Gateway from Central to South America, Panama sits on a narrow isthmus sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It is one of few places to sense harmony between scientific progress and wildlife. Here the huge metropolis of Panama City merges seamlessly into verdant tropical forests. With an unfussy, laid back vibe and some truly wonderful spots to visit; including a handful of trendy surf resorts, sleepy mountain enclaves, paradise-esque archipelagos and dramatic diving spots, Panama seems to delight both tourists and backpackers. From my time spent exploring this extraordinary country, here is my choice for the 15 most beautiful places to visit in Panama…
San Blas islands
The pretty islands of the San Blas archipelago stretch along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the San Blas Bay to the Colombian border. Since the dawn of time, the islands have been inhabited by the Kuna Indians. To protect the tribe, 378 San Blas islands (only 49 of which are inhabited) have been separated into an autonomous region with minimal intervention by the national government. The Indians support their own economic system, language, and cherish ancient customs. Visiting San Blas islands, you will travel 20 centuries back into the past to discover traditional Indian crafts, hear captivating legends, and familiarize yourself with Indian music and dances. The economy of the islands is based on coconut cultivation and tourism. The most fascinating islands are Achutupu, Kagantupu, and Coco Blanco.
The monumental canal is one of the modern world wonders. The Panama Canal is 82 kilometres that connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. More than 12,000 ocean-bound vessels pass through its lock system annually. The Canal’s thread stretches across a series of ancient lakes and marshes, and its banks are adorned with a wide strip of virgin forests. The best place to observe ships is located in the north-east of Panama City, near the walls of the enormous seven hundred-ton sluice gate Miraflores. It lends a beautiful view of the Canal’s southern mouth. Make sure to visit Pedro Miguel Lock gateway, which is the highest point of the canal, and Gaillard Cut (Culebra Cut), the deepest and most challenging to build part of the waterway.
The Azuero peninsula is buzzworthy for its beaches and is easily one of the most beautiful places to explore in Panama. The most famous of them is Playa Venao located 35 km from the town of Pedasi. This tropical paradise is perfect for recreational vacation and wave conquering. The sea in this spot creates steady waves up to three meters high with “barrel” and “tube” silhouettes. Water sports enthusiasts from all over the world rush to Playa Venao to hone and show off their surfing skills. Diving aficionados highly appreciate the beach, too. The shore is dotted with diving schools where one can rent gears and take a few lessons from experienced instructors. If you are not a big fan of outdoor activities, you may simply sunbathe on the beach, swim in the warm sea, have a snack at one of the beach restaurants or try a signature cocktail at an open-air bar.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a chain of islands lying in the mouth of the Chiriqui lagoon in the northeast of the country. The archipelago consists of 9 relatively large islands, 52 small islands, and more than 200 islets and is a backpacking and tourist beauty spot. Boasting green palm forests, a vast coastline of white sand, and crystal clear water, Bocas del Toro is one of the most famous tourist areas in Panama. There, pristine landscapes intersperse with modern resorts. Fans of scuba diving and sea fishing flock to the islands all year round to see some of the best coral reefs on the planet much loved for unique underwater gardens. The reefs are home for stingrays, lobsters, crabs, and countless tropical fish species.
The attractive area of Casco Viejo sits to the east of the country’s capital Panama City. This is the very first settlement built by Europeans on the Pacific coast. It was founded in 1519 and soon it became one of the most important trading centres on the continent. The transit route from Peru to the Old World, carrying the gold and silver of the Incas, ran through the town. The pirate raid led by Henry Morgan almost razed Panama Viejo in 1671, leaving behind the countless ruins. However, some of the buildings survived until this day, namely, the square tower of the Cathedral de Panama Viejo, ruins of Santo Domingo and San Francisco convents, the well-preserved La Merced church and San José temple, the King’s Bridge, as well as remnants of the walls that served as protection against pirates. At the end of the past century, the old quarters of Panama Viejo were recognized as the UNESCO World Heritage.
El Valle de Antón
El Valle de Anton is a town and eponymous nature reserve settled in the crater of a long-extinct volcano that rises up to 600 m above sea level. Its diameter reaches almost 5 km. The reserve is valued for the unique wet mountain forest ecosystem. The jungle is carved by a set of tourist routes leading from one attraction to another. The spellbinding waterfalls Chorro de Las Mozas and Chorro El Macho are the highlights of El Valle de Anton. The surrounding forests are steeped in orchids and the national flower of Panama Flor del Espiritu Santo (The flower of the Holy Spirit). The ample foliage conceals Rana Dorada, a rare frog with an amusing appearance. Thanks to the volcanic origin, this place has preserved some traces of geothermal activity, in particular, hot thermal springs and pools of healing mud featuring an amazing mineral composition.
The Pearl islands lie 40 miles southeast of Panama City in the waters of the Gulf of Panama. Comprised of 97 islands, the archipelago became known to Europeans in 1513 when an Indian chief revealed a secret of the mysterious islands adorned with pearls. Since then, pearl mining has become the main trade on the islands (the famous 31-carat Peregrine Pearl was found here). During the Second World War, Isla del Rey, Contador, San José, and Viveros islands accommodated military bases to guard the entrance to the Panama Canal. Soon, the archipelago became one of the favourite holiday destinations for the great and the good (former US President Jimmy Carter, Spanish prime minister Adolfo Suarez Gonzalez, and the Shah of Iran stayed here). In total, the Pearl islands house 83 excellent beaches, numerous lovely hotels and guest houses, as well as one of the most attractive spots for snorkelling.
