Panama is a beautiful but underrated country that offers so much to experience. Easily accessible by many airlines, this can also be a great short layover trip if flying from North America to South America. You can get a good taste of Panama in just a few days, but it is worth spending 1-2 weeks if you can and visit Bocas del Toro, Boquete, San Blas and Panama City.
When to Visit
Panama’s dry season is from December to April, so these months tend to be the busiest for tourism. It is best if you stick to these months though because a lot of what there is to experience in Panama is outdoors. If you want to avoid big tourist crowds, try visiting at the beginning of December or end of April. If looking at visiting in January, there are a few events that might be worth checking out. Mid-January is the Feria de las Flores del Café (flower and coffee festival) in Boquete and mid to late-January is the Jazz Festival in Panama City. In February (4 days after Ash Wednesday), Panamanians celebrate Carnival, the largest yearly celebration in the country.
Copa is Panama’s main airline that has direct flights to the US and Canada through 15 cities: Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington DC, New Orleans, Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami. United has direct flights from Houston and Newark as well. If booked in advance, you can find flight deals for as low as $250 USD round trip, even from Vancouver (which will connect through San Francisco or Mexico City). From Europe, there are direct flights from Madrid (Iberia), Paris (Air France), Frankfurt (Lufthansa), Amsterdam (KLM) and Istanbul (Turkish Airlines).
Before You Go
- The Balboa is the official currency of Panama, but it is always at par with the US dollar and everywhere you go, they will take US dollars. It’s best to bring US cash for day trips, to purchase souvenirs and snacks.
- You can drink tap water in Panama City so no need to worry about buying bottles all the time. Most hotels will give you a few complimentary water bottles though.
- Pack umbrella or poncho as there is always a chance that it may rain.
- Uber is the best way to get around and it’s cheap. Taxis will try to rip you off.
- Most nationalities don’t need a visa to travel to Panama. Citizens of Canada, USA, EU and Australia are all OK to visit without one.
- Ron Abuelo is best local rum. If you are looking to bring a bottle back, Two Oaks is a good bottle that cost ~$50 US. If you’re not looking to spend too much, the 12-year bottle (~$30 US) and 7-year bottle (~$18 US) are good as well.
- Panama is known for chocolate and coffee. The Geisha coffee bean is well known from Boquete with a cup costing you $10 US.
- Electrical outlets are the same as the US so no need to bring a converter.
- Drones are allowed in Panama but in the San Blas region you need a special license to fly one. You could probably get away with it if you aren’t staying around locals or if you are on a private boat, but if a local sees it they will tell you not to fly it.
- You will see booths at the airport to purchase a local sim card. Unless you are planning to stay in the country for 10-14 days, it isn’t worth it as a plan will cost you $30 for unlimited data. Most restaurants and stores have free WiFi that you can connect to without a password.
Famous for the canal, Panama City is the destination that helps connect the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. One wouldn’t expect this, but the city has a great food scene with some of the top restaurants in the world. Two to three days here is probably enough but if you have the time you could keep yourself busy for four to five days taking day trips to the outskirts of the city.
Where to Stay
There are a lot of great reasonable hotels in Panama City. The two best areas to stay in are Obarrio and Casco Viejo. Obarrio is slightly safer because it’s the financial district of the city but Casco Viejo is the old town and is closer to all the best places to go out at night. There are many good accommodation options in the city. Below are a few that are recommended. Airbnb has great options too.
- American Trade Hotel in Casco Viejo. This boutique hotel is more expensive than other hotels in the city with a room costing about $250-$300 US per night but this art deco landmark turned hotel is the perfect place to stay for travellers who want the full Panama experience.
- W Hotel in the Obarrio. Costs about $120 US per night and a great hotel with a rooftop pool and room can fit up to 4 people.
- Las Clementinas in Casco Viejo. They offer apartments and studios to rent of all sizes.
- Tantalo Hotel in Casco Viejo. Costs about ~$105 US per night and has a great rooftop bar.
