There’s so much to see in Panama, from ancient volcanic sites to pristine islands that look untouched by humankind. You’ll find hiking trails, hidden waterfalls, rare species, and there will always be more to explore.
About the size of South Carolina, Panama packs a big punch in a tiny territory. You can plan a trip around the nation’s bio-diversity…architecture and archeology (Panama has several UNESCO World Heritage sites)…or outdoor activities like fishing or scuba diving. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with just chilling in a cool mountain haven or a bohemian beach town.
Here’s our round-up of 10 things to do in Panama…with a few insider tips you’ll be glad to have under your belt (or fanny pack, as it were). Though we’re counting down from 10 to number 1, all of these are fun for singles or couples…families or grown-up groups. Each option offers something different—perfect whether you need to please multiple fancies or simply thrive on variety.
10. Hike the Los Quetzales trail
The resplendent quetzal is one of nature’s most amazing sights. You won’t regret setting out to find this elusive bird of legend. There are several access points to the landmark trail in the Highlands of Panama’s Chiriqui province. I like the Boquete entrance, not least because there are dozens of good inns and restaurants nearby. Hire a local guide and get to the trailhead just before dawn. Start your hike at daybreak so you’re less likely to get caught in the rain. Or go during the dry months of January through March.
9. Soak in the hot springs of Volcan
Also located in Chiriqui, Volcan is one of Panama’s highest settlements, at an elevation of about 4,200 feet. There are other hot springs in Panama that are easier to get to. But this is my top pick, thanks to the gorgeous scenery, complete with a river running through it. Locals sit for 20 minutes in the tiny “natural hot tub,” then jump in the frigid river to give themselves a shock. Very invigorating!
8. Take a surf lesson in Venao
If you love the water (and slightly off-the-radar locations), head east to Panama’s Pedasi region. There are more than a dozen beaches to explore, but one of my favorites is Venao, about a 40-minute drive from Pedasi village. It’s a surfing beach, and a great place to take a lesson. If that doesn’t strike your fancy, there are excellent tours—go fishing, visit the pristine reserve of Isla Iguana, or enjoy the beachside bar-resto at El Sitio, a small inn on the water.
7. Dance at Carnival in Las Tablas
Panama’s carnivals are among the region’s most famous. And there’s no better place to experience the madcap fun than Las Tablas, in Panama’s Azuero region. Festivities include jaw-dropping parades and dancing in the streets (while being sprayed with water). Dates are in accordance with the Catholic calendar, so check Timeanddate.com. Many websites list only Fat Tuesday, but celebrations begin the Friday/Saturday before. Traffic is extremely heavy right before and during Carnival, so try to plan around it. There’s plenty to see and do in Azuero, so why not book some extra time there?
6. Meet friendly expats in Coronado
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one recommendation for sampling expat life in Panama. Spend any amount of time in Panama and you’re likely to meet happy transplants…and begin considering a part- or full-time home of your own. Coronado is one of the best places on the planet to test-drive a new life overseas. This little hub boasts plenty of shops and services. The beach is pristine and uncrowded. And the expat community is both welcoming and incredibly active. Head to Picasso restaurant and bar for happy hour and you’ll be making new connections in no time.
5. Photograph Fort San Lorenzo in Colon
Panama is home to some impressive ruins, but 17th century Fort San Lorenzo gets my vote for the most dramatic views. Here, the mighty Chagres River meets the Caribbean Sea. The bright blues converging on the horizon are mesmerizing. And the fort itself is a photographer’s dream…a reminder of pirates, conquerors, silver, and gold that helped shape Panama’s history. Want to make a weekend of it? Nearby attractions include the Portobelo church and ruins and Isla Grande (which means “big island,” though it’s actually quite tiny).
4. Book a lazy weekend in Contadora
Not all travel needs to be about running from one attraction to the next. You can learn a lot by just sitting still…taking in the culture, cuisine, and more. And sometimes a body needs to relax and replenish. For this I recommend Contadora, a small Pacific island with a population of about 300. The beaches here are pure white sand, and the water is a vivid blue. Explore surrounding islets. Or walk or drive a golf cart around the island—it takes about an hour. Most days I prefer to alternate laying on the sand and wading into the calm, tropical waters.
3. Snorkel in Bocas del Toro
For a slightly more adventurous island vacation, head to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro. The main island is home to cute and quirky inns and restaurants, many of them overlooking the water. It’s a great base from which to embark beach and snorkeling tours. A typical day tour costs $20 to $30 per person. You’ll visit uninhabited islands that belong in Hollywood movies…wade with red starfish…snorkel with impossibly bright parrot fish. At the end of the day, enjoy incredibly fresh seafood or live music on Tuesdays at Bocas Bookstore Bar.
2. Take in Panama City’s architecture
This city was allowed to grow pell-mell until very recently, and that’s part of its charm. If you enjoy wonderful or even wacky architecture, this is the place for you. Check out the famous Miraflores Locks and Visitor Center of the Panama Canal, then head to the wildly colorful Biomuseo, a Frank Gehry design. Don’t miss the corkscrew Revolution Tower in the city center. And in the evening, visit colonial Casco Viejo. Give yourself time to sip a vino in Plaza Bolivar, so you can take it all in. Then line up at Barrio Pizza for tasty (and inexpensive) fare.
1. Jazzfest, baby
Jazz great Danilo Perez—a proud Panamanian—was the driving force behind Panama City’s annual jazz festival. Past acts have included the Wayne Shorter Quartet and Herbie Hancock. The week-long festival takes place every January, and there are multiple events. Attend workshops, gala concerts, $5 jam sessions, and/or the final, free concert. Held out of doors, on a large green, it’s the event of the year. People of all ages show up with mats and blankets, and even little chairs. Stalls sell drinks, food, and even handicrafts. Find out about dates and more at Panamajazzfestival.com.