Mention Panama to most people, and the first thing that comes to mind is the Panama Canal. But savvy travelers know there is much more to this diverse Central American nation, scenically sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Thanks to Panama’s relatively small size — you can cross from Pacific to Caribbean in about an hour in its narrowest spot — it’s easy to explore the country’s various climates, cultures and activities in one trip. While the canal is a must-see on every visitor’s list, you’ll also want to stop in Panama City, whose beautifully restored historic center has become a trendy hot spot. In the nation’s interior you’ll find pristine natural parks and indigenous settlements that still practice centuries-old traditions.
In this slideshow, you can explore a few of the most memorable and unique experiences that Panama has to offer, from kayaking through crystal-clear Caribbean waters to tracing the route of the Panama Canal on a scenic train ride. You can stroll once-dangerous streets with a former gang member, or spend the night sleeping in an overwater hut in a semi-autonomous indigenous community.
Visit an Indigenous Community
A unique way to experience Panama’s pre-Hispanic heritage is by spending a day with members of the Embera, one of the country’s largest indigenous groups. Most of their population lives in a remote, semi-autonomous region in the eastern province of Darien. But there are also smaller settlements located closer to Panama City and Colon, making for easy day trips.
A tour operator called Rainforest Adventures offers a cultural tour to the Embera Village of Bri Bri. Getting there is part of the fun; you’ll enjoy a scenic ride through the countryside by car or van from your pickup point, and then board a piragua — a long, dugout canoe made from a single tree trunk — for an even more beautiful ride along a winding river to your final destination. You’ll be welcomed by village elders and children, most of whom have donned traditional garb.
A big advantage to visiting with companies like Rainforest Adventures is that you’ll probably arrive before — and separately from — the much larger groups of cruise passengers, so you’ll have more time to explore the village and chat with residents (guides are usually multilingual, so they can translate between English, Spanish and various indigenous languages). Residents serve visitors a tasty Embera lunch, which often consists of freshly caught tilapia with plantains, served in a large, folded banana leaf.
Tour Once-Dangerous Neighborhoods
Compared to every other metropolis in Central America, Panama’s capital is very much a city of the future: a fast-growing land of soaring, high-rise skyscrapers. Even the oldest inhabited part of town — the historic Casco Viejo, also known as the Casco Antiguo or simply “the Casco” — has been largely spruced up and made trendy with a growing array of stylish restaurants, bars and hotels. But one city tour allows a peek into a very different side of Panama City, highlighting the challenges and triumphs of residents who live in what was once one of its most dangerous neighborhoods.
Fortaleza Tours is likely the only company that offers such an insider’s view; its guides are former gang members who now lead visitors on walking tours of a neighborhood just blocks from some of the city’s trendiest establishments. Tours depart from the chic American Trade Hotel in the Casco Antiguo, which is set in a formerly abandoned building where those very same gang members once spent their time. Today they talk about hope and the neighborhood’s resilience, even as they show visitors the interiors of humble local residences. It’s a story you don’t usually hear on city tours, and its unique first-person point of view makes it all the more compelling.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
The Panama Traveler by Ed A.
“I took a taxi over to the Casco Viejo — the ‘Old City’ area of town. This area has many buildings over 300 years old. It is definitely worth more than just a day trip and I will plan on spending more time my next trip to Panama. It is becoming ‘gentrified’ and losing some of its character — but still an interesting area.” Read more!
Sleep Over the Water
Panama’s beautiful, semi-autonomous indigenous territory called Guna Yala (sometimes spelled Kuna Yala and formerly named San Blas) is the perfect place to doze blissfully to the sound of gentle waves. Hundreds of islands make up the archipelago, which is governed by the indigenous Guna people. You won’t find any chain hotels here (outside ownership in Guna Yala isn’t allowed), but you can choose from a variety of accommodations ranging from comfortable to downright primitive.
The town of Playon Chico, which is most easily reached by plane, is home to several noteworthy properties with overwater accommodations. Yandup Island Lodge sits on its own tiny island with a small, white-sand beach, away from the town itself. Rooms are rented as part of a package that includes three meals a day (making delicious use of locally caught seafood and traditional Guna ingredients), plus roundtrip boat transfers to and from the airport and two daily guided tours. For the most memorable experience, choose an overwater cabin where you can relax in a hammock on your own private balcony and sleep beneath a tall thatched roof.