- AC Hotel by Marriott in Obarrio. Reasonable option costing only $80 US per night and has a nice rooftop pool.
- Central Hotel in Casco Viejo. Located right in Plaza de la Indepencia. Costs ~$160-$200 US per night and has a rooftop pool.
- El Machico Hostel In Obarrio. Good option if you are on a budget. Dorm rooms are ~$15 US for one bed (in a 6-8 person dorm) and private rooms are ~$40-$50 US.
What to Do
- Go see the Panama Canal – this is what Panama is most famous for and it’s worth taking the time to see the canal and learn about it. There are many sets of locks where you can see the canal but the best one and most convenient to visit is the Miraflores Locks. The Miraflores Locks has a visitor center that consists of a museum, an IMAX show and a viewing platform. It costs $30 US for a ticket to both the canal and the IMAX show for an adult ($20 US for a child) or $20 US just for the canal ($12 US for a child). Here are a few more notes on the Miraflores Locks. Make sure you check the times boats are scheduled to go through the canal as it makes the experience a lot better.
- To find exact times boats go through the canal, you must call the visitor center: +507 276-8617.
- Avoid visiting midday (between approximately 10:30 and 2:30) because this is when the canal changes directions and you won’t see any ships in the locks during that time. You can check these times daily here.
- You will likely spend about 2 hours at the Miraflores locks: 30-45 minutes watching the boats go through the locks, 30 minutes in museum and 45 minutes watching the IMAX video.
- The IMAX show starts on the hour and is the second largest IMAX screen in the world.
- Easiest way to get there is Uber. From the city it will only cost you $8-$10 USD.
- Visit the Biomuseo and spend an afternoon on the Amador Causeway – using debris from the excavation of the Panama Canal, this was built to protect the entrance of the canal from waves and fleets. This 3.5 mile-long causeway is a great sunset walk or bike ride. Stop by the Biomuseo which tells the story of how the emergence of the Isthmus of Panama affected life on the planet. This is a very interactive and educational museum that is highly recommended. It is open daily except Mondays from 10am to 4pm (5pm on Sat/Sun) and costs $18 US to enter ($11 for children). If you plan on visiting the Biomuseo and the Miraflores Locks you can buy a combined ticket for $30 US.
- Visit Panama Viejo – All that remains from the old city of Panama, founded in 1519. This UNESCO heritage site is the oldest monument you will find in Panama City. It costs $5 US to enter.
- Visit Iglesia del Carmen – It is a beautiful church and walkable from most of the main hotels in the Obarrio area.
- Hike to the top of Cerro Ancon hill – It takes about half an hour to walk to the summit where you will find spectacular views of the city. You may also see some wildlife along the hike.
- Walk through the colourful streets of Casca Viejo – Visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Antigua & walk through the 4 main plazas: Plaza de la Indepencia, Plaza Tomas Herrera, Plaza Santa Ana and Plaza Simon Bolivar.
- Go to Danilo’s Jazz Club – see some live jazz inside the American Trade Hotel Wednesday to Saturday starting at 8:30pm (9pm on Sat).
- Take a ferry to Isla Contadora – If you are looking for a beach destination less than 2 hours away from the city, Contadora Island is by far the best you can find. Several ferries, operated by Sea Las Perlas, depart from the Amador Island or take a ferry to Saboga Island (which is right next to it) from the terminal in front of the of the JW Marriott hotel in Punta Pacifica, and then another quick boat ride to Contadora. Visiting this small exclusive island in the Pearl Archipelago is a great alternative if you don’t have enough time to visit San Blas. Leaving from the JW Marriott, a round trip ticket will cost $90 US (an extra $10 if you want to see on the top deck). The first ferry leaves at 8am and the last returning ferry leaves Saboga island at 3pm.
- Explore a rainforest nearby – Panama has a diverse collection of wildlife including jaguars, monkeys, caimans, coatimundis and sloths. Check out one of the national parks near the city for a chance to see some of these unique animals. It is best to go early as most animals sleep in the afternoon.
