Panama Travel Guide
Panama is famous for its canal, The Panama Canal, which is dubbed one of the seven wonders of the modern world. But there is a lot more to the tiny country than just its famous canal, cigars, or straw hats as Panama is easily the most sophisticated and open-minded country in all of South America. This is mainly due to the different cultures (Asian, American, African, and Spanish) that make up the country's unique identity.
Travelers that have been to Panama already know of the paradisiacal beaches, wildlife-rich rainforests, verdant volcanoes, and leisurely promenades that the country offers. You can also expect to hike volcanoes, zipline through dense forests, and take on river rapids while having the opportunity to visit remote indigenous communities.
This article contains some of the best destinations for people intending to visit Panama. The country has a lot to offer, something you should take full advantage of
Capital city: Panama City
Currency: The official curency is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB) – 1 USD = 1 PAB. Use US Dollars.
Electricity: Power voltage is 120 Volts. Power sockets type A and B.
Languages: Spanish is the official and widely spoken language. However, there are several other indigenous languages such as Kuna and Ngobe-Bugle.
10 Handpicked Highlights of Panama
Panama Viejo is the old Panama City which was a bustling trading metropolis in the 1600s. However, a brutal pirate attack in 1671 almost completely destroyed the town and the habitats abandoned the city instead of rebuilding it to create a new town that is now the present day Panama City.
A visit to Panama Viejo reveals sprawling acres of lands full of crumbling ruins. There’s a lot of history behind the ruins and you get some insight into one of the very first metropolis/colonial outposts in all of Panama.
There’s a bell tower that gives you an incredible view of the ruins and in the backdrop, you’ll see the modern-day Panama City. It’s a contrasting sight of the old and the new, the past and present, the abandoned and the future.
Casco Viejo, Panama City
Casco Viejo should be on any Panama City itinerary. It is the historic old town of Panama City and the location where survivors of Panama Viejo moved in to create a new city. Casco Viejo is filled with many colorful colonial buildings, cobblestone streets, luxurious hotels, and palm trees.
The old town can easily be explored on foot and neighborhoods are only short drives away. And the best time to visit Casco Viejo is during the day when most of the attractions, shops, restaurants, and cafes are open
Panama Canal – Miraflores & Gatún Locks
Knowing that the Panama Canal is among the seven wonders of the modern world is enough to make anyone want to see it. But the question is whether the canal will live up to its expectation. The answer is a solid yes, the Panama Canal will not disappoint you.
Considered an engineering feat, the canal was built to significantly decrease transit times of ships between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Did you know that ships have to be lifted 85 ft to the elevation of the canal? Did you know it takes each ship around 8 – 10 hours to pass through the canal? Learn about all these and see it happen live at the visitors’ center in Miraflores.
Climbing Volcan Baru
There’s a bit of Indiana Jones vibes to climbing volcanoes and the Volcan Baru in Panama allows you to channel your inner Indiana Jones. The trail up the volcano is very difficult and only the most determined and physically fit people are advised to attempt the hike. You’ll pass through dense jungle, rolling green hills, and rocky cliffs on your way to the summit.
The reward for your determination and endurance is panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean sea…at the same time! It’s a breathtaking view, one that’s straight out of paradise.
Bocas del Toro
A slow-paced small town in Panama, Bocas del Toro has many attractions for you to enjoy – as it is the gateway to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. There’s the amazing beaches, incredible jungles, great food, interesting nightlife, and water sports like scuba diving and surfing are very cheap. There’s also a boating lifestyle in the town that you’ll enjoy.
Bocas del Toro is something of a hidden gem in Panama, so the town isn’t crowded and that makes your stay more enjoyable. The experience in the town is also very authentic and you’ll find yourself falling in love with this amazing place in no time.
San Blas Islands
Locally known as Guya Islands, the San Blas Islands is a little piece of paradise with its perfect white sands and turquoise waters. A trip to the San Blas Islands isn’t cheap and facilities are basic at best although there’s a rustic charm to them. Tourism is still developing on the islands so you should expect any luxurious facilities here.
It’s best to sign up with an agency for guided tours of the island. Remember to bring your camera along as there is no shortage of photography opportunities.
Isla de Coiba & Coiba National Park
The Coiba National Park consists of some 38 islands with Isla de Coiba being the largest and the most popular. You’ll see some of the largest coral reefs in the world in the national park and snorkeling is a popular activity as visitors get to see brightly colored fish fitting among the coral reefs.
Full of dense jungles and exotic wildlife, you’ll hear howls of monkeys and see different bird and animal species on the visit. It’s also worth mentioning that Isla de Coiba has a dark past as it was used as a penal colony during the military regime of Panama. Ruins of the prison can be visited and there’s an eerie feeling about them.
