Panama, in Central America, has coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal is an artificial 82 km waterway in Panama connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Panama’s cosmopolitan capital, Panama City, is the only true First World city in Central America and the modern skyscrapers and casinos contrast with colonial buildings and rainforest of the Natural Metropolitan Park. Take time to check out Casco Viejo and Panama Viejo, the oldest areas of the city and Avenida Central and Calle Uruguay the modern, colorful shopping spots.
PANAMA TOP 5 THINGS TO DO
Bocas del Toro Archipelago
Bocas del Toro is definitely among one of the top places to visit in Panama and the best way to discover this ultimate Caribbean destination is by boat. The Panama government has invested heavily on Boca del Toro and it’s an extremely popular, albeit crowded, tourist destination now. While here go hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and surfing. Some of the best beaches in Panama can be found at Bocas del Toro such as Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos.
Perhaps the most well-known site in Panama. Everyone must visit the Panama Canal which has been playing a significant role in linking the Caribbean with the Pacific for the past 100 years. The construction was initiated by the French in 1881, but owing to a high mortality rate of laborers, work came to a halt. It was resumed only after the USA took the challenge to complete it. One of the top things to do in Panama is head to the Miraflores Locks to admire the huge ships that cross the Panama Canal.
Miraflores Visitor Center
Following on from the first top thing to do in Panama; If you want to explore the in-depth history of the Panama Canal, it is recommended to visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, which is just outside Panama City. The museum is a four-story magnificent building offering tourists a chance to view the Miraflores locks as well as the ships cruising by. A lot of exhibits in this museum are interactive making it an exciting place for kids too.
Relax at Las Lajas
Go off the beaten path to Playa Las Lajas which is set along Panama’s Pacific coast in the Gulf of Chiriquí. This is one of the most popular mainland beaches in the area, perhaps because it is close to both David and the Inter-American Highway. Playa Las Lajas is a gray-sand beach that is long and broad, it’s not overly pretty but convenient and easy to get to. Some portions of the beach are lined with palm trees and there are shady thatched-roof huts that you can rent for the day.
Beside the towering glass skyscrapers of bustling Panama City’s hippest (and smallest) neighborhood of Casco Viejo. Also known as San Felipe this is the old city’s heart and it’s popular with travelers for its vibrant dining and nightlife scene. Lose yourself in the maze of narrow streets, where you’ll find local shops selling traditional handicrafts set against the backdrop of colorful colonial architecture. Cocktail lounges, rooftop bars, and global restaurants line most mural decorated streets. Casco Viejo is an old Panamanian district dating back to the 17th century that must be explored.
Read more: 10 amazing things to do on a trip to Panama
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PANAMA TOP 3 FESTIVALS
Panama Jazz Festival
If you love jazz this is a must! Panama City is the jazz capital of Central America, and high on the list of the top things to do in Panama is attending the Panama Jazz Festival which usually takes place for 5 days each year in mid-January. Being one of the major jazz festivals, this event attracts thousands of talented artists from across the world.
Carnaval de Las Tablas
Carnaval de Las Tablas is a wild festival and one of the most popular cultural events in Panama. Held annually in March for the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, during this festival you will see floats and musicians in elaborate costumes parading the streets as the sun goes down, followed with fireworks.
Fiestas Patrias is a Spanish phrase meaning “Patriotic Holidays” or “National Holidays”. This marks the celebration of the country’s partition from Colombia in 1903. This festival is also revered as Panama’s Flag Day which makes this event all the more patriotic for locals. Attend this festival in Panama City for the best experience.
Language: Spanish is the official language of Panama, but other languages are spoken in pockets around the country as Panama has seven native groups that speak several indigenous languages.
Visa: Visitors to Panama will require a visa unless they are citizens of one of the eligible countries who do not require a visa for up to a 180 day stay. All visitors must hold a passport valid for 3 months. Use these free online visa checker and calculator tools so you know if a visa for Panama is required (which may depend on the country you are from) and how long it will take to process your visa and the cost.
Electricity: Panama typically uses 110 volt electricity, which is the same as the USA. However, there are unpredictable variations with some sockets that are 220 volts. Buy a Universal Travel Adapter so you don’t need to keep buying new adapters for each new country you visit.
Lonely Planet Panama: Check price on Amazon
WHAT TO EAT IN PANAMA
Some traditional dishes that you must try in Panama are listed below.
Sancocho: Panama’s national dish is a chicken stew called Sancocho that is said to cure whatever ails you. There are versions of sancocho throughout Latin America, but it is particularly beloved in Panama. Sancocho in Panama uses the basic ingredients like chicken, yams and cilantro, yuca, mazorca (corn on the cob) and otoe (taro root).
