Panama flies under the radar in Central America as travelers typically head to Costa Rica for their vacations in this part of the world. But it would be a mistake to overlook the land connecting Central and South America because there is so much beauty on offer. From epic beaches to lush mountains, Panama is one of the world’s most beautiful destinations.
If you are considering a trip to Panama, whether flying from the US or heading down the continent on a road trip through the Americas, there are some important things to know for your first visit. In this article, we will be equipping you with Panama travel tips that will set you up for the journey of a lifetime. Discover the wild side of Panama that you never knew existed!
30 Travel Tips for Visiting Panama
1. Visit in December – April for the Best Weather
December to April is the dry season where the beaches and hiking trails are at their most alluring. May to November is the rainy season. Since Panama lies just north of the equator, tropical rainstorms are frequent here (especially on the Caribbean coast) but the downpours usually only last an hour or two. The weather is still warm during the rainy season and there are some cool festivals to attend during these months, so keep that in mind.
2. Arrive in Panama by Plane, Bus or Ferry
Tocumen International Airport is the country’s principal airport located in Panama City. There are many direct flights from the US such as from Miami and Houston. You can also fly in from a select few South American or Central American cities. Costa Rica is the neighboring country to the north and it’s common for travelers to book a bus trip over the border from Paso Canoas, Costa Rica. The other option is to book a ferry ride from Colombia.
3. Book your Tours with a Quality Local Guide
If you would like to experience the beauty of Panama in the company of a friendly guide we suggest getting in touch with a local called Jenny who runs El Trip de Jenny. Her trips are focused on eco-friendly adventures in awesome places like Bayano Caves, San Blas Islands and Venas Azules. Jenny also organizes free walking tours in Panama City, specifically in the Casco Antiguo area with its old quarter charm and fascinating history.
4. Stay in Panama City for at least a Few Nights
Panama City is the first port of call for most travelers to the country and one of the most important Panama travel tips we would like to stress is to stay here for a while. The capital is a cosmopolitan place full of historic neighborhoods, commercial skyscrapers, vibrant restaurants, and hip hotels and bars. The best way to get acquainted when you first arrive is to book a free walking tour to see the main sights and learn about the city’s heritage.
5. Try the Most Traditional Panamanian Foods
Panamanian cuisine is made up of a crossroads of flavors due to its location at the connecting point of land masses. The food is one of the unexpected highlights of the country and you will be spoilt for choice when looking for a place to eat. The restaurants are great, the street food is fantastic and the foodie tours are even better. Make sure you try Sanchocho (chicken soup), Ropa Vieja (beef stew), Tamales, Ceviche and Panamanian Tortillas.
6. Learn some Basic Spanish Before you Go
Most people speak Spanish in Panama and your experience in the country will be ten times better if you can speak a few words. You don’t have to be fluent to do things like greet people, order food and ask for directions. It’s estimated that only 7% of Panamanians speak English fluently so you shouldn’t rely too heavily on your native tongue. If you plan on staying in Panama for a few months, why not take Spanish lessons before you go?!
7. Get around the Country by Bus or Car Rental
The cheapest way to get around is by using the bus system. Long distance buses are equipped with all the modern comforts you would expect like air-conditioning. The other option is to rent a car and drive around on your own schedule. In most cases, you need to be at least 25 years old to hire a vehicle. Keep in mind that insurance should be sorted before you hit the road. Car insurance is one of the most important Panama travel tips.
8. Pick a Selection of Different Accommodations
There are some cool places to stay in Panama if you have the budget for it. Consider booking an overwater bungalow in Bocas del Toro or an airbnb in Casco Antiguo. The San Blas Islands also offer cabins where you can rest your feet for a couple of nights while island hopping. For budget travelers, boutique hostels like Magnolia Inn provide a unique setting for a portion of the price. Research online before you go to find the best stays!
9. Spend a Couple of Days in Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is Panama’s premier tourist destination and every article talking about Panama travel tips will say the same thing. Home to a vibrant Caribbean culture and a lovely chain of islands, the laid-back atmosphere of Bocas will carry you away from all the worries of modern life. No trip to Panama is complete without exploring this area for a couple of days. It’s a great place to kick off your Panama trip if you are arriving from Costa Rica.
