HGTV, I once thought, was only for gardeners and DIYers. That was until I developed a serious guilty pleasure for House Hunters International. And thankfully so, as it planted the seed that led me to book an impromptu trip for 10 days in Panama.
It didn’t take long to realize I’d love this Central American country. After an irritating family trip a year prior, easy-going Panama restored my love for travel. Normalcy returned to my traveler universe.
Ready to discover one of the best destinations in Central America? Plan out what to do on your trip with this quick-and-easy 10-day Panama itinerary!
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Where to go in Panama: A complete 10-day itinerary
There’s more to do in Panama than glossy vacation brochures let on. As a Central American beach vacation, Panama is picking up steam. Yet, few travelers move beyond the “beach bubble” into the Panamanian hinterlands to dig deeper into the country.
The following 10-day Panama itinerary offers an introduction that’ll give you a quick taste of the country. It’s not meant to exhaust all possibilities or get you deep “off-the-beaten-path.”
With only ten 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 explore this fascinating Central American country 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 savory. But with a couple of 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 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, here are a few ideas on what to do in Panama City:
Wander around Casco Viejo
No area in Panama City charms more than Casco Viejo. This UNESCO-listed hidden corner reminisces of Panama’s colonial period. It’s beset with crumbling Spanish architecture set among narrow cobblestoned streets. Exploring the area 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 is on the up and up lately. It’s quietly sprouted trendy restaurants, bars, and hotels in refurbished old buildings. Other corners though remain much as they were decades ago.
Even as things are getting better, Casco Viejo borders a couple of Panama City’s most dangerous neighborhoods. I wouldn’t risk walking around alone at night or around the area’s darker corners.
Want to make the most out of your visit? Check out these hand-picked tours!
- Panama City Day Tour: Spend an action-packed day taking in all the sites of Panama City. Tour moves through the Miraflores Locks, Ancon Hill, Punta Culebra and Casco Viejo. It includes hotel pick-up/drop-off.
- Panama City Food Tour: Taste the best Panamanian flavours on this 2.5-hour walking food tour through Casco Viejo. You’ll start with a cup of Panama’s exquisite Geisha coffee, some of the most expensive in the world. You’ll also try other delights like chocolate, craft beer, ceviche & rum.
- Panama City Sightseeing Tour: This full-day tour combines a visit to the Miraflores Locks with a walking tour in Casco Viejo. You’ll also enjoy several other top attractions elsewhere in the city.
- City & Canal Half-Day Tour: Discover two of Panama City’s most compelling attractions—Panama Canal and Casco Viejo—in just half a day!
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.
The most common place to catch the canal is at the Miraflores Locks. This engineering marvel will leave you in awe. Time your visit during the busy morning hours to see the locks in full action.
Want to get the most out of your visit to the Panama Canal? Hop onto one of these awesome time-saving tours:
- Panama City Sightseeing & Miraflores Locks Tour: This full-day small-group tour zips you along the canal to the magnificent Miraflores Locks. It ends the day exploring Casco Viejo.
- Monkey Island and Indian Village Tour: Combine a visit to the Panama Canal and Lake Gatun with an eco-tour of the canal area’s wildlife. The tour includes the famous Monkey Island, home to a troop of white-faced monkeys. The eco-tour ends with a visit to an authentic Indian village. Here, you’ll learn about native culture, history, crafts, and horticulture.
- Panama Canal, Colón Rainforest and San Lorenzo Fort Tour: This amazing Panama Canal tour takes in the lesser-visited northern section near Colón. Cross the canal by boat to visit a rainforest. You’ll encounter hundreds of species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. The tour ends with sightseeing at San Lorenzo Fort and the Panama Canal’s newer extension at Agua Clara.
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 its old buildings’ age and condition, the accommodation quality here can be hit or miss. And then there’s the whole sketchiness thing.
It’s much better to find a hotel near the financial district. It’s a much safer, well-lit area with plenty of restaurants and entertainment. Here are a couple of ideas…
- Hyatt Place Panama City Downtown: We were lucky enough to scrape together enough award points at stay for free at this wonderful 4-star hotel. 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.
- Global Hotel Panama: One of the best luxury hotels in Panama City. The spacious, comfortable rooms feature large windows with superb sea & city views.
How to get to Panama City
There are direct flights to Panama from several North American cities. Copa Airlines, the Panamanian national carrier, is part of Star Alliance. It offers codeshares with other Star Alliance members from several cities.
From the United States, expect to pay anywhere from $350-450 return. From Canada, you can find return flights for less than C$600.
