Panama Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Panama, a bridge between the Americas, offers a mesmerizing fusion of natural beauty, vibrant culture, and modern infrastructure. With its iconic canal, lush rainforests, and pristine beaches, Panama is a diverse playground for travelers. Whether you’re exploring the historic streets of Panama City or navigating the country’s ecological wonders, Panama promises an unforgettable journey through the heart of Central America.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit Panama as a tourist depends on your preferences and the activities you plan to pursue. Panama has two primary seasons: the dry season and the rainy season. Here’s a breakdown to help you choose the ideal time for your visit:

  1. Dry Season (Mid-December to Mid-April): This is the peak tourist season in Panama. The weather is relatively dry, and you can expect plenty of sunshine. It’s an excellent time for outdoor activities, including beach vacations, hiking, and exploring the country’s natural wonders. However, this is also the most expensive time to visit, and popular destinations can get crowded.
  2. Rainy Season (Mid-April to Mid-December): Panama’s rainy season is characterized by daily showers and occasional heavy downpours. While it might not seem like the best time to visit, it has its advantages. Prices for accommodations and tours are lower, and crowds are thinner. The landscape is lush and green, making it a great time for birdwatching and river tours. Just be prepared for the possibility of rain during your trip.
  3. Shoulder Seasons (April, May, November): These months fall between the wet and dry seasons and can offer a balance between cost, crowds, and weather. Consider visiting during these transitional months for a more budget-friendly trip with reasonably good weather.
  4. Carnival (Late February or Early March): Panama’s Carnival celebrations are a colorful and lively experience, with parades, music, and dancing. If you enjoy cultural events, this is a great time to visit.
  5. Whale Watching (July to October): The Pacific coast of Panama, particularly the Gulf of Chiriquí, is known for humpback whale migrations during these months. It’s an excellent time for whale-watching tours.
  6. Diving and Snorkeling (Dry Season): The dry season is ideal for underwater activities due to better visibility and calmer waters.
  7. Festivals and Holidays: Keep in mind that holidays and festivals can impact your travel plans, so check for any major events during your visit.

Panama’s weather varies by region, so research the specific destinations you plan to visit. Additionally, consider your interests and budget when choosing the best time for your trip. Whether you prefer the sunny dry season or the more affordable, lush landscape of the rainy season, Panama offers a unique experience year-round.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around Panama as a tourist is relatively easy, and there are several transportation options to choose from, depending on your itinerary and preferences:

  1. Domestic Flights: If you’re traveling between major cities and regions in Panama, domestic flights can be a convenient option. Panama’s national carrier, Copa Airlines, and local airlines offer regular services. Flights are efficient for covering long distances, such as between Panama City and Bocas del Toro or David.
  2. Public Buses: Public buses are a cost-effective way to travel within and between cities. The bus network is extensive, and you can use it to reach various destinations. However, be prepared for crowded buses and sometimes limited schedules, especially in more remote areas.
  3. Tourist Shuttle Services: Several companies offer tourist shuttle services, which can be a comfortable and convenient way to travel between popular tourist destinations. These shuttles are often air-conditioned and more comfortable than public buses.
  4. Taxis: Taxis are readily available in cities like Panama City and can be a convenient way to get around urban areas. Ensure the taxi driver uses a meter or agrees on a fare before starting your journey. It’s best to use official taxi services to ensure safety.
  5. Uber: Uber operates in Panama City and offers a convenient and often cost-effective alternative to traditional taxis.
  6. Car Rentals: If you plan to explore rural or less accessible areas, renting a car can be a good option. However, be prepared for narrow roads, aggressive drivers, and sometimes challenging driving conditions. Rent from reputable agencies and ensure you’re aware of local traffic laws.
  7. Metro: Panama City has a modern metro system that is efficient for traveling within the city and its suburbs.
  8. Water Taxis: In coastal areas and islands like Bocas del Toro, water taxis are commonly used for short trips between islands and the mainland.
  9. Bicycles: Some cities and tourist destinations offer bike rentals, providing a fun and eco-friendly way to explore.
  10. Walking: In city centers and pedestrian-friendly areas, walking is a pleasant way to explore. Panama City’s Casco Viejo, for example, is best explored on foot.

