Panama Tours and Travel Guide
Panama Attractions & Landmarks Guide
Panama is best known for the engineering marvel the Panama Canal, which connects the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean and revolutionized global sea trade in the 20th century, but is also a top-flight jungle adventure destination, replete with eco-lodges, indigenous tribes, and mountain scenery.
Panama City, its modern capital, sits near the Canal, currently undergoing widening but which can still be toured by small ships as well as large cruise ships. This narrow isthmus between Central and South America is one of the "don't miss" countries in all of Latin America.
The Significance of the Panama Canal
One of the biggest draws for travelers to Panama, is the opportunity to visit and travel through the Panama Canal. Even though you may have most likely heard of this famous site, do you know why it is such an important landmark?
Construction for the Panama Canal began as early as the 1880s, by France, but wasn’t completed for several decades due to various engineering problems and different countries involvement with the ambitious project. Even though the construction experienced several setbacks, the perseverance to complete it speaks to its importance - no one could argue that the Panama Canal wouldn’t make a hugely positive impact for trade relations, economy, and tourism.
In 1914 the project was completed. Ownership switched hands a few times (to everyone but the Panama government) but today, Panama has control of the Panama Canal territory, and they’ve maintained it since 1999.
Why is the Panama Canal so Important?
The Panama Canal allowed for far quicker transportation between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This may not seem like a big deal, however consider this: in the mid 1800s industry was booming, life was starting to move a lot faster, and the world was getting increasingly smaller. There was a Gold Rush in California and technological inventions and innovation were heating up. A desire to get places quickly was a growing concern for businessmen and travelers heading out west from the east coast United States.
However the railway and ocean travel still dominated transportation for the vast majority of the middle and upper class. A journey from New York to San Francisco had three options: cross country, around the horn of South America - a 6 month journey, or take a ship to Panama’s east coast and hike through extremely dangerous jungle to the other coast on the Pacific side, catching a boat from there.
So for those traveling by sea, there was a great need to cut the journey down by opening up the Panama Canal. Construction seemed an insurmountable task given the factors of Panama’s environment, wildlife, and local inhabitants. But through great odds it was completed, effectively changing history.
Visiting the Panama Canal
Today, the Panama Canal is still very much in use for commercial travel, cruises, and industrial transportation. Most tours to Panama include a visit to learn about the canals incredible place in history, and visit the extensive museum which dramatically depicts every detail of the planning, construction, and operation of the Canal.
Visitors jam decks outside of the four-story Visitor Center which overlooks the Mirafloris Locks to watch ships of all sizes pass by, and wander through the outstanding museum inside. Those who wish to experience the Canal and locks first-hand may board a tourist boat which traverses part of the route.
Vibrant Panama City
A frenzied period of building and development that began in the early 2000s, based upon Panama City’s role as a center of international banking and trade, has transformed it into an architectural showcase. The skyline of skyscrapers echoes that of Miami, Las Vegas and other high-rise urban centers, and gilds the lily with touches of color and design unique to its setting.
Shimmering towers standing shoulder to shoulder vie for attention and transform the scene into a never-never land of steel and glass in a myriad of shapes and colors. At the same time, Panama City is home to inviting reminders of its Colonial past. Panama Viejo (Old Panama) is an important archaeological site where the first Spanish city on the Pacific coast of the Americas was founded in 1519.
It was from this location that expeditions embarked which conquered the powerful Inca Empire, and through it that most of the gold and silver passed which Spain took from the New World.
The Welsh privateer Henry Morgan sacked the city in 1671 and its sprawling ruins provide only a hint of its once important past. They include remnants of a soaring cathedral, churches, convents and stately homes built by some of the wealthiest citizens.
Following the destruction of Panama Viejo, a new walled city was constructed nearby. Casco Viejo encompasses about 800 buildings in a mixture of architectural styles that echoes the cultural diversity which evolved over time. In recent years the ancient site of cobblestone streets has turned into a chic neighborhood where boutique hotels and trendy bars contrast with crumbled remnants of the original setting.
