Panama is still an off-the-beaten-path destination for many travelers. Visit who head to this country will find gorgeous beaches on two coasts, beautiful nature, and of course, one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels.
The 16 Best Places to Visit in Panama
Panama is a narrow country that marks the place where North America ends and South America begins. Most people know it because of the Panama Canal, the massive engineering project that cut shipping routes in half.
The canal is still an amazing place to visit, but the country has so much more to offer. The best thing to do in Panama is to lace up your hiking boots and head out into nature. The small country has immense biodiversity and diverse landscapes, from beaches to jungles.
A visit to the vibrant capital Panama City is also a must to take in the local culture. Here is your guide to some of the best places to add to your Panama itinerary, hand-picked by our travel experts.
1. Panama City
Start your visit in Panama at the capital, Panama City, where you can get a taste of the local culture and history. The capital has it all — vibrant modern art and culture as well as centuries of history.
Most guides recommend hitting up the Casco Viejo, or Old Town, first. Stroll through the neighborhood to see remarkably preserved colorful buildings from the colonial era right next to picturesque ruins.
The vibe is slow and romantic, with boutique hotels and sidewalk cafés. Then, take some time to explore the modern side of Panama City. Downtown is dotted with skyscrapers, as this city is an international financial hub, and ultra-modern malls and restaurants.
Hit up some of the bars for a night on the town. But history is never far away in Panama City. Hop across the bay to Panama Viejo, the ruins of the oldest part of the city which was sacked by pirates.
2. Panama Canal
Even if you’re not an engineering nerd, you’ll gawk at the marvel that is the Panama Canal. This modern world wonder cuts through an entire continent — if that doesn’t impress you, we’re not sure what will.
The canal cuts through the country, but there are a few choice spots that offer you the best views. Miraflores near Panama City is a massive sluice gate that is one of the best ship-watching sites along the route.
Stand nearby, and you’ll realize just how massive the tankers that pass through the canal are. To explore the ecosystem around the Canal, hop on an organized tour that will take you along the canal and through the jungle.
Adventure tourists like to go to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created by the canal that offers a lot of water sports.
Boquete is Panama’s headquarters for adventures in the wilderness and a popular destination for backpackers. This town in the Panama highlands has so much to see and do. A top attraction is nearby Volcán Barú, the highest point in the country.
Hike to the top, passing through five distinct ecosystems along the way, or opt for a different adventure by ziplining. Boquete is also a popular base for rock climbing and rafting in the nearby forest.
However, you’ll hardly be roughing it in Boquete. The town is one of the world’s premier destinations for coffee, as it is surrounded by coffee plantations and has many top-notch cafés and restaurants.
4. Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro on Panama’s Caribbean coast is the perfect destination for a colorful, relaxing beach vacation. This chain of islands is a popular destination for bohemian backpackers thanks to its many activities and affordable prices.
Adventure lovers can surf the waves or go diving in the pristine waters. The island chain boasts many pretty beaches, and you could spend months trying to explore each one and see which is your favorite.
Playa Estrella is a local favorite for snorkeling, while Nivida Bat Cave is a great wildlife destination for the brave of heart.
The center of life in Bocas del Toro is the capital Bocas Town. This town boasts picturesque colorful houses and a lively restaurant and bar scene beloved by locals and ex-pats alike.
5. The Sunset Coast
On Panama’s opposite coast, the Pacific Coast, the Sunset Coast is a completely different atmosphere from Bocas del Toro. The west coast is off the beaten path, with very few foreign visitors.
It means you have fewer amenities but also fewer crowds. The best way to see the Sunset Coast is to go on a road trip through the quaint local fishing and beach villages, staying in locally-owned inns.
Be sure to take in the spectacular sunsets over the Pacific Ocean that give the road its name. Finally, this is one of the best surfing destinations in the country.
6. San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are another great Panama beach destination. The islands are picture-perfect, with pristine white sand beaches, palm trees, and turquoise islands.
The San Blas Islands are a favorite destination for people looking to get off the beaten path and get to know the local culture. The province is home to the Guna people, who govern their region autonomously.
Stay in a locally-owned cabana, buy handicrafts such as hand-embroidered textiles, and attend a local festival or two.
Be warned: the San Blas Islands are often without modern amenities such as ATMs, cell phone signals, and electricity. You can always rent a luxury charter, but according to many, that spoils the appeal.
7. Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina is another popular destination on the backpacker circuit in Panama. The small village used to be sleepy, home to local fishermen.
However, that was before surfers discovered that it has some of the best waves in Central America. Today, Santa Catalina is a popular destination for surfers.
Even if you are not brave enough (or coordinated enough) to step on a board yourself, you can stand on the shore and watch the feats of daring on display as well as partake in the laid-back surfer culture of the town.
You can also snorkel, dive, and go horseback riding, or just relax on the beach and let others do the adventuring.
Panama may be a small country, but it is a melting pot with Spanish, African, and indigenous influences. Portobelo is a center of Afro-Panamanian culture and a great place to visit to soak in the country’s diversity.
Try to time your visit to coincide with festivals such as Festival de Diablos y Congos.
During Spanish rule, Portobelo was one of the most important ports in Latin America, and history lovers will get a kick out of the historic ruins. Check out Fuerte San Jerónimo and pretend you are an old soldier — or a pirate.
