Boasting cloud-forested highlands, idyllic palm-topped small islands, vibrant indigenous cultures, riotous festivals, water sports, and Central America’s most ebullient capital city, Panama is truly an amazing country. Here is our list of the best things to do in Panama.
This article is inspired by our Rough Guides to Panama — your essential guide for travelling in Panama.
1. Explore Panama City and Casco Viejo
The exploration of Panama City is best started on foot in the old colonial heart of San Felipe, more commonly referred to as Casco Viejo (sometimes Casco Antiguo).
Here the city’s historical monuments and tourist attractions are packed into its narrow streets. Visit Panama City, specifically Casco Viejo, for eating fresh seafood and other Panama food. Or visit a local coffee shop for speciality coffee.
- For a full-service stay: La Isabela Suites. Hire one of the on-site masseuses or chefs to make your stay truly relaxing.
- For a central stay: La Concordia Boutique Hotel. This hotel is located in the centre of Casco Viejo. Each room is decorated differently and has its own balcony.
Where to stay in Casco Viejo, Panama City:
2. Take a trip through the Panama Canal
The iconic Panama Canal is the only connection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Located between North and South America — to fully appreciate the engineering brilliance and majestic beauty of the Panama Canal, you need to experience it on a boat trip.
You may feel you’ve ‘done’ the Canal after a morning gazing at ships manoeuvring through the locks from the observation deck. But it’s hard to beat the excitement of gliding under the Puente de los Américas, and approaching the mighty mitre lock gates head-on, as they open and empty before you.
Dreaming of experiencing the Panama Canal? Our Highlights of Panama trip will take you through the famous Panama Canal before heading out to the tropical rainforest. Our trips are completely customisable and are crafted by local craft experts.
3. The Guna Yala and the Guna People of Central America
The Guna (pronounced ‘Guna’ or ‘Kuna’, depending upon the dialect) – or the Dule (pronounced ‘Dule’ or ‘Tule’), as they call themselves – are Panama’s highest-profile indigenous people. They inhabit a vast semiautonomous region (or comarca) along the eastern Caribbean coast in Central America.
Guna Yala is like nowhere else in Panama: a mixture of idyllic palm-topped islets, island village tours, and a fiercely independent indigenous nation fighting to preserve its traditions while simultaneously adapting to change.
4. The historic sites of Darien National Parks
The fabled Darién Gap – roughly 12,000 sq km (4,633 sq miles) of dense tropical rainforest, swamp, and mountains straddling the border between Panama and Colombia. It constitutes the only break in the Panamerican Highway that stretches from Alaska to the tip of South America. Teeming with danger, this untamed jungle has fascinated explorers, outlaws, scientists, and adventurers for hundreds of years
This bridge between two continents is one of the world's wildlife hotspots. Darien National Park is the most expansive protected area in Central America. This magical park is accessed by boat tour and is one of the best things to do in Panama.
Looking for inspiration for your trip? See our collection of beautiful photos of Panama.
5. Chiriqui Highlands — on the border of Costa Rica
Most visitors to western Panama head for the forested Highlands. Hiking and birdwatching are the most established activities around the Chiriqui Highlands. With trails ranging from a gentle undulating stroll around Finca Lérida to an eight-hour slog up and down Volcán Barú, with several scenic options in between.
For rafting and Kayaking, the top destination is the natural beauty of Río Chiriquí Viejo, which runs parallel with the border of Costa Rica.
Travelling further into Latin America? See our guide to the best beaches in Costa Rica.
6. The idyllic islands of Bocas del Toro
The Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro (‘Mouths of the Bull’), by the Costa Rican border, is one of the most beautiful areas in Panama. The islands of Bocas del Toro reel in water-sport enthusiasts, nature lovers, and party-goers in equal measure.
However, there are treats on the mainland too — including some magical wetlands and an enticing, remote national park. Not to mention the white sand beaches.
Find your dream accommodation in Bocas del Toro.
Looking for more inspiration? Want to go off the beaten path? Don't miss our guide to 10 things you didn't know you could do in Panama.
