A concise guide to the things to do in Panama: the dos and don’ts
Things to do in Panama
Rumour has it that Panama is yet untouched by mass tourism. It may be this way, at least among Italians or Europeans. Truth be told, some destinations in the country are literally invaded by North American tourists, aged between 18 and 25. The fact that there are so many tourists directly translates into high prices (without this meaning better quality of services). Furthermore, the weather conditions and the territory do not allow for an easy trip. Certain times of year are off limits due to extreme rain, and mosquitoes bite year round. Visiting Panama can thus become a real challenge, especially on a limited budget and if unwilling to go on an organised tour. Hence, here is a list of things to do in Panama to fully appreciate its beauty.
Do your research on the weather. There is no escaping the heat, even during the “dry season”. If January and February are the driest and coolest months (well, so they say), be assured that the heat is suffocating and that on the Caribbean coast it rains abundantly year round. Be prepared as any booked boat tour may be cancelled due to non-stop rain.
Do your research on the prices. It is fairly easy as the local currency is the dollar. Although compared to Europe Panama is relatively cheap, quality accommodation and restaurants are expensive, but high prices do not necessarily mean better services. Make sure you read online reviews, to avoid any bad surprises.
Do carry mosquito repellent. All the time. As any tropical country, there is an ongoing problem with mosquitoes. Be extra cautious if you travel in areas where there have been Dengue incidents (such as in the jungle, less touristic area of Darien).
Do visit Panama City. It is the most cosmopolitan capital of Central America, a lively metropolis that never stops growing. The city attractions are many and there are many things to do in Panama City. Enjoy the contrast between the view of the shiny skyscrapers from the lovely Avenida Alfaro or the Paseo las Bolivares, in Casco Viejo, and admire the difference between the old, historic city and the modern international business headquarters.
Do remember to book your room/bed in town well in advance, unless you want the challenge of having to carry your backpack for hours, across town, in search of a bed and risk ending up in a 10 beds filthy dorm such as that of the White Lion. Do opt for the Baru Lodge (in the new town) for a classier, more expensive but way more comfortable room. Remember that cheap hotels in Panama City aren’t many so one of the things to do in Panama City is booking in advance!
Do get a top up metro card. Panama City is soon to open its underground system, and the metro/bus system allows you to travel across town for cheap. The bus system is actually good, so save yourself a little cash and opt for public transport rather than cabs. Getting a metro card is one of the things to do in Panama City.
Do have a walk across Casco Viejo. Visiting Casco Viejo is for sure one of the things to do in Panama City. Located on a rocky peninsula where the Spaniards moved the city after the pirate Henry Morgan destroyed it in 1671, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the entire area is undergoing extreme renovation. Do admire the newly refurbished buildings and, right next to them, those falling apart. Do take a lot of pictures of the graffitis: some of them are real modern art pieces. Do enjoy some quiet time in one of Casco Viejo’s many squares, in the shade of a secular tree, sipping a refreshing jugo de fruta fresca (a fruit smoothie, mixed with ice: a very good way to keep yourself hydrated against the heat of the city).
Do enjoy the show of huge cargo ships that go through the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal, where you can comfortably get by bus – although at the bus stations all taxi drivers will warn you that no buses arrive to the Canal. You may even have a Panama canal cruise. One of the things to do in Panama is visiting the Canal – you really can’t miss it!
At lunch time, do try ceviche (marinated raw fish) in the busy and lively Mercado de Mariscos in Casco Viejo. Adventurous travellers can spend little more than a dollar for a portion of ceviche and a cold beer on the ground floor. More refined palates can opt for the delicious yet inexpensive restaurant upstairs (only open at lunch time). Among the things to do in Panama City, there is definitely a lunch stop at the Mercado!
Do sip a craft beer at Rana Dorada, enjoying a fabulous view of the skyline. After having dinner in one of the many hip restaurants in Casco Viejo, one of the things to do in Panama City is to get on top of one of the many roofs, in a lounge bar, for a last cocktail, to admire the lights of the city and breathe the cool breeze from the Pacific, that finally cools down the heat of the day.
Do visit the San Blas islands (known as the Comarca de Kuna Yala) and get acquainted with the local indigenous culture. This is one of the things to do in Panama without a doubt! If you want a bit of adventure, book one of the many San Blas sailing cruises that regularly leave from Portobelo (to reach Portobelo, first get to Colon by bus, then another bus ride to Portobelo). Boats cost around 500 US dollars for about 5 days and leave you in Colombia, but before getting on any of them, do your own research in person. Among recommended companies, there are I Travel By Boat and Skip the Darien Gap.
