The Essential Panama Travel Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Embarking on a journey to Panama promises an exhilarating experience, packed with diverse attractions and activities. However, the abundance of options might seem daunting at first. Fear not—this comprehensive travel guide is your perfect companion to unravel the wonders of Panama, ensuring you fully capitalize on your visit. Prepare to embark on an unforgettable adventure that will take you through the heart of Panama’s vibrant culture, stunning landscapes, and rich history. Let’s begin this exciting exploration together!

Panama City

When is the Best Time to Visit Panama?

The optimal time to travel to Panama is during the dry season, which runs from mid-December to mid-April. This time of year provides sunny days and lower humidity, making it perfect for outdoor activities and discovering the country’s natural beauty. Tourists can also take part in lively cultural festivals and events, including the renowned Carnaval. However, it’s important to keep in mind that prices and crowds are typically higher during this peak tourist season.

What is the Weather Like in Panama?

The climate in Panama is tropical, with high humidity and plentiful rainfall. The country experiences two main seasons: the dry season, which lasts from December to April, and the wet season, which occurs from May to November. During the wet season, anticipate heavy rain showers, particularly in the afternoons, while the dry season offers clearer skies and less precipitation. When planning your visit, be mindful of these weather patterns.

Pro-tip: Bring lightweight, breathable clothing and a waterproof jacket to stay comfortable in Panama’s tropical climate.

What are the Peak and Off-Peak Seasons in Panama?

In Panama, the peak season typically runs from mid-December to mid-April, coinciding with the dry season and attracting more tourists. Conversely, the off-peak season, characterized by increased rainfall, runs from mid-April to mid-December.

To make the most of your visit, it is recommended to plan your trip during the peak season when the weather is ideal for exploring Panama’s diverse attractions.

How to Get to Panama?

  • Fly: Arrive at Tocumen International Airport, the main airport in Panama, which is served by many international airlines.
  • Drive: If driving from Central America, you can cross the border into Panama through a land border.
  • Sail: Access Panama via its many ports if arriving on a cruise or personal boat.

What are the Major Airports in Panama?

The major airports in Panama include:

  • Tocumen International Airport in Panama City
  • Enrique Malek International Airport in David
  • Scarlett Martinez International Airport in Río Hato

These airports provide a variety of domestic and international flights, making it easy and convenient to travel within Panama and to other countries.

What are the Transportation Options within Panama?

When traveling in Panama, there are several transportation options available such as buses, taxis, rental cars, and domestic flights.

  • Buses are a budget-friendly choice and provide coverage to most areas.
  • Taxis are convenient for navigating cities.
  • For more flexibility, consider renting a car.
  • For longer distances, domestic flights are a great option.

To ensure a smooth and hassle-free trip, it is important to consider the diverse transportation options within Panama and plan accordingly based on your itinerary and personal preferences.

What are the Must-See Destinations in Panama?

Panama is a diverse and beautiful country, offering travelers a wide array of destinations to explore. From bustling cities to tranquil beaches and everything in between, there is something for everyone in Panama. In this section, we will highlight the must-see destinations that should be at the top of your travel itinerary. Whether you’re looking for culture, adventure, or relaxation, these five destinations – Panama City, San Blas Islands, Boquete, Bocas del Toro, and Santa Catalina – are sure to captivate and enchant you. Let’s take a closer look at what makes these places so special.

San Blass
Bocas del Toro

1. Panama City

  • Explore the historic Casco Viejo district in Panama City.
  • Visit the iconic Panama Canal and its museum.
  • Discover the biodiversity at the Biomuseo in Panama City.
  • Stroll along the Amador Causeway in Panama City for scenic views.
  • Indulge in local cuisine at Mercado de Mariscos in Panama City.

Tours you should consider (Commission Earned): Half Day City and Panama Canal Tour, or Panama City: Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Bus.

2. San Blas Islands

  • The San Blas Islands offer pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters, perfect for snorkeling and relaxation.
  • Plan a visit to the indigenous Guna Yala community to immerse yourself in their culture and purchase handcrafted souvenirs.
  • Check for tour operators providing boat trips from Panama City or Colón to the San Blas Islands.
  • Respect the local customs and environmental regulations during your stay on the San Blas Islands.

Tours you should consider (Commission Earned): Overnight in San Blas – Private Room + Meals + Boat Tour

3. Boquete

When visiting Boquete in Panama, consider these essential steps:

  1. Explore the Boquete Tree Trek for a thrilling zipline adventure.
  2. Visit the Boquete Library where you can learn about local culture and history.
  3. Embark on a coffee tour in Finca Lerida to experience the region’s renowned coffee production.
  4. Hike the trails of Sendero Los Quetzales for breathtaking nature and wildlife encounters.
  5. Relax in the Caldera Hot Springs for a rejuvenating experience amidst stunning natural scenery.

