Many are saying that Panama is the “new” or “hot” destination to visit in Latin America. Panama certainly has plenty to offer. The Panama canal, an outstanding engineering feat, makes a great day trip from Panama City. There is also beautiful countryside to explore, rainforests and wildlife vacations and some truly unique beaches to discover.
Panama has some fantastic beaches on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Following the real estate boom in neighboring Costa Rica, investors are increasingly attracted by Panama’s beaches (and the country’s very stable government). Bocas Del Toro is a laid back small town with a host of offshore islands, most of which remain empty and unspoiled for the moment. Also on the Caribbean coast, the San Blas Islands are an autonomous region governed by the indigenous Kuna Indians, who live in a paradise of small undeveloped islands. A visit to the San Blas islands is highly memorable – not just for the beauty of the area, but also for the friendliness of the local Kuna Indians.
In addition to numerous beach resorts a short drive from Panama City, the Pacific coast offers the beautifully idyllic Pearl Islands, just a short flight from Panama City. The islands remain relatively undiscovered – this is where the “Survivor” series was filmed. Further west, the Azuero peninsula has a less-visited but equally beautiful coastline, with plenty of rural villages to visit in addition to it’s remarkably undeveloped, wonderful beaches. Further West along the Pacific Coast is the surfing hotspot of Santa Catalina, and the nearby prison Island of Coiba, one of Panama’s best scuba diving and snorkeling travel destinations.
Bocas del Toro
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro is a scattering of over 200 small to medium-sized beautiful islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast close to the border with Costa Rica. The beaches and their crystalline waters are some of the most beautiful in Panama, and the region is one of the most frequently visited by travelers. Apart from the beaches – sailing tours, scuba diving, snorkeling tours, visits to indigenous communities, hikes through rainforests and surfing can all be organized in Bocas del Toro.
The main island in Bocas del Toro is that of Isla Colon, where the regional capital and airport – Bocas Town – is located. The neighboring island – Isla Careno – is a short taxi ride away, and has a quieter location with a few hotels. More intimate are the hotels found on the more remote islands of Isla Bastimentos and Isla Cristobal.
The closest decent beach to Bocas Town – Bluff Beach – is 5 miles away. Bocas Town has the best nightlife and the widest range of amenities, including various budget hotels. Some of the better hotels in Bocas Town include Hotel El Limbo on the Sea (poor service apparently), Tropical Suites (condo style that rather lacks charm, but does have kitchenettes), Bocas Inn (good friendly service) and Cocomo on the Sea. Elsewhere on Isla Colon, Punta Caracol hotel is expensive but ideal for a romantic getaway in Panama, with 9 lovely bungalows and a lovely beach nearby, while Punta Manglar is peacefully isolated and not at all expensive.
San Blas Islands – Comarca Kuna Yala
The San Blas Islands (or Comarca Kuna Yala as they are called by the locals) are a truly fascinating group of tiny, idyllic Caribbean islands populated by the indigenous Kuna Indians (50,000 in some 50 communities). This is a semi-autonomously governed region of Eastern Panama, in which the only form of currency was the coconut until the mid-1990s.
These Caribbean islands have a real castaway feel to them, and the Kuna Indians are a friendly and fascinating group of people to meet. If you like beaches, as well as meeting indigenous groups and learning about local culture, Panama’s San Blas Islands are an absolute must-visit destination. Most of the islands are completely unpopulated – those where the local Kunas are present are often choc-a-bloc with very basic bamboo houses.
This is a very primitive, humbling, undeveloped and special beach paradise like nowhere else in Latin America. Tourism in the San Blas Islands is very small scale – and very memorable. If you like creature comforts, it probably best to visit elsewhere in Panama, but if you have a vague earning for adventure travel with cultural influence, the San Blas Islands is the place in Panama for you.
There are no banks in the San Blas Islands, so bring plenty of cash. Scuba diving is prohibited everywhere. Always ask permission before taking photos of the Kuna as they can be particularly sensitive to having their photos taken. If you don’t like eating fish, don’t visit the San Blas Islands – most meals consist of fish. Camping is not permitted anywhere on the islands.
The Pearl Islands are an archipelago of numerous small, beautiful islands in the Pacific Ocean just a 15-minute flight from Panama City. At the moment, tourism and visitors are concentrated almost entirely on the medium-sized island of Contadora, though there are plans to develop and build holiday homes on various other islands, most of which are currently uninhabited. The beaches are white sand, and the islands have a laid back lifestyle, ideal for a few nights relaxation.
As with much of Panama’s Pacific Coastline (indeed all of Latin America’s Pacific coast), whale watching can be organized during the months of June to September. The Pearl Islands have a lovely sunny climate, but the heat is not overly oppressive. The peak tourism season is from December to April, which coincides with the dry season in which there are next to no mosquitos or biting insects on Contadora Island. The rainy season is from May to November.
Contadora Island’s Beaches
Other activities on Contadora Island include hiring a golf cart or bicycle to explore the islands numerous beaches, including one of Panama’s few nudist beaches (Playa de las Suecas). At low tide, there are some lovely coastal walks possible over the shorelines rocky outcrops – walk round the coast South from Villa Romantica’s beach (Playa Cacique) to discover some beautiful luxury beachfront homes owned by Panama’s rich folk, plus some empty beaches only accessible at low tide such as Playa Camaron, Playa Roca, and Playa Dimaggio. Contadora Island’s most beautiful beach is Playa Ejecutiva, easily accessible on the Northern coast of the island.
Santa Catalina & Isla Coiba
Santa Catalina, to the West on Panama’s Pacific Coast, is one of Central America’s top surfing destinations. The waves here are excellent and suitable for all standards of surfers. Santa Catalina itself is a rather scruffy, disorganized town – in reality, there are only two reasons to travel here. The first reason is that this is Panama’s best surfing location. The second reason is to visit the quite amazing Coiba Island, an idyllic island often compared to the Galapagos.
