Panama, best known for linking Central and South America via the Panama Canal, has so much more to offer. While its northern neighbors attracts the mainstream tourist, Panama should not be left off your radar. With direct flights from many US Cities (including New Orleans), Panama can be a simple 4-hour flight away. Below I have listed some regions of interest and accommodation options for everyone.
PANAMA CITY OPTIONS:
Casco Viejo Area – This is the old city area. Characterized by beautiful Spanish style architecture, cobblestone walkways, and unique dining options, like rooftop bars. This area is great for couples, but trickier for families needing connecting options. Stay at Hotel Central or American Trade Hotel.
Financial District Area – Centered in the hustle of the Panama, the Financial District has one clear option for accommodations, The Bristol.
First time visitors typically pair Panama City with coastal areas like Playa Bonita or Playa Blanca (my personal suggestion).
PLAYA BLANCA – Buenaventura
Alternative Options for the more adventurous:
Red Frog Villas at Del Toro – Reachable by a short domestic flight and 15-minute boat transfer. Perfect for couples and families as there is a wide variety of accommodations and activities; snorkel, kayak, boogie board, SUP, bicycle, nature hike, various catamaran tours, chocolate tour, zip line, fish, etc.
Isla Palenque – The newest and most lux option for couples and families, requires a short domestic flight and 15-minute boat transfer. This is a great historic and option, best paired with a two night stay in the city. Activities include; snorkel, paddle board, kayak, boogie board, hike, local culture classes (cooking, etc).
El Otro Lado – Located within the National Park, this “non-beach” option offers great variety of things to do; mangrove tours, fishing, historical walks, art workshops, and more. A really unique destination which aims to maintain the cultural authenticity of the area.
Touring and Sites to See
City and Canal tours: Visit Panama La Vieja situated just northeast of downtown Panama City. You will visit Casco Antiguo, past monuments such as the Plaza Bolivar, the San Francisco of Assisi Church, the Bolivar Palace, the National Theater and “Las Bovedas Promenade”, which has one of the most spectacular views of Panama City. The tour also includes a visit to the Miraflores Locks at the Panama Canal to see the daily operations of the waterway. You will also have a chance to visit the “Causeway”, a group of three islands linked to the mainland by the breakwaters of the Panama Canal.
Old Cities Casco & Panama Viejo: Walk through the Old Town where you can observe the various architectural styles that demonstrates the rich cultural heritage of the area. The main styles are Spanish, because Panama was a Spanish colony; French, since French and Italians who made the first attempted to construct the caal lived in the area.
Panama Canal Partial Transit: You will enter the canal at the north end of Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River flows into the canal. The Gaillard Cut is one of the main points of interest for visitors, because it was carved through the Continental Divide and this section of the Canal is full of history and geological interest. You will see the new Centennial Bridge which crosses over the Canal. Next, we will enter Pedro Miguel Locks, which is one of the two sets of locks on the Pacific side. You will then enter Miraflores Lake, a small artificial body of fresh water.
Rainforest Day Trip: Experience the magic of the virgin Gamboa rainforest, ascending some 280 feet from the shadowy forest floor through the dense undergrowth and up to the sun-drenched canopy with its thousand shades of green that are only interrupted by the vibrant colors of flowering trees. Colorful birds and butterflies are abundant here, and you might also encounter sloth or a white-faced capuchin monkeys and hear the howler monkeys’ cries in the distance. Then take a boat tour through the Panama Canal into secret waterways to find hidden islands that are the monkeys’ favorites. Capuchin and howler monkeys can be seen jumping on the trees above. Occasionally, they become curious of the visitors and venture down to take a closer look. The Monkey Island adventure tour begins on the edge of Gamboa, crossing the Chagres River, up to the Gatun Lake in the Panama Canal, one of the biggest artificial lakes of the world with an area of 425 square kilometers.
Embera Culture: Drive along the canal and Soberania National park. Arrive at the shores of Lake Alajuela where the Emberá will meet you with their handmade dugout canoe. You will pass through virgin rain forest and see many birds, such as herons, egrets, osprey, possibly toucans and wild parrots, as well as turtles, maybe a caiman and if you are lucky a sloth, otter or monkeys from the boat. If the water level is high enough you can stop at a local waterfall for a quick dip on the way to the village. Upon arrival in the village you will be greeted with a traditional greeting of music and seated in a typical community hut you will be treated to a fascinating presentation by the Emberá about their history, culture and how they live. After the presentation you will be served a delicious lunch of fresh fish, fried plantains and local fruit. After lunch, you will have the option to take a hike with one of the village elders to learn about their medicinal plants. Then you will be given free time in the village to look at or purchase any of their exquisite hand woven baskets, plates or masks made from palm leaf fibers or Cocobolo wood (rosewood) or Tagua nut carvings, get a cultural temporary tattoo, swim in the river, play with the Emberá children, interact with the villagers or take pictures. Your day tour will end with a display of shamanic and celebration music and dancing by the villagers.
Valle de Anton & Canopy: Drive through rural villages and rolling green hills, to the west of Panama City you can find the picturesque town of El Valle, nestled in the crater of a giant extinct volcano. During the tour, participants will have the opportunity to visit the Botanical Garden El Nispero, El Macho waterfall as well as the hot spring. After that we will have lunch in the town and afterwards the participants will have the chance to shop at the local handicraft market.
MORE: Experience fishing, white water rafting, kayaking, bird watching, foodie tour in Casco Viejo
Other historical tours: Portobelo, Agua Clara Visitor Center, San Lorenzo, and Miraflores.
Disclaimer before someone gets upset: Don’t really forget Costa Rica or Belize! They are amazing options that I personally love to the core. This article is meant to reach travelers looking for direct flight options or something new.