On the map Panama is a small country. It has a land mass of 74,177 km2. Only 10 U.S. states are smaller than Panama. You might look at Panama and figure you can visit for 7 days, travel across the whole country, and still have time left to kill.
The main highway in Panama would seem to back up this theory. If you hire a car you can travel from Yaviza, where the highway begins in the east, to Bocas del Toro or David in the west, in under 14 hours. These times are calculated assuming a trouble-free journey, with no traffic or roadworks. Making assumptions in Panama is a fool’s game.
The highways in Panama are more closely monitored for speeding than in other countries. There are lots of roadside police checking for speeding. Once you get off the motorways the roads can be poorly maintained. What looks like a small stretch of road on the map can take a long time to navigate in reality.
Allow plenty of time for traveling in Panama. It is easy to look at the size of the country and get over-ambitious about how much you can fit into your stay.
For long-distance trips, such as Bocas Del Toro you should consider an internal flight via Air Panama. Air Panama is the national airline and has flights from Panama City to a number of towns and cities in Panama. They now do international flights to Costa Rica and Colombia. The complete list of flight destinations can be found at Wikipedia.
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Panama has an extensive and well-priced bus network. The main terminal is Albrook Mall and Bus Terminal, Panama City. A guide to timetables and routes can be found at horariodebuses.com. Most of the longer route buses are air-conditioned. The shorter routes are often done by the legendary ‘Diablos Rojas’. These are former U.S. school buses which have been painted and modified Panama style. They are a common sight on the streets of Panama, careering round in a race to pick up passengers before another service provider gets them. Despite this, it is not uncommon to be waiting a while for buses in Panama City as they don’t have a schedule.
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Panama City has a Metro station allowing you to travel quickly within the city limits. At the time of writing new lines are still under construction.
The other popular way of traveling around in Panama City is by taxi. There are plenty of traditional yellow cabs which will drive you around the city. Before you travel with these cabs you need to beware of a few helpful pieces of information. The first is the taxi drivers never seem to have change. Make sure you some low denomination notes and also coins in your possession. It is wise to negotiate the fare with the driver before you begin your journey. Taxi drivers will sometimes look to take advantage of tourists or foreigners. Another option is to use a travel app such as Uber where you won’t have the problem of surprise charges.
Backpackers traveling from Panama to Colombia have a tendency to mythologize the Darmian Gap. The Darmian Gap is a stretch of mountainous jungle separating Panama and Colombia. This is an extremely dangerous area and attempting to make a border crossing is not recommended. Guerilla groups are commonplace and kidnappings are possible. The police will not come to rescue you if you get into trouble. The jungle is dangerous and you should not put yourself at risk by attempting this route.
Lots of the motorways charge tolls for using them. Keep some notes and change in the car for this.
The Canal is what modern Panama is built on. A 77km stretch of water, connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the engineering masterpieces of the modern world and created a new climate of trade.
If you travel to Panama, the Canal is a ‘must see’. The main visitor center for the canal is at Miraflores locks, on the outskirts of Panama City. A ticket costs $15 for tourists but less for Panamanian nationals and retirees. The locks is a visitor center with a museum. Information and pictures show how the canal was built and its history to the present day. There are also artifacts from the construction. Other floors show examples of the biodiversity of plants and animals by the canal. A small cinema shows footage of the Canal throughout the years.
Construction on the canal began with the French in 1881 but in 1889 they ended the project. Unable to find the engineering solutions needed progress had been slow. Masses of mosquitoes plagued the workers and malaria was rife. It is estimated over 20,000 died.
Work on the canal was taken up by the U.S in 1904 and completed in 1913. The mosquitos were eradicated and advances in engineering allowed the U.S. to triumph where the French had failed.
The U.S. remained responsible for day to day running of the canal until 2000 when they handed over control to Panama. Since then Panama has been solely in charge of the canal. Profits have increased and there are fewer accidents than when the U.S. was in charge. In 2006 Panamanians approved a referendum to increase the size of the canal. This work was completed in June 2016 and allowed larger vessels, paying more money, to pass through.
The Miraflores locks are one of the best places to see the ships up close. From here you can see the huge vessels navigate the locks.
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Ancon Hill is one of Panama City’s landmarks. Henry Morgan sent scouts here to get an idea of the local defenses when he first sacked Panama City. The national flag which flies from its summit today is visible from much of the old town. When Panama gained control of Ancon Hill in 1977, planting the flag was one of the first things they did.
