A few months ago Rachel and I were chatting about our summer plans and when we realized we both had the same two weeks in August free Rachel was like, let’s go somewhere in Central America together!
Neither of us had been to Central America before so we were super excited to get to explore a new region, but also at a bit of a loss as to where we should actually go. In the end we opted for Panama, and I’m so glad we did because I can’t imagine a better introduction to Central America.
Basically we wanted to go somewhere with lots of beautiful nature, fun towns and cities, cute boutique hotels, and a good variety of things to do so we didn’t get bored over the two weeks. And Panama totally delivered.
Here’s why I loved Panama so much:
Visit Panama City
I spent four days in Panama City and absolutely loved it, so you definitely shouldn’t skip it! Here are some things to do in Panama City (and you can simply scroll down past the stars for things to do in Panama outside of Panama City)
★ The Panama Canal
Okay, you guys know I’m not usually one for museums and historic sites, but I was super excited to get to see the Panama Canal in real life! And while I had a sneaking suspicion the canal would be underwhelming in person, it actually was really cool and one of the highlights of my time in Panama City. Again, more to come in a blog post about Panama City.
★ Get lost in Casco Viejo
I really enjoyed Panama City and could have happily spent more than just four days there, and my favorite area was definitely Casco Viejo.
This area used to be really run down, but now Panama City is investing a lot in it and a lot of the old buildings have been refurbished and transformed into boutique hotels, stylish cafes and restaurants, and beautiful little shops.
I asked a local what he thought about Casco Viejo’s transformation and he said that while in a way it’s a bit sad to see the area change, the revitalization has thankfully had a really positive impact on locals and it’s great to have an area that has such tourist appeal as well.
Plus Casco Viejo is simply the best place for a photoshoot!
★ Stay at a really unique boutique hotel in Panama City
I split my time between two gorgeous hotels in Panama City, and I really couldn’t say which I enjoyed more!
First I stayed at the American Trade Hotel, which was the perfect luxury hotel experience in the heart of Casco Viejo. The rooms were beautiful and the breakfast delicious, and I sort of felt like I was on a movie set. You can read more about my stay at the American Trade hotel here.
And then for my final two nights in Panama City I stayed at Las Clementinas, which has beautiful apartments. It was so fun getting to pretend like I was a local in Casco Viejo, and they had so many lovely touches like filling my fridge with breakfast treats. You can read more about my stay at Las Celementinas here.
★ Have lunch at El Trapiche
One of the best meals I had in Panama was at El Trapiche in the city center. Definitely stop by and try one of their sandwiches if you get the chance!
★ Have lunch at Super Gourmet in Casco Viejo
Super Gourmet is like an American style deli with a Panamanian twist. Another place well worth checking out for lunch!
★ Sample the chocolate at Oro Moreno Tropical Chocolate Cafe
This is another lovely place to visit in Casco Viejo, where they make their own chocolate. They use local flavors and I seriously could have spent all afternoon sampling their amazing chocolates. You can also stay a while and get a coffee or hot chocolate to drink here.
★ Visit the golden altar at the Church of San Jose
If you visit you can read about the altar’s interesting history (which I won’t spoil here!), plus it’s right in Casco Viejo so there’s really no reason not to pop in to see it.
★ Have a drink at a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo
There are so many lovely rooftop bars to choose from in Casco Viejo, and they have the best views! I went to Barlovento which had a really nice vibrant yet laidback vibe.
★ Take a walking tour of Panama City
I’m not usually one for walking tours, but Rachel loves them so she signed us up for the PTY Life Panama Detour. And it totally won me over!
We spent five hours exploring Joey’s favorite areas, stopping at food trucks, using public transport, and having cocktails at a rooftop bar. It was a great intro not just to Panama City, but to Panama as a whole, and it was really interesting to get an American expat’s perspective on the city and country.
★ Have a drink at the top of the W Hotel
I know I said to have a drink at a rooftop bar in Casco Viejo, but as part of our walking tour we also stopped at the W Hotel’s rooftop bar, which is in the new part of the city, and it was really cool to see the contrast! There’s a pool up there and it’s just a great place to hang out away from the bustle of the city below.
★ Ride the subway
And this is another thing we did on the walking tour. Panama City’s subway is actually pretty easy to navigate, it’s clean, tickets are like 30 cents and I always find riding public transport is a great way to get a feel for a new city. Just maybe try to avoid rush hour, as it can get pretty crowded.
