Panama is a land of contrasts that never ceases to amaze visitors. From its bustling capital city to lush rainforests, volcanos and paradise islands, Panama offers an array of experiences… and relatively few tourists to take advantage of them.
Beyond the world-famous Panama Canal and the futuristic skyline of Panama City, there are Indigenous cultures, some of the best coffee in the world, and off-the-grid adventures. All are within relatively easy reach, thanks to small distances and good roads. Need we say more?
We’ve created this ultimate guide to Panama to share with you the most incredible destinations that this unique country has to offer. Decided that Panama is somewhere you HAVE to visit?
Check out our six in-depth guides to learn about the best things to do and see in Panama, and how to plan your trip.
Is Panama worth visiting?
Panama’s unique location means that one day you can be relaxing on a beach, the next exploring dense rainforests and the day after scaling a volcano.
That’s without even mentioning that Panama is where you’ll find one of the best capital cities in Latin America — Panama City. It’s a bustling cosmopolitan city that vibrates with activity, great food and history.
A lot of people fly into Panama City’s International Airport on a stopover to other destinations, without leaving the airport. Don’t make this mistake.
Step outside and explore Panama City. Whilst you’re at it, you should explore the entire country.
Is Panama safe?
Panama is considered to be one of the safest countries in Latin America. Economically and politically, it is a stable country that has been a tourist hotspot for a while.
How to stay safe in Panama
Like most places around the world, if you practise common sense and take certain precautions then you’ll never have a problem in Panama. The biggest issue that tourists face in Panama is petty theft.
To minimise the risk of getting pickpocketed or robbed, use these safety precautions:
- Don’t walk close to the road with your phone out. It’s not uncommon for motorbikes to come past and snatch your phone on the way.
- Don’t carry more cash than you need.
- Leaving your treasured valuables at home is the best way to keep them safe.
- Check with your accommodation if the area you’re staying in is safe to wander around after dark. When in doubt, don’t walk around late at night.
Best destinations in Panama
Top 3 places to visit in Panama
Panama is full of beautiful destinations and hidden spots that are yet to be discovered by tourists.
To help you start building your Panama itinerary, here are our 3 must-visit destinations:
Panama City — a vibrant contrast of the new and the old
Panama City is a cosmopolitan city that boasts a fascinating blend of history and the touches of the future. The contrast is starkly visible, with glitzy skyscrapers towering over colourful colonial neighbourhoods.
It’s also a key spot that connects the world. Whether it’s flying into Central America’s busiest airport or sailing through the revolutionary Panama Canal.
Panama City is one city in Central America that you need to visit!
Bocas del Toro — Caribbean islands perfect for surfing, relaxing and snorkelling
The Bocas del Toro archipelago consists of nine main islands in the Caribbean Sea.
Whenever you hear the word ‘Caribbean’, images of turquoise waters and idyllic beaches are likely to pop into your mind. That’s exactly what the Bocas del Toro islands are like. Throw in some surfing, snorkelling and hiking, then you’ve got a dream destination.
Their beauty isn’t their only attraction. Home to some of the area’s Indigenous cultures, like the Ngäbe and NasoTjerdi, the islands have many stories and traditions to share.
San Blas Islands — paradise on earth
The San Blas Islands are one of Panama’s main attractions. The thought of sailing around paradise islands and sipping fresh coconuts has people booking tickets to Panama without a second thought.
Made up of around 360 islands, of which 49 are inhabited, the San Blas Islands are home to the Guna people. They still control tourism on the islands, meaning that they directly benefit from most of the money spent there — a rare thing nowadays for Indigenous groups.
Can you think of anything better than spending a few nights on a tropical island far from civilisation?
If you’re travelling onwards to Colombia, you can actually take a sailboat from Panama to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands with island hopping included in the itinerary. Now that’s a bucket-list-worthy way to cross a border!
When is the best time to visit Panama?
Panama experiences two seasons — wet and dry. This is a similar case for most other Central American countries.
Whilst some months are better to visit than others, you can explore Panama all year round. You’ll just need to have a good raincoat in some of the months!
Dry season (December-April)
If you want the best weather conditions in Panama, you should visit between January and March. During these months, the glorious sun will be shining all day long and temperatures are ideal — they stay between 29-35°C in most areas.
December and April are also part of the dry season, but perfect weather isn’t guaranteed in these months. You can consider them to be the transition months in Panama.
If you’re not the biggest fan of constantly brushing shoulders with other tourists, then December and April could be better months for you. As you’re not right in the peak time, there are fewer people and prices are lower.
Wet season (May-November)
Just because May to November is the rainy season, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to rain 24 hours a day.
Panama’s rainfall tends to be concentrated to a few hours a day. This means that for the rest of the day, you should have good weather (albeit a bit cloudy) for exploring.
Also, expect to sweat a bit more as humidity can get pretty high during the wet season.
Wet season or whale season in Panama?
The months of July to September are ideal for whale watching! Head to Panama’s Pacific coast and hop on a boat to admire breaching humpback whales and dolphins leaping above the waves.
