When we said we were heading to Panama, people often responded quite surprised. It’s the less famous neighbor of Costa Rica, and in Belgium it’s mostly known for the canal, the Panama papers scandal and perhaps even the mysterious disappearance of two Dutch girls a couple of years ago. Not really things that would be on top of your list when you’re booking a vacation. To be honest it was never really on our radar either, but ticket prices were fairly cheap and a quick Google search learned us that there were beaches, jungle, mountains and good weather to be found here – basically all we need for a good vacay. Panama has a couple of main “tourist” destinations, the most-known being Bocas del Toro (beach and island life), Boquete (the mountain and coffee life), Casco Viejo (the small and expensive city life) and San Blas (again, the beach and island life – but more basic). We covered most of these, and some extra on our trip.
A frequently asked question about Panama was regarding the safety. It’s true that it can feel a bit more shady at times, and there is more “talk and hearsay” of robberies and incidents compared to other places where we’ve been. As a traveler, that’s never really pleasant – even if nothing happened in the end. I’d say to not let it hold you back, but be extra aware of your belongings and use common sense. In the end, you can also get robbed in your hometown so it’d be a shame to miss out on travel opportunities based on fear.
Our almost-three-week-trip took us to Panama City, Boquete, Boca Chica, Las Lajas, Volcan, Bocas del Toro and Panama City again. If you want to know more about my favorite experiences during this trip, you can read more about my personal highlights in Panama here.
It’s quite easy to get around in Panama. If you want to save time, use the airplane – if you want to save money, use the bus. The three main airports in Panama are located in Panama City, David and Bocas del Toro. These national flights are easy and straightforward, and you don’t need to be there long in advance to check in. Don’t depend on a real schedule when it comes to the bus, but our experience thought us that you never really have to wait long for one – and it’s always really clear where there going (the main destination is literally on the front window of the bus). Good to know: you pay at the end of the ride, there’s a paper inside the bus with the rate on it, and the airco will usually be on full blast for longer trips – as is the radio (which can be fun, depending on your music taste).
We traveled from Panama City to David by plane, which takes about an hour. David is a main connecting point in the middle of the country, especially to take the bus to pretty much wherever you want to go. When you arrive at the airport, you’re not at the bus station yet – but you can take a taxi there (don’t pay more than 5 dollars for that). Something important to take into account when it comes to travel time is that you’ll often have to travel back to David to go somewhere else again (for instance: if you would want to go from Boquete to Volcan, you need to go from Boquete to David first, to take the bus to Volcan there. If you look at the map, that doesn’t seem to make sense but the bus only goes that way). Unfortunately, there are no more flights going from David to Bocas del Toro at the moment – you can only fly there from Panama City. We took the bus there from David, which costs about 9 Euros per person and takes half a day of travel, at least.
I used to be a beach over nature kind-of-girl, but I kind of like my dose of both lately. Panama has a lot to offer when it comes to hiking in the Chiriqui area, so we decided to go a little more sporty than usual on this trip. We started out with the three waterfall hike in Boquete, and really enjoyed it! I’m very happy Decathlon provided me with the necessary hiking gear for this trip, because I quickly learned that my normal Converse shoes wouldn’t do here.
When you’re heading out for a hike, make sure to prepare for different weather conditions, because it really can change quite fast. Don’t forget to pack food and water to avoid hangry situations, and make sure to have at least this type of hiking gear: waterproof hiking shoes (It gets a lot more muddy and slippery than you would expect), a windproof jacket with a hoodie (for the ever-changing weather), a waterproof protector for your backpack, and a pair of those zipabble hiking pants (I know this goes against all the fashion rules, but it will come in handy when you’re suddenly being attacked by mosquitos – and you don’t want to ruin your good clothes anyway right?).
In Volcan, we hiked the private trails of Mount Totumas for two days which was really cool. Considering we had a mountain cabin all to ourselves – sunny hummingbird terrace included – this was one of the highlights of the trip for us. If you’re looking for somewhere zen to stay and be away of it all, this is the place to be.