10. Go Island Hopping around the San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands consist of 365 islands – one island for every day of the year! To fully experience this paradise travelers can book a multi-day tour from Panama City which hops from one stunning cay to the next. But for those short on time, a full day experience in the San Blas Islands with El Trip de Jenny is the next best thing. On this day tour, guests will stop by two picturesque islands and see the famous “natural swimming pool”.
11. Check Out some Other Islands in Panama
Panama offers so much more than just Bocas and San Blas when it comes to island adventures. Taboga Island is situated just off the coast of Panama City and is known as “The Island of Flowers”. Jump on a 30 minute ferry ride from the Panamanian capital and find yourself in an oasis of tranquility just outside of the city. Book the Taboga Island Weekend Trip with El Trip de Jenny to explore the island, while staying in a gorgeous tropical lodge.
12. Find the Dreamiest Secret Beaches of Panama
Whether you want to go snorkeling, swimming or sunbathing – Panama is blessed with an array of secret beaches across both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Starfish Beach in Bocas del Toro is where you can go swimming amidst colorful starfish, Playa Venao is the ultimate surfing spot to tear up the waves and make new backpacker friends, and the beaches in Venas Azules take the word “paradise” to new definitions.
13. Give Surfing a Go on the Azuero Peninsula
Surfers can find some stunning breaks and barrels at the many surf spots of Panama. The Azuero Peninsula is home to two amazing beaches called Playa Venao and Cambutal. Here, pro-surfers can ride big waves or beginners can book a surf lesson if they need practice standing up. This peninsula hosts surfing competitions throughout the year and offers some other attractions as well, like sea turtle nesting and ecotourism adventures.
14. Witness the Wildlife and Biodiversity of Panama
Panama’s biodiversity is nothing short of breathtaking. The rainforests and coastal regions of the Isthmus provide a home to many interesting animal and plant species. For example, birds are one animal that can be found in abundance. Listening to their calls as you hike through lush rainforests is a bucket-list experience every traveler will take pleasure in. Then you have species of wild cats, a range of primates and various types of sloths.
15. Hike the Incredible Trails of El Valle de Anton
El Valle de Anton is a volcanic crater that was formed millions of years ago. In this mountainous area hikers can hit the trails up epic peaks, traverse canyons and cool down under the spray of waterfalls. One of the most beautiful hikes you can do in this region is the Cerro Picacho Sunrise Hike. Once you make it to the top (as the sun begins to rise), you will be rewarded with a golden glow covering the ridges and surrounding lands.
16. Chase Epic Waterfalls in the Chiriqui Province
The connected ecosystems and consistent rainfall of Panama means there is no shortage of waterfalls to see. The Chiriqui province in the west has several great jungle hikes that lead you to these incredible drops of water. The Lost Waterfalls, the Pipeline Trail, the Choclon Waterfall, the Thunder Waterfall (Cascada Del Trueno), and the Romelio & Kiki Waterfall are just a few of the waterfalls we recommend in this Panama travel tips guide.
17. Head into the Bayano Caves for a Fun Adventure
The Bayano Caves, located on the south side of Bayano Lake, are a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered. These caves are best explored with a tour operator so all the transport, gear and guidance can be provided. We recommend getting in touch with El Trip de Jenny for their Bayano Caves Trip which takes you on a full day adventure to the caves. Cavers experience a river walk/wade, cave explorations and potential bat sightings.
18. Explore the Various National Parks of Panama
The natural wonders of Panama don’t stop at islands and beaches. Indeed, the country is dotted with extraordinary national parks that take adventure tourism to the next level. Baru Volcano National Park boasts the highest peak of the country (3,474m above sea level), La Amistad International Park seduces with its eerie cloud forest, Coiba National Park is a wildlife wonderland and Soberania National Park is famous for its avian biodiversity.
19. See the National Flower – Peristeria Elata
The national flower of Panama is called “Flower of the Holy Spirit” or Peristeria Elata. It’s characterized by tall spikes that blossom these white orchards with a perfect dove in the center. They have to be seen to be believed! Because of the dove the flower is connected with the “Espiritu Santo” and is considered a spiritual flower. You can see these flowers all over Panama but one place we suggest is La Orquidea, El Valle de Anton.
20. Dive into the Rich History of Panama
History-lovers will get a thrill out of traveling to Panama since the country has been a crossroads since time immemorial. The Mayan and Aztec civilizations couldn’t make it to Panama due to the jungles of the Darien. However, the country is home to seven indigenous groups which you can meet in places like Bocas del Toro. The Spanish took control in the early 16th century and then Panama won its independence from Spain in 1821.