Tours you should consider (Commission Earned): River Rafting on the Chiriqui Viejo River, and Schumann’s BOTANICAL PARK TOUR.

4. Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a beautiful archipelago in Panama, famous for its breathtaking beaches, diverse marine life, and relaxed Caribbean vibe. Those who visit Bocas del Toro can enjoy various activities such as snorkeling, surfing, and discovering the lush rainforests. The unique culture and mouth-watering seafood dishes of the region make it an essential destination for travelers looking for a tranquil tropical escape.

To reach Bocas del Toro you have several options depending on your starting location and preferences:

  1. By Air: The fastest way to get to Bocas del Toro is by flying. There are regular flights from Panama City to Bocas del Toro International Airport (Isla Colón). The flight takes approximately 1 hour. Airlines like Air Panama offer this route.
  2. By Bus and Boat: If you’re traveling from Panama City, you can take a bus to Almirante, which is the closest town on the mainland. This bus journey takes about 10-11 hours. From Almirante, you’ll take a water taxi to Isla Colón, the main island of Bocas del Toro, which takes about 30 minutes.
  3. By Car and Boat: You can drive to Almirante, park your car there, and then take a water taxi to Isla Colón. The drive from Panama City to Almirante takes around 8-9 hours.
  4. From Costa Rica: If you’re coming from Costa Rica, you can cross the border at Sixaola/Guabito and then take a bus or a taxi to Almirante, followed by a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.

Tours you should consider (Commission Earned): Full-Day Speedboat Tour, Wildlife, and Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro in Panama, and Speed Boat tour to Mangrove Point -Starfish Beach -Bocas del Drago and Birds Island.

5. Santa Catalina

  • Explore the beautiful and pristine beaches of Santa Catalina, a paradise for surfers and beach enthusiasts.
  • Indulge in a variety of water activities such as surfing, diving, and snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters.
  • Experience the laid-back atmosphere and breathtaking sunsets, providing the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
  • Discover the diverse and vibrant marine life and coral reefs while enjoying the relaxed ambiance of this charming coastal town.
  • Engage in eco-tourism and take a trip to the nearby Coiba National Marine Park for an unforgettable nature experience.

What are the Top Activities to do in Panama?

Panama is a country filled with diverse landscapes and vibrant culture, making it the perfect destination for adventure seekers and cultural enthusiasts alike. In this section, we will highlight the top activities to do in Panama that will allow you to fully experience all that this beautiful country has to offer. From hiking in the lush rainforest to exploring the famous Panama Canal, there is something for everyone in this Central American gem. So pack your bags and get ready for an unforgettable journey through Panama.

1. Hiking in the Rainforest

To experience hiking in the rainforest in Panama, follow these steps:

  1. Research different rainforest trails and choose one that is suitable for your fitness level and level of experience.
  2. Be sure to pack essential gear such as sturdy hiking boots, insect repellent, water, and a first aid kit.
  3. Show respect for the environment by staying on marked trails and avoiding disturbing any wildlife.
  4. For safety and to gain a deeper understanding of the flora and fauna, consider hiring a local guide.
  5. Fully immerse yourself in the rich biodiversity and stunning landscapes of the rainforest.

Hiking in the rainforest has been a beloved activity in Panama for centuries, allowing adventurers to uncover the hidden treasures of this lush wilderness.

2. Snorkeling and Diving

  • Be prepared with the necessary equipment – a mask, snorkel, fins, and a wetsuit if needed – before embarking on your snorkeling and diving excursion.
  • Research the top spots for snorkeling and diving in Panama, such as the Pearl Islands and Bocas del Toro.
  • Before your trip, check the weather and sea conditions to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
  • Show respect for the marine life and coral reefs by refraining from touching or disturbing them.
  • For your safety, always have a diving or snorkeling buddy with you.

Fun Fact: The Coiba National Park in Panama is not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site but also an exceptional location for snorkeling and diving adventures.

3. Surfing

  1. Research the Best Surfing Spots: Explore renowned surfing locations like Santa Catalina, Playa Venao, and Bocas del Toro.
  2. Check the Swell Forecast: Monitor wave conditions and tides to ensure optimal surfing experiences.
  3. Prepare Your Gear: Pack or rent appropriate surfing equipment such as a surfboard, leash, and wax.
  4. Connect with Local Surfers: Engage with the surfing community to gather insights and tips about the area.

Pro-tip: Embrace the laid-back vibe of Panama by immersing yourself in the local surfing culture and savoring the breathtaking coastal views.