Gulf of Chiriquí
Founded in 1994, the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park is located on the Pacific coast of Panama in the bay of the same name. The park is spread across 25 volcanic islands covered with pristine tropical forest. The tranquil waters around the islands are regarded as the best place for diving. They accommodate the second largest coral reef in the eastern part of the Pacific. Divers can come into contact with reef inhabitants such as whales, reef sharks, manta rays, dolphins, etc. The jagged volcanic peaks rising 30-60 meters above sea level are replete with various species, while the coastal areas allow spotting relict forms of flora and fauna. For instance, the sea turtle can be observed nesting on the local beaches.
Soberania National Park
Located 40 km north of Panama City, the Soberania National Park boasts extensive swaths of tropical forest. It is one of the best birdwatching spots in the world inhabited by about a thousand feathered species. Soberania Park is the only place to observe Crested Eagle and the Sunbittern. To make birdwatching more convenient, the park retooled the former five-floor high radar tower. From its observation deck, you can see rare birds in their natural environment. Dense rainforests with diverse nature are ideal for hiking. The highlight of the park is striking thickets of cotton trees towering 60 meters up to the sky. Some of the routes have comfortable campgrounds to pitch up in.
A small town Boquete is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Panama it’s also very pretty. Nestled in the valley of the Caldera River, it is surrounded by mountains on three sides, which largely determine its landscape. In the west, Boquete borders on the Baru volcano; from the north, the town is confined by the Talamanca mountain range; the eastern outskirt of the town merges with the Jaramillo Mountains. Boquete is a starting point of a fascinating 7-hour journey to the Baru volcano, which is the highest summit of the country. At its top, you will be amazed by the magnificent view of two oceans, the Pacific and Atlantic. Besides this, the town shows off cosy parks, coffee plantations, and an abandoned palace. Accompanied by a guide, you can explore the jungles teeming with exotic birds including Quetzal, the sacred Indian bird with bright plumage and a very long tail. While hiking in the jungles, you can check out waterfalls and a mountain canyon with a pure water pool.
Santa Catalina is one of the best surfing spots in Panama. This small village is located in the Veraguas province on the coast of the Gulf of Chiriquí. Santa Catalina’s beaches, Playa Santa Catalina and Playa Estero, are known for mighty waves up to 10 meters high. The ebb and flow fluctuate within 8 meters, thus, creating strong tides. The beaches are smeared with black volcanic sand and offer a stunning view of the sun setting behind the horizon. You might want to explore other beaches of the bay just outside Santa Catalina. The walk will take approximately 2.5-3.5 hours. For an incredible sailing experience or a trip on the high seas, you can rent a small boat or a yacht.
20 kilometres away from Panama City you will find the charming historic Taboga Island. Four centuries ago, it was a site for the first deepwater port in the region. Frequent pirate raids forced the locals to build a system of defensive structures on the nearby island El Morro. They had served for three hundred years and in the XIX century, used as the headquarters of the Pacific Steam Company. The pirates’ defences have preserved to this day. Besides them, Isla Taboga is famous for its beaches, observation platform near the walls of the old American military bunker, the oldest in Latin America church of the XVI-XVII centuries, an array of tropical rainforests, a variety of hibiscus and bougainvillaea gardens, and one of the largest colonies of brown pelicans.
Pedasi is a small fishing town famous for year-round comfortable weather, residential colonial-style buildings, and many beaches in its vicinity. The main natural highlight of Pedasi is Isla Iguana. This nature reserve occupies 52 hectares and is surrounded by coral reefs. More than 62 species of birds found their home here, many of which, such as Lesser Frigatebird, are under state protection. It is also a habitat for reptiles including black iguana who gave the name to the Island. Tropical fish, moray eels, and turtles live in the waters, while humpback whales shortly stay here during the migration seasons. The local waters are bristling with various fish including ten species of tuna.
Isla Grande, Province of Colón
Isla Grande, the largest island of the country, is located 15 km from the historical town Portobelo. The coast of the island houses magnificent beaches with white sand and turquoise water. If you decide to soak up the sun, the beaches have everything you need: sunbeds, umbrellas, coastal bars with a variety of exotic drinks, as well as cosy restaurants to get acquainted with traditional Panamanian cuisine. Active recreation buffs will find a lot of appealing activities, too. The waters of Isla Grande are dripping with coral reefs that create an ideal backdrop for diving, snorkelling and surfing. If you want to learn more about the traditions and customs of Panama, be sure to visit one of the local resorts with an authentic Caribbean vibe. If you have a couple of spare hours, don’t hesitate to drop by Portobello and enjoy its medieval charm.
The capital of Panama is a modern thriving city stretched 10 km along the Pacific coast from the ruins of Panama Viejo in the east to the coast of the Panama Canal in the west. The highlight of Panama City is vibrant contrasts, a fusion of ancient history and contemporary architecture of the XXI century. Its business centre is dotted with formidable skyscrapers, just like in the United Arab Emirates. Lively modern areas side by side with quiet streets imbued with history. Panama City’s most picturesque historic district is the old town San Felipe. This area impresses with ancient architecture and miraculously preserved traditions. You ought to explore the square, museums, churches, the ruins of the monastery, and if you need to recharge your batteries, stop off at one of its cosmopolitan restaurants.