Country Guide » Things To Do
Panama City has a bit of everything: historical sites, modern malls and restaurants, activities galore, parks, rainforest, casinos, golf and more. To truly learn about Panama and appreciate the development and historical backing of the nation, be sure to visit the four recommended locations below when visiting Panama City.
The Panama Canal: With more than 35 vessels passing through daily- soon to increase to 50- this man-made monumental water stairway showcases an engineering marvel popular on every bucket-list. The Miraflores Visitor´s Center has four exhibition halls and 20-minute film that are definitely worth the time. Three observation decks and restaurant with panoramic view give you the opportunity to witness the huge ships pass right in front of you: wave to the crew members and the cruise ship goers. The construction for the Panama Canal Expansion, expected completion in April 2015, is visible beyond the two canal lanes from the terraces. Cross the Canal by boat or train, or watch the inspiring Ocean-to-Ocean regatta, in which 100+ Indian-carved dugout canoes cross the Canal in an annual competition.
Panama Viejo: The first city and capital of Panama founded in 1519, Panama Viejo became a crucial point in the gold trade and was eventually attacked and destroyed by pirates in 1671. Wander the cathedral ruins that stand juxtaposed the modern roadway, and witness one of the ongoing archeological digs. Pass by at nighttime to see the ruins transform for engagement photos, weddings, private parties and events.
Casco Viejo: A UNESCO protected World Heritage Site since 2003, this historic district of Panama was settled in 1671 after the destruction of Panama Viejo. The fusion of Spanish colonial architecture with Antillean, French and art deco styles reflect the diversity of today´s society. An interesting combination of boutique hotels side by side with antique churches and buildings undergoing renovation, one can spend hours- daytime- wandering the old quarter. Many artistic festivals are held here, and Casco Viejo is seeing the rise of some of the classiest bars and restaurants in the city.
Amador Causeway: Four small islands off the mainland in Panama City´s bay- Naos Island, Culebra Island, Perico and Flamenco- are connected by roads made from rocks excavated from the Panama Canal´s original construction, known as the ¨Causeway¨ in both English and Spanish. A one-lane road runs along the causeway to each island, with a jog/bike bath with palm trees and benches to one side. Once part of the Panama Canal Zone, since the return of the Causeway to Panama the islands have undergone a considerable development of restaurants, shops, bars and marinas, and is now a popular hangout spot anytime of day or night. Watch ships enter the Canal´s entrance/exit under the Bridge of the Americas and take photos of Panama City´s ever-changing skyline. Frank Ghery´s BioMuseo, situated at the Canal´s entrance, is set to open in 2013.
Rainforest: Leave the high rises of Panama City to the unique belt of tropical rainforest promoted through several national parks, all within Panama City. Parque Soberania, Parque Chagres and Parque Metropolitano allow for hiking, bird watching, fishing and even cave exploration. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute organizes day visits to nearby Barro Colorado Island, Culebra, Bocas del Toro and Galeta, and also holds seminars, conferences, media releases, and book launches available to the public.
El Interior: the heart of Panamanian tradition
Towns and communities in the interior region of Panama, referred to as ¨El interior,¨ are known as the essence and heart of Panamanian tradition and folklore. The slower-paced lifestyles, welcoming and hospital natives, and beautiful artisan work of these coastal and nestled villages are a reflection of European, African and indigenous fusions, deep Spanish ancestry mixed with native Panamanian. El interior is considered to be the cradle of much of Panama´s traditional music, dance and festivities, including Carnavales. Provinces Herrera, Los Santos and Veraguas all form part of Panama´s El interior. Below find some of the most commonly visited regions and communities:
- Chiriquí: Meet a someone from Chiriqui and they will be proud to tell you they are from this province. With beaches, islands, mountains and the resident Barú Volcano, the landscape is diverse and traditions like bullfighting and roadeos hold a stronghold among its people.