9. Gulf of Chiriquí
The Gulf of Chiriquí is one of Panama’s prettiest regions. This stretch of coastline between the Costa Rican border in the north and the Azuero Peninsula is home to gorgeous islands, national parks, and beaches.
Santa Catalina, mentioned above, is probably the most popular tourist destination along the gulf, but there are countless other beach towns you can explore.
For high-end resorts, the best place to go is Cala Mia Island Resort. For a completely different experience, get into nature and hike the Lost Waterfalls Trail.
10. El Valle de Antón
Panama boasts several stunning volcanoes, mostly extinct. El Valle de Antón is a town that is nestled within the crater of one such extinct volcano in the mountains.
Besides its dramatic setting, the town is also a great base for outdoor adventures in the surrounding forests and mountains. Make sure to find some of the famous local waterfalls, such as Chorro El Macho. Explore the petroglyphs at La Piedra Pintada.
Keep your eyes peeled for local flora and fauna while on the trail, or just visit the orchid conservation center and butterfly house in the town itself.
11. Azuero Peninsula
Near the Gulf of Chiriquí, the Azuero Peninsula is another picturesque beachfront destination in Panama. Explore the local landscapes and wildlife by going swimming and snorkeling at destinations such as Iguana Island.
However, the real attractions on the Azuero Peninsula are manmade. The region is one of Panama’s most important centers of folk culture.
Visit local towns such as Las Tablas, famous for its boisterous yearly Carnaval festival. Check out local handicrafts such as folk costumes and clay pottery.
12. Coiba National Park
Coiba National Park is a popular day trip destination from Santa Catalina, but it deserves mention in its own right. The National Park is located on an island, making it a perfect place to explore marine life.
Experienced and amateur divers will enjoy the nearly 40 different dive sites that allow you to get up close to local wildlife.
Try to time your visit to arrive between May and November, as that is humpback whale watching season, and this park is one of the best places to spot these magnificent creatures.
13. Los Cangilones
You can go swimming almost anywhere in Panama — even inland. Los Cangilones is a popular river swimming hole near Boquete that combines natural beauty and local atmosphere.
The swimming hole is located in a small gorge, with walls that are popular for daredevils to jump from. However, the best part of Los Cangilones is not the stunning natural beauty but the opportunity to rub elbows with the locals.
Many Panamanian families come here to cool off on summer days, and the shores turn into a party atmosphere with music, food vendors, and the smell of grilling meat.
14. Playa Coronado
Even with a country as full of beautiful beaches as Panama, Playa Coronado deserves special mention. Playa Coronado has some of the best weather and hottest temperatures in Panama, making it a great destination for a relaxing beach vacation.
This idyllic location is full of creature comforts, with great hotels and restaurants. If the chain restaurant atmosphere is not your style, you’ll still enjoy the gorgeous sandy stretch of beach.
15. Pearl Islands
Fans of the TV show Survivor will recognize this island chain as it was a set for several seasons. You don’t have to do anything as extreme as Survivor to enjoy the remote archipelago and pristine sandy beaches far from the beaten path.
This is a great destination for a relaxing beach vacation. If you prefer your beach vacations to be a touch more luxurious, the Pearl Islands do have plenty of modern amenities, especially if you visit one of the resorts on Contadora Island.
16. Soberanía National Park
Besides the mountains and the beaches, one of the biggest attractions in Panama is the tropical ecosystem. Soberanía National Park is one of the best places to get into the jungle.
The park is within day trip distance of Panama City, but it might as well be a world away. Hike in Soberanía National Park and keep your eyes peeled for a chance to see tropical animals such as sloths, howler monkeys, and rare tropical birds.
Things to Consider
When visiting Panama, prepare yourself by keeping these things in mind. First, the weather in the summer can get very hot, so come in other seasons or prepare by bringing plenty of water and sunscreen.
Second, Panama is a mostly safe place to visit, but like many Latin American countries, it does have a petty crime problem. Leave valuables at your accommodation, carry copies of your documents with you and never the originals, and watch your back in crowded places.
Finally, Carnaval is one of the most popular times to visit as the country comes alive with colorful festivals. However, it is also more expensive, so keep that in mind when planning your budget.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some other things you might want to know before visiting Panama:
What is the nicest place in Panama?
Visitors are often torn about where the nicest place is in Panama. Beach lovers say that the Bocas del Toro Islands are the nicest, while those who prefer the mountains are fans of Boquete.
What is the prettiest city in Panama?
The prettiest city in Panama is probably Panama City, the capital itself. Its picturesque old town, Casco Viejo, is unmatched in terms of historical beauty and bohemian culture.
What is the most visited place in Panama?
The country’s most visited destination is easily the Panama Canal. Not only do tourists like to come here to see a modern wonder of the world, but visitors here on business often have to pass through.
Is Panama good for vacationing?
Yes, Panama is the perfect place to go on vacation! The country has something for everyone, and it is small enough that you can get a taste of the many diverse ecosystems in one trip.
Is Panama an inexpensive place to vacation?
That depends on what you are comparing it to. Panama is definitely affordable for visitors coming from Europe, Canada, or the United States. However, it is slightly more expensive than other Central American destinations such as Guatemala.
So, What Are the Best Places to Visit in Panama?
With striking mountains, two coasts of beautiful beaches, and a culture that blends influences from three continents, Panama has much to offer any visitor. So what are you waiting for — book your trip today!