When using public transportation, it’s a good idea to have local currency on hand, as many bus drivers and some taxi drivers may not accept credit cards. Also, keep in mind that traffic congestion can be an issue, especially in Panama City during rush hours.

Choose the mode of transportation that best suits your travel plans and be sure to research and plan ahead, especially if you’re traveling to more remote or less-visited areas of Panama.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of Panama is Spanish. While you can often find English spoken in tourist areas and by those in the tourism industry, knowing a few basic Spanish phrases can greatly enhance your travel experience and interaction with locals. Here are some useful Spanish words and phrases for tourists in Panama:

  1. Hello – Hola
  2. Good morning – Buenos días
  3. Good afternoon – Buenas tardes
  4. Good evening – Buenas noches
  5. Please – Por favor
  6. Thank you – Gracias
  7. You’re welcome – De nada
  8. Yes – Sí
  9. No – No
  10. Excuse me – Disculpe or Perdón
  11. I’m sorry – Lo siento
  12. How much does this cost? – ¿Cuánto cuesta esto?
  13. Where is…? – ¿Dónde está…?
  14. Bathroom РBa̱o or Aseo
  15. Water – Agua
  16. Food – Comida
  17. Help – Ayuda
  18. I don’t understand – No entiendo
  19. Do you speak English? – ¿Habla inglés?
  20. I need a taxi – Necesito un taxi
  21. Hotel – Hotel
  22. Beach – Playa
  23. Excursion – Excursión
  24. Bus station – Terminal de autobuses
  25. Airport – Aeropuerto

Learning and using these basic phrases can go a long way in making your travels in Panama more enjoyable and meaningful, as well as demonstrating respect for the local culture and language.

Where to Stay? 🏨

Panama offers a wide range of accommodation options to suit various preferences and budgets. Where you choose to stay depends on your travel style and the specific destinations you plan to visit. Here are some popular types of accommodations in Panama:

  1. Hotels: Panama City, in particular, has a wide selection of hotels ranging from budget to luxury. Casco Viejo and the financial district are popular areas for upscale hotels. You can also find budget and mid-range options throughout the city.
  2. Resorts: Along the coasts and on islands like Bocas del Toro, Panama offers many beachfront resorts. These can be excellent for a relaxing, all-inclusive experience.
  3. Hostels: Hostels are a budget-friendly choice for travelers, especially in popular tourist destinations like Panama City, Bocas del Toro, and Boquete. They’re ideal for backpackers and solo travelers.
  4. Boutique Hotels: For a unique and personalized experience, consider staying in boutique hotels, particularly in the charming Casco Viejo area of Panama City.
  5. Eco-Lodges: In Panama’s natural and ecotourism destinations, such as Boquete and the Darien region, you can find eco-lodges. These provide a more rustic and nature-focused experience.
  6. Guesthouses: These locally-run accommodations offer a more authentic and homely experience, often found in smaller towns and rural areas.
  7. Vacation Rentals: Airbnb and other vacation rental platforms offer a wide range of options, from apartments in Panama City to beachfront villas in popular coastal areas.
  8. Hosterías: These are rural guesthouses or inns, usually located in the countryside. They offer a peaceful and rustic experience.
  9. Campgrounds: If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, some areas, such as Boquete, offer campgrounds. However, be sure to check availability and facilities in advance.

When choosing your accommodation, consider factors like your budget, travel style, the region you’re visiting, and the type of experience you want. Keep in mind that booking in advance, especially during the high tourist season, is advisable to secure the best options for your stay in Panama.