- Las Tablas: With celebrations of the pollera, Panama´s national dress, music, food, dance and Spanish architecture, Las Tablas is definitely worth a trip for an exploration of Panama´s rich cultural traditions. The surrounding beaches and nearby towns reflect a refreshingly laid-back way of life.
- Pedasí: Farming, fishing and traditional furniture making are local trades that have formed a basis for many activities for tourists and European-designed homes integrated into the seaside landscape. Much of the plains still houses cattle, which occasionally can be found roaming on the road and bring visitors back to a more natural state. Beaches El Arenal, El Toro, La Garita, Los Destiladeros and Venao, Islas Cañas and Iguana Iguana Island and nearby Cerro Hoya National Park all form part of the beauty of the Azuero Peninsula.
Islands, Coast & Beaches
With 1,550 miles (2,490 km) of coastline, over 1000 islands off the Pacific Coast, an island for every day of the year in the Caribbean paradise of Kuna Yala (Gunayala), and another 250+ islands, cays and islets in Bocas del Toro, Panama´s options for water and sand are endless. Beach aficionados will enjoy many of the destinations popular below, and the marine reserves of many of these locations feature wildlife of extraordinary beauty: miles of coral reef, humpback whales, sea turtles, dolphins, starfish, lobsters and more.
- Isla Taboga: 12 miles (20 km) past the Canal´s entrance and a $14 round-trip boat ride from Panama City, this island is abundant in flowers, hiking trails and beaches. Plentiful in restaurants, the island is ready for a day-trip or a weekend getaway, with a variety of lodging options. The second oldest church in the hemisphere, St. Peter´s Church, is located here.
- Santa Catalina: Favored by scuba divers and surfers, this beach has clear water and soft waves, as well as a large marine reserve. Santa Catalina beach is a gateway to the Coiba Islands and Cébaco: many inter-island tours are offered for a quick and exciting trip from the beach.
- Bocas del Toro: With a large number of marine activities by day, music and entertainment by night, Bocas is one of the most popular destinations in Panama. Colón Island, the capital of the Bocas province, is the fourth largest island in the country, and has some of the best waves and beaches that surfers from all over tend to favorite.
- Isla Coiba: Between scuba diving, snorkeling, whale watching, sport fishing, deep-sea fishing and the largest coral reef of Central America, the 39 islands and immense wildlife of this great marine park are truly magnificent.
- Azuero Coast: The long sand beaches and preferred surfing spots of the Azuero Peninsula offer something for everyone. The waves of Cambutal and Venado (Venao) are enjoyed by surfers from around the world, and Islas Cañas and Iguana are protected wildlife refuges, with thousands of sea turtles arriving to the shores of Isla Cañas between September-October to lay their eggs. The East Coast of the Azuero Peninsula has great stretches of sand and quiet, friendly communities, perfect for leisurely walks.
- Arco Seco: Beginning an hour outside of Panama City, these beaches and coastal towns and resorts are visited by Panama City dwellers, with some making it a second home, and tourists year-round. The ideal conditions of this strip, low humidity and rainfall, have prompted the name for this set of beaches: el Arco Seco, literally ¨Dry Arch.¨ Punta Chame, Coronado, Santa Clara, Farallón and Playa Blanca are among the many beaches enjoyed for their sunshine.
- Caribbean Coast of Colón: A coast once favored for invasion by pirates, the colonial forts, cannons, walls, sunken ships and treasures both above and below the water, fused with a rich Afro-Antillean island culture, make Portobelo and nearby island Isla Grande a historic venture.
- Pearl Islands: These 200+ largely uninhabited islands and cays in the Gulf of Panama were given their name to the quantity of pearls extracted from its blue waters during the Spanish Inquisition, and most recently was the set of the CBS TV series Survivor.
- Kuna Yala: A 365 island archipelago and home to the Kuna Yala, the indigenous people of Panama, this popular surfing, diving and sailing location is ideal with blue waters and pure white sand. Formerly known as the San Blas Islands, this archipelago is today referred to as the Kuna Yala (Guna Yala) for its inhabitants, who supplement and preserve the area as the official governing authorities.