Visitors who venture outside of the country’s capital find other, smaller cities, each with its own unique attractions. Colon is Panama’s major port city, La Palma is surrounded by undisturbed nature, and both Santiago and Portobelo are treasure troves of colonial architecture.
What Else is There to do in Panama?
While the Panama canal is a top attraction for travelers to Panama, there is actually a lot more to see and do in Panama besides visiting the famous site.
Panama may be small, but it’s jam packed with beautiful beaches, wildlife reserves and national parks, welcoming local villages, and some of Central America’s best cities to explore. Everyone from adventure travel enthusiasts to history lovers will find a wealth of activities awaiting them in Panama.
1. Snorkeling & Beaches
Pretty much anywhere along the coasts of Central America is an ideal location for snorkeling. Panama’s beaches are pristine and experience less crowds year round, giving travelers space to relax and dive under the waves to their heart’s content. One of the best locations for snorkeling is the remote San Blas region. Be sure to plan a full day to get there and back, but the journey to get there is worth it.
While large waves and strong riptides can make swimming in the Pacific challenging, sun bathers find stretches of sea shore there which are conducive to relaxing and working on their tan. One favorite, the long stretch of sand at Farallon, can get crowded on weekends and holidays, but is much less so at other times.
Many of the most inviting beaches in the country, and indeed some of the most beautiful in the Americas, rim the San Blas Islands in the northeastern Kuna Yala district. More than 350 islands off the Caribbean coastline offer sugar white sand fronting clear turquoise water.
2. Explore Colonial Era Towns
Spanish colonial history and architecture is everywhere in Central America and Panama is no exception. One of the best areas for exploring is Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City, but you can also venture farther afield and visit Nata de los Caballeros, home to one of the oldest churches in the Americas, dating back to 1522.
3. Take a Nature Walk
Panama may seems to be mostly industrial from the dominance of the Panama Canal when it comes to tourism. However the country is home to incredibly bio-diverse wildlife and nature.
Panama’s protected areas and national parks may not be as polished as some more well known heavy hitters in eco-travel, but that’s exactly their charm. Be sure to hike with a guide who can point out various species - if you’re lucky enough you may glimpse a famous Panama jaguar and a sloth or two.
4. Learn About the Native Culture
Another reason to spend time on the San Blas Islands is an introduction to the life of the Kuna, one of seven distinct indigenous groups that comprise about 12 percent of Panama’s total population of approximately four million. A visit to one or more regions where those people are grouped provides an immersion in their unique culture and customs that have changed little over time.
Beaches in Panama
Islands of San Blas: The San Blas islands are widely known as the closest any beach can get to paradise. The Carribean archipelago is made up of 378 islands that are the opposite from crowded, littered or noisy. Tourism is controlled by the native Gunas and is a perfect destination for anybody looking for a serene, quiet and isolated islands with nothing but the sound of beach waves and good food.
Isla Coiba: This is the biggest island in Central America, an UNESCO world heritage site, and enveloped in crystal blue water rich with marine life which makes this place a snorkelers and divers paradise. It is also home to the Coiba National Park, where you can see white faced monkeys and other spectacular wildlife that you don’t see everyday.
Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro: Also known as Red Frog Beach, this is perfect for travelers looking for acres of raw natural beauty. The vegetation is dense and filled with cherry red frogs of which the island is named after. The waters are shallow but there are still big waves perfect for surfing and boogie boarding.
Playa Estrella, Bocas del Toro: Many people call this starfish island, and it lives up to its name. Come here to relax on a peaceful, clean and clear beach with shallow waters dotted with starfishes
Contadora Island: Located on the Pearl Island archipelago, the Contadora Island is the perfect getaway if you’re looking for secluded beaches, pelicans and a rich marine life as well as small restaurants that cater to all kinds of cuisines. The island is also known for seaside, homey villas that look out into the swaying palm trees and calm waters.
Playa Venao: This is one of the more well known beaches. If you’re looking for big surfing waves, white clear beaches with a thumping nightlife, you have found your next destination. It is a five hour drive from Panama City and is home to some of the most luxurious hotels and hostels in the country.
