HGTV, I once thought, was only for gardeners and DIYers. That was until my wife and I developed a serious guilty pleasure for House Hunters International. I’ve never believed that I have an addictive personality, but watching this likely-staged and often ridiculous show proved otherwise. And thankfully so, because it planted the seed that led us to book an impromptu trip to Panama.
It didn’t take long after landing to know we were going to love this Central American country. After an intermittently-irritating family trip to Morocco, easy-going Panama restored our love for travel. Normalcy returned to our traveller universe.
If you’re struggling to pick the perfect backpacking destination for winter, let me tender a vote for Panama. Follow along with this quick and easy Panama itinerary to help you plan out exactly what to do in Panama in 10 days or less.
What To Do in Panama: Boats, Beans, and Beaches
There’s more to do in Panama that the glossy vacations brochures let on. As a Central American beach vacation, Panama’s picking up steam. Yet, few independent travellers move beyond the Panama City “beach bubble” into the Panamanian hinterlands to dig deeper into the country.
The following itinerary offers an introduction to Panama that gives a quick taste of the country. It’s not meant to exhaust all possibilities or get you deep “off-the-beaten-path.” With only 10 days in Panama, you can’t expect to see everything. But once you’re done with this, I guarantee you’ll be raring to return to Panama to explore it deeper.
One way or another, when visiting Panama you’ll end up in Panama City. Not everyone falls in love with Central America’s most cosmopolitan city right away. Yes, it’s a little chaotic; in parts, not so savoury. But with a couple days here, either on your way to Panama or your way home, you’ll get to appreciate a little of what gives the city its special charm.
What to Do in Panama City
First impressions of Panama City are of a place that’s got more money racing through its veins than other Central American cities. And with the country’s most famous attraction running through the city, it’s not as if we don’t know why.
The spectacular modern skyline of Panama City feels out of place in a region where tin, tiled roofs and thatched bungalows dominate. Flying in is more like hovering over Miami than a Central American capital. On the ground, is a different story. The flashy downtown core betrays the other parts of the city that warp you back to that Central America feeling. With only a couple days to explore Panama City, here are a few ideas on what to do:
Wander around Casco Viejo
No area in Panama City charms more than Casco Viejo. This UNESCO-listed hidden corner of Panama City reminisces of Panama’s colonial period with its crumbling Spanish architecture set among narrow cobblestoned streets. Exploring Casco Viejo at its surface shouldn’t take long. But to dig a little deeper into its churches and markets, you’ll want to spend the better part of a day or two.
Casco Viejo’s on the up and up lately, quietly sprouting trendy restaurants, bars and hotels in refurbished old buildings while other corners remain much as they were decades ago. Even as things are getting better, Casco Viejo borders a couple of Panama City’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. I wouldn’t risk walking around alone at night or around the darker corners of Casco Viejo.
Visit the Panama Canal
If you return home from Panama City without visiting the Panama Canal, you’ll have some explaining to do. Watching giant barges carve through this man-made wonder, as you spot wildlife lurking along the shores, is fascinating. Even more so when you can put a story to it.
To get the most out of your visit, take a Half-Day Panama City and Panama Canal Tour . The tour will zip you along the canal to the Miraflores Locks, an engineering marvel that will leave you in awe, before ending the day exploring Casco Viejo.
Where to Stay in Panama City
As lovely as Casco Viejo is to wander around, it wouldn’t be my first choice of where to stay in Panama City. With the age and condition of its old buildings, the quality of accommodation in Casco Viejo can be hit or miss. And then there’s the whole sketchiness thing.
Much better is to find a hotel in Panama City near the financial district, a much safer, well-lit area with plenty of restaurants and entertainment. We were lucky enough to scrape together some award points at stay at the Hyatt Place Panama City Downtown . The rooms here were spectacular with some of the best skyline views I’ve ever peered upon from a hotel. Metro access (Estación Iglesia del Carmen) is close by, so digging into Panama City’s attractions is easy from here.
