Welcome to Panama! With Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the southeast, Panama tends to get overlooked by travelers. People flock to Costa Rica in massive numbers for waves to ride and hippie vibes, and Colombia for the cute towns, arepas, and perhaps the beautiful women. So, what does Panama have to offer? Not only are there many things to do in Panama that sets it apart from its neighboring countries, but it’s cheaper than Costa Rica too!
How to Get to Panama…
9 major airlines fly direct to Panama City, and more than 7 million travelers pass through the International airport annually. For those looking to fly into Panama or any of its neighboring countries, you can find the most affordable rates for flights on Skyscanner.
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If you’re already traveling through Central or South America, it’s important to note that while Panama is easily accessible via bus from Costa Rica, it is not safe to travel from Colombia to Panama on land. As an alternative to those visiting from Colombia, you can sail the San Blas Islands in reverse (see #4) or hop on a quick flight over.
While Panama is most known for the Panama Canal, it has simply stunning beaches and incredible mountain ranges too. If you’re limited to a week or two, here are the four best things to do in Panama:
Boquete is a pretty and quaint town up in the mountains of Panama. The big draw to Boquete is the spectacular hike up Volcán Barú for sunrise, but it’s also worth checking out The Lost Waterfalls and an awesome natural basalt rock climbing wall. While we didn’t have much time in Boquete, it’s a hiker’s dream and I’d love to spend more time exploring the area.
The Lush Jungles – Things to do in Panama
Where to Sleep in Boquete?
Luxury: The Inn at Palo Alto is absolutely perfect if you’re looking to be immersed in nature on a beautiful property. Think massive villa with infinity pool surrounded by mountains where you can sit on your private terrace and watch the sunset…
Value: The Riverside Inn is located on the banks of the Palo Alto River just a few minutes from the city center. Each room offers views of the garden, river, or valley, and, despite being rural, has free WiFi and breakfast.
Budget: Bambuda Castle is the perfect budget option because, let’s be real, who doesn’t want to sleep in a castle?! Offering dorm rooms and private rooms, this castle has a bar, swimming pool, hot tub, free parking, and free WiFi.
2. Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is located off the coast of Almirante, Panama. You can reach Almirante on a one-hour flight from Panama or an overnight bus. If you’re visiting Boquete (as we did), it’s easier to catch the bus from Boquete or David (the town, not the person). If you’re coming from Costa Rica, you can fly from San Jose, or take the Caribe Shuttle directly from Puerto Viejo to Almirante (I highly recommend the latter since Puerto Viejo is amazing in and of itself).
Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro – Things to do in Panama
That said, Bocas del Toro is only accessible via speedboat from Almirante and is one of my favorite places in the world. I promise that it’s easier to get to than it might sound.
As you get deeper into the islands, you will steadily see the ever-changing shades of water turn from blue to patchy spots of turquoise. By the time you arrive on Isla Colón, the main island of Bocas del Toro, the water is unbelievably crystal clear. From there, you have numerous islands that you can check out that just take a couple of minutes to reach by boat.
Red Frog Beach – Things to do in Panama
Where to Sleep in Bocas del Toro?
Luxury: La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm gives you the perfect combination of jungle vibes with ocean views! Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are included in the cost of the stay, as well as a free shuttle, free chocolate farm tour, and free trips to Red Frog Beach. For just $225 per couple, this is an absolute steal. Wait until you see the views from your room…
Value: Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge has over-the-water-bungalows for incredible prices. I’m talking $120 per night for two people in the Master Suite! Each cabin is not only on stilts in the water, but has its own private balcony with hammock too! They run on solar power and offer an array of food; I’d personally love their candlelight dinner on the terrace each night!
Budget: Palmar Beach Lodge, located on Isla Bastimentos, is incredibly unique and eco-friendly, while being situated on the famous Red Frog Beach! They offer a free shuttle to the lodge from the main island (3x daily) and have free events ranging from hikes in the national park to bonfires, and movie nights. They are not only solar-powered, but they only use fresh rainwater and offer daily yoga classes as well. I stayed here back in 2015 and it is truly a gem, with something for everyone.
3. Panama City
From the Panama Canal to Casco Viejo, Panama City was lovely. You’ll find flower-filled balconies, colorful houses, and a very relaxing vibe in the old town. While it takes a bit of time, I recommend walking along the boardwalk from the heart of Panama City to Casco Viejo.
Panama City Skyline – Things to do in Panama
Where to Sleep?
Luxury: La Concordia Boutique Hotel is located in the heart of town and simply delightful! With elegant decor, spacious rooms, and an excellent breakfast, you’ll be treated to the best of Panama’s hospitality.
Value: La Isabela Suites is also perfectly situated within Panama’s historic old town. Escape the noise and retreat to this charming hotel with free WiFi and lovely balcony views. At $118 per two people for the Queen Executive Suite with kitchen and all, La Isabela suites is certainly a steal!
Budget: El Machico Hostel, just 2 miles away from Casco Viejo, is a great alternative for those on a budget. When I first visited Panama City, we stayed at El Machico and enjoyed the classic double room with shower and free WiFi. There are many cute eateries in the area, and it is plenty easy to get around.
4. San Blas Islands
While there are numerous things to do in Panama, sailing the San Blas Islands should be highest on the list. The San Blas Islands experience is a 5-day sailing trip from Panama to Colombia through some of the most remote islands between the two countries.
Isla Perro, San Blas Islands – Things to do in Panama
There are SO many operators from which to choose, so make sure you do your research; plan your trip around the dates of the ship you want to take, rather than choosing a ship based on your dates. I highly recommend consulting this site to help with your decision. The San Blas Islands, as a whole, took my breath away. Whether you want to snorkel in crystal clear water, read on the beach, or soak up the sun on the deck, there’s something for everyone. Get ready for a week of absolute beauty and serenity. And when it’s over, you’ll end up in Cartagena, arguably Colombia’s most charming city.
Hollandaise Keys, San Blas Islands – Things to do in Panama
Where to Sleep?
On the boat of course! Once you get to Cartagena, Colombia though, you can check out…
Luxury: The Charleston Santa Teresa couldn’t be in a more central location within the old town. In fact, every tourist likely passes this luxury hotel while they’re out exploring — I know that I sure remember it! The location couldn’t be better, and they offer a delicious array of food and restaurants on site along with incredibly comfortable rooms.
Value: Hotel Boutique Las Carretas is known for its colonial-style decor with Spanish-style courtyards and exposed stone walls. You’d be hard pressed to find a hotel valued at less than $100 per night that’s as comfortable as this. From the free WiFi to the air-conditioned rooms and full breakfast, you can’t get much better!
Budget: Bourbon St Hostal Boutique is a very popular option for those on a tighter budget. It’s also located centrally within the old town and has a restaurant and bar on site. You can grab a bed here for $15.
Where are these places located?
I’ve pinpointed on a map the 4 things to do in Panama below. If you need any further information, just let me know!
Bocas del Toro
San Blas Islands
I hope this helped you get a general idea of the 4 best things to do in Panama if you have less than two weeks to explore the country. Please feel free to leave me any questions or comments below!
Do You Have Travel Insurance?
I hope you don’t travel without travel insurance! If you do, you better think again. Travel insurance is arguably the most important thing to have on hand (after your passports and visas). I’ve had to use my travel insurance multiple times on the road, even though I’m healthy. You never know when something might happen; take comfort in knowing that whether your flight gets cancelled or you wind up sick and in the hospital, you will be covered. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance for each and every one of you travelers. You can get a free quote here.