Coiba Island – Isla Coiba
This is undoubtedly one of Panama’s top travel highlights, but it’s rarely shouted about or written about. Huge Coiba Island is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is still a functioning prison island, and you can even meet some of the few remaining inmates (who’ll probably try to sell you a necklace they’ve made from beach-combed materials). The island is completely undeveloped and very unspoiled. White sand beautiful beaches are all over the place, and the diving some of the best in Latin America. Whilst snorkeling, expect to see sharks, turtles and all manner of other marine life. Local guards can show you around the derelict old prison, plus there are also a few jungle trails on the island. All in all a trip to Coiba Island makes a truly brilliant day tour from Santa Catalina. The National Park is administered by ANAM – contact their offices in Santiago (Panama) if you want to stay overnight on Isla Coiba in one of the cabins they manage (highly recommended). There are no other hotels on Coiba Island.
Reading some of the well known Panama travel guidebooks implies that the journey to Coiba Island is long and complicated to organize – this couldn’t be further from the truth. To travel by boat from Santa Catalina to Coiba Island is remarkably easy, and takes just 2 hours (not the six hours that Panama’s Bradt travel guide suggests for example). Organized tours leave daily at a cost of $50 per person plus a $20 park entrance fee. Alternatively, it’s easy to charter a boat for $250 that will accommodate up to 10 tourists – and it’s easy to find others wishing to share.
Chiriqui National Park
On the Westernmost section of Panama’s Pacific Coast lies the Chiriqui National Marine Park, a region of lovely beaches, crystalline waters excellent for scuba diving and snorkeling and beautiful offshore islands. The Chiriqui National Park remains rarely visited, but with the increasing popularity of Boquete in the highlands nearby, it is likely to become increasingly popular. The deep-sea fishing along the coast here is truly excellent. Boca Chica is the main town and tourism base and day trips can be arranged to the amazing Coiba Island, though the travel distance is much less from Santa Catalina which lies further West.
Hotels in Boca Chica include Gone Fishing Lodge (a good option for those interested in fishing, as well as those not), the upmarket Panama Big Game Sportfishing Club (mainly for deep-sea fishing vacations) and the more basic Wahoo Willy’s. Alternatively, Cala Mia is a boutique hotel on its own private island. Islas Secas is some 16 privately owned islands in the Chiquiri Gulf. On these islands lies Islas Secas Ecolodge, one of the most luxurious eco-lodges in Panama – an extremely exclusive, and expensive, small beach resort.
Boquete & the Chiriqui Highlands
Boquete and the surrounding Chiriqui highlands are Panama’s top destination for all kinds of outdoor activities. Boquete, a lovely town increasingly popular with North American retirees, is the most commonly used base to explore this rural region of Panama. There are some very scenic drives nearby, as well as great birdwatching, rafting and hiking. Mountain biking, horseback riding, and visits to hot springs are also possible. Boquete is flanked by Baru Volcano National Park, which is a great hiking destination and it is common to spot the resplendent quetzal bird in the rainforests there. Upmarket hotels in Boquete include the boutique Palo Alto Riverside Hotel, the Coffee Estate Inn, Los Establos and Panamonte Inn & Spa.
Other highlights in the Chiriqui Highlands include the small alpine villages of Bambito, Cerro Punta and Guadalupe, each of which has it’s own unique charm and plenty of beautiful scenery nearby. La Amistad National Park is also in this northwestern region of the Chiriqui highlands, and is shared with Costa Rica – there are more hiking trails and a huge range of wildlife in this park.
Tours of Panama’s mainland
A cruise of the Panama Canal is a real highlight, alternatively one can easily visit the Miraflores docks on a day trip. There are also some fine rainforest lodges just outside of Panama City.
Panama has various fascinating highland towns that offer fantastic opportunities for outdoor activities, hiking or simply marveling at the scenery. Consider visiting El Valle de Anton, a town in a volcanic crater a couple of hours from Panama City. In the west of Panama, Boquete is an equally appealing destination in the Chiquiri highlands near the extinct Volcan Baru.
Throughout Panama, there are numerous rainforest lodges and jungle tours available. Head East to the Darien National Park to hit the most remote regions – in addition to the rainforest and wildlife opportunities, there are many remote indigenous villages and beaches to explore in addition.
International Flights to Panama
Panama, or more specifically its capital Panama City, is the hub of travel in Latin America, with most regional (as in Latin American) airlines flying there. From North America, Panama City is served by American Airlines, Delta, Continental, and Copa. The only European airline with direct flights to Panama City is Iberia (from Madrid). However, the cheapest tickets are usually found with Air France or KLM, who will route you via a North American city with a connecting flight with either Copa or Taca. Lufthansa also flies to Panama City, via Caracas, as well as British Airways (via the USA), which is normally rather expensive.
Copa is Latin America’s leading airline, offering a huge network of flights. If you’re traveling from somewhere other than North or South America, remember than Copa flights are almost always much cheapest when booked as a Hahn air pass (also known as the All America Airpass – see our blog for more advice).
Panama Domestic Flights
Two airlines offer domestic flights in Panama – Aeroperlas and Air Panama. Both airlines fly to the most popular travel destinations such as Contadora (Pearl Islands), San Blas Islands and Bocas del Toro. Generally speaking, Aeroperlas has a more comprehensive selection of flights to Eastern Panama, while Air Panama flies to more destinations in West Panama. Air Panama also has flights to San Jose in Costa Rica. Nature Air also offers flights from San Jose to Bocas del Toro.