap, too — about 10 EUR per person. Long-distance bus tickets cost 15-25 EUR, depending on the length of the journey.
- The USD is accepted everywhere.
- If you are using taxis, agree on the price before the journey. Not all taxis have meters.
- Large cities and major tourist destinations are serviced by local express buses.
- Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, but still one should be careful when travelling in Panama. We advise against walking alone at night. Be wary of pickpockets. Don’t flash your belongings and keep your wits about you. Don’t travel alone at night.
- Do not forget to take your passport with you when travelling to San Blas. It is an autonomous region regulated by indigenous Kuna people. That means it’s like entering another country.