Playa Cambutal: This laid back beach is a hidden gem in the southern Azuero Peninsula. Its monstrous waves and relaxed lodges spread around the coastline makes this a hotspot for a lot of surfers, but is also a must see beach for anybody looking to see a natural wonder. This island is also known for being one of the rare spots sea turtles lay their eggs and is close to Cerro Hoya National Park, one of the most biodiverse and untouched parks in the country.
Eating in Panama
Dining options in Panama also cover the gamut. Panama City abounds white tablecloth restaurants that could hold their gastronomic head high anywhere. Whether dining on haute cuisine or at a modest local eatery, Panama’s location between two oceans makes it a fresh seafood lover’s delight. Especially on the Caribbean side of the country shrimp, lobster, sea bass and, for the adventurous, octopus show up on many a menu and dinner table.
Those seeking to sample other local fare also enjoy a tempting variety of choices. The most popular national dish is Sancocho, a thick soup of chicken accompanied by vegetables and herbs. Rice (arroz) is a staple, often pocked with peas (black beans) and meat plays an important role in the diet of many Panamanians. Fried plantain is eaten by everyone, everywhere and often at every meal.
Panama Wildlife Viewing
Given its location as part of the land bridge that connects North and South America, Panama is home to an extraordinary biodiversity of both animal and plant life. It has served as a link that enabled migration in both directions, and its varied terrain of tropical rainforests, mountain cloud forests and low-lying mangrove wetlands has provided a welcome environment which prompted many species to stay.
They include jaguars, pumas and ocelots among the big cats that make Panama their home, although humans are more likely to see their prints rather than the elusive animals themselves. Easier to encounter are aptly named sloths, who lead their sedentary lives hanging upside down from the branches of trees through which white-faced capuchins and squirrel, spider and howler monkeys swing.
Crocodiles may be spotted sunning themselves on river banks while killer and humpback whales, sharks and bottlenose dolphins find the reefs off both coastlines to their liking.
Panama also is one of the best birding sites in the world, with resident populations that include parrots, toucans, quetzals, macaws and the harpy eagle, the nation’s national bird.
Adventure Travel in Panama
Venturing to Panama, a country lush with biodiversity and that intersects two oceans, is a true off the beaten path experience for any adventurer. Any globetrotter looking to get lost in rugged mountains, sandy beaches, untamed rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes and sea life has come to an extraordinary place with adventures packed in all sorts of terrains.
Some of the top experiences include:
Cruises - Panama harbours some of the most eye opening cruises that travel between two seas and two continents with some of the world’s most diverse marine life and whale migration sights. Most cruises explore national parks, the Panama canal, tropical islands and more.
Sailing - San Blas, considered one of the most beautiful paradises on earth, is in almost everybody’s itinerary that visit Panama, specifically sailing and boating enthusiasts. The sandy beaches and windy, clear ocean make this a perfect spot for people to venture around on their sails while spotting a ton of marine life.
Surfing - There are a string of gorgeous spots to surf in Panama but nothing beats Bocas del Toro where surfers can find everything from baby waves to monstrous 6 meter ones. Besides exhilarating waves, Bocas del Toro also has a pulsing night life that is an added plus to many adventurers looking to relax and let loose.
Birding - With over a 1,000 bird species to discover, some of which are nationally and regionally endangered, birding in Panama is certainly a fantastic experience. Soberania National Park is especially gorgeous for any bird lover also looking to see sloths, monkeys and other wildlife. Birding tours are especially popular, with knowledgeable guides that spend time giving backgrounds on rare birds and offer opportunities for bird photography that will make your trip to Panama worth sharing.
Diving - Panama has one of the most biodiverse marine ecologies in the world, and has something to offer for every type of diver. You can swim in both the Atlantic and Caribbean waters in one day while marveling at the turtles, whales, reef sharks as well as remnants of pirate treasure from centuries ago. An adventurer’s dream indeed!
Hiking - Panama offers some pretty spectacular trekking experiences for all kinds of hikers, from beginners to experts looking for the steepest of challenges. Some exciting trails lay in the Metropolitan Natural Park, Darien National Park, the Finca Suiza, La India Dormida and more.