4. Visiting Indigenous Communities

When exploring indigenous communities in Panama, it is important to follow these respectful steps:

  1. Research: Educate yourself about the culture, customs, and traditions of the community you plan to visit.
  2. Seek Permission: Obtain any necessary permits or permissions before entering the community.
  3. Respect Traditions: Follow any specific guidelines provided by the community leaders or elders.
  4. Support Ethically: Purchase locally made crafts or products to support the community’s economy.

Fact: Panama is home to seven indigenous groups, each with its own unique heritage and customs.

5. Canal Tours

  1. Research Tour Operators: Look for reputable tour operators that offer guided canal tours.
  2. Check Tour Inclusions: Ensure the tour includes highlights like the Miraflores Locks and informative narration about the Canal’s history and operations.
  3. Review Safety Measures: Prioritize safety by confirming the presence of life jackets and adherence to safety protocols during the Canal tour.
  4. Choose Tour Duration: Select a Canal tour based on your preference for a full-day, half-day, or sunset tour experience.
  5. Booking Confirmation: Once you’ve compared options, book your Canal tour in advance to secure your spot.

Tours: Panama City: Half Day City and Panama Canal Tour, or Panama City: Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Bus.

Where to Stay in Panama?

When planning a trip to Panama, one of the most important decisions to make is where to stay. With a diverse range of accommodations available throughout the country, it can be overwhelming to choose the best option for your travel style and budget. In this section, we will explore the different types of accommodations in Panama, including hotels and resorts, Airbnb and vacation rentals, and hostels and budget accommodations. By the end, you will have a better understanding of the various options and be able to make an informed decision for your stay in Panama.

1. Hotels and Resorts

  • Location: Look for hotels and resorts located near popular attractions and with convenient access to transportation options.
  • Amenities: Consider establishments that offer amenities such as swimming pools, spa services, and on-site dining.
  • Reviews: Check online reviews and ratings to ensure a pleasant and satisfying stay.
  • Price: Compare prices and consider booking during off-peak seasons for potential savings.

2. Airbnb and Vacation Rentals

  • Research: Begin your search for the perfect accommodation in Panama by researching the available Airbnb and vacation rental options.
  • Reviews: Take the time to read reviews from previous guests to get an idea of the quality and reliability of the rental properties.
  • Location and Amenities: When considering a rental property, take into account its location and amenities to ensure they align with your travel plans and preferences.
  • Booking: Once you have found the ideal rental, proceed with the booking process, making sure that the terms and conditions are suitable for your needs.
  • Communication: It is important to maintain open communication with the host or property manager to address any questions or special requirements you may have.

3. Hostels and Budget Accommodations

  • Research: Look for affordable hostels and budget accommodations online to compare prices, locations, and facilities.
  • Reviews: Read feedback from previous guests to get an idea of the cleanliness, safety, and overall experience of the accommodations.
  • Location: Take into consideration the proximity of the hostel or budget accommodation to public transportation, attractions, and dining options.
  • Amenities: Check for essential amenities such as Wi-Fi, communal kitchen, and laundry facilities to ensure a comfortable stay.
  • Flexible Bookings: Choose places with flexible cancellation policies and booking options to accommodate any changes in your itinerary.

Pro tip: I always prefer to travel on a budget, so I highly recommend using the platform Hostelworld to find the best hostels.

What are the Must-Try Foods in Panama?

As a melting pot of cultures, Panama offers a diverse and flavorful cuisine that is sure to tantalize your taste buds. From hearty soups to fresh seafood dishes, there is something for everyone to try. In this section, we will take a closer look at five must-try foods in Panama: Sancocho, Ceviche, Arroz con Pollo, Patacones, and Tamales. Get ready to embark on a culinary journey through the vibrant and delicious flavors of Panama.

1. Sancocho

  • Gather ingredients for Sancocho, a traditional Panamanian stew.
  • Common ingredients include chicken, yams, and corn.
  • Prepare the stew by combining these ingredients with a variety of herbs and spices.
  • Let the stew simmer until the flavors meld and the ingredients are tender.
  • Serve the Sancocho hot and enjoy this hearty, flavorful dish.

2. Ceviche

  • Select fresh fish such as sea bass, flounder, or snapper for 2. Ceviche.
  • Cut the fish into small pieces and marinate in lime or lemon juice to ‘cook’ the fish.
  • Add diced onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and a hint of chili for flavor.
  • Let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
  • Serve the ceviche with tortilla chips or on a tostada.

