Panama is a tiny country that packs in a diverse landscape of islands, surfing beaches, mountains, jungle, and a cosmopolitan city to discover. Here are 15 destinations YOU MUST visit in Panama + how to get to each one.
Panama City is the capital of Panama and always the first stop for travelers as the Tocumen airport (PTY) is where you’ll fly into. This is the most cosmopolitan city you’ll find in Central America with glistening skyscrapers and a trendy historic district with lively rooftops bars to keep you entertained. To see the real Panama City, check out one of my recommended tours with a local guide or head to my other post, 21 Things YOU MUST do in Panama City, for trip inspiration.
Where to stay in Panama City:
How to get to Panama City:
To arrive to Panama City, you’ll fly into the Tocumen International Airport (PTY) and from here to the city center will cost $30 in a taxi or $15 in an Uber.
The Pearl Islands
The Pearl Islands aren’t heavy on the tourist trail and offer some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll find near Panama City. Some of the most popular islands to visit include Contadora, Saboga, Bolaños, and Viveros. This is for people looking for a barefoot luxury island experience rather than some of the more rustic options that you’ll find in other islands in the country. Beaches here are never crowded and offer the picturesque white sand and turquoise waters that sun-seekers are looking for. Also if you happen to be here between July–October, it offers some incredible whale-watching opportunities. If you’re interested in going for the day, book a day trip here at the beautiful Sonny Island Resort, or stay overnight at one of the following options.
Where to stay in the Pearl Islands:
How to get to the Pearl Islands:
Oferta Simple (Panama’s version of Groupon) constantly has 50% discounts for ferry service to the island (only for day trips) or you can book ferry service via Sea Las Perlas ($95 round-trip). If you’re staying overnight, just be sure to book the ferry to the correct island. The ferry starts boarding at 6:45 AM at the Flamenco Marina Dock on the Amador Causeway. The total journey takes around 1.5 hours.
Boquete is the most talked-about mountain town in Panama and once you visit you’ll see why. The temperatures rarely get above 24°C (75°F) and you’ll usually need a light sweater at night when it gets down to 18°C (65°F). There’s amazing coffee grown here (be sure to have a cup of Geisha coffee at Perfect Pair) and a bustling scene of expats that live here full time. You’ll also find a brewery, cafés, coffee tours, and plenty of delicious restaurants. For adventure junkies, you’ll find zip-lining, white water rafting, and hiking trails.
Where to stay in Boquete:
How to get to Boquete:
The fastest way to get to Boquete is to fly to David via Copa (Tocumen Airport), Bocas Air (Albrook Airport), or Air Panama (Albrook Airport). You can also book a flight directly from your home destination directly to David, with a quick stopover in Panama City, or book the flight separately to spend a few days in Panama City first. By car, enter “Boquete” or the name of your hotel into Waze for the fastest route. The journey from Panama City is approximately 6.5 hours. You’ll continue along the Panamericana to David and from here follow the signs to Boquete. You can also fly to David and rent a car from there. Or take a bus from the Albrook Terminal to David. These leave approximately every hour. From the bus terminal in David, they have busses that frequently leave to Boquete.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s top tourist destinations and once you visit you can totally see why. This pristine paradise has been attracting surfers, beach seekers, and young partygoers for years. The archipelago of Bocas consists of 9 principal islands and 52 cays, with the main one being Isla Colon, also known as Bocas Town. This is where you’ll find the island’s main restaurants, bars, and epic parties within walking distance of wherever you stay. But if peace and quiet are what you’re after, then you can retreat to one of the more relaxing islands like Isla Bastamientos or Isla Carenero and then water taxi over to Bocas Town whenever you like.
Where to stay in Bocas del Toro:
How to get to Bocas del Toro:
The easiest way to get to Bocas del Toro is by flying from the Albrook Airport in Panama City via Bocas Air or Air Panama. Flights typically cost $89 one way. You can also take a direct shuttle from Boquete for $30 via Hello Travel Panama and the journey will be approximately 4-hours. From the Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City, you can also take a direct bus that leaves at 7 pm and 8 pm, arriving at Bocas del Toro (getting off at Almirante) around 6 am for $28 one way. From here you’ll take a water taxi to your hotel.
Pedasi is a place for people looking for a small-town vibe and has a number of bakeries, restaurants, and cafés that you can walk to. There are a few beaches near here but the best part is the access to Isla Iguana, a gorgeous virgin island, which is only a 20-minute boat ride away. Whale watching can also be enjoyed here from July – October. This town also throws an amazing carnaval celebration if you happen to be here then.
Where to stay in Pedasi:
How to get to Pedasi:
The easiest way to get to Pedasi from Panama City without a car is using the direct shuttle offered by Venao Tours. This costs $40 and the journey will take approximately 5-hours. The shuttle leaves from Selina in Casco Viejo at 7:30 am. Alternatively, you could take a public bus from the Albrook terminal to Las Tablas for $9 (view schedule here) and then a taxi for $25 or another bus to Pedasi for $3 if it happens to be leaving when you get there.