Take a look at the boat in person (pictures are pretty much meaningless in this case); check how big it is and how new it is; enquire on the number of passengers, on the sleeping arrangements (those boats are tiny inside and you don’t want to share your bed with another person, do you?!) and on the quality of meals. Do not trust cheap boats: they are older and more crowded and when you are crossing that rough bit of ocean from Portobelo to Porvenir (the first island of the archipelago), having a little extra room to move around and to stay on the deck to fight sea sickness will make the difference. San Blas sailing is a must, so by all means do carry tablets to fight motion sickness!
Do consider visiting San Blas Islands Panama, indipendently, with a speed boat leaving from Carti (about 2 hours on a 4×4 from Panama City, it costs around 30 US dollars per person) and sleeping in one of the modest hostals on the islands. Do remember that for activities such as diving and snorkeling you have to catch a boat to go to uninhabited islands, as it is not advisable to swim nearby houses (there is no sewage system in the islands). San Blas definitely has the best beaches in Panama.
Do relax in Playa Las Lajas, a 20 km long sandy beach. One of the best beach destinations in Panama, Las Lajas is an easy 6 hours ride from the capital. Once in the village, catch a taxi to the beach for about 5 US dollars. Sleeping options are scarce and rustic, but cheap. The beach is quiet, even in the dry season there are few tourists, and it is long, coconut trees all over. The sea may not be as nice as elsewhere, but the almost complete absence of tourists makes it very relaxing, the ocean is warm, you can admire crabs and go run or bike on the beach and top it off with one of the most amazing sunsets ever seen.
Don’t even consider drinking tap water. Water is not drinkable in almost any part of the country and drinking it means exposing yourself to dissenteria.
Don’t forget that there is no land crossing between Panama and Colombia. You will either have to fly (VivaColombia flies from Panama City to Medellin and Bogota for as cheap as 30 USD), cross by ferry (they have finally started the Ferry Xpress which twice a week connects Colon to Cartagena for reasonable prices) or by sailboat through San Blas.
Do not go to Bocas del Toro, or only consider going if you are prepared for the worst. I would not even consider visiting Bocas del Toro among the things to do in Panama. Described as the last tropical paradise by the Lonely Planet, it is in reality a disappointing archipelago incredibly crowded with young anglosaxon surfers; polluted; beaches are not at hand: Bocas del Toro beaches are hard to reach and in order to swim, you will have to catch a boat; walk for over one hour; participate in one of the many (and expensive) boat tours; ride a bike; hop on a bus. In order to go snorkelling you will have to wait to have a few days of decent weather, as rain decreases visibility. And yes, it does rain practically every day there. Bocas Town, the main city, is dirty (picture garbage at any corner: there is no regular garbage disposal system); most Bocas del Toro hostels won’t take reservations and are constantly full and you are likely to walk the entire city to find a dorm (a dorm bed costs around 15 US dollars).
Hotels normally have availabilities, but they are very expensive. The same can be said for restaurants: those appealing to “western palates” are very expensive; the rest are in dire hygienic conditions. Bastimentos island is less crowded. Room can be found even without having a reservation (a double with private bathroom – cold showers – with no breakfast, costs between 20 and 35 US dollars). Hostels never allow the use of kitchen and the whole island offers no more than 4 restaurants, rather modests and dirty. There are no cars (Old Town has one dirt road) and in order to reach the nearest beach – Wizard Beach – you will have to walk across the forest, in the mud due to the continuous rain. Consider taking a boat from the dock instead and go directly to Wizard Beach or Red Frog Beach Panama.
Do not miss the Panama Jazz Festival in Casco Viejo. One of the best things to do in Panama is to join this festival, considered part of the renovation of Casco Viejo, founded by Panamanian Danilo Perez, and possibly the most important musical event of the country, with open air concert (which are free) and concerts in theatres (for which you have to purchase a ticket in advance). It involves the whole Casco Viejo for a week of intense partying, in January.
Do not forget to bargain prices, especially for taxis. Needless to say, taxi drivers will raise the prices considerably for tourists.
Whatever your destination, do not forget to relax and have a good time: you are on vacation!
Read more about Panama on my post “Just a few things to do in Panama.”