3. Arroz con Pollo

  1. Cook the rice according to the package instructions.
  2. Sear the chicken pieces in a large pot and set aside.
  3. Sauté onions, bell peppers, and garlic until soft.
  4. Add the rice, chicken, and chicken broth to the pot.
  5. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through and the rice is tender.

During my visit to Panama, I had the opportunity to taste authentic Arroz con Pollo prepared by a local family. They generously shared their recipe and the meal turned into a heartwarming cultural exchange, making my travel experience truly unforgettable.

4. Patacones

  • Peel green plantains and cut them into one-inch slices.
  • Deep fry the slices until golden brown.
  • Remove from oil and flatten each piece to make patacones.
  • Return the flattened pieces to the oil and fry until crispy.
  • Season with salt and serve as a delicious snack or side dish.

5. Tamales

  • Prepare the filling for the tamales by combining ingredients such as meat, vegetables, and spices.
  • Soak the corn husks in warm water to soften them.
  • Spread the masa, a dough made from corn, on the softened corn husks.
  • Add the filling and wrap the husks to form a packet.
  • Steam the tamales until the dough is fully cooked.

Tips for Traveling to Panama

Before embarking on your journey to Panama, it’s important to be equipped with some useful tips to make your trip as smooth and enjoyable as possible. In this section, we will discuss some helpful pointers for traveling to Panama, including the importance of learning some basic Spanish, being prepared for the rainy season, utilizing local transportation, and being aware of your surroundings. With these tips in mind, you’ll be well-prepared for an unforgettable adventure in this beautiful Central American country.

1. Learn Some Basic Spanish

  • Begin by learning basic greetings and expressions.
  • Practice common travel phrases in Spanish.
  • Master numbers, directions, and essential verbs.
  • Utilize language learning apps or enroll in a short course.
  • Engage with locals to practice and improve your Spanish skills.

2. Be Prepared for Rain

  1. Check the weather forecast before your trip to Panama to anticipate rainy days.
  2. Pack lightweight, quick-drying clothing and a waterproof jacket.
  3. Carry a compact umbrella for unexpected showers.
  4. Protect your belongings by using waterproof bags or covers.

3. Use Local Transportation

  • Research Options: Look into public buses, metro systems, or local taxis for cost-effective and authentic travel experiences.
  • Ask Locals: Inquire about the most reliable and safe transportation methods commonly used by residents.
  • Plan Routes: Map out your itinerary and identify which modes of local transportation, such as buses, metros, or taxis, best suit your travel needs.

4. Be Aware of Your Surroundings

  • Stay cautious in crowded areas to avoid pickpocketing and theft.
  • Be mindful of your belongings when using public transportation or visiting tourist attractions.
  • Avoid displaying expensive items like jewelry or large amounts of cash.
  • Stay informed about the local safety recommendations and potential scams.
  • Pro-tip: Blend in with the locals by dressing modestly and respectfully, and avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself.

5. Further Considerations

  • Maximize your trip efficiency with a mobile travel itinerary template. Streamline your planning, track expenses, and organize your journey with ease. Proven to enhance travel experiences, these templates are essential for a smooth, budget-friendly adventure. Access them here for a seamless travel experience.
  • If you need help with packing and wish to avoid unnecessary purchases, explore my Amazon Lists for inspiration (commissions earned). You’re not obligated to buy, but you may find some helpful ideas: Travel Essentials, and What You Often Forget to Pack but Always Need

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the top attractions to visit in Panama?

Some of the top attractions in Panama include the Panama Canal, Bocas del Toro archipelago, San Blas Islands, Boquete, and Taboga Island.

What is the best time of year to visit Panama?

The best time to visit Panama is during the dry season, which runs from mid-December to mid-April. This is when you can enjoy the beaches and outdoor activities without worrying about rain.

Do I need a visa to visit Panama?

It depends on your country of origin. Citizens from most countries, including the United States and the European Union, do not need a visa to enter Panama for tourism purposes for up to 90 days. However, it is always best to check with your local embassy or consulate for the most up-to-date information.

What are some must-try foods in Panama?

Panama is known for its delicious seafood dishes, such as ceviche and fried fish. Other popular dishes include sancocho (a hearty chicken soup), empanadas, and arroz con pollo (chicken and rice). Don’t forget to try some local fruits like papaya and mango too!

Is it safe to travel to Panama?

Panama is generally a safe country to visit, but like any other destination, it’s important to use common sense and take precautions. Avoid walking alone at night, keep your valuables secure, and be aware of your surroundings.

What is the currency in Panama?

The official currency of Panama is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB), but the US dollar is widely accepted and used interchangeably. It’s best to have a mix of both currencies on hand when traveling in Panama.

Don’t forget to check my other travel tips here or travel guides. Happy journeys!

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