Playa Venao is just 30-minutes past Pedasi and is a vibrant beachfront community known for its world-class surfing, chill beach vibes, and the occasional music festival. There’s not going to necessarily be “entertainment” unless you’re there for an event so you’ll want to decide if you’re ok with just hanging out at the beach, surfing, doing yoga, action sports, reading, etc. Keep in mind this is going to be a surfing beach, meaning there will be waves. If you’re looking for a beach with calm swimming water, you can visit Isla Iguana for the day from Pedasi or there is a “secret” beach about a 30-minute walk away that is best at high tide. Read my Quick Guide to Playa Venao here.
Where to stay in Playa Venao:
How to get to Playa Venao:
If you have a car, Playa Venao is a 5-hour drive from Panama City. But a car is not necessary as there is a direct shuttle from Panama City for $40 via Venao Tours. If you want to opt for public transport, head to the Albrook Bus Terminal to take a $9 bus from Panama City to Las Tablas. This leaves every hour, on the hour. The bus trip should take around 5 hours so plan accordingly so that you can then take the direct 1:30 pm bus from Las Tablas to Playa Venao or take a taxi for $35.
El Valle de Anton
El Valle de Anton is a small town located in a luscious green valley of an inactive volcano crater – it’s the largest inhabited crater in the world! But the volcano has sat dormant for thousands of years and now is a favorite weekend getaway for Panamanians and visitors looking to escape the city. El Valle is one of my favorite getaways because it’s one of the few tourist destinations in Panama with an easy direct bus there! The spring-like climate, fresh air, and beautiful hiking trails are perfect for outdoor lovers. The most popular hike in town is trekking to the top of La India Dormida, a natural formation on the edge of the volcano crater that resembles a sleeping Indian. Along the way are a few small waterfalls you can swim in and petroglyphs dating back from pre-Colombian times. Once you reach the top, there is a stunning view of the valley and town below. Be sure to read my “Quick Guide To El Valle de Antón” for complete details on what to do and where to stay.
Where to stay in El Valle de Anton:
How to get to El Valle de Anton:
By car, enter “El Valle de Anton” or the name of your hotel into Waze for the fastest route. Take the Interamerican Highway outside of Panama City for approximately 90km and take a right at the Delta Gas Station a little past San Carlos. From here El Valle is about 28 km or about 2.5 hours. If you have Waze or Google Maps on your phone that works well for arriving at most of the hotels and hostels within El Valle. Or by bus, at the Albrook Terminal buy a ticket to El Valle from window 22 and this will cost $4.25. The bus leaves approximately every hour on the hour and will drop you off in the center of town or near your hotel if it’s possible.
A visit to the San Blas Islands is definitely a bucket list item for most travelers in Panama. This archipelago is home to 365+ pristine islands that are inhabited by Panama’s indigenous Guna people which has kept the big developments out so you can enjoy the islands as they always have been. You can choose to just visit San Blas for the day (check out this day trip here) or stay overnight in one of the following recommended options.
Where to stay in San Blas:
How to get to San Blas:
San Blas is not a place you want to drive to by yourself as the road is very steep with sharp curves. Any of the tours you book will have transport included or at an additional cost. There is also a $22 entrance fee for foreigners and $7 entrance fee for Panamanians at an additional cost.
Experience the freedom of being in the Panama jungle at Kalu Yala. This is one of my favorite eco-tourism getaways because even though it feels remote, it’s only 1.5 hours from Panama City (you can even use the new metro to get most of the way there). Days here are spent swimming in the natural pools formed by the river, hiking to waterfalls, drinking rum from their on-site distillery, or just sitting in a hammock and listening to birds and howler monkeys. They do also have solar-powered internet just in case you need to get a little work done.
Where to stay at Kalu Yala:
How to get to Kalu Yala:
By car or Uber ($40-$60), you can put “Kalu Yala Basecamp” in Google Maps or Waze to arrive. Once you arrive in San Miguel town, take a right at the rock that says “Bienvenidos a San Miguel”, and Kalu Yala Basecamp will be the third house on the left and is bright yellow. They then have a 4 x 4 truck that is $10 one way and you need to have this reserved in advance by emailing email@example.com or WhatsApp +50766738170. Via public transit, first, take Line 1 of the Metro going in the San Isidro direction to the San Miguelito stop (.35 cents). From here switch to Line 2, taking the metro to Nuevo Tocumen, exiting on the Nuevo Tocumen side. Then you’ll need to take a bus to San Miguel (La Mesa) in the same direction. The bus arrives once every 30 minutes ($1.25) and it’s important to allow 2.5 hours for the entire journey. Instead of taking a bus, you can also take a taxi to San Miguel and there are usually several waiting at the base of the Metro stop. The taxi will be $10-$15 and you must negotiate the price before you get in.
The “Pacific Beaches” are where many Panamanians have a second beach home or apartment where they’ll flock to for the weekend as it’s only 1.5 hours from Panama City. There is also a growing number of foreigners that have made this area their home year-round, creating a vibrant community. This long stretch of coastline includes surfing beaches, beaches with calm swimming water, and a number of beach resorts depending on where you are. Some of the main communities include Coronado, Gorgona, San Carlos, Buenaventura, Punta Chame, and Playa Blanca.
