Panama is a country of many faces & places – find out the most popular Panama tourist attractions to meet locals & fellow travelers alike!
Top Panama Tourist Attractions
We ticked off all of the the best places to visit in Panama on our bucket list, except for the Darien Gap. We’ll return for a jungle expedition one day but for now, here are the top 7 Panama destinations we visited, in chronological order:
- Bocas del Toro
- Lost and Found Hostel
- Santa Catalina
- El Valle de Anton
- Panama City
- San Blas Islands
There are so many things to do in Panama! For more options, pick up a guidebook and keep reading for more travel inspiration…
Not sure what to do in Panama? Start in Boquete, a small town in the cool mountain highlands, home to many American expats & retirees. For better or worse, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get your fix of the Western restaurant, cafe and bar scene if that’s your thing.
Erik did the midnight climb of Volcan Baru, Panama’s only volcano & its highest point. It’s easy to take a tour but you can also do it yourself. The sunrise views looked incredible and it’s one of the only places in the world where you can see both the Pacific & Atlantic oceans at the same time.
Back on the ground, we both went searching for quetzals on the Sendero Los Quetzals trail, Panama’s most scenic hike. Quetzals are fabulously resplendent birds that inhabit cloud forests from Mexico down to Panama. They’re notoriously difficult to spot but after a year in Central America we finally saw a few quetzals on this trail.
The Lost Waterfall is another popular Boquete hike. Adventure seekers can go whitewater rafting on class 3 rapids or zip line through nearby canopy forests. For a slower pace visit a coffee farm in one of the most ideal coffee-growing regions of the world.
Boquete is a gentle introduction to Panama, with a lovely natural environment and a mix of adventure & relaxation activities on offer.
#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 to Bluff Beach.
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 (yes there are starfish there!) & snorkeling at Coral Gardens. It was one of our favourite things to do in Panama.
For a more enjoyable experience, we recommend staying at one of the other islands in Bocas del Toro. Isla Bastimentos is just a 10 minute boat ride from Bocas Town but it feels like another world. The island is covered with rainforest and the vibe is much more relaxed.
It’s also home to a National Marine Park that protects monkeys, sloths, crocodiles and reptiles. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see nesting sea turtles on Playa Larga and poison dart frogs on Red Frog Beach.
Bocas Town is better if you’re on a budget but if you really want to get away from it all, it’s worth splurging a little and staying at Isla Bastimentos or one of the other outer islands.
#3. Lost & Found Hostel
It’s not often that a hostel is one of the top tourist attractions in Panama for backpackers 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. Meals are served but if you want to cook it’s best to bring food with you for the duration of your stay.
Lost & Found Hostel is a sprawling property where you can do as much or as little as you like. Some of it’s more unique features is a maze and a cage with Rocky the friendly kinkajou.
From the hostel you can take a tour or hop on the local bus to Los Cangilones de Gualaca canyon and Celestine Waterfall. Both are off-the-beaten track destinations and make up one of the best day trips in Panama. We really liked Los Cangilones de Gualaca in particular, a mini-canyon full of places to cliff jump, sunbathe, swim, tube, picnic, or even fish.
Set in a cloud forest in the middle of nowhere, Lost & Found Hostel is a long-running favourite on the backpacker trail in Panama.
#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.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are sold from trucks and fishermen gather by the mango tree to sell their catch of the day. There are no big supermarkets or ATM’s but come with cash & you’ll be able to find everything you need.
The beaches are lovely and the perfect backdrop to amazing sunsets every night. Besides the great surf, Santa Catalina is also the jumping off point for snorkeling & diving tours to Coiba National Park, a protected marine reserve & UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s one of the most memorable dive trips we’ve done and we saw a huge variety and abundance of sea life.
With only one road in and out Santa Catalina is a special kind of place where a simpler way of life still exists.
Accommodation: We stayed at Rancho Estero
#5. El Valle de Anton
We didn’t actually know this when we visited but El Valle de Anton is the world’s only inhabited volcanic crater! It’s pretty cool to be able to say that you’ve stayed INSIDE a volcano!
We were actually drawn here by square trees, one of the lesser known places to visit in Panama. You can find them behind Hotel Campestre & while there were only a handful of them, they were definitely closer to square trunks than round.
The next best thing to do in El Valle de Anton is to hike to the top of the Sleeping Indian Girl. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do the hike but looking at the mountain ridge from a distance we could clearly see the outline of a body lying down.
El Valle is surrounded by mountains & forests, with plenty of hiking trails & waterfalls to explore. If you’re there over the weekend check out the bustling Sunday market where fresh produce is sold alongside souvenirs for tourists.
Accommodation: We stayed at Windmill Hostel
#6. Panama City
Panama City is at the crossroads of the rich & poor, old & new and a melting pot of all cultural diversity. Of course it’s also the #1 destination in Panama for tourists.
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.
Is Panama Safe?
As of mid 2019 the US Government is issuing a Level 1 travel advisory for Panama. Travelers are advised to exercise normal precautions but some areas have increased risks. The US Government does not recommend travel to parts of the Mosquito Gulf and Darien Region due to crime, drugs and human trafficking.
You can check the current US travel advisory here and of course, you should consult your own government advice as well. Circumstances can change fast, especially during elections.
Panama City, Colon, and the Chiriqui province have the highest crime rates. Tourists are often targeted so always be aware of theft and pickpockets. We recommend wearing a money belt with RFID blocking and traveling with an anti-theft daypack. But if you simply use common sense & precaution you’ll be ahead of the game.
We recommend purchasing travel insurance before any trip to Panama. We’ve been using World Nomads through 80+ countries over the past 12 years and have been really happy with their coverage and services.
For more details check out our World Nomads review here.
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*** The Final Word: Panama has something for everyone & is perfect for long or short vacations ***
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Visited in February 2017
Updated in May 2019