Packaged tours are available which take in Miraflores Lock and Ancon Hill in the same day. Generally these tours are expensive, a more affordable option is to make arrangements with a taxi driver.
The climb up Ancon Hill is gentle and winds upwards through the shady rainforest. You can see sloths, iguanas, and capybaras as well as different butterflies and birds. On the way up you will pass an administration office, ask them to show you some old paintings of the canal. The road is well maintained and you do not need any special equipment or shoes. However, bug spray and bottled water are recommended.
The panoramic views from the summit are some of the best you can find in Panama City. Ancon Hill is a place where you can breathe fresh air and find tranquility in the heart of a major city.
Casco Viejo is the historic part of Panama City. When Henry Morgan sacked the original city, they rebuilt on the site of what is now Casco Viejo. The ruins of the old town still lie next to Casco. 20 years ago Casco Viejo was best avoided by tourists. After a renovation effort it is one of the most desirable areas in Panama.
Casco is a favorite location to pick up souvenirs. There are shops selling Panama hats as well as stalls and shops with Panamanian products like molas.
Casco is home to many of the remaining colonial style buildings in Panama City. Walking through the streets is a contrast to the rest of the Panama City which is a maze of glass and concrete. Casco has lots of the best bars in Panama including plenty of rooftop bars with panoramic views of the city.
The Metropolitan Cathedral, San Jose Church and Panama Canal Museum are the main tourist attractions. The gold display in the San Jose church is particularly impressive. Parking spaces can be hard to come by so if you have a hire car consider taking the trip to Casco by taxi or bus.
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San Blas is a collection of 378 small islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast. San Blas is semi-autonomous from Panama, under the control of the indigenous community, the Guna.
Traveling by car to San Blas takes around 3 hours from Panama City. You will need a 4×4 vehicle to make this journey. The border of San Blas and Panama is at the start of a mountain range. Here you must pay an entrance fee, and this is also as far as your car will be comfortable going.
After passing through the check-point you have a slow windy drive up and down some steep mountains. There are spectacular views from the top but also some immensely steep drops over the side. If you are driving you will not want to take your eyes off the road. The drive takes about 1 hour and leads you to a small port where the boats leave from.
There are all kinds of tours and experiences for someone traveling to San Blas. You can do a simple day trip where you will take in a couple of islands have a meal and return in the evening. Another option is to get on a sailboat and go from San Blas round to Portobello or around a longer tour of the islands. One of the most popular options is to stay 2 days and 1 night. You can either camp out on the beach, under the stars or in one of the tiny log cabins which sit on top of the water.
The islands of San Blas are small and evocative of Robinson Crusoe. The waters are clear blue and the white sand beaches are lined with palm trees. For many people, they are the quintessential tropical islands. The islands allow for swimming, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving as well as relaxing on the beach. Be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen here, the sea breeze and reflective sea water make it easy to burn without realizing.
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Traveling to Fort San Lorenzo takes around 2 hours from Panama City and is well worth the journey. As well as Fort San Lorenzo, the trip gives you a chance to take in Lake Gatun, Lake Gatun locks, and some of Panama’s famous rainforest. You can hire a car or make the trip through a tour company.
The drive from Panama City takes you to the Lake Gatun which is a huge freshwater lake. The water from this lake is used to fill the canal locks and keep the ships flowing through. Lake Gatun is a popular spot for fishing. During the 1960s a back garden aquarium containing Peacock Bass flooded after a tropical deluge. The handful of fish found their way to the lake and, free from any natural predators, thrived. Peacock Bass are one of the premier sports fish and Lake Gatun now has the highest concentration in the world. You can hire fishing boats for a day or half day and the captains will guide you to the best spots. Lake Gatun is also home to enormous alligators. Exercise extreme caution if you decide to fish from the shore and absolutely do not go for a swim. If you decide to travel to Lake Gatun for a fishing trip you can be picked up directly from Panama City. A fishing trip here is a full day excursion.
After passing Lake Gatun, you have an opportunity to cross the canal by car at the Gatun Locks. Driving over the locks up close you get a new perspective on the Panama Canal. The locks also allow a chance to see ships up close. The novelty of seeing huge ocean liners on a calm freshwater lake is worth seeing.