Ceviche: Although popular all over Central America the Ceviche in Panama is believed by many to be the best. Celery lends a unique twist to Panama’s ceviche which is most commonly prepared with sea bass, shrimp, or both.
Tamales: The tamales in Panama are different to the Mexican tamales that North Americans are used to eating. Panamanian tamales’s corn meal is much wetter and more flavorful and are cooked in plantain and bijao leaves, not corn husks.
Carimanola: Panamanians are known for their love for fried food and carimañola is the most popular. Carimañola (or caribañola) is a favorite recipe from the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Panama. These are stuffed yucca balls filled with cheese or meat, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried till they turn crispy.
Seafood Gaucho: This is a local favorite which is a thick rice soup that includes yucca, yams, mixed seafood and vegetables. It can be made of beef instead of seafood, but seafood is more popular. You can find Gaucho in nearly every local restaurant in Panama.
WHERE TO STAY IN PANAMA
Panama is a very affordable destination to visit. Finding excellent accommodation in Panama is super easy because there’s so many options whatever your budget.
Hostels and dormitories make travel to Panama affordable for backpackers and any travelers on a shoe-string budget. Whether you’re a backpacker, flash-packer or a luxury vacationer, Panama will not disappoint you. A basic hotel room in Panama can cost less than $30.
If you’re looking for accommodation that includes luxury amenities and comforts then there will be endless options to choose from in the big cities and popular tourist hotspots like Panama City, San Miguelito, Tocumen and David. Whatever month you choose to visit Panama, it’s wise to book your accommodation in advance. Don’t wait until you arrive to see what’s available or you may be disappointed to find that all the best places to stay have been snapped up already. Panama is a very popular year-round destination.
Jetset Bunny recommends using Booking.com for the best accommodation deals in Panama. However, if you are backpacking in Panama or traveling on a tight budget then Hostel World is another great option. Staying in hostels makes travel in Panama very affordable and is also a great way to meet new travel buddies where ever you go.
PLAN YOUR PANAMA TRIP
BEST TIME TO VISIT PANAMA
Tropical Panama is a beautiful vacation destination all year round but the best time to visit Panama is during the dry season between January and mid-April.
PANAMA TRAVEL BUDGET
Panama is generally an affordable destination for travelers on all budgets. The cost of your trip to Panama really depends on the level of comfort you want. If you are backpacking and planning on staying in dormitories, hostels and eating fast food then budget between $35 to $50 per day. If you prefer to stay in 3-4 star hotel rooms and eat in mid-range restaurants you could spend anywhere between $50 to $100 per day. If you want to enjoy luxury 4-5 star accommodation and gourmet restaurants then budget at least $250 plus per day.
IS PANAMA SAFE FOR FEMALE TRAVELERS?
Violent crime is not frequent but does occur in Panama. Petty theft occurs in rural and urban areas throughout the country and both have been reported in areas that are frequented by tourists. Based on my own travel experiences in Central America I wouldn’t leave home without travel insurance no matter how safe the destination is considered. You can still miss flights, lose your luggage or break a leg, especially if you’re as accident prone as I am. For this reason I recommend checking out the travel insurance plan that World Nomads can offer you a few weeks before your trip to Panama.
PANAMA VISA CHECKER
PANAMA FLIGHT DEALS
PANAMA TOURS & ACTIVITIES
PANAMA PACKING TIPS
Packing for a trip to Panama, like most other places in Central America, is a breeze. You really don’t need as much travel gear as you may think for a trip to Panama.
That said, the gear you do bring on your trip should be the very best option available for you and that doesn’t always mean the most expensive. Jetset Bunnies around the globe are always discovering the latest and the greatest in travel gear for women and this is where we share our awesome finds with you.
Packing for a trip to Panama, like most places in Central America is easy, just remember to pack lightweight and breathable clothing for dry season and warm, waterproof clothing for trips during the rainy season. Be prepared for the weather to get extremely hot during the summer so pack a high factor sunscreen and a sun hat. If you forget to pack something you can buy anything you need while you’re in Panama. Prices are generally higher in smaller boutiques (aimed at tourists) than they would be online so expect to pay a premium if you don’t have the option of shopping around due to time restraints on your Central America trip.
HOP TO: Panama Packing List For Women
Other essential items to pack for a trip to Panama include, most importantly, a good quality travel backpack. Choose the brand carefully and make sure you find the right size backpack for your torso. Believe me, doing this will make all the difference and prevent major backache. Read our related blog post with advice on how to choose the best backpacks for women travelers. Smaller items to pack include a padlock, sleep sheet and a money belt to keep important documents close to you.
So if you’ve found your travel inspiration, figured out the practicalities and got the travel gear it’s time to stuff it all in a bag and go right? Well, no, hold your horses, you see there’s an art to packing which we have (almost) perfected. Hop to our Travel Packing Tips for all of the latest on this topic.