How to Get to Panama City
There are direct flights to Panama City from several North American cities. Copa Airlines, the Panamanian national carrier, is part of Star Alliance, and codeshares with other Star Alliance members from a number US and Canadian cities.
We were able to find direct flights from Toronto to Panama City for less than C$600 per person (a steal, it would seem, as we’d met other Canadians who’d paid hundreds more). From the southern United States, you should be able to find flights to Panama City for under $500 return with a little calculated planning.
There’s nothing more relaxing after a couple days amidst the chaos Panama City than to spring up to the Chiriqui mountain retreat of Boquete.
If there’s any place I visited in Panama that I could imagine myself living, it’s here. The cooler highland breezes and eternal spring climate of Boquete is a welcomed perk in a country known for its blazing heat.
What to Do in Boquete
Don’t let its calm exterior fool you: There are plenty of things to do in Boquete to keep you busy. Boquete stole a page from Costa Rica’s eco-tourism playbook and is positioning itself as Panama’s ultimate outdoor adventure destination. And it’s working. Here are a couple ideas to fill out your trip to Boquete:
Ziplining at Boquete Tree Trek
I’m not much of an adventure traveller. Ziplining wasn’t my first choice of activities, but tackling my fear of heights was worth the thrill of zooming high above the forest and absorbing the magnificient views at Boquete Tree Trek.
Strap in for an experience that powers across 12 zip lines and 14 tree canopies through the cloud forest above Boquete. The longest ziplines at Boquete Tree Trek whiz you half a kilometre between canopies while suspended 60 metres above the ground. As long as you keep your eyes open long enough, sweeping vistas, flanked by Volcan Baru and peering as far away as the Pacific Ocean, frame your experience.
Even if you’re not into adrenaline-surging activities, more relaxed options await at Boquete Tree Trek including walking or horseback riding. For the ultimate Boquete wilderness retreat, stay in a rustic cabin at Boquete Tree Trek to fall asleep to the sounds of birds singing and monkeys frolicking in the forest.
Fuel up on a Panamanian coffee tour
Nothing is more famed in Boquete than coffee. The Chiriqui Highlands around Boquete is Panama’s most famous coffee-growing region. Even if Colombian, Costa Rican and Guatemalan coffees take centre stage back home, some of the world’s best coffees come from the Boquete region.
You’re spoiled for choice in coffee tours around Boquete, but I’d recommend the Finca La Milagrosa Tour. What’s interesting about Finca La Milagrosa is the lack of specialized equipment. Señor Tito built this small-scale 5-hectare farm into a thriving coffee business using whatever he could find to get the job done, mostly random car parts. There’s even a coffee roaster fashioned from an old engine!
On a tour at Finca La Milagrosa, you’ll learn the coffee-making process from start to finish—through the different types of trees cultivated in Panama to the wet- and dry-processing methods and onto roasting and, of course, enjoying the perfect cup. Señor Tito and his team clearly know what they’re doing as Finca La Milagrosa produces one of the world’s most-prized Geisha coffees. If you hop onto a tour here, you can even take home a small bag of Geisha coffee ($25) for a fraction of the price as you’d pay elsewhere.
Hiking around Boquete
It’s rewarding, but not always straight-forward, to hike the trails around Boquete. Panamanian hiking trails aren’t known for being well signposted, and attempting the longer trails independently isn’t recommended. Until you are familiar with the terrain, you should always hike with a reputable guide who will know all the ins and outs.
The hiking trails around the Boquete area range from relatively flat to steep. One of the easier trails, perfect for average hikers and family travellers, is the White Rock Trail (Peña Blanca), located in Bajo Mono just north of town. The trail brushes alongside colourful birds chirping high in the trees, sloths lazing in the trees and howler monkeys swinging between branches. Plow through to the end of the trail to check out the trail’s namesake and the small waterfall beneath it.