- Gulf of Chiriquí: A wildlife refuge and haven for scuba diving and snorkeling, this National Marine Park´s two dozen islands are ready for ecotourists. The green iguanas, howler monkeys, leatherback and hawksbill turtles, and tiger-herons are all part of the diverse marine wildlife that call these islands their home.
- Darién: This largely unexplored Eastern part of the country is a wild land of virgin tropical forests and great rivers, as well as home to the Embera, Wounaan and Kuna Indians. Swordfish and marlin fishing, part of Panama´s world-class sport fishing, is enjoyed by many adventurous fisherman who travel these waters.
Mountains, Hills & Valleys
Go from seaside to mountainside in less than an hour, as Panama´s central spine is made up of a mountain ranges running nearly the entire length of the country, with both Atlantic and Pacific facing slopes. The Cordillera Central range (Tabasará Mountains) lies in the West and Cordillera de San Blas in the East, divided by the lower land near the central of the country home to the Panama Canal. These beautiful mountain landscapes and refreshingly cooler temperatures balance the tropical communities and numerous beaches and are well protected through many of the country´s national parks.
- El Valle de Antón: This inhabited volcanic valley is the home to many expats and weekenders, in addition to its locals, just outside of Panama City. The local artisan market in the center of town, thermal pools and clay mud baths make it a preferred natural resort-like destination. On the 1.5 hour ride West from Panama City to El Valle also lie several towns nestled in the hill, including Campana and Chicá, that provide bird enthusiasts and nature-lovers the opportunity to enjoy the sight and sounds of their surroundings.
- Volcán Barú: The resident towns of Boquete and Volcán, popular among expat retirees and tourist visits from Panamanians and foreigners alike, enjoy refreshingly cooler temperatures and produce 80% of the Republic´s garden vegetables. The family-owned coffee plantations in the region are also popular for visiting, as well as enjoying a cup-of-joe as most locally-grown as you can get. The surrounding towns provide access to the Volcano´s National Park, an unique opportunity to see both oceans from the top, evidence of the last volcanic eruption and the elusive quetzal bird, among other wildlife.
- Veraguas: Spanish colonizers sought relief from the warm temperatures in the coastal areas of the Veraguas province by taking to the mountains within the same region. The towns of Santa Fe, San Francisco feature pristine forests and cool air, making it popular for birding and hiking. Veraguas is also home to several national parks, allowing for further exploration.
Embark on the unique opportunity to visit an indigenous community within Panama and/or to learn about the distinction between these large amerindian groups.
- Kuna Yala (Gunayala): The governing authorities of the same-named Caribbean archipelago, the Guna live on 49 of the 365 islands, as well as in Panama City, Colón, and other small cities and towns. The Guna´s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, including their coconut, fish and handcraft sales, and they wholeheartedly welcome tourists to share in their, food, music and dance while in their natural habitat, breathtaking islands.
- Emberá and Wounaan: Two tribes native to the Darien jungle, the Emberá can also be visited in Chagres National Park (close to Panama City) with a guide to discuss with village elders about their lives, culture, natural remedies, lifestyle and crafts. The Emberá and Wounaan women are famous for basket weaving, producing one-of-a-kind pieces reflecting personal experiences with artistic vision. The Wounaans also have settlements close to the Chagres River.
- Ngäbe and Bugle: The Ngäbe and Bugle, also called Ngäbe-Bugle, live in the Chiriqí, Bocas del Toro and Veraguas provinces, preferring mountain climates. These large family clans represent the majority of the workforce of prosperous farms in the Western province of Chiriqui, and are not typically for visit within their communities.
- Bri-Bri and Naso: Primarily natives to Costa Rica, the 11,500 Bri-Bri live in Northern Panama along with the Naso. The 3,500 Naso work and live alongside La Amistad National Park, primarily as subsistence farmers. They live in remote communities, isolated from most of the general population, conserving their beliefs and way of life.