If you’re traveling into Tocumen International Airport, it’s almost inevitable you’ll start off your trip in Panama’s capital city. The drive from the airport allows you to catch a glimpse of the contrasting districts; glistening skyscrapers soon give way to vibrant street art, old mansions and lively street markets unique to the old town (Casco Viejo), the perfect district in which to stay.
Once considered a relatively seedy part of the city due to its association with gang violence, Casco Viejo has undergone a transformation in recent years, blossoming into a cheerful district replete with museums, art galleries and cafés. Stroll through the streets and admire how the spattering of colorful street art contrasts with colonial buildings now home to various businesses and boutique hotels. Exploring the seafront – circling Plaza de Francia and heading up the steps to Las Bóvedas, where street vendors ply their trade under bougainvillea trees – is the perfect morning activity. It’s also worth checking out the Panama Canal Museum, which can be found just off Plaza de Independencia.
After lunch, grab your hiking boots and head to Parque Nacional Metropolitano, a wildlife refuge in the heart of the city. There are various short trails through the dense jungle – one of which takes you to a spectacular viewpoint – and you’re sure to encounter birds, insects and even monkeys regardless of which path you take.
While the Panama Canal Museum serves as the perfect introduction to the country’s most distinctive landmark, it by no means substitutes a visit to the canal itself. Miraflores Visitor Center is a 25-minute drive from the city. Here, a five-story exhibition provides more information about the history and the mechanics behind the canal. You can also watch a 45-minute documentary on the waterway’s importance in the center’s very own IMAX theater. The main attraction is the open-air balcony providing a close-up view of the locks (and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see them in action).
If you’re looking to make a day trip out of your canal tour, it’s worth heading north from Miraflores Locks to Parque Soberanía, an area of protected rainforest that spans 55,000 acres (22,258 ha) and is home to two popular hiking trails, the most famous of which is Pipeline Road. The 17mi (27km)-long stretch is the perfect place to explore Panama’s diverse wildlife, and it’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of toucans, sloths, monkeys and iguanas along your way.
Come nighttime, the city buzzes with energy, and one of the best places from which to enjoy panoramic views is the rooftop bar of Selina Casco Viejo hostel. Grab some dinner from Tacos La Neta, a stand that’s taken up residence on the rooftop, and enjoy a cocktail by the pool, bearing in mind that traveling to San Blas the next day requires a very early start.
The San Blas archipelago is still a relatively undiscovered part of Panama, and those looking to swap the tourist crowds with views of mesmerizing coastlines on secluded islands should opt to at least explore the region on a day trip. However, if you’re looking for a longer adventure, a two- or three-night stay on an island such as Narasgandup or Yandup ensures you get plenty of downtime in the mornings, with the afternoons spent sailing off to multiple islets.
Most stays are hosted by the Guna people, who provide all meals, served communal-style. Dinners often consist of large platters of delicious seafood plucked straight from the surrounding waters, but hosts are mindful of dietary preferences and restrictions, so vegetarians won’t go hungry. Accommodation comes in the form of basic wooden huts, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to stay in one with a ladder dropping straight down into the ocean. It’s worth noting the plumbing isn’t state of the art, and most importantly, drinking water isn’t readily available apart from at kiosks, so make sure you stock up before you head out.
Your daily itinerary will be dependent on weather conditions and decided on by your hosts. Popular destinations include Isla Estrella, known for the distinctive orange starfish that blanket the surrounding shallow seabed, and Isla Perro Chico, home to a shipwrecked gunboat that visitors can snorkel around to discover the marine life that calls it home. The endless stretches of white sand and dazzling blue waters are secluded and pretty much tourist-free, providing the perfect place to sunbathe or settle down with a good book.
Boquete is situated in Panama’s westernmost province, Chiriquí. Mountainous, rugged highlands surrounded by fertile land and dense jungle make the region one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. Getting from San Blas to Boquete is a day-long affair, though most likely your transport back to Panama City will be included in your island stay. Once in the capital, head to Albrook Airport for a cross-country flight to David. Boquete is approximately a 40-minute drive from there.
One of the most popular activities in Boquete is hiking Volcán Barú. This active volcano stands 11,401ft (3,475m) high, making it the tallest mountain in Panama. Reaching the summit is no small feat, but the four hours of uphill walking are rewarded with breathtaking panoramas of western Panama and neighboring Costa Rica. It’s recommended that only moderately fit people or experienced hikers make the climb; there’s also a six-hour descent.