How to get around in Panama
Panama is a well-developed country that isn’t very big. Thankfully for us, it makes getting around nice and easy.
Here are some of the best ways to get around Panama:
The most popular way to get around Panama is by bus. The well-maintained roads and comfortable coach-style buses make for pleasant journeys throughout Panama — surprising, right?
For longer journeys, there are air-conditioned buses with reclining seats. Whilst for shorter journeys you may opt to hop in a colourful and chaotic chicken bus.
Renting a car can be a great way to ensure ultimate freedom and flexibility in Panama. Plus, you can also take part in a bit of carpool karaoke!
The roads in Panama are in fairly good condition. A 4×4 isn’t necessary unless you’re travelling in more rural areas during the rainy season.
If you do want to rent a car, we’d recommend doing it in Panama City as this is where prices are usually the lowest. Car rental is also surprisingly cheap in Panama, with prices starting from $10/day.
Entry requirements and visa for Panama
Luckily, a large proportion of the world can enter Panama visa-free for 90 days.
These countries include the US, UK, countries within the EU and Canada, to name a few. You can check whether you need a visa here.
Your passport needs to be valid for at least 3 months after your entry to Panama. There also needs to be one blank page in your passport.
Proof of exit
Panama is pretty hot on making sure you have proof of exit. This can be in the form of a plane, bus or boat ticket.
If you’re not sure what date you’ll be leaving Panama, there are two ways around the proof of exit problem:
Buy a cheap ticket out of the country. For example this $25 ticket from Bocas del Toro in Panama to Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica.
If you’re not sure when you want to leave Panama, you can ‘rent’ a plane ticket for $12. Best Onward Travel book a real plane ticket for you that is valid for 48 hours. It’s 100% legal and safe.
Must-try food in Panama
Food in Panama is quite similar to that found in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. Fun fact: they all used to be one country called Gran Colombia.
However, they’re not exactly the same. Immigration to Panama has added some twists and surprises to the cuisine. Traditional Panamanian cuisine has touches of African, Spanish and Native American influences.
Here are some dishes and drinks that you can’t leave Panama without trying:
- Sancocho de gallina Panameño — is Panama’s national dish, so it would be rude not to try it. It’s a very tasty chicken soup that normally contains potatoes, yuca, plantain, onions, corn and some flavourful herbs.
- Ron Ponche — is best described as Panama’s version of eggnog. It’s a very popular cocktail in Panama made of rum mixed with egg yolk, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg and evaporated milk. It might not be the best for a heavy night out, but it’s the perfect sipping drink.
- Carimañolas — are ideal if you’ve drunk too many Ron Ponche the night before. These stuffed yuca fritters or cakes are commonly eaten by Panamanians for breakfast or lunch. They’re fried on the outside and soft on the inside. Usually containing ingredients such as cheese, chicken or other types of meat.
Essential travel tips for Panama
Here are some of our best tips to make your trip to Panama that bit easier:
Paying with Balboa in Panama
The official currency in Panama is the Balboa. The US dollar is also a legal tender, which is the currency used by most tourists.
The Balboa is pegged to the US dollar, so 1 Balboa is equivalent to $1.
Like most countries in Central America, it’s good to always have cash on you as not all establishments take card.
ATMs, known in Panama as ‘cajeros’ are all over the country. Sadly, there are no free ATMs and they will charge foreign cards around $5 each time you want to withdraw cash.
Buying a sim card in Panama
Panama has three main mobile providers — Movil, Claro and Tigo. All of them offer pretty similar coverage and internet packages. Our go-to in Central America is Claro.
You’ll need to make sure that your phone is ‘unlocked’ which means that you can put any sim card in your phone, rather than being locked to a specific provider.
Panama’s language cheat sheet
The language spoken in Panama is Spanish.
It’s always good to know a few essential words before travelling to a place, so here are a few to get you started:
- Hello – Hola
- Thank you – Gracias
- Please – Por favor
- Sorry – Lo siento
- Beer – Cerveza
The perfect packing list for Panama
Your packing list for Panama is going to depend on what month you’re visiting. It goes without saying, if you’re visiting during the rainy season, bring a raincoat!
During the dry season, cool and light clothing is essential as the sun should be shining all day. Don’t forget your sun cream too!
There are plenty of hiking and adventure opportunities throughout Panama. We’d recommend bringing hiking shoes and some warm clothes as it can get cold at altitude.
Want to go hiking in Panama? Read about the top 11 things to do in Anton Valley for scenic hike ideas and tips on how to plan them.
Aside from the essential travel gear, here are some things that have become permanent fixtures on our packing list:
- Reusable water bottle — they’re better for the environment and keep your water cold. The tap water in Panama is drinkable in most places. (We’d double check with your accommodation beforehand, though). You can save money by filling up your refillable water bottle straight from the tap.
- A portable charger — it’s likely that there will be a time when your phone’s battery is on red, and it’s probably going to be when you need it most. A portable charger saves you from these situations.
- An adaptor — Panama uses the same plugs as the US (A&B), which is different from European plugs.
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Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.