Other hikes around Boquete include La Artilleria (The Fortress Hike) in Alto Jaramillo, Sendero El Pianista (The Piano Player) near Palo Alto, and the most famous, Sendero de los Quetzales, connecting Boquete with Guadalupe near Cerro Punta.
True adventurers, however, should set their compasses to Volcan Baru. This 13.5-kilometre hike up to the summit of Panama’s higher point isn’t easy. Many hikers complete the trek over two days, camping near the peak and waking up to scale up to the top just in time to soak in a magnificent dawn. Alternatively, there are rear-jolting 4×4 tours up Volcan Baru that will leave your hind quarters in agony, but your lungs less winded and your legs less wobbly.
Where to Stay in Boquete
I can’t say enough good things about the The Inn at Palo Alto . This wasn’t just my favourite place to stay in Panama, but one of my favourite places I’ve stayed anywhere.
The Inn at Palo Inn is hardly central, sitting a couple kilometres above Boquete in the hills, far removed from many of the other hotels in Boquete . Truthfully, that was the best part about staying here. Nothing was more peaceful than waking up to wind rustling the trees and the sound of birds singing instead of cars. And the views? Well, I’ll let them speak for themselves…
Even if the stunning jungle and volcano views over the outdoor seating area don’t win you over, the staff will. All the owners and management at The Inn at Palo Alto went the extra mile to ensure we were comfortable and enjoying our stay. The rooms were spacious and cool, thanks to the relaxing mountain breeze. (This was the only place in Panama we could sleep well without cranking up AC!)
How to Get to Boquete
Other than expensive private shuttles, there’s no direct route from Panama City to Boquete. To get there, you’ll have to find your way to David first.
Buses to David from Panama City (Albrook Mall terminal) leave regularly, taking about 7 hours and costing $15.30 per person. The buses in Panama are comfortable enough, but the stops along the way, for both passengers and construction, make the bus ride seem endless. Once the highway upgrades are complete, the route between Panama City and David should prove much quicker. From the bus station in David, you’ll need to hop onto a hot, jam-packed and funky “chicken bus,” an experience in itself, to reach Boquete.
If you don’t want to waste the better part of the day on a bus, book a flight from Panama City to David . Domestic flights leave from the Albrook Airport, not far from the city centre by public transportation or taxi. The 35-minute flight to David should run about $100. Check with your hotel in Boquete for an airport shuttle.
Bocas del Toro
Other than Panama City, Bocas del Toro is the most recognizable of all Panamanian tourist destinations. Bocas del Toro Province dominates the northwestern mainland and spills into the Caribbean Sea. These islands, rather than the dense nearly impassible jungles of the mainland, are what travellers dream of when they think about Bocas del Toro.
First off: Bocas isn’t some secluded 5-star Caribbean paradise. You can’t come here expecting the same level of comfort as you’d find in Mexico, Dominican Republic or Jamaica. But warming up to the palm-fringed beaches, dense jungles and clear waters isn’t such a stretch either. What you’ll find instead in Bocas del Toro is a place where you’re not confined to the walls of your resort. You’ll have the freedom to explore the town and the islands on your own terms.
What to Do in Bocas del Toro
Most of the things to do in Bocas del Toro spring from the sea. If you’re staying in Bocas Town though, you’ll have to travel a little if you want to find the best beaches that Bocas del Toro has to offer. That’s not much of problem in Bocas. Your hotel or guesthouse can easily arrange rides around Isla Colon or a boat captain to zip you around the islands.
Swim with starfish at Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach)
From Bocas Town it’s a 30- to 40-minute drive through the bumpy interior of Isla Colon to get to Boca del Drago at the northwestern corner of the island. Add on a 15-minute walk along the beach or at the edge of the jungle and you’ll uncover Playa Estrella, one of Isla Colon’s most beautiful and most popular beaches.