Where to stay in the Pacific Beaches:
How to get to the Pacific Beaches:
From the Albrook Terminal take the San Carlos or El Valle Bus and let the attendant know where you are getting dropped off as this will determine the price. It should cost around $3. Once dropped off you will most likely need to take a taxi from the main road to your destination.
Santa Catalina has gained the reputation of being one of Panama’s top surfing destinations as well as a gateway to Coiba National Park for divers & snorkelers. Santa Catalina is located on Panama’s Southernmost tip of Veraguas between the Gulf of Montijo and the Gulf of Chiriquí and takes around 5-8 hours to get to depending on how you arrive and traffic.
Where to stay in Santa Catalina:
How to get to Santa Catalina:
Visit the Soná ticket booth in the Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City and purchase a ticket for $9.70. The bus leaves at 6:45 am, 8:20 am, 10:20 am, 12:45 pm, 2:20 pm, 3:15 pm, 4:19 pm, 5:45 pm, and the earlier you leave the better since this is about a 7-hour journey. The bus from Panama City to Soná takes about 4.5 hours and once you arrive in Soná there will be someone with a bus transferring passengers to Santa Catalina for $5. The bus departs at 5:30am, 8:40am, 11:20am , 1:30pm, 3pm, and 4:45pm. So for example, if you take the 8:20 am bus from Panama City you should make it in time for the 1:30 pm bus to Santa Catalina. The bus from Soná to Santa Catalina takes 1-1.5 hours and makes several stops in Santa Catalina. If you’re in Boquete there is also a direct shuttle offered by HelloTravelPanama for $35.
Coiba Island, which was once home to a high-security prison, is now a National Park and is often touted as the “Galapagos of Panama”. This island is difficult to access and will take quite a bit of planning, but is worth the journey. You first have to arrive in Santa Catalina, which is around 6-hours from Panama City or if you happen to be in Boquete, they have a direct shuttle for $35. Santa Catalina is your base on the mainland and then you can take a day trip to Coiba and be there in around 1.5 hours or do an overnight trip.
Where to stay in Coiba:
The only overnight facility available in the Coiba National Park is at the ANAM ranger station on Isla Coiba. The station offers several modest 2 room cabins with air conditioning. To Contact ANAM, call (507) 998-0615 or reserve a multi-day tour with Fluid Adventures.
How to get to Coiba:
Coiba is a 1 hour, 20-minute boat ride from Santa Catalina, and snorkeling, scuba diving, or just visiting Coiba can be organized directly in the town or booking with Tours Coiba.
Gamboa is only 45-minutes from Panama City and the closest area to where you can experience a bit of jungle life. Many of the tours can be booked through the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve website and include an aerial tram, hikes, fishing, monkey island, and visiting the sloth sanctuary. You can go for the day to enjoy the activities and dine at the restaurant or stay overnight for the full experience.
Where to stay in Gamboa:
How to get to Gamboa:
Car or Uber is the best way to get to Gamboa. Either will take 45-minutes with Uber costing approximately $40.
Boca Chica is starting to make a name for itself as a luxurious ecolodge paradise with top amenities and beautiful scenery. At the resorts here you can enjoy island hopping, whale watching, diving, horseback riding, and of course relax at the gorgeous beaches.
Where to stay in Boca Chica:
How to get to Boca Chica:
Boca Chica is about an hour from the city of David and is easily accessible by car but it’s also possible in bus. Taking a local bus costs around $5 from the David Bus Terminal and you need the bus that goes to Hornocitos. Here you will get off and transfer to another bus heading to Boca Chica or take a taxi to Boca Chica (about $ 10-15). Both the bus and taxi will drop you off at the Boca Chica Marina.
Cerro Azul is a small gated mountain community that sits around 800 meters above sea level, making it a comfortable climate year-round when you need a break from the hot & humid coast. The perk is that it’s one of the closest “cool” escapes from Panama City and will only take 45-minutes to 1.5 hours to arrive based on where you’re coming from. While here you can enjoy one of the many hiking trails, waterfalls, swimming in natural pools formed by the river, or spend time at the country club. To enter this gated neighborhood you will need to have accommodation booked beforehand and there are some super cozy cabins available.
Where to stay in Cerro Azul:
How to get to Cerro Azul:
By car, enter “Cerro Azul” or the name of your hotel into Waze for the fastest route, head on Corredor Sur towards the direction of the airport and you’ll basically take it to the end and keep going. You’ll want to take a left on the street AFTER the sign that says “Bienvenidos Fucer” and continue for another 20-minutes following the signs for Cerro Azul. You can also take an Uber here for approximately $30. For public transport, take line 2 of the metro to the “24 de Diciembre” stop. Once there you can take a taxi to Cerro Azul or go to the back of the La Doña Shopping Center and take one of the mini busses to Cerro Azul (leaves every 30-45 minutes).