Exploring PanamaOur Travel Guide
Experience it all in Panama! Especially for a quick, weeklong trip, it doesn’t get better than Central America and Panama. You can see exotic flora and fauna in the rainforests, relax on the beach, and take in the local culture in a setting that’s as safe as most cities in the United States. Panama is often acclaimed for its accessibility to western travelers. There’s merit in that reputation: the airfare is cheap, the countries are full of English-speaking locals, and host a staggering number of ex-pats (a person who lives outside their native country.) In Panama, they even use the U.S. dollar as their currency, excluding the convenient Panamanian Balboa dollar coins. However, there are still authentic experiences to be had, seemingly untouched areas to explore, and the option to travel on a shoestring budget if that’s your preference.
For any travelers looking for a relatively cheap and accessible getaway that’s still exotic, Panama is a great option that doesn’t get recognized nearly as much as other destinations.
There are a number of must-see destinations in Panama for many people. Exploring the coffee farms and cloud forests in the mountains of Chiriquí province is certainly up there, and Boquete has a dense expat population making it accessible to novice travelers. Additionally, the old city of Casco Viejo in Panama City has a rich history and more recently a young and artsy esthetic. On the Caribbean side, visitors can relax in San Blas, which is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world, or party in Bocas Del Toro (the bull’s mouth,) which is a bit tougher to get to, but has incredible beaches and a great local vibe.
Travelers should note that car rental is much more expensive in the country compared to the U.S. and other destinations. Luckily, living like a local and taking advantage of the bus lines makes getting around both easy and inexpensive. You can literally go from one end of the country to the other for less than $20. The busses there are also much more comfortable than most services in the U.S. with wider seats, huge windows, and movies playing.
Flying in, Tocumen International Airport, just outside of Panama City is the best option. From there, either rideshare apps or a taxi will get you to downtown Panama City or Casco Viejo. If you don’t speak much Spanish or are new to international travel, rideshare is the best option, as cab drivers are known to gauge prices for non-natives arriving at the airport. Once you’re away from the airport, your adventure begins.
Panama at a Glance
Currency: Panama’s official currency is the balboa. The rate of exchange for the balboa has always been tied to the US dollar—one dollar equals one balboa. Panama does not, however, print its own paper currency and instead uses the US dollar as legal tender.
Language: Spanish is the official native language of Panama.
Visa: Americans visiting Panama for to to 180 days are not required to have visas.
- Sight Seeing 95% 95%
- Cost 80% 80%
- Ease of Travel 95% 95%
- Activities 85% 85%
Panama was inhabited by indigenous tribes before Spanish colonists arrived in the 16th century. It broke away from Spain in 1821 and joined the Republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Nueva Granada, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Then in 1831 Panama became part of Columbia and after that in 1903 became independent Panama. The culture of Panama includes incredible handicrafts, delicious traditional cuisine, and traditional clothing. With magnificent beaches, incredible mountains, and fantastic food, Panama is one of our favorite destinations.
Top Experiences in Panama
Panama City, located at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is by far the largest locale in the country, and today is comparable to any metropolis in the world. The downtown area is dominated by new skyscrapers, and it hosts virtually any modern American business you can think of, from fast-food chains to high-end retail malls. Just under the veneer of the modern world, however, the city holds a rich history and vibrant local atmosphere. Casco Viejo, which is sometimes but rarely called Casco Antiguo or San Felipe, is the city’s old quarter. Casco Viejo, which is Spanish for “old town” was officially made a world heritage site in 1997 and is a shockingly well-maintained piece of history featuring brick roads and old Spanish-style architecture.
Panama City was originally founded in 1519 and survived for 150 years. In 1671 however, the city’s governor set in on fire in preparation for the arrival of the pirate Henry Morgan. The next year, a new Panama City was built nearby on a small peninsula and fortified against both weather and attack by a system of seawalls. Today, that new city is Casco Viejo. Walking through the historic district is a cultural treat in itself; old blends with new, as the protected and maintained historical sites are flanked by trendy restaurants, rooftop bars, galleries, and street art. Any time spent in Casco is truly a cultural treat that is accessible within hours of landing.
In addition to Casco, visitors should be sure to check out Ancon Hill, a protected rainforest right in the city. Here you can see sloths, monkeys, and even toucans within a mile of the city! For authentic eats, trying the Ceviche at the seafood market is a must!