★ Visit the Santa Ana market
If you head towards the Avenida Central from Casco Viejo you’ll get to Santa Ana, and right next to the church you’ll see a little covered market. Here you can find local handicrafts at local prices – way better than the fancier tourist boutiques in town.
★ Buy a real Panama hat
You know the iconic Panama hat that President Roosevelt made famous at the opening of the Panama Canal? Well, it’s actually from Ecuador.
If you want a real Panama hat you’ll need to go to a local market (like the Santa Ana market mentioned above) and look for a straw hat with black stripes. I think they’re actually cuter, plus Panamanians will get excited to see you sporting a real Panama hat, so it’s a great way to make friends!
★ Get a sim card on Avenida Central
I know a lot of people prefer to disconnect while traveling, but if you’re not one of those people, it’s super easy to buy a sim card in Panama City. Though if you don’t want to bring along your passport to register the new sim card, just buy one from one of the many phone shops along Avenida Central.
They don’t register them here, and a Digicel sim card will cost you $1. Then I paid $5 for each week I wanted service for, which gave me unlimited data (!!). So for $11 I got a sim card with unlimited data that I could use for two weeks in Panama. I had pretty good service too – it was only on San Blas that I lost connection.
★ Stop by Cafe Coca Cola
Apparently this diner has been around so long that Coca Cola doesn’t mind that it’s borrowed their name.
★ Have lunch at Mahalo
This Hawaiian themed restaurant in Casco Viejo is super cute, plus the food was pretty good too! Definitely check out Mahalo if you’re in need of a meal.
★ Take an eco adventure through the Gamboa Rainforest
Did you know that Panama City is on the edge of a rainforest? You can take a day tour like this one through the rainforest to see some exciting wildlife, or this aerial tram tour through the rainforest.
★ Visit an Embera Village
I’m not really one for village tours, but if you’re interested you can take a day trip out to a traditional Embera village, including a canoe ride up a river and a walk to a jungle waterfall. You can book a tour here.
Visit the San Blas Islands
Over my travels through some eighty countries around the world, I haven’t come across many places that look as picture-perfectly like paradise as the San Blas islands. In fact I think the only place that could maybe rival it was my boat trip island hopping through Indonesia, and then I was sort of really lucky my boat didn’t sink so… if you’re looking for a safer journey to paradise, San Blas is perfect!
I’ve also written a whole blog post about my three days sailing in San Blas.
Talk to locals
I was a little nervous about my lack of Spanish skills (or more like guilty – what American doesn’t speak any Spanish??), but everyone I met in Panama was so laidback and friendly that communication was never a problem. Most people spoke really good English, and it turns out Spanish is kind of just a better enunciated version of French/Latin – who knew? (Everyone knew.)
Take taxis without worrying about getting ripped off
Speaking of friendly Panamanians, never have I ever traveled anywhere with such nice taxi drivers! And long time readers here will know that I’m not a fan of taxi drivers. But all of our drivers here were so friendly and never argued over prices with us.
Fingers crossed I’m not jinxing my taxi ride to the airport later today…
Enjoy being safe
I mean, there are safe and unsafe areas in any country, but as a whole I never felt like I needed to worry while traveling through Panama.
Relax – Panama is so easy
In fact if I were to sum up my sixteen days in Panama in one word it would be “easy.” I don’t mean that in a boring way, but I cannot remember the last time I had such an effortless trip through a country I didn’t live in – much less where I didn’t even speak the local language.
Transport was a breeze, they use the US dollar here so I didn’t have to worry about currency conversions, all of our accommodation was amazing – like, I can’t think of any big stresses I had on this trip.
Explore Panama’s idyllic island escapes
I already mentioned San Blas, but Panama has so many other gorgeous island escapes. I also spent four days on Isla Palenque on the Gulf of Chiriqui and four days on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro, and would have loved to visit the Pearl Islands and more islands on the Gulf of Chiriqui.
Look out for sloths!
Rachel and I thought we wouldn’t see a sloth here because we had opted against taking a tour to see them or visiting a sloth refuge, so imagine our surprise when one morning we passed a group of people at our resort in Bocas del Toro and realized they were all pointing at a sloth who had (very slowly) wandered into their yard.
