Bridging the gap between continents and oceans, little Panama has played an important role on the world stage.
It may be small, but Panama draws the line between South and Central America, and welcomes both the Caribbean and Pacific oceans to her balmy shores. The Darian National Park forms a lush jungle border with Colombia in the south, while the forests of the north are entwined with those of Costa Rica. Between, there are mountains, tropical wildernesses, forests and beaches, all populated by the welcoming Panamanian people. Despite this breadth of experiences, Panama is compact, and you can take in wildlife, cloud forests, beaches, indigenous cultures and the gloss of Panama City, all within one trip.
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Top things to do in Panama
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in Panama. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in Panama.
Blissful San Blas
This dreamy archipelago of some 400 islands lies just off Panama’s Caribbean coast. Some tiny islets sprout just a handful of palms from their sugary sands, while others support whole indigenous villages. The Guna people have been recognised as the rightful owners of these islands, and while it would be hard to ignore the charms of the idyllic beaches, it would be a shame not to spend some time getting to know the locals and their intriguing culture.
Exploring the Chiriqui Highlands
The Chiriqui Highlands are famed for their coffee plantations and orange groves. Many visitors make their base in the attractive town of Boquete and explore the surrounding national parks from there. Cloud forests shelter an array of flora and fauna and exploring can be done on foot, raft or horseback. Hike to the top of Panama’s highest peak - the Volcan Baru reaches 3,475m and on a clear day both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts are visible from the top.
Boating through history on the Panama Canal
Mighty engineering projects don’t get much more impressive than the Panama Canal. This world famous waterway flows for just 80 km, but its creation has allowed cargo ships to slash nearly 13,000 km from their journeys, and has changed the fortunes of so many lives. Absorb the beautiful green surroundings on a boat tour, or see it from the train line that runs alongside.
Lesser known things to do in Panama
While there are many well-known things to do in Panama, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative Panamanian adventure.
Venture to The Darien Gap
A virtually untouched expanse of rainforest sepates Panama from Colombia, harbouring a vast number of species as well as several indigenous groups within its boundaries. It is known as the Gap because it is the only break in the Pan Americana highway on its journey from Anchorage in the north to Ushuaia in the south. The reason for the interruption is the 100 kilometres of seemingly impenetrable tangle of rivers, mountains and dense vegetation which to this day remains roadless.
Enjoy sophisticated Panama City
Located at the point where the Panama Canal meets the Pacific, the capital of Panama stands in gleaming contrast to its surroundings. The glittering silver high rises mark the financial district, source of much of the wealth in modern Panama City. The successful operation of the Panama Canal relies on the continual functioning of the water cycle, so there is a good deal of pristine rainforest on the outskirts of the city. The food scene in the city has been going from strength to strength and you can enjoy a thriving fine dining scene.
Beautiful Bocas del Toro
Not too far from the Costa Rican border, the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro is largely protected by the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, a divinely untouched swathe of sea scattered with more than 100 islands and cays. The various habitats include mangrove, rainforest and coral reefs, each supporting an impressively biodiverse ecosystem of rare complexity, earning these islands a comparison with the Galapagos islands.
Encounter Panama’s wildlife
Due to its geographical status as a land bridge between two continents, Panama is the crossover point of many different species. Its marine reserves protect a huge variety of underwater life, while easily accessible rainforests characterise the land, so looking for wildlife is simple to undertake. Almost one thousand species of birds have been recorded in Panama so it is a popular destination for birders, but the insect, plant, mammal, reptile and amphibian species are just as fascinating.
When is the best time to visit Panama?
The temperature doesn't fluctuate much in Panama, as it is tropical and near to the equator. The driest season runs from December to April, while the rest of the year is generally wetter, although in some areas, notably the Caribbean coast, there is rainfall all year round. The Pacific coast and lowlands see the driest weather during these months. The humidity can be a challenge in the height of the wet season, and some remoter stretches of road may become waterlogged. If the heat and humidity are uncomfortable, remember you are never far from a refreshing sea to bathe in, or you could plan to retreat to the highlands for some cooler days.
Interesting facts about Panama
Panama is a truly fascinating country. But did you know our favourite facts about it?
- Panama City is the only capital in the world with a rainforest within it city limits.
- You can swim in the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean on the same day, as they are only 80 kilometres apart at the narrowest point of the isthmus.
- The Panama Railroad is the most expensive rail network ever built, and you can still take the train from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
- Panama has more than 990 birds species, more than the USA and Canada put together.
- Panama hats, despite the name, are not made in Panama. They are hand woven in Ecuador and gained their name because they would have been shipped to Panama before being exported to other destinations; they are named after an intermediary port rather than their country of origin.
- This phrase has something special about it - ‘A man, a plan, a canal; Panama.’ It is a palindrome.
- A full third of the economy of Panama is generated by the Panama Canal.
What to read before you go to Panama
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Panama, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914' by David McCullough
The epic tale of the construction of the long awaited Canal - a shortcut that would shave weeks off shipping routes - was fraught with delay, drama, danger and disease. This factual account of one of the biggest engineering projects in history is impressive and thorough, and fills the reader with genuine wonder.
'The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas' by Paul Theroux
From Boston to Patagonia by train - a true adventure told by a brilliant writer who brings the contrasts of each stage of his journey to the foreground, deftly and expertly, and shows us the transformative power of travel.
'Come together, Fall apart' by Cristina Henriquez
A collection of short stories richly woven with striking characters, all set in Panama. From the city streets of the capital to the wild and beautiful beaches, the stories paint a vivid picture of Panama and its people.
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