Even though Costa Rica and Guatemala are the go-to destinations for Central American adventure seekers, the smaller, arguably more interesting Panama is a treasure trove of historical, cultural, and wildlife attractions. With its booming economy as an international center of finance, Panama City is an urban, cosmopolitan metropolis. On the other hand, secluded Boquete, a region set atop stunning mountains, will appeal to anyone looking for a breath of fresh air. However you look at it, Panama is a fabulous destination, and it cannot be missed.
Here are our top picks, and a little practical information, too:
Parque Internacional La Amistad
For a real adventure through a tropical rainforest, you must check out this enormous park that straddles the border between Panama and Costa Rica. Arrange a tour with a local operator to see giant anteaters, jaguars, and many species of monkeys. This park is so enormous that much of it has never been explored. Be forewarned: venturing off the beaten path and without the accompaniment of a tour operator is probably a bad idea.
Achipelago De Bocas Del Toro
Located on the Caribbean side of the country, this cluster of islands has long been untouched by tourists. For that reason, Bocas Del Toro is perhaps the most pristine of all Panama’s beautiful areas. A true water paradise, where scuba diving, fishing, boating, kayaking, and snorkeling are moments away. Bocas Del Toro can be reached by car or by a quick 40-minute flight from Panama City.
Nestled in the highlands of the Volcan Baru is one of the most charming villages you’ll ever see: Boquete. Boquete is where you’ll find Panama’s most sought-after coffee and citrus fruits, grown to perfection in the cool breezes of the mountainous areas. You’ll be blown away by how sunny it is, but also how cool it is, and the views of the countryside will take your breath away. From fabulous hikes to tours of coffee plantations, Boquete is a can’t-miss stop in Panama.
Peninsula De Azuero
Beach lovers will fall in love with the little coastal towns on this peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Las Tablas, Chitre, and Pedasi are the de facto destinations of choice, offering local color and unparalleled charm. Visit the Playa Venado for some of the best surfing in the world, be sure to check out the fishing scene in Las Tablas, which has become a premier destination for sport fishing.
Quickly becoming one of the top places in the world for American retirees, Panama City is nevertheless an electrifying metropolis. Home to some truly remarkable historical sites, like the can’t-miss Old Town (Casco Viejo), as well as some of the hippest nightclubs and restaurants, there’s something in Panama’s capital city for everyone. Be sure to check out the Interoceanic Canal Museum and The Vaults, a promenade that juts dramatically into the ocean.
What trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to the most important shortcut in the world? Tour operators offer full or partial transits of the canal, with the full option taking at least ten hours from start to finish. Cruises vary in their accommodations, from very bare bones to plush.
Panama is fun, very inexpensive, and safe. You’ll want to do a little research before heading to your destination, and you should absolutely book accommodations ahead of time. Many people in Panama City will speak English, but outside of the city, the number of English speakers dwindles quickly. A pocket phrase book will come in handy if your Spanish is rusty (or nonexistent)!
Panama’s official currency is both the Panamanian Balboa and the American dollar, perhaps attesting to the country’s cosmopolitanism and importance on the international finance scene. There’s absolutely no need to stop off at the currency exchange on your way in.
Panama hotels in the city vary from Spartan to utterly luxurious, and every budget can be accommodated. Outside the city, those with more decadent tastes may have to temper their preferences somewhat, as the hotel selection may be a bit more limited. Regardless, wherever you go, you’ll likely be greeted with the warmth and comfort that make Panama such a special, memorable destination.