Drink all the coffee
To be honest I don’t know much about coffee and generally will enjoy a cup of instant coffee just as much as some fancy brew, but it was still fun to hear Panamanians talk about their local coffee beans. We spent two days in Boquete, which apparently gets referred to as the Napa Valley of coffee.
Stop by Boquete
Speaking of Boquete, there’s a lot more to this highland town than coffee! It feels totally different than Panama’s coastal areas, and offers lots of hikes, ziplining, and even hot springs. It’s also a big expat hub, which is great news for anyone craving an American-style turkey sandwich.
Go to Boquete Tree Trek
If you’re up for an adventure, definitely check out Boquete Tree Trek! Here you can go ziplining and walk along the Cloud Forest’s famous hanging bridges.
Have a meal at Boulder 54 in Boquete
Travel Panama on any budget
While you can travel fairly cheaply through Panama on the backpacker trail, there are also lots of mid-range and family options, as well as some seriously gorgeous luxury hotels. And the same goes with transport – most places it seemed like you could take the local bus on the cheap, a tourist shuttle for a bit more, a private car for more, Air Panama domestic flights, or even charter a private plane to get you where you want to go.
Or another popular option here is to rent a car for a road trip!
Eat all the food
I’m new to Central American food so I can’t really say if it’s better in Panama than in other parts of the region, but seriously, so much yum. My favorite food was in Panama City, though I also didn’t mind dining on freshly caught lobster every night in San Blas.
Cover a diverse range of landscapes
When we originally started planning this trip we thought we’d spend about a week in Panama and then head into Costa Rica, until we realized how much there actually is to see in Panama. From the deserted islands of San Blas to the skyscrapers of Panama City, the highlands of Boquete, and the backpacker party scene on Bocas del Toro, it feels like we visited about five different countries on this Panama trip.
Visit both the Caribbean and Pacific
Speaking of Panama’s diverse offerings, you can also hang out on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts while here!
And definitely check out the Gulf of Chiriqui
You can read more about my time on the Gulf of Chiriqui here, but for now I’ll just say that if you’re looking for an idyllic island escape, definitely come here.
See whales on the Gulf of Chiriqui
If you visit the Gulf of Chiriqui between July and October you’ll have the chance to spot the humpback whales that have come from both the north and south poles to give birth!
so I’m probably not going to quit blogging to become a wildlife photographer
Go snorkeling on the Pearl Islands
I really wish I had squeezed in a trip to the Pearl Islands – especially considering you can even go as a day tour from Panama City! This tour here will take you snorkeling on the Pearl Islands, and it really does look like such a dreamy escape.
Have a grown up holiday on Bocas del Toro
You guys, Bocas del Toro is not just for backpackers! You can read about my relaxing holiday at Red Frog Beach Resort here.
Or party it up on Bocas del Toro
Of course, if you do what to party with the backpacker crowd, you will love Bocas del Toro. Try to come on a Friday for their famous island hopping party.
Explore a working chocolate farm in Bocas del Toro
If you like chocolate, you can check out how it’s harvested and made! A few people I spoke to said this chocolate farm tour was a highlight of their time in Panama.
Enjoy a boutique accommodation paradise
While my hostel days are long gone, I’m not a huge fan of the big chain luxury hotels that look the same regardless of what country you’re in, so I was so excited to find so many beautiful boutique hotels in Panama! Each featured such beautiful and unique designs that I sort of want to say that each and every hotel I stayed at in Panama was my favorite.
3 Things NOT to do in Panama
But what should you skip out on in Panama?
I would highly recommend NOT visiting the San Blas Islands at the start of your Panama trip. You see, I visited them first, and they sort of ruined the rest of Panama’s islands for me, because nothing else can compare to San Blas. So try to save the best for last, if you can.
I would also avoid booking accommodation in Bocas del Toro on Airbnb. I usually love Airbnb, but I had a bit of a nightmare experience trying to book this place, and I heard from other travelers that they had similar problems in Bocas del Toro (the rest of Panama is totally fine for Airbnb though!).
And finally, don’t just visit Panama City and skip the rest of the country! Panama City is a great starting point, but if I had only visited the city I really don’t think I would have left with an accurate impression of Panama. The beaches are really where it’s at!
Or if you only have time for Panama City, promise that you’ll come back to explore Panama’s islands one day. I promise it’s worth it!