Dad Ibe Lodge, also situated on its own private island, has three scenically positioned bungalows near the airport of Achutupu. And at Akwadup Lodge you’ll enjoy a similar experience, with overwater bungalows and easy access to swimming and snorkeling.
See Two Coasts from a Volcano
Boquete, the lovely hub of the Chiriqui Highlands, offers myriad opportunities to take in amazing views. One of the most impressive is at Baru Volcano National Park, which is centered around an extinct volcano that, at more than 11,000 feet, is the highest point in the country. Hardy travelers can hike the trail to the volcano’s summit, which offers unforgettable views of both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
Arrange for guided visits with tour operators including EcoCircuitos, which specializes in eco-friendly excursions around Panama, and Boquete Mountain Safari, which offers what is billed as the only Jeep adventure to the summit of the volcano. The eight-hour escorted Jeep tour — designed as an alternative to the 12-hour roundtrip hiking expedition — gives visitors the option to arrive at the summit early for the best views of the Caribbean and Pacific, or at the end of the day to see the sunset.
Beyond the volcano, this national park is a spectacular place to wander. Sendero Los Quetzales is an easier hiking trail that offers glimpses of colorful birds and babbling streams. EcoCircuitos offers customized tours that can include watching for hummingbirds, quetzals and large-footed finches, among many other birds.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Climbing Panama’s Baru Volcano by GreenTrip
“Our timing was perfect — the sun began to set just as we arrived at the summit. We were truly on top of the world, above a sea of white, puffy clouds. The skies began to turn pink in the distance as the clouds danced around us. As the sun sank lower and lower, the colors became more and more vibrant, to the point where we were in total awe of the gift that Mother Nature bestowed upon us.” Read more!
Catch a Show at the Teatro Nacional
Panama City’s oldest inhabited neighborhood, the Casco Antiguo (also known as the Casco Viejo) is dotted with a variety of architectural treasures. One of them, the elegant Teatro Nacional (National Theater), is also one of the capital’s most treasured cultural institutions. This neoclassical gem, designed by Italian architect Genaro Ruggieri, was built between 1905 and 1908 on the grounds of a former monastery. In recent years the interior — graced with frescoes by famed Panamanian painter Roberto Lewis — has been beautifully restored.
Take a seat in one of the gilded balconies and admire the chandelier and the well-dressed patrons before enjoying a live performance of theater, dance or music. (The theater doesn’t have a website, but you can call +507 262-3525 for schedules.) Even if you don’t have time to attend a performance, you can still check out the sumptuous interior; the venue is open to the public Monday through Friday during the day for casual visitors. For a more detailed tour of the interior, consider joining a guided Casco Antiguo tour; see CascoAntiguoTours.com or PanamaTours.info.
Venture into a Bat Cave
The picturesque Isla Bastimentos, an island about 10 minutes by boat from Bocas del Toro, is home to one of Panama’s most exciting — or, for the skittish, most frightening — natural attractions. The Nivida Bat Cave, located near a bay called Bahia Honda, is a gigantic cavern where large groups of fruit bats make their home.
Getting there is part of the fun. You’ll ride a boat from Bocas Town to Bahia Honda, followed by a picturesque river ride through mangrove forests. (Keep an eye out for sloths along the way!) When you reach the small pier, you’ll take a short hike past pineapple and banana trees and through an old cacao plantation before reaching the cave. You’ll follow the guide fearlessly into the water (which sometimes is chest-deep) as magnificent little bats hang and flit about overhead. You can even swim in a natural spring nearby.
The Spanish-language school Habla Ya can help arrange guided tours. Come to the school or to the Tungara Hostel a day before you want to take the tour to make arrangements.
Kayak to Lunch
The postcard-perfect archipelago of Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s most popular destinations for travelers looking for a laid-back vacation. Set on the Caribbean coast near the border with Costa Rica, this is paradise for travelers who prefer sun, sand, water sports and small independent hotels with lots of character. Many of the hotels and tour operators in Bocas Town, the region’s main tourism hub, rent kayaks, and you can often hop right off the dock of your hotel and paddle your way to nearby restaurants and islands.