What to Eat? 🍽️

Panama offers a variety of delicious dishes that reflect its diverse culinary influences. Here are some must-try foods for tourists in Panama:

  1. Sancocho: This hearty and flavorful soup is considered Panama’s national dish. It’s made with chicken, vegetables, and spices and often includes yams or ñame. Sancocho is a popular choice for special occasions and family gatherings.
  2. Ceviche: Panama’s version of ceviche typically includes fresh seafood, such as fish or shrimp, marinated in lime juice and mixed with onion, cilantro, and sometimes coconut milk. It’s a refreshing and tangy dish commonly enjoyed along the coast.
  3. Patacones: These fried green plantains are a popular snack or side dish in Panama. They’re often served with various toppings like guacamole, ceviche, or refried beans.
  4. Arroz con Guandú: This dish features rice cooked with pigeon peas, often accompanied by chicken or pork. It’s a flavorful and staple dish in Panama.
  5. Ropa Vieja: While originating from Cuba, this shredded beef stew with a tomato-based sauce is a favorite in Panama. It’s often served with rice and beans.
  6. Hojaldras: These deep-fried, doughy snacks are often enjoyed as breakfast or a side dish. They can be drizzled with honey or topped with cheese for a sweet or savory treat.
  7. Carimanolas: These fried yuca rolls are stuffed with ground meat, often beef or chicken, and seasonings. They’re a popular snack and street food in Panama.
  8. Empanadas: Panama’s empanadas are made with a variety of fillings, including cheese, beef, or chicken. They’re a quick and satisfying snack.
  9. Bollos: These corn tamales are wrapped in plantain leaves and are a traditional Panamanian food. They come in different variations, with fillings like cheese, fish, or chicken.
  10. Tamales: Panamanian tamales are made with corn dough and often include chicken, vegetables, and raisins. They’re wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to perfection.
  11. Yuca con Mojo: Yuca (cassava) is a starchy root vegetable commonly served with a garlic-based sauce called mojo. It’s a simple yet flavorful side dish.
  12. Seafood: Panama’s coastal areas offer an abundance of fresh seafood. Be sure to try the local catch, whether it’s grilled fish, lobster, or prawns, for a taste of the ocean.
  13. Bistec Picado: This dish consists of small, tender beef pieces sautéed with onions, peppers, and tomatoes. It’s often served with rice and beans.
  14. Chicha: This traditional drink is made from fermented corn and is slightly sweet. It’s a unique beverage to try while in Panama.
  15. Tamarind or Guanabana Juice: Enjoy the refreshing and tropical flavors of tamarind or guanabana (soursop) juice, which is often served fresh.

Don’t miss the opportunity to savor Panama’s culinary delights during your visit. The country’s mix of indigenous, Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and other influences creates a rich and diverse food scene.

What to See? 🔍

Panama offers a diverse range of attractions and must-see places for tourists. From modern cities to pristine natural landscapes, here are some of the top destinations to explore in Panama:

  1. Panama Canal: Witness the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal, a must-visit site. You can watch ships traverse the Miraflores Locks at the Miraflores Visitor Center or take a guided tour of the entire canal.
  2. Panama City: Explore Panama’s vibrant capital city, which boasts a historic Old Town (Casco Viejo) with colonial architecture, trendy bars, restaurants, and a picturesque waterfront. Don’t miss the Panama Viejo ruins, the Metropolitan Natural Park, and the Amador Causeway.
  3. Bocas del Toro: This archipelago in the Caribbean is known for its beautiful beaches, water sports, and vibrant nightlife. Bocas Town on Isla Colón is a popular hub for travelers.
  4. San Blas Islands: The San Blas Islands are a stunning collection of over 360 islands and cays in the Caribbean Sea, known for their pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and the rich culture of the indigenous Guna people.
  5. Boquete: Nestled in the highlands, Boquete is a paradise for nature lovers. It offers hiking, coffee farm tours, hot springs, and the opportunity to summit Volcán Barú, Panama’s highest peak.
  6. Santa Catalina: A small coastal village on the Pacific coast, Santa Catalina is a mecca for surfers and a gateway to the nearby Coiba National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  7. Chiriquí Highlands: Explore the lush highlands of Chiriquí province, which offers hiking, birdwatching, and a chance to see the Quetzal, a colorful bird.
  8. Pearl Islands: These islands in the Gulf of Panama are known for their white sandy beaches and marine life. Contadora Island is a popular destination, and you can go whale watching and snorkeling.
  9. Gulf of Chiriquí: Ideal for sportfishing and diving, this region is famous for its marine biodiversity and the chance to see humpback whales and dolphins.
  10. Darien Province: Visit the Darien Gap, a wild and remote region teeming with biodiversity, including the famous Harpy Eagle. It’s an adventurous destination for treks and eco-tours.
  11. El Valle de Antón: Explore a volcanic crater valley surrounded by mountains, known for its pleasant climate and stunning landscapes. Don’t miss the local market and the El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden.
  12. Barro Colorado Island: Part of the Panama Canal Zone, this island is a biological research center. Guided tours provide insight into the region’s unique flora and fauna.
  13. Isla Taboga: Known as the “Island of Flowers,” this tranquil island is a short ferry ride from Panama City. It’s an excellent day trip destination for its beaches, hiking trails, and seafood.
  14. El Otro Lado: A boutique eco-lodge in Portobelo that offers a unique and luxurious experience in the middle of nature.
  15. Emberá and Wounaan Villages: Experience the culture and traditions of Panama’s indigenous Emberá and Wounaan communities with guided tours and visits to their villages.

Panama’s blend of culture, history, and natural beauty makes it an incredible destination for travelers. Whether you’re interested in urban exploration, wildlife encounters, or beach relaxation, Panama has something to offer every type of tourist.

What to Do? 📸

Panama offers a wide range of activities and experiences for tourists. Here are some must-do things to make the most of your visit:

  1. Visit the Panama Canal: No trip to Panama is complete without witnessing the marvel of the Panama Canal. Tour the Miraflores Visitor Center to see ships passing through the locks or take a full canal tour for an in-depth experience.
  2. Explore Casco Viejo: Wander the historic streets of Panama City’s Old Town, Casco Viejo, with its charming colonial architecture, art galleries, and vibrant street life.
  3. Relax on the Beach: Enjoy Panama’s stunning beaches. Bocas del Toro, San Blas Islands, and Santa Catalina are perfect for sunbathing and water sports.
  4. Go Birdwatching: Panama is a paradise for birdwatchers. Explore national parks like Soberanía and Darien for a chance to spot exotic species like the Quetzal and Harpy Eagle.
  5. Hike in the Rainforest: Take guided hikes in the lush rainforests of Boquete, Chiriquí Highlands, and El Valle de Antón to see diverse flora and fauna.
  6. Go Scuba Diving: Explore Panama’s rich marine life and coral reefs. Bocas del Toro, Coiba National Park, and the Gulf of Chiriquí offer great diving spots.
  7. Watch Turtles Nesting: Witness sea turtles nesting and hatching on beaches like Isla Cañas, Tortuguero, or Bocas del Toro.
  8. Surf the Waves: Panama’s Pacific coast offers excellent surfing, with Santa Catalina and Playa Venao being popular spots. Bocas del Toro offers Caribbean surf.
  9. Visit Emberá Indigenous Communities: Take a cultural tour to Emberá and Wounaan villages to learn about Panama’s indigenous culture, traditions, and art.
  10. Explore Coffee Farms: Visit coffee plantations in Boquete to learn about the coffee-making process and sample some of the world’s finest brews.
  11. Cruise the Pearl Islands: Experience the beauty of the Pearl Islands through boat tours, whale-watching, and snorkeling.
  12. Go Ziplining: Try ziplining adventures in Boquete or El Valle de Antón, which offer a thrilling way to see Panama’s landscapes.
  13. Panama Carnival: If your visit aligns with Carnival season (late February or early March), join the lively celebrations with parades, music, and dancing.
  14. Eat Local Cuisine: Sample Panama’s traditional dishes like sancocho, ceviche, and empanadas at local eateries and markets.
  15. Visit National Parks: Explore Panama’s national parks like Soberanía, Darien, and Camino de Cruces, where you can hike, wildlife-watch, and immerse in nature.
  16. Learn About Indigenous Cultures: Discover the history and traditions of Panama’s indigenous peoples by visiting museums and cultural centers, such as the Museum of Panama Viejo and the Kuna Yala Museum.
  17. Admire the Wildlife: Take guided wildlife tours in national parks to spot monkeys, sloths, toucans, and other exotic animals.
  18. Horseback Riding: Ride horses through Panama’s countryside and along its scenic trails.
  19. Relax in Hot Springs: Soak in the natural hot springs found in places like Boquete and El Valle de Antón.
  20. Visit the Gulf of Chiriquí Marine National Park: Explore this protected area for activities like snorkeling, whale watching, and kayaking.

