Located on the isthmus that joins together North and South America which is narrower than 60 km (38 miles) in some places, Panama is a country like no other. Known as a center for trade thanks to its highly strategic canal which connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans as well as a financial and banking capital, it is also a country with a rich history, warm and welcoming people and beautiful, untouched nature.
Here you will find a diverse range of sights and activities on offer, from hiking, surfing and diving to exploring historical streets and fine dining. If you are planning a trip to Panama (and if you’re not you should be!) here are the top 6 highlights you should not miss on your visit.
Panama City is the capital, financial center and beating heart of Panama. The city center proper is a sprawling cluster of skyscrapers which stretch across the horizon. Next to this modern zone is “Casco Viejo” the old center of Panama City which lies on a small peninsula. Once fallen to ruin, this area has been meticulously restored over the last 15 years, and still today you will see crews working on old dilapidated buildings, returning them to their former glory. Now the streets are full of beautifully-restored old buildings dating back to the 17th century that house amazing restaurants, shops and hip rooftop bars, as well as quaint plazas and historic churches.
Aside from exploring the fascinating streets of Casco Viejo, Panama City is great for shopping, dining and nightlife. There are lots of sights in and around the city, such as the Amador Causeway boardwalk and Causeway Islands, as well as the Panama Canal (more on this later). If you’re looking for even more history, check out the ruins of Panama Viejo, the original site of the city, which moved to Casco Viejo in the 17th century after being attacked by pirates. You’ll even find some incredible green oases in this big city such as Cerro Ancon and Parque Metropolitano, which are home to wildlife such as monkeys, sloths and toucans.
San Blas Islands
Of course we may be biased, but we really believe that the San Blas Islands is one of Panama’s top highlights! Not only does this archipelago of 365 islands have so much to offer, it is unlike anything you will find elsewhere in Panama. Coming to San Blas is like landing in another world: island after island of white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and palm trees swaying blissfully in the soft breeze.
Some of these islands are un-inhabited, while others are home to the Guna people, indigenous Indians who have lived here for generations, and still live here in a largely traditional way. Around 33,000 Gunas still live in the area, mostly on the 49 major San Blas islands, whose official name is Guna Yala. The islands and their adjacent coastline are also an autonomous region under the control of the Guna people, meaning that they are responsible for managing it, making the majority of the decisions concerning its governance, and are able to directly profit from the tourists who visit. You can visit San Blas for the day from Panama City, although we highly recommend sleeping on the islands for at least one night. After all, what could be better than falling asleep to the gentle sound of the ocean and then waking up on a picture-perfect tropical island?
Just off Panama’s other coastline in the bio-diverse waters of the Pacific Ocean you will find another incredible but very different kind of island: Isla Coiba. The entire island is a National park, the Parque Nacional de Isla Coiba, and a haven for wildlife both on land and under water. Its history as a penal colony has meant that the island’s natural resources have remained largely untouched, and are now protected by the Panamanian government.
The easiest way to reach Isla Coiba at the moment is via Santa Catalina, a once sleepy town on the Pacific coast about 5 hours west of Panama City which has become a tourist hub in recent years. Now you’ll find plenty of places to stay here (we recommended Villa Venta Surf Hostel) and a range of tours heading out to the island for the day, as well as water based activities such as snorkelling and arguably Panama’s best scuba diving.
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is a structure which is almost synonymous with the country itself and has been called the “eighth wonder of the world” due to its importance for international trade. Visiting the canal is fascinating, even if you are not overly interested in canals. This incredible man-made structure is an engineering marvel and has a fascinating history. It is also of incredible importance to to the region and has been decisive in the history of Panama, so is something which you really should see in order to understand this small Central American country.
You can visit the locks at Miraflores which is just a 25-minute drive (or uber ride) from the center of Panama city, and watch the ships from modest to massive pass through the locks in a complex process of changing height of the water levels in various sections of the locks. There is also a museum onsite with comprehensive and interactive exhibits about the history of the canal and how it works today. On the Caribbean end of the canal there are also locks which can be visited, at Agua Clara, which is just outside the port city of Colón.
Bocas del Toro
On the Caribbean coast not too far from the border with Costa Rica is Bocas del Toro, or “Bocas” as it is often known by its many fans. One of the most popular beach destinations in Panama, the name means “mouth of the bull” and covers a section of mainland and an archipelago of nine islands. Here you’ll find a winning mix of Caribbean beach paradise and vibrant nightlife. Bocas is well known for its surf, which is best from October to February, and offers some good night diving opportunities.
The main hub for the area is Bocas town, a lively town, which lies on Isla Colón, a short boat ride from the mainland town of Almirante, where you’ll find boats heading to Bocas all day. Here you’ll find plenty of places to stay, eat and party. However to see all that Bocas del Toro has to offer you should venture further the idyllic islands of Isla Bastimentos and Isla Solarte. You’ll find great accommodation on the latter at Bambuda Lodge.
The Darien Gap is the legendary piece of land where North and Central America gives way to South America, with Colombia lying just across the border. It is also an area of remote jungle, so remote in fact that the Pan-American Highway stops around 40 km (25 miles) short of the border and this section of land has been essentially impassable for centuries. Until quite recently, this area was considered too dangerous to visit thanks to the paramilitary Colombian guerrillas (not to mention drug traffickers) that operated in the area, but now the situation is much safer. This means it is now possible to visit the Darien National Park which protects the second largest tract of rainforest in the Americas after the Amazon, and home to many rare species of flora and fauna.
However, tourism remains very much in its infancy here so unless you are willing take the time and effort to procure all the necessary permits and contract a guide, which can only be done in the town at the end of the road, Yaviza, you should arrange an organized tour. There are several companies offering tours from Panama City, such as Advantage Panama. Note that it is absolutely essential to have a guide here: not only will you not be allowed to enter the park without one, but trails are not at all well marked and with treacherous conditions not to mention poisonous snakes and predators such as jungle cats, this is not a place where you want to get lost!