21. Attend a Festival or Carnival in Panama
Throughout the year Panama holds a number of exciting festivals and carnivals that give travelers the chance to experience the rich culture of the country. Las Tablas Carnival, for example, is a wild celebration taking place in Las Tablas every year where 200,000 people hit the streets. A variety of parades, parties and fireworks are on display during this time. The event runs every July but has been canceled recently due to the pandemic.
22. Taste the World’s Most Expensive Coffee – Geisha
Panama is home to the most expensive coffee in the world. It’s called Geisha Coffee and it can sell for over $1,000 per pound! The plant known as “Geisha” (which has nothing to do with Japan by the way), grows in the Chiriqui highlands but its origin is Ethiopian. There are differing varieties of Geisha found around the world but the Panama version, with its gentle scents of jasmine and peach, has become the most famous.
23. Enjoy a Range of Great Vegan/Vegetarian Foods
In rural parts of Panama, the vegan and vegetarian food options are limited but in Panama City (and other cities) it’s common to find nice vegan food. Dishes like vegan and vegetarian nachos, salads and soups can be tried at the various vegan-friendly restaurants. Although Panamanian cuisine is primarily tailored for meat-eaters, vegan travelers can still find enough of a menu to keep them fueled for their travels around the country.
24. Pack Light but Prepare for the Unexpected
The highs during the dry season creep above 30°C and only drop to the mid twenties at night, so you should pack light. Bring all the usual summer items like t-shirts, shorts, flip-flops, sunhats, sunglasses, etc. but also take a raincoat just in case it rains. You will also want to bring a decent pair of hiking boots. If you come during the rainy season, you can expect similar temperatures just with more rain. Some extra wet weather gear is required.
25. Expect to Travel Through a Safe Country
One of the most frequently asked questions for those in need of Panama travel tips is the following: is the country safe? In short, yes Panama is safe for travelers of all kinds – whether you be solo backpackers, travel couples, groups of friends or families with children. Central America has a reputation for crime, yet Panama bucks the trend with low incidences of crime and corruption. Panama City is safe as long as you keep your wits about you.
26. Bring your US Dollars to Spend in Panama
US Dollars (USD) are accepted in Panama alongside the other currency, the Panamanian Balboa (PAB). While traveling with bucket loads of cash is never a good idea (it could get misplaced), having a bit of cash on you at all times is preferable since there aren’t many ATM’s in the rural areas. Sometimes it can be hard to pay with a credit card. Keeping your cash locked up in safes at the hotel or in a secure bumbag are smart strategies.
27. Travel Visa-Free for up to 90 Days or 180 Days
Panama is an easy country to travel to. Most passport holders can visit the country visa-free for up to 90 days. These include the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Other nationalities can stay for up to 180 days visa-free including: Canada and the United States of America. You can always get in touch with your local embassy or consulate for more info.
28. Organize a Sim Card for Fast Internet Access
The Internet runs smoothly in places like Panama City. As soon as you get out into the countryside, however, things slow down. The best way around this is to buy a sim card and make sure it gets access in all corners of the country. Do research before you go or ask locals in Panama City which cell phone carrier is the best. If you are not fussed about the Internet, there are many places in Panama where you can enjoy a detox from your phone!
29. Budget to Spend at least $50 USD Per Day
Panama is cheap but it’s not as cheap as other countries in Latin America. If you are traveling on a budget, you can get by on $50 USD per day which will cover transport, accommodation and food – with a little left over for tours. For those who like to stay at nicer hotels, your budget will need to be between $100 – $200 USD per day to cover those costs. At the end of the day, a trip to Panama can be as cheap or expensive as you make it.
30. Make Friends with the Welcoming Local People
The people of Panama are a melting-pot of different cultures – so it doesn’t matter where you come from, you will be welcomed into this multicultural mix. With every chance you get, be sure to speak with the locals and make new friends along the way. Panamanians are super friendly and they love hanging out with folks from around the world. Get in touch with local tour operators, like El Trip de Jenny, to forge these new connections.
Final Panama Travel Tips
These Panama travel tips provide visitors with a detailed intro to this beautiful Central American country. While it’s nice to travel to a new place with some pre-hand knowledge of where to go and what to see, the only real way of experiencing Panama is to go yourself and see where your feet lead you. You might want to book accommodation and tours before you go, but the rest can be planned spontaneously once you arrive. Happy travels!