7. See the renowned woodcarving of the Embera
One of the best things to do in Panama to understand Panama's history is to take a village tour. This includes a talk about the traditional Emberá way of life, and a demonstration of basketry or woodcarving as well as a short walk into the rainforest to a waterfall, or with a village elder to learn about medicinal plants.
A simple lunch precedes traditional dances accompanied by drums, bamboo flutes, and maracas, after which tourists can get their bodies painted with jagua dye, frolic with the kids in the river, and peruse the finely made crafts on display. Unlike the Guna, the Emberá are fairly comfortable being photographed, though permission should always be sought from individuals.
Ready to take a village tour? On our Cuisine and Culture of Panama trip, you will learn about the Embera traditions close to the capital, before heading to Panama's cultural heart. Our trips are crafted by local travel experts and are completely customisable.
8. See the marine life at Coiba Island and Coiba National Park
'Abundance of fish’ is one possible meaning of the name ‘Panama,’ in the indigenous Cueva language, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the crystalline waters of Coiba National Park.
The reserve encompasses Panama’s largest island and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Coiba Island. In addition, it includes eight smaller incredible islands and 40 islets. However, The vast majority of the reserve consists of an ocean brimming with spectacular marine life, including the Pacific Oceans' second-largest coral reef. Scuba diving on these beautiful beaches off of the pacific coast is one of the best things to do in Panama.
Prefer to leave planning and booking to experts? Our Thrilling Adventures of Panama trip will take you through a fast-paced itinerary from Panama City to the highlands of Boquete and ending on the beaches of Boca Chica. All tailor made trips can be modified together with your local expert.
9. See the Festival de Toro Guapo of El Valle de Anton
The small town of Antón really only registers on the tourist radar once a year, during the Festival de Toro Guapo (Fierce Bull Festival).
Here one will find folkloric dancing, colourful street parades, beauty pageants, and progressively more drunken revelry are Toros – men who cavort around the streets, charging at all and sundry. They dress in a diverse range of fantastical costumes draped over wooden or bamboo frames, topped with a bull’s head adorned with ribbons and mirrors.
10. Take a day trip to the Pearl Islands
For those who need a quick fix of beach, a day trip to the dreamy Pearl Islands fits the bill perfectly. Comprising over 200 tropical islands and cays set in coral-rich crystalline waters and only a short hop from Panama City.
11. Speciality coffee in Boquete
Many head for the Highlands and scenic Boquete. This area is home to speciality coffee plantations, resplendent quetzals, and emerald cloud forests. Come to this area for leisurely coffee tours and birdwatching.
Or come to Boquete for adrenaline-fueled, action-packed entertainment. For example, Panama’s longest and most exhilarating zip lining or whitewater rafting.
- For an all inclusive stay: Los Establos Boutique Inn. One of the best boutique hotels in the area. Fantastic service and rooms.
- For coffee enthusiasts: Coffee Estate Inn. With views of the nearby Baru Volcano, this is a great place to stay to learn about coffee plantations.
Where to stay in Boquete
Find your perfect accommodation in Boquete.
12. Soberania National Park — one of the best things to do in Panama
A mere 30-minute drive away from the skyscrapers of Panama City, Parque Nacional Soberania is one of the country’s most visited national park. It is well worth exploring and covers more than 190 sq km (73 sq miles).
It encompasses a stretch of the majestic Río Chagres, the Canal’s lifeblood. You can explore by boat or kayak. There are also several well-maintained trails on either side of Gamboa.
- For golf lovers: Summit Rainforest and Golf Resort. With an 18-hole golf course, included pool and breakfast buffet this is a great place to stay.
- For a stay in the rainforest: Gamboa Rainforest Resort. This luxurious resort is located in the rainforest. The hotel offers small boat tours and walking tours.
Where to stay near Soberania National Park:
When considering a Caribbean destination, take a look at undiscovered Honduras, where you will also find plenty of exciting things to do. Or make your choice using our guide to Central America: an adventure travel paradise.
This list could truly go on. There are countless fantastic things to do in Panama. Ready to start planning your trip? Check out theThe Rough Guide to Panama. Learn about the best time to go and the best places to visit in Panama.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Panama without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
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