As you’d guess from its name, the beach is famous for the starfish that snooze upon the white sands in the shallow waters. The starfish move throughout the day, dodging tourists as the beaches fill up. To see more of them (and to avoid the denser crowds near the cabana bar), walk a few minutes down the beach for a little extra serenity.
Fight the riptides at Red Frog Beach
Whereas wading in the waters of Playa Estrella is Bocas del Toro at its most relaxing, it’s all action at Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. To visit Red Frog Beach from Bocas Town, you’ll need to hire a boat captain to zip you across to Bastimentos. Combining Red Frog with an island hopping tour will let you explore the archipelago and end the day with relaxation on the beach.
If you’re not a strong swimmer, I’d stick to admiring the view from the shore. Swimming at Red Frog Beach can be challenging to say the least. Even just 5 to 10 metres from shore, the riptides gnaw at your legs. Out further, who knows what could happen.
From the Red Frog Marina on the southern side of Bastimentos, where your boat captain will drop you off, it’s a short walk through a jungle path ($5 admission fee) to Red Frog Beach.
Eat one of the world’s most delicious burgers at Captain Caribe
Yes, it’s a bold statement. You absolutely cannot leave Bocas Town without stopping in at Captain Caribe. There are a few different varieties of burgers here—fish, pork, beef—but what makes them unique are the ingredients mixed along with them.
Each recipe possesses a unique Caribbean flair, using tropical fruits and local favourites like coconut bread to enhance their juicy burgers. Their chicken curry is equally awesome. No hungry yet? Captain Caribe also blends up mean fruit smoothies to cool you down in the hot Bocas sun.
Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro
Most travellers to Bocas del Toro stay in Bocas Town on Isla Colon, the most popular island in the chain. We stayed in the northern swath of Bocas Town at KoKo Resort on Saigon Bay. While we enjoyed our time in the unique stilted beach bungalows, I’d hestitate to recommend KoKo Resort to the average traveller. The Saigon Bay neighbourhood, while perfectly safe from our experience, might not sit well with everyone.
Staying closer to the centre of town, I’d choose instead Sun Havens Apartments and Suites . For the location, room size and maintenance (which can be an issue in Bocas Town), this property provides excellent value.
If you really wanted to splurge in Bocas del Toro though, I’d go with Red Frog Beach Island Resort on Bastimentos. It’s hardly an authentic Panamanian experience, rather one that provides all the creature comforts you’d expect in an exclusive resort. A quick ten-minute boat ride from Red Frog Marina gets you back to Bocas Town for a supply run. It’s all worth it for the serenity and epic Caribbean Sea views you get at Red Frog Beach.
How to Get to Bocas del Toro
The easiest way to get from Boquete to Bocas del Toro is by a semi-private shuttle. Most hotels in Boquete can arrange the pick up for you. The beautiful ride through the highlands takes about 4-5 hours, including the boat ride from Almirante to Bocas Town. Your shuttle should cost no more than $35 to $40 per person.
10-Day Panama Itinerary Tweaks
- Want quieter and more pristine beaches? Skip Bocas del Toro and head to the San Blas Islands. Although they’re tough (and sometimes expensive) to get to, San Blas Islands are Panama’s best if you’re craving untouched Caribbean beaches that battle the world’s finest. You won’t find much to do here other than lazing on the beach, swimming and snorkeling through perfect waters. But getting away from it all is the whole point in coming here, right?
- Big outdoorsperson? Spend more time in the Chiriqui Highlands. Four days in the Boquete area might not be enough to take in all the amazing activities. Hiking up Volcan Baru, for example, steals two days on its own. If you’d rather have an active holiday away from the sea, add more time in the Chiriqui Highlands and split it between Boquete and Cerro Punta or Volcan to dig into all the region’s best hiking.
- Want to explore more of Central America? Continue 4 hours up the coast from Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo, one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica, and start a new Costa Rican adventure.