Ready for the best things to do in Panama and the top tourist attractions? Wedged between the Central and South American border is one of my all time favourite countries, I hope you enjoy and looking forward to your comments below.
Upon my arrival to Panama, I had the initial intention to briefly pass through and stop off at a few ‘hot spots’ along the way.
I was excited to continue onto South America after spending the last 8 months traveling through Central American countries, by that stage I felt like Panama wasn’t going to be much different from everything else I had experienced since Mexico.
How wrong I was…
I absolutely loved backpacking my way through Panama! For a small country it really does have more diversity of tropical beaches, rainforests and a buzzing cosmopolitan city.
It was refreshing to spend time in Panama and it was the closest thing to feeling like home in a while of being on the road for so long.
For me, the best thing about Panama is: the people. They are such a friendly bunch, always happy and always helping you where ever they can.
Keep your wits about you as you wander the streets of Panama city and be mindful of not staying out alone too late in the night as you party in the smaller coastal towns – but really, these are recommendations for every country and place.
I loved Panama, and second to Mexico it was a highlight of my Central America adventure.
Bocas del Toro
In my experience the absolute top tourist attraction in Panama is to visit Bocas del Toro. A small collection of islands in the Northern side is where the rainforests meets the blue Caribbean ocean. A favorite spot for scuba divers, and as the dives are shallow, it’s particularly suited for particularly for beginners.
An extensive coral reef features colorful varieties of tropical fish and warm crystal clear waters makes for a great way to spend an afternoon. Its everything you will expect from traveling to a Caribbean Town and one of the best attractions to see in Panama. From the main town of Bocas you can take small boats out to the surrounding Islands.
I had heard other travellers raving about how visiting Red Frog Beach is not only the best beach but also one the most popular tourist attractions in Panama. So I paid the $10USD boat ride to take me there (visiting all other Island will cost you only $2.00USD).
Arriving at the dock I then had to pay another $10.00USD entry fee to the “National park” which turn out to be somewhat incorrect because I later found out the island is privately owned and isn’t a National Park at all. There were also no ATM’s on the island so I was lucky I had enough cash with me to get back to the mainland. After walking around for awhile I found no reason to stay there and the beach that I had heard so many good things about was at best a 3/10.
Traveling to Bocas I would advise you spend more time at Start-Fish beach and Isla Bastimentos partying with the locals and go snorkeling around the Zapatilla Cayes.
Getting there: If you are coming to see the top tourist attractions in Panama from Costa Rica, there are a few different travel options from San Jose. I recommend taking an earlier bus (6am-8am) leaving from San Jose to Sixaola allowing for any delays before getting to the Panama border crossing which closes at 4pm.
Another hour away from the border is the small town of Almirante where is you catch a lancha (small boat) to Bocas Town with the last boat leaving at 5pm.
From Sixaolo to Almirante you can take a local bus for $3.00USD or a direct shuttle for $15.00USD, if you’re pressed for time I highly recommend taking the shuttle because trust me you DO NOT want to spend the night in Almirante.
Casco Viejo Neighborhood has houses with framed balconies, brick streets, and quiet plazas of the historic district. Casco Viejo has a European air, and the neighborhood’s ancient churches and monasteries stand as testimony to the country’s rich colonial history. It is here where you will find the city’s nicest restaurants and bars.
The Panama Canal is over 80km long, the interoceanic canal is literally Panama’s biggest attraction. There are half a dozen spots in or near the capital from which to admire it.
Shopping! One of the best things to do in Panama is go shopping! After months of traveling I decided that Panama has the best shopping in all Central America (for me anyways). Make a trip to El Dorado area for restaurants, bars and shops. Theres also the Multicentro and MetroMall where you can find discounts on designer labels and global brands like Zara, H&M and Nike.
Isla de Coiba and the Pacific Islands
Many people miss out on traveling to the Pacific Coast thinking that the top things to do in Panama are on the Caribbean side. However the Pacific side has just as much, if not more to offer in terms of the Panama tourist attractions (without the tourists).
Firstly, there are much less tourists which means more availability on accommodation and cheaper prices all round for most things. I also felt like I had a more cultured experiences on the Pacific side as you get more of a chance to meet locals and experience Panama away from the tourist traps of the gringo trail.
The waters of Panama are unmatched in their level of marine diversity on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, although nowhere is this more evident than in the Coiba National Marine Park on the Pacific Coast. The island of Coiba is the largest island in the park, as well as the largest island in all of Central America and one of the best Panama attractions.
More than 800 species of marine life are present in the area. The park is known as one of the best places to enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving on the Pacific Coast.
I would highly recommend spending a few days exploring the hidden gem islands around Coiba such as Boca Chica and Isla Cebaco. These islands were chance discoveries I stumbled upon after chatting with some locals and in the end they turned out to be some of the best things to do in Panama during my trip.
Also these Islands are just below the beautiful mountain town of Boquete and close to the direct link towns such as David and Santiago where you can catch a direct bus to Panama City.
Sail the San Blas Islands
The archipelago of San Blas is one of the top things to do in Panama! A set of 365 small islands located off the north coast of the Isthmus , east of the Panama Canal. San Blas is home to the indigenous Guna, part of the region Guna Yala along the Caribbean coast of Panama.
Some islands are so small that they only have one palm tree on them.
Located 30 to 45 minutes by boat from the port in Panama City, there are options to explore the islands in one day tours or embark on a 5-7 day adventure traveling through the islands. You then venture out across the open ocean to reach the northern coastline of Colombia.
Longer tours are all inclusive and range from $350 – $500 USD for the week.
A stunning mountain town in the middle of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Boquete is a pretty little town just to visit but it mainly attracts adventure tourists and coffee enthusiasts.
Because of the cool climate in Boquete serves as a perfect coffee region and this is where you can take many coffee tours around farms and learn about some the best coffee in Central America and see other popular attractions in Panama.
There are also waterfall and mountain hikes that take you so high you will have views out onto both sides of the seas. I spent a day at a a mini canyon called Cangilones. This rock crevice over a river is a popular place for rock climbing and umping back into the water.
A great way to spend a day with friends, take a picnic though as theres no food options until you head back into town.
I hope this article helps with planning your travels and make sure you check out these top five destinations and the best things to do in Panama. Looking forward to reading your comments below!