Among the hotels with waterfront decks and piers are Hotel Bocas del Toro, Bocas Paradise and El Limbo on the Sea, all of which have restaurants that serve freshly caught seafood dishes and are popular with hotel guests and visitors alike.
If you’re staying at a hotel that doesn’t arrange kayak rentals, not to worry. You can contact local companies including Bocas Beach Villas Water Sports, which rents kayaks and other equipment for water-based fun.
Follow the Panama Canal by Train
Everyone talks about transiting the Panama Canal by boat. But how many people get to follow its scenic path by rail? The Panama Canal Railway traces a pre-Canal route that dates back as far as the early 19th century and played a role in the California Gold Rush. Because the rail line spanned the width of the country long before the canal was completed, the route became a popular way of transporting Gold Rush-era treasures from the west to east.
Once the Panama Canal debuted in the early 20th century, the railway was no longer a moneymaker — but in 1998, the Panama Canal Railway began rebuilding the line. The $80 million result offers super-comfortable passenger service between Panama City on the Pacific coast and Colon on the Caribbean side. The one-hour journey takes you through unspoiled rain forests, alongside the Canal’s massive locks and atop a scenic causeway over Gatun Lake. Passengers can board and disembark at the Colon 2000 Cruise Terminal, the Gatun Yacht Club or Pier 6 in Cristobal.
Admire Frank Gehry’s BioMuseo
Frank Gehry is one of the world’s most famous living architects, so it’s no surprise that his very first creation in Latin America has been attracting a lot of attention. The Museo de la Biodiversidad (Biodiversity Museum), usually called the BioMuseo, sits in the capital near the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal. It’s a confection of colorful, jutting angles that houses some of Panama’s most fascinating exhibits.
The museum opened in 2014 and has eight galleries that focus on the natural history of Panama. Our favorite is the Worlds Collide exhibit, where visitors cower in the presence of life-size re-creations of animals that moved between the continents millions of years ago, including giant mastodons and now-extinct species of horses.
Learn to Cook with Panamanian Flavor
Panamanian cuisine is a delicious blend of indigenous, Caribbean, European and African influences, and unlocking some of its secrets can add some flavor to the kitchen of any foodie. The most commonly used ingredients include corn, plantains, cassava, chicken and pork.
A good way to learn the ins and outs of the Panamanian kitchen is at Hotel Panamonte, a small hotel in Boquete that first opened in 1914. The property is home to what many consider the best restaurant in the city, if not the entire country. Gourmands are well advised to sign up for a class at the Panamonte Culinary School; the hotel and restaurant are owned by Charlie Collins, a chef renowned throughout Panama.
Under the guidance of Chef Collins and his staff, you’ll learn to choose the best ingredients from organic, hydroponic farms as well as nearby markets, and to use other local ingredients to create menus that are both sophisticated and authentic. The hotel offers three- and four-night package deals that allow guests to join hands-on classes with plenty of personal guidance and kitchen time. Also included in the culinary package is a coffee plantation tour and fireside tasting dinner.
For something completely different in Boquete, you can check with Casa de Montana, which in 2014 started offering Pakistani and Indian cooking classes. The property doesn’t have an ongoing schedule, so check before visiting.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
The Panama Traveler by Ed A.
“Boquete enjoys a year-round climate ideal for active retirement living and outdoor adventure seekers alike — birding, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, etc. … The town itself is really just a wide spot in the road, but it does have its own charm — and it is relaxing.” Read more!
Best Time to Go to Panama
Thanks to its location near the Equator, Panama tends to be warm and humid all year long, but the dry season runs between December and mid-April in much of the country. For lower hotel rates, aim to travel outside of of this period.
Panama on a Budget
Panama is a very affordable destination for most Western travelers; for example, you can book a stay at a Panama City luxury hotel for the cost of a mid-range property elsewhere. Eating on a budget is easy at little food stalls where you can pick up a delicious, inexpensive meal of rice, beans and grilled chicken.
–written by Mark Chesnut