Squeezed between between seven and nine degrees north of the equator, Panama is located firmly within the tropics, with a climate to match: relentlessly hot and humid in the lowlands, cooling off fractionally to give balmy nights, whereas in the highlands, temperatures vary significantly with altitude, and can be chilly at night.
Most travellers see the shorter dry season (verano, “summer”), which runs from late December to the end of April, as the best time to visit Panama, and with good reason. Azure skies predominate, at least on the drier Pacific plains, sheltered by Panama’s mountainous spine. The firmer going underfoot makes it easier to travel on unpaved roads and explore the rainforests, and the reduced rainwater run-off ensures clearer waters to swim in. The dry season also includes the lively holiday periods of Christmas, New Year, Carnaval and Holy Week, when flights and hotels in popular tourist spots are at a premium.
You’ll avoid the crowds and the mark-ups in the rainy season (invierno, “winter”), which stretches from May to December. Although the mountainous and rainforested regions in Panama are best avoided during the wettest months, since peaks are constantly swathed in cloud and tracks are boggy, if you stick to the lowland areas on the Pacific coast, the downpours, while frequent and intense, rarely last more than a few hours at a time, leaving plenty of sunny, dry periods to enjoy. In particular, the otherwise parched Azuero Peninsula offers much more picturesque scenery during its understated rainy season.
By contrast, the Caribbean coast receives almost twice as much rain as the Pacific, with virtually no recognizable dry season. Regional variations impact here too: the Trade Winds (at their strongest Dec to mid-Feb) make the water choppy and outer islands inaccessible in Bocas del Toro and Kuna Yala, while Bocas enjoys two relatively dry spells around March and October.
The following lists a few highlights on Panama’s festivals calendar. There are even more festivals on the Azuero Peninsula.
Feria de las Flores y del Café in Boquete (date varies).
Comarca de Guna Yala (Feb 25) celebrates the Guna Revolution of 1925, their independence day; Carnaval (Feb/March) celebrated all over the country, but especially in Las Tablas and Panama City, with an aquatic version in Penonomé; Festival de los Diablos y Congos, biennially in Portobelo (2015, 2017, date varies).
Semana Santa. Celebrated everywhere, but most colourfully in La Villa de Los Santos, Pesé and Guararé, on the Azuero Peninsula.
Feria de las Orquideas in Boquete (date varies); Feria International del Azuero in La Villa de Los Santos (date varies).
Corpus Christi (date varies) in La Villa de Los Santos.
Nuestra Señora del Carmen (July 16) on Isla Taboga; Patronales de La Santa Librada and Festival de la Pollera in Las Tablas (July 20–22).
Festival del Manito Ocueño (date varies) in Ocú.
Festival of Nogagope (Oct 10–12) on Isla Tigre, Comarca de Guna Yala; Feria Guna (mid-Oct) on Isla Tigre; Festival de la Mejorana (five days mid-Oct) in Guararé; Fiesta de Cristo Negro (Oct 21) in Portobelo.
The “First Cry of Independence”, Independence Day, celebrated as part of “El Mes de la Patria”. Cities and towns across the nation put on parades featuring school drumming troupes and majorettes, which the whole population comes out to watch.