The next day, opt for a slightly less strenuous activity and sign up for a coffee tour with Boquete Mountain Safari. Panama is famous for producing Geisha Coffee, a complex, fruity blend considered to be one of the best in the world. Your guide will take you on a scenic drive toward the coffee plantation, or finca. Once there, you’ll be taken around the site, learning about the coffee-making process and what makes the perfect brew. The tour takes approximately four hours and drops you back off in Boquete’s town center. If by now you’re craving another caffeine fix, drop into one of the many cafés lining the main strip. It’s a great opportunity to try some Panamanian chocolate, too, which also grows in the region.
Another plantation to check out is Finca Lerida, located just outside the main valley. Aside from areas dedicated to cultivating and producing coffee, the plantation is also home to a popular jungle trail that takes a maximum of two hours to complete. The reception will provide you with a map featuring the different types of birdlife you might catch sight of along the way. If you’re lucky (and fast) you might be able to see the hummingbirds that weave their way through the plant life; they’re incredibly hard to photograph, but it makes for a fun challenge.
Your last day should be spent back above the clouds, specifically in Boquete’s very own cloud forest. Boquete Tree Trek resort runs treetop hanging bridge walks, or for the more adventurous, zip-lining circuits. Both are great options to see the town from up high one last time.
North of Chiriquí, Bocas del Toro is Panama’s other westernmost province. One of the main draws here is the archipelago. More developed than the San Blas islands but still boasting incredible ecosystems on its cays and off its shores, Bocas del Toro is also popular with surfers hoping to catch great waves and is the pinnacle of laid-back living. The biggest of the nine main islands is Isla Colón, which serves as a great base from which to explore your surroundings.
The island’s main town, Bocas, consists of a handful of streets and is the perfect introduction to the slow pace of life on Isla Colón. Colorful houses are interspersed with supermarkets, surf shops, restaurants and boat taxi services, the latter of which can use quite insistent tactics to get you to take a trip then and there. For your first day, however, enjoy a stack of pancakes for breakfast at Café del Mar, then head to the northernmost point of the island and seek out Playa Estrella (Starfish Island). Sadly, the animals this beach is named after have long departed due to tourist behavior, so don’t expect to see any while snorkelling. Nevertheless, the water is beautifully clear, making it an idyllic place to spend the afternoon. If you get peckish you can always grab a bite to eat and a (strong) cocktail at one of the few shacks that line the shore.
Exploring as many of the other islands as possible within a limited time frame is quite a challenge, so pick your day trip wisely. Not to be missed are the Cayos Zapatillas, two uninhabited cays that form part of Bastimientos Island National Marine Park. On clear days the waters are brilliantly turquoise, although the waves can get choppy. Cayo Coral is the perfect snorkelling spot due to its calm waters, and great underwater visibility allows you to swim among the numerous coral, fish and starfish that have made it their home. To get there, you’ll probably pass through Dolphin Bay, so keep an eye out for the telltale fins breaking the surface in groups of two or three. Two other pit stops include Hollywood Island, which gets its nickname due to the starfish lying on the shallow coral reefs, and Sloth Island, a small cluster of mangrove trees home to these gentle mammals.
While Bocas Town will tempt you with many different options for a hearty dinner, hop in a taxi and head along the road toward Paunch beach and district, specifically to a restaurant called Ciao Pizza. This three-table outdoor restaurant completely redefines hole-in-the-wall dining, with the friendly owners cooking up delicious wood-fired pizzas. Whether you’re full after those or not, don’t leave without trying their homemade caramel gelato – undoubtedly the best on the island.
Your last day in Bocas – and in Panama – should be spent winding down, and what better way to do that than a full beach day? For this, catch a boat taxi to Bastimientos Island’s Red Frog Beach. You’ll be dropped off on the “wrong” side of the island; however, a 20-minute trek takes you through dense jungle and out the other side, where a vast stretch of white sand awaits. If you keep an eye out, you might even come across the eponymous frog, although you’ll have to look closely as they’re roughly the size of a thumbnail. Once you’ve made it to the beach, kick back with a beer at Selina Beach Bar and watch surfers one-up each other in the waves until the sun starts to set.