Panama’s diverse offerings cater to adventure seekers, nature lovers, history buffs, and culture enthusiasts. Tailor your experiences to match your interests, and you’ll have a memorable and enriching trip in this beautiful Central American nation.

Culture and Safety 🦺

Culture:

  1. Respect for Indigenous Cultures: Panama is home to several indigenous groups, including the Guna Yala, Emberá, Wounaan, and Ngäbe-Buglé. It’s important to show respect for their traditions, customs, and territories when visiting their communities. Seek permission before taking photos, buy crafts directly from artisans, and engage in cultural exchanges with an open and respectful attitude.
  2. Casual Dress: Panama is generally casual when it comes to dress. Lightweight, comfortable clothing is ideal due to the warm and humid climate, but you may want to dress up for fine dining or city nightlife. Modesty is appreciated in indigenous communities.
  3. Language: While many Panamanians in urban areas speak English, especially in the tourism industry, learning a few basic Spanish phrases can go a long way in rural areas. Locals appreciate tourists who make an effort to communicate in their language.
  4. Tipping: Tipping is customary in Panama, and a 10% service charge may be added to restaurant bills. In addition to this, you can leave a small tip for good service. It’s also common to tip guides and drivers during tours.

Safety:

  1. General Safety: Panama is considered safe for tourists, but it’s wise to take standard safety precautions. Keep an eye on your belongings, be aware of your surroundings, and avoid displaying expensive items like jewelry. Use hotel safes for passports and valuables.
  2. Health and Hygiene: Stay hydrated, especially in the tropical climate. It’s a good idea to drink bottled water, even in urban areas. Be cautious with street food, and opt for well-cooked dishes. Use insect repellent and sunscreen, as well as any necessary vaccinations or medications.
  3. Transportation: Use reputable transportation services and official taxis with meters. Avoid hitchhiking and be cautious when accepting rides from strangers.
  4. Natural Hazards: Panama is prone to natural hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes. It’s essential to be informed and prepared, particularly during hurricane season (June to November). Check the local news and follow guidance from authorities.
  5. Scams: Be wary of scams, especially in tourist areas. Don’t accept unsolicited assistance, and always verify prices and agreements before engaging in tours or services.
  6. Travel Insurance: It’s advisable to have travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, trip cancellations, and lost luggage.
  7. Local Laws and Regulations: Respect local laws and regulations, including those regarding the use of drones, and be aware of the legal drinking age, which is 18 years old.
  8. Emergency Services: Familiarize yourself with the local emergency phone numbers, such as 911 for police, medical, and fire emergencies.

As with any travel destination, staying informed, using common sense, and being respectful of local customs and cultures will contribute to a safe and enjoyable visit to Panama. Always check the latest travel advisories from your government before your trip and stay updated on local conditions during your stay.

Conclusion

As you conclude your journey through Panama, you’ll leave with a treasure trove of memories. From the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal to the biodiversity of its rainforests and the warmth of its people, Panama’s diverse offerings are bound to leave you with a sense of awe and adventure. Panama isn’t just a destination; it’s an experience that lingers in your heart long after you’ve said goodbye.