Panama is a country of many faces & places, from the indigenous islanders to the mestizos of the cities – find out the most popular places to meet locals & fellow travellers alike!
We here at DIY Travel HQ ticked off all on our Panamanian bucket list, except for the Darien Gap. We’ll return for a jungle expedition one day but for now, here are the top 7 places we visited, in chronological order:
Boquete is a small town in the cool mountain highlands of Panama, home to many American expats & retirees.
Erik did a midnight climb of Volcan Baru, Panama’s only volcano & its highest point. The sunset views looked incredible, looking out to both the Pacific & Atlantic oceans.
Back on ground, we both went looking for quetzals on Sendero Los Quetzals, Panama’s most scenic hike – and yes, we even saw a few of the resplendent birds!
Boquete is a gentle introduction to Panama, with a lovely natural environment and a mix of adventure & relaxation activities on offer.
* We recommend staying at El Machico
#2. Bocas del Toro
Everyone raves about Bocas del Toro but it wasn’t for us.
We stayed in Bocas Town, which is your typical backpacker island party town. There are no good beaches within walking distance, though you can hire a bike, taxi or take the local bus.
But head out on the water & that’s where the magic is. We loved our catamaran tour of Bocas del Toro, which took us to Starfish Beach & snorkeling at Coral Gardens.
For a more enjoyable experience, we recommend staying at one of the other islands in Bocas del Toro (not Bocas Town).
#3. Lost & Found Hostel
It’s not often that a hostel is a destination in its own right but that’s a reputation well earned at Lost & Found Hostel.
It’s a 15 minute hike up in the mountains but the good news is that once you get there, you don’t need to leave – hiking trails & treasure hunts are at your doorstep. Bring food with you for the duration of your stay.
A couple of waterfalls & canyons make an easy DIY day trip away from the hostel, a long-running favourite on the backpacker trail in Panama.
*We recommend staying at Lost & Found Hostel
#4. Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina was just a little fishing village until surfers began arriving in the 1970’s, in search of the perfect wave. These days, it may be one of the best surf spots in Central America but Santa Catalina is still very much a small town.
There are no big supermarkets or ATM’s but come with cash & you’ll be able to find everything you need.
Santa Catalina is also the jumping off point for snorkeling & diving tours to Coiba National Park, a protected marine reserve & UNESCO World Heritage Site.
* We recommend staying at Rancho Estero
#5. El Valle
We didn’t actually know this when we visited but El Valle is the world’s only inhabited volcanic crater! It’s pretty cool to be able to say that you’ve lived INSIDE a volcano!
We were actually drawn here by “square trees.” You can find them behind Hotel Campestre & while there were only a handful of them, they were definitely closer to square trunks than round.
El Valle is surrounded by mountains & forests, with plenty of hiking trails & waterfalls to explore.
#6. Panama City
Panama City is at the crossroads of the rich & poor, old & new and a melting pot of all cultural diversity.
The best area in Panama for sightseeing, atmosphere, food & accommodation is the charming Casco Viejo, Spanish for Old Quarter. It is indeed the historic colonial neighborhood, with grand old mansions standing alongside crumbling ruins. The cobblestoned streets are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
From Casco Viejo, there are stunning views across the bay to the modern metropolis of Panama City. It’s position as a centre of international trade & banking is reflected in the shiny steel skyscrapers & high-rise buildings that dominate the skyline.
No trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal. Head out to the nearby Miraflores Visitor Centre & push your way through the crowds to get a view of the passing ships. They move very slowly, so it’s not the most exciting thing to watch but it is a privilege to witness such a feat of engineering.
#8. San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are paradise – Bocas del Toro, eat your heart out! They are a collection of 365 islands in the Caribbean with a unique culture & natural beauty.
If you’re short on time like we were, a San Blas Island day tour from Panama City will let you experience the best of everything:
- Take a boat trip through mangroves
- Meet the indigenous Kuna people & visit their homes
- Lay on white sandy beaches & swim in turquoise waters
- Visit a natural pool of starfish
- Snorkel around a shipwreck
If you have time, stay overnight or longer – this kind of Caribbean paradise is pretty hard place to leave.
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*** The Final Word: Panama has something for everyone & is perfect for long or short vacations ***
Have you ever visited Panama?
Visited in February 2017