Things to Know Before You Go
Where is Panama?
The Republic of Panama borders Colombia and Costa Rica. Its geographical location is interesting because it remains at a crossroads between North America and South America. As a result, it also harbours both the Carribean and the Pacific waters.
Despite it being the southernmost country in South America and having very similar traditions with other countries in the continent, Panama is ultimately considered to be a part of North America.
When is the Best Time to Visit Panama?
Deciding when to visit Panama is simple. The country only has two main weathers all year round: wet and dry. The wet season is normally May to December, leaving the rest of the year as the most optimal time to visit if you’re trying to avoid any rain showers. The dry season is sunny and humid throughout, maintaining about 30 C (86F), perfect for beach days and strolls exploring the city.
If you’re looking for a cheaper time to visit Panama, however, the wet season is for you. Although it rains everyday during this period, rain showers normally only span to about an hour and the country becomes more vibrant, green and lush! You can see hotels and tour prices drop while enjoying the more tropical side of the country.
Is Panama Safe?
Panama is a super safe place to visit if you are a cautious traveler and stick to the recommendations of your tour guide. Like any country, there are certain areas to avoid that have higher crime rates, and in Panama these are cities like Colon, Yaviza and anything along the edge of the Columbian border. Those areas at the end of the Pan American highway contain high levels of violent crime and drug trafficking.
Otherwise, sticking to Panama City and the islands, where there is a bigger population of tourists, is a safe environment for any explorer. Do still be wary of petty thefts in and around the city, such as pick pocketing, especially in bus and market areas. It is advisable to not flaunt any flashy jewelry or hang your camera around you, especially when walking at night.
For transportation, it is safest to use registered yellow taxis. In Panama they don’t use meters, but rather, you agree to a fare beforehand. Buses are extremely safe to use in the city but their routes can be confusing, so make sure you have a map or feel free to ask the very helpful and friendly locals!
Packing List for Panama Tours
Tours in Panama can vary from exploring the Panama Canal, to the city, to national parks, to Lake Gatun all the way to the islands and even includes indigenous village tours. There is so much to explore in Panama, and thus, what you pack is important on how convenient and enjoyable the trip is for you!
Since it’s expected that you will be walking a lot, bring durable sandals and sneakers. Trust us, you’re going to be thankful for this one. Panama also has some gorgeous waterfalls and hidden trails that criss cross around its green vallies, so hiking boots would be extremely useful if you are a traveler that is truly looking to see raw, natural beauty.
Panama, if you’re going during the dry season, is usually tropical, hot and humid. Make sure you pack a refillable water bottle, sunscreen, sunglasses, a quick dry towel, a light sweater, swimsuit, waterproof phone cover, insect repellent and sturdy walking shoes.
If you are going to a national park, make sure you pack a DSLR if you have one or binoculars to catch the gorgeous and rare species of birds found nestled between branches, camouflaged across leaves or soaring high above canopies.
Although many Panama tours have bilingual tour guides, it would be quite helpful to bring a spanish english dictionary to learn the local language. Taking in the culture is probably the best thing you can do in Panama, and language comes with it! Lastly, a pro tip before venturing around the city is to download the offline map of Panama just in case you need directions without WiFi.
Getting to Panama
There are three main ways you can reach Panama, and that is by plane, land, or sea. By plane is perhaps the most popular way to touch down into Panama’s main airport, Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen, as flying is the fastest and most convenient way of travel. There are also many direct flights to the city from over 10 different states in the US and many in South America. Traveling through air from Europe and Canada often stop at the US first, including flights from Asia although a layover in Mexico City is common.
If not by air, land is also used to get into Panama by many. Panama borders Costa Rica and you can cross over through 3 main crossing, the most popular being the Pan American Highway. Although Panama also borders Colombia, there is no land crossing between the two and you must fly instead.
Sea is another favorable form on transportation into Panama. The Panama Canal sees thousands of tourists coming off of cruise ships and yachts each year.
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