Soberanía National Park For Birdwatching
East of the popular Panama Canal is another well-known destination in Panama, the Soberanía National Park. The park is a hotspot for hikers, bird watchers, and fishers. You can literally see hundreds of bird species in some parts of the park, especially the Pipeline Road. Expect to see exotic bird species like trogons, hawks, toucans, motmots, tanagers, red-bellied woodpecker, harpy eagles, ground cuckoos, and so on. If hiking is your thing, there are several trails of varying difficulty for your enjoyment.
If an isolated tropical location with a laid-back vibe with friendly locals sounds appealing, then you should make your way to Boca Chica. From relaxing on the beautiful beaches to participating in all sorts of water sports like sailing, diving, surfing, snorkeling, and fishing, there are a lot of interesting things to do in Boca Chica. There are several opportunities for hiking and sighting wildlife. You can always visit the nearby islands on a day trip to explore what they have to offer.
Featuring primeval forest and exotic wildlife, a trip to the Darien allows you to experience one of the most untouched and remote locations on the planet. Travelers with a passion for the outdoors and the willingness to sacrifice creature comforts will love the Darien. There’s a lot of wildlife and flora to discover. You’ll also learn about the history and way of life of the indigenous tribes that call the Darien their home. A visit to the Darien is only possible through local operators with experience organizing tours in the area.
Panama's Geography & Landscapes
The S-shaped country of Panama is a narrow land bridge or isthmus that connects North and South America. The country can be divided into two main regions namely:
- – The Highlands and mountains which are mostly made of volcanic rocks
- The Lowlands
The landscape of the country is diverse ranging from beautiful beaches, mountains, rainforests, and islands.
Best Time To Go To Panama
Panama has a tropical climate with a short dry season and a long rainy season. The dry season runs between January to May and the weather is clear and stable at this time. The rainy season is between May to January and rain usually falls during late afternoon into the night.
While you can visit Panama at any time of the year, the best time to visit the country and explore the outdoors is the dry season. Unsurprisingly, this is also the peak tourist period so it’s a smart idea to make reservations in advance.
It’s worth mentioning that Panama doesn’t get very crowded, except in some cities like Panama City, so you don’t really have to avoid the peak tourist period. But if you want to visit during the rainy season, remember to pack a rain jacket.
Traveling in Panama
Like its neighboring country of Costa Rica, Panama is a very safe country. Yet, the standard safety tips I recommend to those visiting a foreign country still apply.
The main thing to watch out for here is petty theft which is common in Central America. Your bag could be snatched if you don’t wear or hold it properly or tightly. Your belongings could also be stolen if you don’t attend to them. So, you need to be very vigilant especially in the main cities and where there is a crowd.
Below are safety tips to keep you safe in Panama:
- Don’t flaunt your belonging. You may unwittingly make yourself a target for thieves.
- Colon City can be considered dangerous. Avoid it after dark if possible.
- Some neighborhoods in Panama City are sketchy and crime-ridden. Ask the hotel management for areas to avoid.
- Don’t use ATMs at night.
- Carry just about the amount of cash you need for the day.
- Don’t do drugs.
- Don’t accept drinks from strangers and don’t leave drinks unattended at bars.
- Don’t carry original documents around. Make photocopies and keep originals in a safe in your hotel room.
- Purchase good travel insurance.
- If you won’t do it at home, don’t do it in Panama.
Getting to & Around Panama
The main point of entries into Panama is by air through Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City. There is also the option to enter the country by land from neighboring country Costa Rica.
Buses are the cheapest and most popular way to travel within Panama. They vary j. sizes and comfort and the bigger cities usually have modern and air conditioned buses. The smaller towns are rural areas are typically served by minibuses, pick-up trucks, and flat-bed trucks.
Some cities like Colon and David have express buses that are faster and more comfortable than other types although they are also more expensive.
Car rental is mainly limited to Panama City. The roads are in fairly good condition and you’ll rarely need to use a 4WD except you are visiting the country in the rainy season.
Air travel is possible but very expensive.
Accommodation is generally cheap in Panama. It costs around $11 to $13 to spend a night in a hostel dorm. Private rooms will cost around $22 to $45 depending on the size of the room, location, and amenities. But you can expect free wifi and sometimes free breakfast from most hostels.
Budget and luxurious hotels are readily available. 2-star hotel usually start around $30 per night while 3-star hotels will cost at least $65.
Airbnb is a available and you’ll find shared room, shared dorm, personal room, or even an entire home or apartment depending on your budget.
Camping is legal and costs around $5 to $10 for a basic plot of land. You may have to pay a bit more for electricity.