Less than a week in Panama?

My sister’s visiting Panama for 6 nights, and looking for some advice she asked me.  I wrote her an email, then realized it was possibly rather useful to other people planning a short trip to Panama, so here it is….

As requested some travel suggestions for Panama:

Take into account that Panama City itself is rather boring. There’s little to see other than the Panama canal and a brief wander around the old town.

My suggestions, in order of how great they are:

1. Go to the San Blas Islands. These are a beautiful collection of Caribbean islands that are totally undeveloped and owned (it’s a semi-autonomous region) by the Kuna indigenous Indians – it’s a really fascinating visit. Beautiful islands mixed with a unique indigenous culture – really amazing stuff. It’s one of my top 5 destinations in Latin America (and I have travelled a bit). You’ll need to fly there (short flights from the domestic airport, early morning departures from Panama City, flights return to Panama city in the late afternoon). It’s worth a stay of between 2 or 3 (or 4?) nights. It’ll be simple to organize a package for you – it won’t be cheap, but it won’t be expensive either, and I’ll eat my coconut hat if you don’t subsequently think it was a good plan!

2. If you decide you don’t want option 1, the next best option is focus on Coiba Island. You’d have to travel by bus to Santa Catalina on the Pacific coast (I’d guess this would take 6-8 hours, but check a guidebook or Google Books search for a guidebook). Santa Catalina is like a semi hippyish surfing mecca – beaches are decent but nothing special. From there you can take a boat trip to visit Coiba Island. I’d rank Coiba Island as in my top 3 places to visit in Latin America. Beautiful beaches and islands, a fascinating old prison colony to visit, and when we went snorkelling it was so gob smackingly full of everything imaginable that snorkelling ever since has been a huge disappointment.

3. Pick up a hire car and go exploring the Azuero peninsula. This is a really cool way to see some of the real Panama at your own pace. All the roads are good and pleasant to drive, and drivers in Panama are not the maniacs you find elsewhere in Latin America – it’s almost like driving around the USA…..this is great fun….it’s a peaceful and scenic road trip…..

4. Bus it (or take a flight) to Bocas del Toro (it’s a fair distance from Panama City by bus) and chill on the beaches and meet lots of other travellers and locals and go on boat tours and wish you’d predicted the real estate boom that already started etc.

Bocas del Toro - Panama
Bocas del Toro photo

5. Head to the Darien National Park for a taste of some seriously hardcore jungle.

I’ve done all of these except number 5. The tourist attractions close to Panama City are a big disappointment in my opinion – you have to travel a fair distance away from the capital to get to the highlights. Panama ranks as one of my favourite destinations in Latin America (along with Colombia and Argentina). It’s actually a very civilised and safe country to visit, and travelling around was very easy in my opinion (I’ve been twice – once to Bocas del Toro and San Blas – we flew to both destinations, and once we got the hire car and went up the Pacific Coast, Azuero Peninsula and then to Santa Catalina/ Isla Coiba – bloody brilliant).

One Response to “Less than a week in Panama?”

  1. I’m not sure Panama City is as boring as all that. Not sure what you mean by the “old town,” but both the Casco Viejo and Panamá Viejo are worth seeing. Indeed, you should try to stay in the Casco Viejo if at possible. More generally, I found the city rather fascinating, in its strange combination of Havana and Hong Kong, a colonial and neo-colonial entrepôt for something like 500 years.

    I’d also take the train to Colón. No, don’t linger in Colón (though it’s worth seeing, if only briefly from a taxi), but go on to Fort San Lorenzo (to the West) and then Portobelo (to the East). Portobelo is particularly charming. I suspect Nombre de Dios is worth a trip, too, while you’re at it, but I didn’t have the time.

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