Nothing is more relaxing after a couple of days amidst the chaos of the capital than to spring up to the Chiriqui mountain retreat of Boquete.
If there’s any place I visited in Panama where I could imagine myself living, it’s here. The cooler highland breezes and eternal spring climate are 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.
The town stole a page from Costa Rica’s eco-tourism playbook. It’s been positioning itself as Panama’s ultimate outdoor adventure destination. And it’s working. Here are a couple of ideas to fill out your trip…
Ziplining at Boquete Tree Trek
I’m not much of an adventure traveler, so 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 magnificent views at Boquete Tree Trek.
Strap in for an experience that powers across 12 zip lines and 14 tree canopies through the cloud forest. The longest ziplines here whiz you half a kilometer between canopies while suspended 60 meters above the ground.
Be sure to keep your eyes open. Sweeping vistas, flanked by Volcan Baru, frame your experience. You can even peer as far away as the Pacific Ocean!
Not into adrenaline-surging activities? More relaxed options also await at Boquete Tree Trek. Other activities here include walking or horseback riding.
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.
Colombian, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan coffees often take center stage back home. But 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. He used whatever he could find, mostly random car parts, to get the job done. 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. It winds through the different types of trees cultivated in Panama to wet- and dry-processing methods. You’ll also learn about coffee roasting and, of course, how to enjoy the perfect cup.
Señor Tito and his team clearly know what they’re doing. Finca La Milagrosa produces one of the world’s most-prized Geisha coffees. If you hop onto a tour here, you can take home a small bag of Geisha coffee ($25). They’re some of the best coffee beans you’ll ever find for your French press or espresso machine. And they’re for a fraction of the price as you’d pay elsewhere.
Hiking around Boquete
It’s rewarding, if not always straight-forward, to hike the trails around Boquete. Panamanian hiking trails aren’t known for being well-signposted. Attempting the longer trails independently isn’t recommended. Until you are familiar with the terrain, you should always hike with a reputable guide. They’ll know all the ins and outs of the trails.
The hiking trails around the area range from relatively flat to steep. One of the easier trails, perfect for average hikers and family travelers, is the White Rock Trail (Peña Blanca). It’s located in Bajo Mono, just north of town. The trail brushes alongside colorful birds chirping high in the trees. You’ll also see 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 and Sendero El Pianista (The Piano Player) near Palo Alto. The most famous hike, Sendero de los Quetzales, connects Boquete with Guadalupe near Cerro Punta.
True adventurers, however, should set their compasses to Volcan Baru. This 13.5-kilometer hike up to the summit of Panama’s higher point isn’t easy. Many hikers complete the trek over two days. They camp near the peak and wake 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. They’ll leave your hindquarters in agony, but your lungs less winded and your legs less wobbly.
Where to Stay in Boquete
It may be a small town, but choosing where to stay in Boquete can be a challenge with how spread out everything is. You’ve got several neighborhoods to choose from. Choose between the buzz of central Boquete or the fresh mountain air and serenity of Palo Alto and Alto Jaramillo.
Although it’s a few kilometers from the center of town, I’d give a thumbs up for staying in the Palo Alto district. I’d recommend the stunning Inn at Palo Alto.
The Inn at Palo Alto is hardly central. It sits a couple of kilometers above town 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 where we could sleep well without cranking up the AC!)
Looking for some other accommodation options? Here are a few more ideas…
- Boquete Garden Inn: Another lovely hotel in the quiet serenity of Palo Alto. The lush gardens on-site provide the ultimate relaxing escape.
- Hotel Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation and Boutique Hotel: A unique 4-star boutique hotel set in a coffee plantation. The rooms offer fantastic cloud forest, mountain and volcano views.
- Casa de Montaña Bed & Breakfast: A modern 5-star B&B featuring large fully-equipped studios. Rooms include either a small patio or terrace overlooking the forest and surrounding mountains.
How to get to Boquete
Other than 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. They take about 7 hours and cost $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 the two cities should prove 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.
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.
The islands, not the dense, impassible jungles of the mainland, are what travelers dream of when they think about Bocas del Toro.
First off, Bocas isn’t a 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 a stretch either.
Instead, you’ll find 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 the area has to offer.
That’s not much of a problem in Bocas. Your hotel or guesthouse can 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. It’s located 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. It’s one of Isla Colon’s most beautiful and most popular beaches.
As you’d guess from its name, the beach is famous for its starfish. They 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. You’ll enjoy the extra serenity.
