Panama is so much more than its famed canal. The country’s curvy, narrow land mass serves as a physical—and cultural—land bridge between North and South America. But despite its global significance, Panama is often overlooked by tourists.
While Panama is more expensive than the rest of Central American countries, its natural beauty is unsurpassed. Imagine hundreds of idyllic, deserted islands scattered through warm seas; densely forested wilderness; creatures as incredible as those in Dr. Seuss’s most imaginative books. Panama’s skinny isthmus holds all this, and much more.
Where Should I Go?
Panama City is one of the most cosmopolitan, culturally distinct, and enjoyable capital cities in all of Central America. Modern commercial buildings blend with cobbled streets and Spanish colonial architecture of centuries past. West of the capital lies the Panama Canal, the legendary feat of humankind that unites two entire oceans.
Panama’s most striking and popular archipelagos are Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean, and the Pearl Islands in the Pacific. The Pearl Islands were featured on a season of the reality TV show, Survivor. The San Blas islands are noteworthy for being populated by the Kuna Indians—remarkable artisans. Book a long-term room on a major island (specifically, Bocas Town in Bocas del Toro, and Contadora in the Pearl Islands), and use it as a base to explore Panama’s hundreds of remote islands and islets.
Other worthwhile destinations are Boquete in the Chiriqui Province, an ecotourist’s dream in the southeast featuring volcanoes, waterfalls, and even the elusive quetzal; Boquete, a quaint town overflowing with flowers; and the Anton Valley, the largest inhabited dormant volcano in the world.
What Will I See?
Docked against Costa Rica in the northwest and Colombia in the southeast, Panama’s mountains, forests and oceans boast an exceptional biodiversity. In fact, the animal species of this unique country are as varied as any region in the world. Panama is home to 900 bird species —- more than the entire land mass of North America!
Those interested in experiencing true rainforest can visit the Soberania National Park, just 25 miles north of Panama City. The Bastimentos Marine National Park in Bocas del Toro offers some of the best diving and snorkeling in Central America.
Darien is one of the most dangerous areas in Panama, but also one of the most fascinating. The Pan-American highway, which stretches from Alaska to Argentina, is broken only at the Darien Gap -— the rainforest in Darien is impenetrable. Travel to Darien is not recommended, but if you insist, book an experienced guide.
How Do I Get There and Around?
As in every Central American country, local buses — often garishly painted American school buses — are the least expensive mode of transport in Panama. Destinations like Colón, Panama City, and David are also served by larger and more comfortable express buses. Outside more populated areas, paved roads can be rare. In those cases (like venturing to Bocas del Toro, for example), booking a seat on a small aircraft is the preferable option.
To travel to Costa Rica in the northwest, you can either book a plane from Panama City or an air-conditioned Ticabus.
How Much Will I Pay?
Partially because of its use of the United States dollar, Panama is one of the most expensive Central America countries to visit. While rooms usually start at $12-$15 USD a person, travelers can reduce costs by taking advantage of local cafes, markets, and transportation. More affluent travelers will find a pleasing selection of plush resorts, especially among Panama’s islands.
When Should I Go?
Panama’s rainy season usually between June and November, with rainfall much higher on the Pacific side of the country.
In Panama, Holy Week (the week of Easter) is similar to Semana Santa in Guatemala, with colorful religious processions and festivities. In February or March, Panama celebrates Carnaval, a boisterous nationwide fiesta most notable for its lively water fights. Visit Kuna Yala in February to see the grand Independence Day celebration of the indigenous Kuna people. Book a room early during any holiday, and be prepared to pay extra.
How Safe Will I Be?
In the larger cities of Panama, such as Panama City and Colon, extreme caution should be taken at night. Passports must be worn on your person at all times—carry it, along with important documents and large sums of money—in an underclothes money belt. Keep an eye out for helpful Tourist Police with white armbands.
In the thickly forested, far southeast region of Darien (which borders Colombia), guerillas and drug traffickers remain a real threat, and while this area is still visited by intrepid travelers, we don’t recommend travel there without an experienced guide.
While traveler’s diarrhea is the ailment you’ll most likely experience (and you can reduce your risk by drinking bottled water and peeling all fruit), vaccinations for Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, and Yellow Fever are recommended for all travelers to Panama. Make sure you take prophylaxis against mosquito-borne Malaria, especially in rural regions—see MD Travel Health for more specific information. Like Costa Rica, Panama is also a popular destination for “health tourism”, or traveling abroad for inexpensive medical services.
Edited by Marina K. Villatoro