- Soberania National Park – a short drive away from the city center (15 miles/25 km) located on the banks of the Panama Canal. There are a variety of different hiking trails but at the time of writing this (Dec 2019) there was a lot of construction happening and most of the trails were closed. Along Pipeline Road, you will find the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center where you can climb the observation tower. It costs $30 US (or $5 for kids) to visit the discovery center.
- Metropolitan National Park – located within the city boundaries only a 10 min car ride from Obarrio and Casco Viejo, you can find 4 nice hiking trails and two lookout points with great views of the city. It costs $2 US to enter and it is open 7am to 5:30pm Monday to Friday and 8am to 1pm on Saturdays. You can book an English tour guide for $5 US per person, but a reservation is needed at least 24 hours in advance. You can make a reservation here.
Where to Eat
- Fonda Lo Que Hay – a casual restaurant you must visit in Casco Viejo. This sister restaurant of top-rated fine dining restaurant Donde Jose has a small delicious menu that changes daily. Every dish is unique and has the perfect mixture of flavours. Open every day for lunch and dinner except for Mondays.
- Restaurant Azahar – this speakeasy-like restaurant is a great choice in Obarrio. It is on the 7th floor and you go through a fridge door in a flower shop to get in. They have a patio that has a nice view of the city but indoor seating in the main area was my preference. They have a live saxophone player on Thursdays and Saturdays that really adds to the atmosphere as well. Highly recommend ordering the tres leches dessert. They also have great cocktails and a gin bar cart.
- El Trapiche – here you will get to try typical Panamanian cuisine. There are two locations. If you are visiting the Panama Canal, the one in Albrook mall is on the way. If you want to try a bit of everything order the Fiesta Panameña for only $13 US. Sandwiches are great here for only ~$6 and the ropa vieja is a good option too for ~$8.
- Mercado de Mariscos – the local fish market is open 5am – 5pm every day (except the 3rd Monday of each month) and has delicious ceviche for only $2 US. Splurge a little and try the local seabass for $4 or lobster for $5.
- Nazca 21 – a casual Peruvian food in Casco Viejo.
- Brutto Restaurant – located in San Francisco area, this less touristy restaurant is popular among locals.
- Maito – located a short car ride from Obarrio and Casco Viejo, this restaurant was voted one of top 50 in the world in 2019.
- Donde Jose – a top rated fine-dinning restaurant in Casco Viejo. Set menu is required and costs ~$80 US per person. You can add cocktail or wine pairings for an additional cost as well.
- Fruit Stands – you can find a few around Casco Viejo. A bag of pre-cut pineapple or papaya should only cost you $0.50.
Where to Drink
- Lazotea – a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo with a great view of the city and good music.
- Salvaje – a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo right next to Lazotea also with a great view of the city and good music. This place gets a little more crowded then Lazotea so might be hard to get a place to sit.
- The Strangers Club – sister bar to New York’s Employees Only. Great cocktails for $10 US.
- Casa Casco – a 4-storey building that consists of a beer bar, sushi bar, a club and a rooftop bar. Located in Plaza Tomas Herrera in Casco Viejo this is a great place for a casual drink on the roof or to go dancing late a night.
- Tantalo Rooftop Bar – one of the only covered bars in the city at the top of the Tantalo hotel. Cocktails are a bit sweet but great place to grab a beer during the day or at night.
- Bits Rooftop Lounge – located on the 62nd floor of the Hard Rock Hotel in Obarrio, this bar has a great view of the city.
- La Rana Dorada – a local brewery in Casco Viejo.
- Numen – a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo.
- La Tana – a club in Casco Viejo.
SAN BLAS ISLANDS
Consisting of over 350 islands, the San Blas islands are must visit if you are looking for a relaxing paradise. Located on the Caribbean side of the country, the indigenous Panamanian people control and protect this land. The beautiful clear blue waters and fine sandy beaches are some of the best in the world.