Driving past Fort Sherman, the now abandoned U.S. military base, the last stretch of the journey takes you through the jungle to San Lorenzo Fort. The road is well maintained, no need for an off-road vehicle. The jungle is thick and full of wildlife. From the road, you can expect to see monkeys, sloths, and Nasua, known as Gatos Solo. The Gatos Solo is a huge omnivorous cat with raccoon-like features. Many are not scared of cars so are fairly common by the side of the road. If you park your car and venture onto down one of the jungle paths you will be able to see more animals, birds, butterflies and plants.
Fort San Lorenzo is situated at the mouth of the Chagres River. It was built by the Spanish in 1595 for its important strategic location. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well preserved and maintained. As well as the Fort, the views of the Caribbean coast and the River Chagres are spectacular. Seeing the waves break over the reefs offshore makes you wonder how many shipwrecks this part of the coast must have. Many of the cannons used to defend the fort are still in place pointing out across the sea. Mysteriously at least one of the cannons carries the British Crown Insignia. There are stalls in the car park selling cold refreshments and souvenirs.
The town of Coronado is at the center of an area known as the ‘City Beaches’. Coronado is situated about 1 and a half hour drive west of Panama City. It is where Panamanians flock to for the weekends and public holidays. Coronado is one of the most famous destinations in Panama and has received glowing reviews from Yahoo among others.
The area is also a haven for expats who have formed strong communities here. There are golf clubs, expat owned bars and restaurants and a range of shops which cater to this market. Coronado has resorts, luxury houses and apartments and some of the best beaches in Panama. Due to the lack of rainfall, this area receives it is a reliable choice for Panamanians looking to spend time at the beach.
Coronodo’s close proximity to Panama City makes it an easy choice for a visit. You can make it a day trip or spend as much time here as you like. Traveling by car or bus is straightforward.
Iguana Island is a small, 136-acre, island off the coast of the Azuero Peninsula. Iguana Island makes for an excellent day trip. Formerly a U.S. military base it is now a protected nature reserve. Close to the sleepy town of Las Tablas you can drive here in under 4 hours from Panama City.
Traveling to Iguana Island means hiring a boat from Pedasi. You can see Humpback whales from the boat if you are lucky. Bring food and drink with you because they do not have any restaurants or shops on the island. The beach has nowhere to charge electrical items so make sure they are fully charged before you arrive. The island is also fairly exposed so take sunscreen and a hat or umbrella for shade.
Iguana Island benefits from white sand beaches and crystal clear blue seas. This is unusual for the Pacific Ocean and makes Iguana Island fairly unique on the Pacific side. Being called Iguana Island, you won’t be surprised to find out the Island is full of Iguanas. They can be quite bold and will steal any food left unattended. The beach is also home to a large population of hermit crabs and Frigatebirds. These birds can stay in the air for up to two months at a time, gliding on air currents to preserve energy.
Offshore the reef is home to lots of species of fish and some eels. Snorkeling in Iguana Island is rewarding. You can easily hire snorkeling equipment from the boat captains who ferry people over to the islands. To protect the reefs you can only snorkel when the tide is in so make sure you check the tide levels if you are only visiting for a half day.
Bocas del Toro is a collection of islands and some mainland on Panama’s western Caribbean coast. As well as the main 9 islands there are hundreds of tiny islands to visit and explore. Bocas is the heart of Panama’s growing Eco-tourism industry. Most of the area doesn’t have an electricity grid so solar and water provide much of the power.
If you are traveling here by car you will need to allow a day to drive from Panama City. The journey will take around 12 hours. Lots of people choose to fly which takes less than 2 hours.
Bocas offers plenty of accommodation options to suit all budgets. You can choose from something as simple as renting a tent all the way through to a luxury lodge. The prices vary depending on what you want.
You will not be lacking things to do in Bocas. It has some of Panama’s best beaches. You can go to a tourist-oriented beach like Red Frog Beach or get a boat to one of the small empty beaches. Bocas is a prime destination for snorkeling. The mangroves are a nursery to an array of different fish. You can also see dolphins if you travel further out.
Bocas is one of Panama’s best surfing locations. People are now traveling from all over the world to Bocas for the consistent warm water waves. There are beach breaks and reefs to suit all abilities. Bocas also has surf schools and places offering board hire.
Bocas is popular with backpackers and surfers and has the reputation of being a party town. There are lots of bars including one with a water trampoline. Most nights you will be able to find a rum-fuelled party somewhere. If alcohol-induced mayhem is not your scene, you can find tranquility here easily enough. Many remote islands offer a complete escape from the world.