When researching for a trip to Panama, the first two attractions most people are drawn to are the Panama Canal and the San Blas Islands. The former, while a man-made marvel, can be underwhelming, and is more so something to check off the bucket list. The San Blas Islands, on the other hand, is a true tropical paradise. Here you stay with a local host and can spend your days worry-free, relaxing on the beach, paddle boarding, or doing whatever your heart may desire in one of the most relaxing settings imaginable, and that’s not an exaggeration. Located on the Caribbean side of the island, San Blas is less than a half-day away by shuttle and water taxi. The area is actually an autonomous zone in Panama that is fully owned by the indigenous Guna Yala (or Kuna Yala) population, so be sure to have your passport and the small border fee to enter. While the entrance to San Blas may seem like an added inconvenience, it truly adds to the overall charm of the islands, as they have remained seemingly untouched and well preserved with no multi-story resorts or other modern eyesores.
There are a few different options for travelers in San Blas. There are guided day trips, local hosts you can stay with, and sailing tours.
If you are a detail-oriented traveler and trying to see as much as possible on your itinerary, a day trip may seem like a good option. However, many visitors resent that they are pulled away from paradise after just a few hours. For the full experience, booking a stay with a local host is ideal, as it provides a more authentic setting and can be completed on a tight budget. Each island in the chain feels like its own mini deserted paradise. The local population is supported almost entirely by tourism, and they know how to provide a relaxing and meaningful experience, although the fake hospitality you’d find at a resort may be lacking. When staying with locals, beach hammocks or a bed in a small cabin is the norm, as are large meals of fresh seafood caught that same day and prepared in the traditional Guna Yala fashion. Staying with a local host in San Blas is definitely roughing it. There are “glamping” style hosts, but most are more low-key and rustic. Sailing tours are also an option, and some companies even have full-week trips going from the San Blas Islands to Columbia.
Chiriquí Province is located more towards the Panama-Costa Rica Border and is roughly a six-hour bus ride from Panama City. While not quite as tropical like the Caribbean side of the country, Chiriquí province is certainly worth the visit. Hiking enthusiasts will find a multitude of trails including Volcan Baru, an active volcano, and Panama’s highest peak. The province is home to the second-largest city in the country, David. It is much less touristy and Americanized than Panama City. It’s worth spending some time here to experience the local lifestyle, but you may feel the urge to head to the next destination sooner rather than later.
Chiriquí is famed for its coffee farms and cloud forests, and hosts a large number of ex-pats, particularly in the centrally located town of Boquete. It’s worth noting, however, that Boquete can be worlds more expensive than the more authentic areas of the country, and is comparable to a U.S. mountain town destination in many ways. Still, for those who get can experience cultural burnout in a new place for too long, it might be a good place to recuperate.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro, or “the mouth of the bull,” is also up there on must-see areas in Panama. Many call it Panama’s best-kept secret, and that may be true. While this is a popular retirement area for ex-pats and there are a few resorts, most of the archipelago maintains an authentic vibe and many areas are protected for conservation. It’s a well-known party destination comparable to Cancun or Playa Tamarindo, but there are some great relaxing beaches and plenty of local cultures to take in as well. Similar to San Blas, unless you’re flying in, you’ll need to take a bus or shuttle and then a water taxi to get to Bocas. The water taxi, which costs around $10 will drop you off in Bocas Town on the main island of Isla Colón, which has the feel of a small bohemian surf town and backpacker destination. Here you’ll find a mix of tourist-serving establishments and local cultural fare.
While the area is great for its local bohemian vibe, vibrant nightlife, and the novelty of water taxis and many places to stay literally on the water, many say that a visit to Bocas pales in comparison to the experience of San Blas. Still, it is a popular destination and well worth the visit. No matter where you stay, you’ll find getting around easy, as water taxis are plentiful and cheap. The most popular destinations in Bocas include Starfish Beach, Red Frog Beach, Bocas Town, and Dolphin Bay Reserve.
Should You Visit?
If you’re on the fence about whether or not Panama is worth the visit, the answer is probably “yes.” The best part about Panama and other Central American destinations is that you’re never stuck in one setting or locale. While a trip elsewhere may only offer one climate and vibe that you’re locked into, Central America is different and has a multitude of options.
If partway through your trip, you feel like you’ve had enough of the beach, you can be in a mountainous rainforest or densely populated city in just a few hours.
Also, please note that this list is just a small taste of what Panama has to offer. In addition to the locales we mentioned, you can stay in the Valle de Anton, explore the Gamboa Rainforest, and water taxi to countless islands on both the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts to see unique settings and wildlife.
Research before you go though! While most of the country is overwhelmingly safe, there are a few areas you should avoid and a few scams to be aware of. As with anywhere, this is most often on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Never be afraid to ask the concierge at your hotel or someone else you trust what you should be aware of, and always keep your valuables close at hand and in a safe place if you feel you’re in a rough part of town.
Avoid judgment though, as sometimes the places that seem or look rough at first are truly the most welcoming and authentic experiences you can have. Don’t be the person who flies to another country just to stay in their comfort zone!
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