Panama became famous in 1914 for the canal that connected the Caribbean to the Pacific but the country offers some of the best white sand beaches, tropical wildlife and historic city vibes in Central America. Thank you to Panama Tourism for showing me this beautiful country.
The wildlife in Panama is so colorful many top spots are named after the wildlife like Bocas Del Toro's Starfish beach, Red Frog beach and bird island.
One of the world's most beautiful birds, the Quetzal, resides in Boquete. Spend a few days in Boquete to immerse yourself in the jungle, zipline through the tropical forest canopies, trek multiple hanging bridges and try the world famous Kotowa coffee.
Emberá village offers another unique day trip excursion from Panama City. The indigenous tribe is one of the few that welcomes visitors to enjoy traditional food, music and dances.
As the gateway to the country, Panama City merits more time than a stopover onwards to places further afield. The city is a contrast between the old quarter of Casco Viejo and the modern glass high-rises in the city center. Panama City is second only to New York City and Chicago in terms of having the most skyscrapers in one city. Panama is full of surprises, read more about this beautiful country in this guide below and check out my friend Christine's guide as well HERE.
Fun Fact: Panama Hats are from Ecuador and are called "Panama Hats" after Teddy Roosevelt wore one while visiting the canal.
Transportation: Panama's national airline is Copa Airlines (Star Alliance Partner). A flight from New York City to Panama City is about 5 hours, Los Angeles to Panama City is 6 hours, London to Panama City is approximately 14 hours. Within Panama City, Uber is a more economical way to get around than local taxis. Select UberEnglish service for English speaking drivers. Driving or hiring a car or tour guide is a great way to see much of Panama. Between certain locations a local flight with Air Panama for example can save many hours of transportation.
Official Language: The official language is Spanish, but many people especially in urban areas speak English.
Currency: Panama uses the US Dollar but change is given in the form of the Panamanian Balboa or Mezzo Balboa coins which equal 1 US Dollar or half a US Dollar.
What to do:
1. Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro: Visit the relaxing Playa Estrella or Starfish beach to swim and snorkel with starfish. The location on Isla Colon causes it to have no swells, or major waves. Go early to see starfish closer to the beach. The starfish population is decreasing in number so please do not touch them or lift them out of the water.
2. Red Frog Beach, Bocas del Toro: Red Frog beach is named after the poisonous red frogs found in the jungle around the beach. Grab a tropical smoothie and relax with a view of the beautiful crystal clear waters.
3. Bird Island, Bocas del Toro: Bird Island is a natural bird sanctuary to some of the rarest birds and is the only known nesting place of the Red-billed Tropic Bird in the Caribbean. Boats cannot dock here but can drive you close to this iconic rock formation and birders paradise.
4. Cayo Zapatilla, Bocas del Toro: Take a boat to see the dolphins, snorkel and enjoy one of the most beautiful white sand beaches lined with palm trees.
5. Casco Viejo, Panama City: Casco Viejo is Panama City’s old quarter that is reminiscent of Havana and is currently undergoing renovations and revitalization. Read our top places to eat in Casco Viejo.
6. Panama Canal, Panama City: The Panama Canal is the most visited site in Panama City and is considered one of the greatest engineering feats in human history. Go early to see the ships guided through the canal from the fourth floor. Watch the film in the theater to learn more about the history.
7. BioMuseo, Panama City: The new Biodiversity Museum walks you through the origins of the Panamanian isthmus. Frank Gehry designed the building, which serves as a colorful representation of Panama rising up from the sea uniting two continents. The museum is very interactive with guides taking you through galleries to learn about unique native species like the giant Hermit Ground Sloth. Watch wildlife all around you even from the floor and ceiling in the Panamarama projection space.
8. Boquete: Hanging bridges: One of the best tours with one of the best tour guides Octavio at Boquete’s Tree Trek Resort is the hanging bridges tour. Trek through the treetops above waterfalls and through 8 suspension bridges.
9. Boquete: Coffee tour: Tour Rio Cristal Farm and taste 8 types of local coffee. The Coffee Cupping tour teaches you how to recognize a good coffee and includes tasting the infamous floral Geisha coffee. Geisha coffee is hard to find and can cost $100 per pound.
10. Embera community: Step back in time by visiting the Emberá tribe’s traditional villages. Learn about their traditions, music and dances and enjoy a homecooked meal with this welcoming community.
11. Anton Valley waterfall: Anton Valley is located inside the second largest inhabited dormant volcano in the world. Walk through an ecological refuge to see the beautiful El Chorro Macho waterfall.
What to eat:
Panamanian food is not as spicy as neighboring countries, but fresh fruit and juices like bananas, coconuts and pineapples are delicious local treats. While you're at the beach, drink coconut water fresh from a coconut.Many dishes are seafood or meat, beans and rice based, with vegetables being an after thought. Patacones, fried green plantain discs, come with many meals. For dessert order traditional or coffee flavored flan. Enjoy local Boquete coffee and try Geisha whenever possible at tastings or at Unido in Panama City. For a delicious buffet style meal and whimsical dessert heaven, head to the famous Cuquita Cookita in Panama City.
Where to stay:
1. Punta Caracole: Offering more affordable overwater bungalows than the Maldives, check out these 9 colorful acqua-lodges located in Bocas del Toro, a quick boat ride to Starfish beach and Red Frog beach. Named some of the best overwater bungalows in the world, Punta Caracole focuses on using renewable energy and native building materials.
2. Boquete Tree Trek Resort: Immerse yourself in the Chiriquí highlands’ natural beauty and enjoy the many activities that this resort offers. From ziplining through the canopy to trekking the hanging bridges trail to tasting the local coffees, there’s plenty to do requiring at least a few nights here.
3. American Trade Hotel: This newly renovated boutique hotel takes up a full block in Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo and is the perfect location to explore the old quarter. The vintage tile floors and chic décor make it the perfect backdrop for a delicious brunch. There’s even a rooftop pool and a jazz club.
4. Le Meridian: This cosmopolitan luxury hotel has amazing views of the skyline and the Pacific Ocean. For the best sunset or sunrise views grab a seat by the pool. Le Meridian is located along the new Cintra Costera green park and walkway and is a short Uber or taxi ride to Casco Viejo.
5. Hotel Bristol: Stay at Hotel Bristol for a contemporary luxury stay in the center of Panama City’s Financial District. Experience Panamanian cuisine at Salsipuedes Comida and Bar.
Tour companies that we had the pleasure of exploring with:
1. We loved exploring Bocas del Toro with D’Lujo Tours.
2. Then we embarked on our road trip to Boquete with Christian from Q-tarras Tours.
3. One of our favorite guides who taught us so much was Luis from Panama Royal Adventures.
Have you ever been to Panama? Is it on your list? Comment below!
And for more on Panama check out my friend Christine's guide HERE.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Panama Tourism for helping organize our trip. The views and opinions in this article are always my own.