How to Get There & How Long to Stay
The cheapest and most convenient way to get here is through a tour. San Blas Dreams is a great company that can organize everything for you. They have a great website where you can see all the different tours they offer and book online. If you book at a hostel in Panama City though, you will get a slightly cheaper price by ~$10-$20 depending on how many nights you book.
I would recommend staying at least two nights because one night is such a quick turnaround for the time it takes to get there. Three nights is ideal. If booking through San Blas Dreams, they will pick you up from wherever you are staying between 5:30-6am. You will take a ~3-hour car ride to the Caribbean side of the country (that includes a stop at the supermarket for 30 mins) and then a 1-hour boat ride to the island. The boat ride can be bumpy, and if you are sitting on the sides of the boat it is likely you will get a bit wet.
On the first day, you arrive at the island at around 10:45-11am. The day you leave, you will get picked up at 8am from the island but also have the choice of leaving at around 1pm in the afternoon for an additional $15 per person.
Where to Stay
Out of all the San Blas islands, only about 45 of them are inhabited. Some islands are more built up than others, but all accommodations are a hut on the beach. There is no luxury aspect of the San Blas islands and this shouldn’t be expected if traveling here. If a hut in the sand isn’t up to your standards, an alternative to visit these islands is to rent a captain and boat or catamaran and sail around the islands. This will cost around $300-$400 a night for a private cabin. Below are some of the islands where you can rent a bed or hut to stay in.
- Ina Island (Narasgandub)
- Franklin Island (Senidud)
- Chichime Island (Wissudub Dummad – largest island in San Blas)
- Diablo Island (Niadub)
- Anzuelo/Aroma Island (Asseryaladub)
- Demar Archu Island
- Yanis Island
Ina Island is where I stayed, and I loved it. I was told that it had a bit more infrastructure than other islands which is part of the reason for choosing it. They have four bathroom stalls with toilets and two shower stalls with running water which I was not expecting but a nice surprise. There are 10 huts on the beach that hold approximately 40 people when completely full. There are 7 private huts (with double beds) but some also have bunk beds inside of them. 3 of the 10 huts have wooden floors but the rest of them had sand floors. There is no electricity in any of the huts nor do you really have access to any. If you get desperate and need to use some, you can give whatever device needs electricity to the staff and they can charge it for a bit in the kitchen.
If you just show up to the island you can get a bed for $25 per night but instead of going through the hassle of getting to the island yourself it is best to just book a tour through San Blas Dreams as it is only slightly more expensive (maybe $20 or so). If you book through San Blas Dreams, it will cost $110 for one night, $130 for two nights or $150 for three nights for a shared dorm. It costs only $5 more per night for a private room but you can only book this if you are traveling with one other person. They won’t let a solo traveler book a private room. If you add on a boat tour to see three other places around the island, it will be an extra $15. These costs include all meals on the island (breakfast, lunch, dinner), and all transportation to the island from Panama City and back. The only additional costs are the $23 US tourist tax and any drinks you want to purchase on the island.
The island is quite small and takes a total of 10 minutes to walk around it. There are locals living on the island as well, so you really only stick to one side of it. There is a volleyball court and a few areas to sit that are shaded and a few lounge chairs you can use on the beach. There are also two hammocks in the shade that are perfect for a nap.
Food & Drinks on Ina Island
It is recommended you pack snacks and drinks (including lots of water) as these are limited on the island for a cost. Although breakfast, lunch and dinner are included, food portions are also quite small. Breakfast is served at 7:30am, lunch at 12:30-1pm and dinner at 5:30-6pm.
On the island you can purchase beer for $1.50, coke for $1.50, a 500ml bottle of water for $2, a 1-gallon bottle of water for $5, a 1L bottle of rum for $20, a fresh coconut for $2 and mini Oreos, Pringles and M&Ms for $1 each. On the drive to the boat, your driver will stop at a supermarket on the way where you can pick up whatever you need. If you don’t eat seafood or meat, I would highly recommend bringing many snacks as they tend to serve only seafood for one day and then chicken for one day depending on what is available. There is a fridge in the kitchen where you can keep your drinks. Below are suggestions of what you should pack food and drink wise.