Want to dig into the area’s seaside pleasures? Check out one of these tours!
- Bocas del Toro Speed Boat Tour: This full-day boat tour takes in some of the best islands & beaches in the area. Highlights include Mangrove Point, Starfish Beach, Bocas del Drago, and Bird Island. Park fees and snorkeling equipment are included in the price.
- Small-Group Speed Boat and Snorkel Tour: Another full-day cruise that explores the waters around Isla Colon to their fullest. Stops include Dolphin Bay, Crawl Cay, and the famous Red Frog Beach.
- Bocas del Toro Catamaran Dolphin and Snorkeling Tour: Spend a day on the water with this 7-hour catamaran tour. It includes a chance to swim & snorkel at major stops like Dolphin Bay and Isla Solarte.
Fight the riptides at Red Frog Beach
Wading in Playa Estrella’s waters is Bocas del Toro at its most relaxing. However, 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. Combine your visit with an island hopping tour to explore the archipelago more 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 here can be challenging, to say the least. Even just 5 to 10 meters from shore, the riptides gnaw at your legs. Out further, who knows what could happen.
Your boat captain will drop you off at Red Frog Marina on the southern side of Bastimentos. From here, it’s a short walk through a jungle path to the beach. (You’ll need to pay a $5 admission fee.)
Eat one of the world’s most delicious burgers at Capitan Caribe
Yes, it’s a bold statement: You can’t leave Bocas Town without stopping in at Capitan Caribe. The restaurant offers a few different varieties of burgers here: fish, pork, and beef. What makes them unique, though, are the ingredients mixed along with them.
Each recipe possesses a unique Caribbean flair. They use tropical fruits and local favorites like coconut bread to enhance their juicy burgers. Their chicken curry is equally awesome.
Where to stay in Bocas del Toro
Most travelers 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 Acqua Lodge (formerly KoKo Resort) on Saigon Bay. While we enjoyed chilling out in the stilted beach bungalows, I’d hesitate to recommend KoKo Resort to every traveler. The Saigon Bay neighborhood, while perfectly safe from our experience, might not sit well with everyone.
Instead, I’d recommend choosing from one of these other places to stay in Bocas del Toro…
- Sun Havens Apartments and Suites: A superb aparthotel closer to the center of town. For its prime location, room size, and maintenance (which can be an issue in Bocas Town), this property provides excellent value.
- Tropical Suites Hotel: This lovely oceanfront boutique hotel is the finest of those along the main drag of Bocas Town. Watching fiery Panamanian sunrises from your own private balcony is worth the price alone.
- Red Frog Beach Island Resort: The ultimate splurge in Bocas del Toro. Located on Bastimentos, it’s hardly an authentic Panamanian experience. Instead, it 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 from the 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 from Boquete 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.
More 10-day Panama itinerary ideas
- Want quieter and more pristine beaches? Skip Bocas del Toro and head to the San Blas Islands. Although they’re tough (and expensive) to get to, San Blas Islands are Panama’s best. If you’re craving untouched Caribbean beaches that battle the world’s finest, it’s here. You won’t find much to do in San Blas other than lazing on the beach, swimming, and snorkeling through its 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. Split up your Chiriqui Highlands stay between Boquete and Cerro Punta or Volcan to dig into all the region’s best hiking.
When to visit Panama
The best time to visit Panama is during the dry season between mid-December and mid-April. These months, however, fall within the country’s busiest tourist season. You may have to deal with lower availability of accommodations and higher prices.
The good news is that since Panama is set within the tropics it’s a year-round destination. Average temperatures throughout the year hover in the mid- to high-20s (about 75°F to 85°F). The coastal regions are a tad warmer than the highlands.
Where to go next
- Costa Rica: Continue 4 hours up the coast from Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo. The town is one of the best places to visit in Costa Rica. It’s the perfect place to launch your Costa Rican adventure.
- Nicaragua: It’s a short skip over Costa Rica to Nicaragua. The country is one of Central America’s most quickly evolving tourist destinations. Unless you’re traveling through CR, start your Nicaragua itinerary by flying from Panama to Leon or Managua. Sweep south to take in all the best things to do in Nicaragua.
- Colombia: Unless you’re an armed guerrilla or a pharmacist delivering malaria medication, an overland adventure over the Darien Gap from Central to South America is out of the question. Instead, take the safer and far-less-legendary path to Colombia. Grab a flight from Panama City to Bogota. From here, you can launch a Colombia itinerary that you won’t soon forget.