Contemporary and historical. Trendy and vintage. Urban and rural. Beach and jungle. Panama is a country of contrasts that offers a little bit of something for everyone. As an island girl who appreciates a taste of city life, Panama was everything I always knew I needed in a destination but had yet to find. Remarkably, three weeks wasn’t nearly enough time to see and experience everything this amazing Central American country has to offer. However, of all the experiences I had, here are my top 10 recommendations of cool things to do in Panama.
1. Go off the grid in San Blas
To visit the San Blas islands is to truly go off the grid. It takes over 5 hours by car and boat (one way) to get you to paradise. No wifi. Thatched roof huts with floors of sand. No electricity (except for a light in your hut that only powers on at night). Delicious but simple meals featuring the catch of the day. No cell service. And miles and miles of bright blue ocean dotted by tiny islands with blindingly white sand. Indeed, the 365 islands and cays of the San Blas region are in a league of their own. Operated by the indigenous Guna tribe, San Blas offers a truly unique, no frills, back-to-basics escape that you will cherish long after you’ve sailed away from their shores.
Recommended vendor: San Blas Dreams | Hours: 5:30 am – 8:00 am | Cost: $152 USD
2. Visit the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is surrounded by a lot of hype. Having visited the Miraflores Locks twice, I can confirm without reservation that said hype is completely warranted. I’m not a fan of engineering, physics, ships or anything even remotely related to the operation of the canal. However, from the moment we arrived on the 4th floor observation deck I was enthralled and intrigued. To witness massive ships being guided with military precision through these comparatively narrow channels is just…amazing. To learn that some of them pay over $1 million to make this crossing is mind blowing. And to comprehend that 26,000 people lost their lives in the process of constructing it is sobering. Anyone who visits Panama should not leave without seeing one of man’s greatest engineering feats in action.
Hours: Open daily, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (tickets sold until 5:15 p.m.) | Cost: $15USD
3. Visit the Baha’i Temple
There are only eight continental Baha’i Temples in the world. One of them is perched atop a hill in Las Cumbres, Panama. The Baha’i Faith is based on teaching the essential worth of all religions and the equality of all people. As such, this Baha’i House of Worship is a welcome space for persons of all religious beliefs. Uniquely and beautifully designed, the temple offers a peaceful reprieve from the cacophony of the city. There is no talking or photography allowed within the Temple and it was such a rare but pleasant experience to sit in silence with just my thoughts for company. Even if you’re not religious I strongly recommend visiting the Temple to learn more about this all-inclusive faith.
Here it the Shuttle Schedule | Cost: Free
4. Stroll Along Cinta Costera
A gorgeous 64 acre park along the coastline, the Cinta Costera is the end result of a land reclamation project in Panama City. It offers much needed green space and play areas, as well uninterrupted views of the city’s eclectic skyline. A sprinkling of art installations, including the kaleidoscopic Panama sign and the Reloj de Flores, makes it an ideal spot for photos. Vendors line the brick walkways, offering you anything from traditional Guna crafts to stuffed toys, making it an unlikely but relaxing places to shop. While the food vendors at Fish Market serve up delicious, home style seafood dishes, making it a great place to dine.
Hours: 24/7 | Cost: Meals at the Fish Market cost around $11-$20USD
5. Ride the Ferry to Taboga
Good news: you don’t have to travel 5 hrs on land and sea to find beautiful beaches in Panama. A quick 30 minute ferry ride will take you to the lush green hills and clear waters of Isla Tabago. A colorful and quaint island, Taboga is a no-frills destination, ideal for those looking for a slower pace and simpler experience. Be warned though, the scene isn’t as idyllic as that of San Blas. Some establishments appear to be worse for wear and lack the je ne sais quoi required to be classified as “rustic” but it’s proximity to the city makes it a great day trip. As an added bonus, the ferry passes through the Panama Canal Anchorage area, which allows you to see the ships waiting to cross the canal!
Hours: First ferry departs for Taboga at 8:00 am, last ferry departs for the city at 4:00 pm on weekdays and 5:00 pm on weekends | Cost: $20 USD roundtrip
6. Spend a Day in El Valle de Anton
If you’re in Panama City and want to slow things down for a day, head to El Valle de Anton. A cheap two hour bus ride is all it takes to get you closer to lush green mountains, spectacular vistas and refreshing waterfalls. Eco adventures abound with waterfall hikes and off-roading being common activities. I had the distinct pleasure of making the bumpy ride to Slot Canyon with El Valle Mountain Tours and I highly recommend this mini adventure to anyone visiting the area. We drove along a broken mountain road, passed isolated homes and soaked up some stunning scenes. Then we climbed 200 steps to get to the canyon with its beautiful waterfall and four gorgeous green pools. It was here that I did my first waterfall jump ever and launched my cliff jumping career 😉
Hours: Bus runs from 7:00 am. Last bus leaves El Valle at 4:00 pm | Cost: $4.25 one-way
7. Check out the Ruins at Panama Viejo
A prime example of the contrasts that exist within Panama, Panama Viejo is a collection of ruins located within the city limits. Modern skyscrapers create an unlikely backdrop for the remains of this 16th century Spanish settlement. Formerly the country’s capital city, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site with immaculate grounds to explore as well as a wealth of information to consume. The entire circuit is 1.5 km so you can wander at your leisure, including climbing the 30m high Cathedral tower to take in a spectacular view.
Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. | Cost: $15 USD
8. Causeway Amador
Eat. Drink. Ride. Play. Soak up the city skyline. Or just stare at the boats entering or exiting the Panama Canal. The Amador Causeway is a great place to relax outdoors and just “be”. The Causeway Islands are four small islands near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. Connected by a causeway made of rocks extracted during the excavation of the canal, they’re the go-to-spot for down-time in the city. From the dozens of open air restaurants that line the pathway, the lookout points that hover above the water, the bike rentals available on either end, and the benches installed for the convenience of all…when you’re talking about things to do in Panama, the Causeway is a great place to spend a few hours doing everything or nothing!
Hours: 24/7 | Cost: Free but you will need to pay for meals/drinks or whatever activities you want to indulge in.
Go for the information, stay for the photos. If you’re into history, anthropology or biology the Biomuseo is a must-do for you. The museum is chocked full of information on the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its impact on the planet’s biodiversity. However, even if you’re indifferent to all of those things, you should still pop by because it is just an amazing piece of architecture. While most of Panama’s impressive buildings tend to blend together in a monotone mix of slate grays and reflective glass, the Biomuseo is a fun explosion of color! Designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the eclectic building makes a great backdrop for photos!
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, Saturday and Sunday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. | Cost: $18 USD but free on the first Sunday of every month
10. Appreciate the Beauty of Casco Viejo
With its beautifully restored buildings, cobble stone streets, and quaint plazas Casco Viejo oozes old world charm while offering new world diversions. A hotspot for chic boutique hotels, trendy rooftop bars, kitschy restaurants, and urban craft markets, strolling through this UNESCO World Heritage site was one of my favorite things to do in Panama. It’s a great spot to visit in the daytime, when you can truly appreciate the finer design details of the architecture, but it’s also the place to be at night when everyone comes out to play. Whatever time of day you’re there though, take the time to check out some of the highlights, such as the La Catedral Metropolitana, where the pope is expected to deliver a sermon during his visit next year; as well as the iconic Rolo de Sedas mami murals.
I have to say, this Island Girl was blown away by everything Panama had to offer. And I honestly believe you will be too. So book the flight. Map out the itinerary. Make sure it includes these 10 awesome things to do in Panama. And head on over to one of Central America’s precious gems!
Have you been to Panama? What was your favorite experience while you were there? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!