For travelers who have a hard time deciding between lazy days at the beach and exploring the urban life in a tropical capital city, Panama has the best of both worlds.
Although Panama isn't more than 120 miles long, don’t be fooled by the small size -- the country packs in enough cultural and historical events, as well as opportunities for outdoor activities, to keep you busy throughout the duration of your whole tour.
The capital, Panama City, has a multicultural, cosmopolitan vibe and is the home of the first, recently opened, subway network in Central America. You can experience all of its layers on a city tour with a local guide that will take you beyond the highlights, or find a tour that includes the best of human culture and Mother Nature.
Culture & History Tours
When it comes to local landmarks, the man-made Panama Canal is probably one of the first that comes to mind. However, there's more to Panama than this engineering feat.
Must-see attractions include Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Panama Viejo, and Frank Gehry’s Biomuseo. Explorers of the offbeat will enjoy visiting the archeological site of Sitio Barriles and admiring the ceramic creations of local artisans in La Arena. Tours focused on Panamanian culture and history won't miss these sites.
For tour-goers who love festivals, every year, Carnaval delights locals and visitors with a four-day-long event of street parades, fireworks, the coronation of two “queens,” and a healthy, water-throwing competition between high street and low street of Panama City.
Top outdoor activities in Panama include relaxing at soft-sand beaches, exploring tropical forests, and the occasional scuba diving. Panama suits all kinds of outdoorsy travelers, even those who prefer very low-impact adventures in nature.
While resort-filled Bocas del Toro island is too crowded for that sense of relaxation, it’s still possible to find quieter, less explored natural areas like Comarca de Guna Yala in the San Blas archipelago and Las Lajas beach. Tours dedicated to exploring Panama's nature will know the best spots.
The most authentic way to experience local cuisine in Panama is by feasting on the freshest seafood in the many small, locally-owned restaurants you can find in Panama City. The typical recipes reflect the mix of cultural influences in the country and its Afro-Caribbean, Latin American, and European heritage.
Staple dishes are often served with coconut rice, fruits, a local root vegetable called yucca, corn, or plantains (a high-starch low-sugar member of the banana family). Iconic establishments include the 1875-founded Café Coca Cola, the oldest café in Panama City. Microbrewery La Rana Dorada is also a must-visit for a drink or a craft beer tasting. If you're a true foodie, pick a tour that allows you to sample the best of Panama's culinary genius.
Best Time to Visit Panama
Panama is a tropical country with a dry season (December to April) and a rainy season (the rest of the year) that is more dominant on the Caribbean coast. Expect a less comfortable time with higher levels of humidity but lower prices during the rainy season. Tourists typically flock to the country during the dry season for the picture-perfect beaches. However, prices and tour rates will be considerably higher at this time.
The national holiday-filled month of November is the usual vacation period for locals and when most businesses are closed for the month. Rainfall is also at the highest at this time.
What to Look for in a Tour to Panama
The best way to fully experience Panama is to look for a tour provider that takes care of everything for you, including accommodation, meals, flights, and activities. That way you have more time to enjoy your stay without stressing over the details. If you’re the resort type, opt for an all-inclusive package. If you’re in an exploring mood, look for a package that has a more flexible itinerary.
Be responsible and make sure your tour provider gives back to the Panamanian community by supporting local businesses, employing local guides as much as possible, and respecting local customs and heritage.
Typical Tour Cost
Organized tours to Panama often include one or more other countries in Central America, typically pairing Panama and Costa Rica in the same package. A budget-friendly tour by a well-known brand covering both countries in two weeks can cost an average of $1100 per person. Check all details because low prices could mean meals and transfers to and from the airport or hotel aren’t included.
An all-inclusive 10-day tour during dry season run by a more traditional travel agency can cost up to $3000 per person, covering all amenities including private transfers to and from the airport.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
If your tour doesn’t include transfers between the airport and your hotel, bring a backpack, not a suitcase. It’s much easier to carry around. No matter the season, must-pack items include loose clothes preferably made from breathable fabrics (cotton, chambray, linen), comfortable shoes and flip-flops for the beach, swimsuits, and a light waterproof jacket or poncho.
Tap water is not drinkable so pack a refillable bottle with a filter included. You can buy bug repellant and sunscreen locally unless you have a favorite brand or can only use a specific product for health reasons. In that case, bring your own from home.
Voltage is 110V and plugs are the same two-pronged flat type found in the U.S. so you won’t need to pack converters or adaptors. Double check the hotel voltage with the front desk before plugging in any of your devices as some outlets may be 220V.
Other Tips for Travel in Panama
Panama is a visa-on-arrival destination, so just make sure your passport is valid for at least three months after your arrival date.
The official currencies are the U.S. dollar and the Balboa. Most businesses accept card payments, however, to make it simple and avoid any extra fees charged by your bank, pay with cash as much as possible.
No special vaccinations are needed to enter Panama, except the yellow fever vaccine if you’re traveling from or have recently been to a country where the disease is common. In the unlikely event that you need medical assistance, Panama City has a good network of hospitals and clinics, public and private, but resources are limited outside the capital.
While medicine is easy to buy at local pharmacies without a prescription (except antibiotics), consult with your doctor about special precautions to take regarding some of the diseases you may find in Panama like the Zika virus, dengue fever, or malaria. In most cases, making sure your recommended vaccines are up-to-date and taking prophylactic medication is enough. Most organized tours include travel insurance in the package by default.
Crime may be an issue in remote regions like the Mosquito Coast, on the Caribbean side, and the Darien Region, near the Colombian border. These are areas of the country with fewer roads and higher chances of running into local criminal organizations. The U.S. government advises against traveling independently to this part of the country. Your tour provider should have all the most up-to-date information.
As a precaution, don't walk alone at night and avoid poorly lit and empty streets. If you’re already traveling with a group, this should be easier to do.