- 3L of water per person per day (you will use this water to brush your teeth as well). 6L will cost ~$2.50 US.
- Alcohol (if you want to drink) – a 6 pack of beer at the supermarket is ~$3.50 for Panama lager. A bottle of Rum Abuelo Anejo is ~$10.
- Fruit – if you like fruit, buy some to bring because there isn’t any on the island and on a hot sunny island day, this will hit the spot. Mango, pineapple and papaya are all good choices and you can cut them when you get there.
- Snacks – chips, crackers, cookies and nuts are all good options to snack on during the day or while drinking at night.
To top up your dinner meals, you can ask Tony on the island to catch you a lobster or a crab. A lobster costs between $20-25 and a crab $10-$15 depending on the size. If you pay for one of these, this will come on top of the dinner you would normally receive so it’s easily sharable.
Demar Archu Island
This is a smaller island not too far of a ride from Ina that is a bit quieter. There are very few locals living on the island (only the ones running the huts) and because it is harder too book, you find more Panamanian locals staying here than tourists. They have a basketball court created with palm trees, calm waters to swim in but not a big beach to lay on. The cost to stay here is approximately the same as Ina Island. If you want some alone time, this is a good option for you but if you want to meet other travelers to hang out with, Ina Island is best. To book Demar Archu island, you can whatsapp Cespedes at +507 6703-9814 or Kathy at +507 6910-4910.
What to Pack
- A small duffle bag (or even better, a dry bag as there is a chance your bag could get wet on the boat ride) – it is best to leave your big luggage in Panama City at a hotel/hostel and pick it up when you return.
- Towel – they do not provide any towels for the beach or to shower.
- Sunscreen – the sun is very strong and even if it’s only out for a few hours you will get burnt if you don’t have any sunscreen on.
- Insect Repellent – when I was there it was windy, so I didn’t come across any bugs, but this is always something good to have on hand.
- Headlight/Flashlight – there are no lights in the huts so when it gets dark at around 6:30pm you can’t see much unless you have some light. Save your phone battery by bringing a flashlight.
- Hat & Sunglasses
- Flip Flops (although you will likely be barefoot the whole time)
- Snorkel Mask – there are some great reefs around the islands and even some sunken ships. Just off of Ina island there is a pretty large reef with a ton of fish.
- Small Lock – the private huts have a hook where you can lock your front door during the day. Otherwise bring a lock for your bag just to be safe.
- Wireless Speaker – if you want to play music during the day or at night.
- Deck of Cards/Book/Something to Do – you will have a lot of down time to relax on the beach so bring something that keep you busy when you get tired of suntanning and swimming.
- Fully charged electronic devices (as there is no electricity)
- Wet Wipes/Hand Sanitizer – although they have soap and running water to wash your hands, these are always good to have.
- Light waterproof jacket for boat transfer – depending on what boat you get will depend on how wet you will get (as some have side flaps that protect the inside).
- Water, other drinks and snacks (listed in previous section)
- Light sheet/pillowcase – they provide these to you when you rent a bed but if you can pack this if you prefer to use your own.
It is worth paying a bit extra to experience some of the day tours. There are many different options depending on where you are staying and what you want to see. Whatever Island you decide to stay on, I would speak with someone right when you arrive to see what your options are for tours.
From Ina Island, there is a 3-4 hour afternoon tour for an additional $15 where you visit Isla Pelicano, Demar Achudup and a Piscina Natural. If you are a fan of Money Heist (Casa de Papel), Season 3 was filmed on Pelican Island. You can also visit a local Guna community and hike to a waterfall where you can swim for an additional price. This tour leaves at 8:30am and comes back at around 3pm. You do need decent shoes to hike to the waterfall though.
If you are staying closer to Chichme Island, you can take a tour to see Fragata Island, Perro Island (where you will see a sunken ship), and another Piscina Natural. Ina Island can also take you here but will be a longer day trip.