There’s so much more to Panama than its world-famous waterway.
Yes, its canal is a whopper – and something you won’t want to miss – but this Central American country offers lots more besides. With myriad islands, wildlife-rich tropical forests, and miles of pristine coastline on two oceans, it’ll keep you under its spell for weeks.
Squeezed between Costa Rica and Colombia, this narrow land bridge and biological corridor may be compact, but it packs a lot in. From a cosmopolitan capital filled with state-of-the-art skyscrapers to the splendid isolation of the Guna Yala Archipelago, there’s a good chance you’ll want to extend your trip here. Especially once you hear about its adrenaline-fueled adventure in the highlands around Boquete and the island hopping opportunities in Bocas del Toro.
These are the eight best places to visit in Panama.
Casco Viejo is one of Panama City’s most historic – and hip – neighborhoods © Cacio Murilo / Shutterstock
1. Panama City
Central America’s most stylish capital is a tale of three cities. Downtown is a skyscraper-packed hub of international finance, glitzy shopping malls, and upscale restaurants. Across the bay, tombstone-like ruins are all that’s left of the original city, Panama Viejo, which was sacked by pirates in 1671.
Next comes Casco Viejo, which, after an ambitious restoration, has become the city’s hippest neighborhood. Boutique spots like the American Trade Hotel and stylish rooftop restaurants and bars such as Casa Casco fill the pastel-colored colonial mansions that line its cobblestone streets.
To escape the urban jungle, hike the trails of the Parque Natural Metropolitano, or cycle along the scenic Amador Causeway, where the striking Frank Gehry-designed BioMuseo celebrates the natural and cultural history of the isthmus.
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2. Panama Canal
The world’s most famous shortcut, the Panama Canal – dubbed “the big ditch” – has been a vital trade route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans since it opened in 1914. An awe-inspiring feat of engineering, this man-made marvel operates around the clock and moves more than half a billion tons of goods a year.
The easiest place to watch the canal’s mechanics in action is from the viewing platforms at the four-story Miraflores Visitor Center – try to time your visit with the arrival of a mega-ship, and don’t miss the 3D movie. You can get even closer to the locks on a partial (6–7 hours) or full (10–12 hours) canal transit with Ancon Expeditions.
Adrenaline junkies should head to the highland town of Boquete, where adventurers have their pick of rappelling, rock climbing, and rafting. From the foothills of Volcán Barú, you can hike up to the summit for a show-stopping sunrise, or whizz above the slopes on a zip line.
Hiking along its misty cloud forest trails in search of hidden waterfalls and elusive quetzals, shrouded in greenery and serenaded by birdsong, is a must.
After sweltering in Panama City, Boquete is – quite literally – a breath of fresh air, where shade-grown coffee plantations stretch to the horizon in an undulating patchwork of greens. Sample Panama Geisha, one of the world’s most expensive cups of joe, then feast on farm-to-table fusion fare at Italian-run Retrogusto.
4. Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro have something for everyone. Simultaneously a backpacker party hub, couples’ chilled-out Caribbean paradise, and ex-pat enclave, the three main islands and scores of uninhabited islets also boast some of Panama’s finest beaches.
Bocas Town on Isla Colón is party central. Everything from hostels to handicraft stores is housed in brightly painted, charming clapboard buildings. Go starfish spotting at Playa Estrella, where the calm waters are perfect for snorkeling. Then kick back over killer cocktails and just-caught fish at over-the-water El Último Refugio.
For jungle-backed beaches, coral-fringed cays, and magical surf breaks at Wizard Beach, island hop to Isla Bastimentos. Home to a namesake marine park, this important conservation area contains mangroves, monkeys, crocodiles, and caiman, among other wild things, with superb snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities to match.
Unplug in the San Blas Islands, where there are plenty of white-sand beaches – but no internet © Westend61 / Getty Images
5. Comarca de Guna Yala (San Blas Islands)
Indulge your inner Robinson Crusoe on this string of jewel-like tropical islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast – all swaying palms, icing-sugar-soft white sand, and azure water.
The San Blas archipelago has an island for every day of the year (plus a few to spare) and offers the chance to disconnect from the world: there are no internet, TV, or telephones. Instead, idle your time away, sunning, swimming, snorkeling, and stargazing.
This semi-autonomous region is home to the indigenous Guna people, who’ve fiercely protected their culture and customs – including molas, the hand-embroidered textiles designed and sewn by Guna women.
With their no-frills cane-and-palm-thatch cabañas, the island lodges are all owned and run by families from the more densely populated village-islands, such as Playón Chico.
6. Santa Catalina
A fishing village turned surfer haunt, Santa Catalina in the Gulf of Chiriquí has some of the best year-round breaks in Central America – no wetsuit required. Laid-back fishermen sell the day’s catch from the shade of a mango tree: expect sushi with a tropical twist.
And if you aren’t there to surf, this is the jumping-off point for Parque Nacional Coiba. Visit this former penal colony, dubbed “Panama’s Galápagos”, at the right time of year and you can swim alongside the gentle giants of the sea: whale sharks (December to April) and humpback whales (August to November), along with whitetip reef sharks, rays, hawksbill turtles and shoals of technicolor fish. To access the park, you’ll need to book a tour in town.
A center of Afro-Panamanian culture, Portobelo was one of the Caribbean’s busiest ports © SL_Photography / Getty Images / iStockphoto
Strolling around the unhurried streets of Portobelo, it’s hard to believe this was once one of the most important ports in the Caribbean, where treasure plundered from the Incas was shipped back to Spain.
The ruins of often-sacked fortresses remain, with Fuerte San Jerónimo the most popular. The stone Customs House, once piled high with Peruvian gold, stands out among the clapboard houses.
Portobelo’s African roots stretch to the Congo, and two spirited (and spiritual) festivals celebrate the vibrant local culture: the colorful and rhythmic biannual Festival de Diablos y Congos; and October’s Festival del Cristo Negro, when the Black Christ – a life-size wooden statue steeped in myth and legend – is removed from Iglesia San Felipe and paraded around town. Spaces like Casa de la Cultura Congo help keep traditional art and music alive.
8. Península de Azuero
Farming, folklore, and fiestas are the lifeblood of the Azuero Peninsula, the country’s cultural heartland, bordered by the Gulf of Chiriquí to the west and the Gulf of Panamá to the east.
Las Tablas puts on the country’s largest and loudest Carnaval celebration: expect flamboyant costumes, exuberant music, and energetic dancing. Further south, the streets of Pedasí are lined with well-preserved colonial buildings. Playa Venao, a golden sweep of sand with world-class surf, is another 40 minutes south.
And for wildlife spotting, the reserves of Isla Iguana and Isla Cañas – one of the few places on the planet where olive ridley sea turtles go to nest in large numbers – are just short boat hops away.