THE CARIBBEAN BEACHES
The Caribbean side is all about palm trees, very hot and fickle weather, tropical downpours and colorful houses. Bocas del Toro is an archipelago on the Caribbean side that is the most known tourist spot in Panama, but to be really honest we didn’t love it all that much. In retrospect, I’d rather try San Blas – which seemed more paradise-like, peaceful and secluded (but I’d have to go back to actually confirm that thought).
Bocas del Toro consists of nine islands, isla Colon being the most famous slash biggest slash most touristy. We spent three days here, and three days on isla Bastimentos (a smaller island closeby). Bastimentos was where we went first, and we were surprised about all the warnings we got here concerning mugging and all kinds of robberies. Nothing ever happened, but it was not pleasant feeling unsafe and even have the police stopping us from going somewhere because there were “supposedly” three armed men in the bushes somewhere (not kidding). We did love the food at Chavela (best of the whole trip) and Up in the Hill on Bastimentos! Isla Colon felt more relaxed, but we were still rather underwhelmed by the beaches and underwater life.
If you do plan on going to Bocas del Toro – make sure to check out playa Esterella (Starfish Beach) on a sunny day and take time to go on one of the island tours. You’ll also find the red frogs in Bocas (especially on Bastimentos), and these truly are amazing – there’s so cute and to be found in the wild! Something we didn’t do, but was recommended to us afterwards is a trip to bird island – it’s supposed to be quite amazing.
THE PACIFIC BEACHES
If there’s one thing that immediately caught our attention on the Pacific side of Panama, it was isla de Coiba. This national park receives a lot of praise for its stunning underwater life – but alas a trip there was really not on the cheap side. Because we both aren’t experienced divers and didn’t want to pay that much for snorkeling, we decided to look for a (cheaper) alternative, and found something in that direction in isla Parida. Research showed that Boca Chica, a very small fisher village, was the best starting point for the island trip which is why we included it in our itinerary. Unfortunately, luck was not really on our side – we couldn’t find anyone to join us on the boat, which made the trip way more expensive than planned. Since it was also a cloudy day (which makes islands and snorkeling less fun) we decided to just head to Las Lajas for New Year’s eve instead. We did end that day in beauty though, by seeing the most beautiful starry sky of our lives that night.
Fun fact about Las Lajas: it’s a quiet town with a beach that is about 12 km long, and apparently it’s the place to be for the locals on New Year’s eve/day. I read stories about 15 000 people coming to Las Lajas to party all day and night, and we were quite curious to see how it turned out. The “action” didn’t really start until the 1st of January, when there was a sort of Fast & the Furious situation going on at the beach, music blasting everywhere, and plenty of dancing Panamanians. It was pretty fun to see how the locals really ring in the New Year!
If you’re looking for the big city life, Panama City is pretty much the place to be. From skyscrapers to big hotels and giant parks (or jungles) – you’ll definitely find it here. There’s a big difference between Panama City and the famous Casco Viejo (the old and probably most visited part of the city). Casco is mostly just for tourists and rich locals, but it’s still very pretty see – my advice would be to spend at least one day here (you can read more on what to do here in my Casco Viejo mini guide).
Other things worth doing in Panama City is taking a (long) walk along the Amador Causeway to see the harbor, the Panama sign and stop by the Museum of Biodiversity (which is a colorful building designed by Frank Gehry). Also take time to explore the Parque Nacional Metropolitan – you get to see quite a lot of wildlife here, plus there’s a nice panoramic view over the city. If you have more time, I’d recommend going to Parque Nacional Soberania. We didn’t have time for this, but apparently the wildlife spotting is even better here. And ah yes, let’s not forget one of the things Panama’s most famous for: the canal! I’ll be honest and admit that this wasn’t really “my thing” – it also didn’t help that there were no actual ships passing through at the time. Don’t do it because it’s a must-see, do it if the history behind it and the technicalities of it all really interests you.
Depending on your interests, I wouldn’t spend too many days in the city. We actually had a lot of time to explore here, and we did feel like it would have been fine to do everything we wanted with two or three days.
P.S. A great way to get around the city without dealing without negotiating cab fare is Uber. It’s super easy, cheap, and it’s comforting to know you’re paying the correct fare.