When Oliver fist came up with the idea of staying in Panama for a while, rather than just passing through, I wasn’t too thrilled about that idea, to be honest. What does Panama even have to offer? Isn’t there just this Canal and dodgy letterbox companies? Is it even safe to travel there and shouldn’t we just head on to Costa Rica as soon as possible? These were my very unqualified thoughts and if you’re thinking along the same lines and still contemplating if you should go to Panama or not, let me assure you that Panama is well worth your time! Even more, I even liked it better than Costa Rica!
Panama is a country often overlooked, when planning a trip in Central America. And this might be the lucky travelers bliss. Panama isn’t famous like its neighboring country Costa Rica, and not up and coming like Colombia. Yet if offers a diverse countryside, stunning beaches, delicious food, and a vast variety of wildlife.
Best time to travel to Panama
You can travel to Panama all year round. The driest part of the year and probably most convenient time to travel is between January and April.
When I was traveling through Panama, I first spent 5 days crossing the sea between Colombia and Panama, relaxing on the San Blas Islands for 3 days. When planning your trip to Panama, you can opt for a 3-day San Blas excursion, but like I wrote in this post, I’d be careful with booking this sort of adventure and as promised, I’ll tell you where you can find equally stunning beaches and islands. After San Blas, we spent 3 days in Panama City (which was plenty of time) and 3 days in Bocas del Toro, where we should have maybe stayed a day or two longer. If you’d like to see some more of the countryside, the coffee region, or if you’d like to go hiking, I’d recommend taking a detour to Boquete for another 3 days or so before heading on to Bocas del Toro.
Panama City – 3 days
How to get there: Panama City has two airports. If you fly in internationally, you’re getting into Tocumen International Airport. The other option to reach Panama city is by boat from Colombia, or by bus from Costa Rica (San José or places near the boarder). Bear in mind that a bus from San José to Panama City can take up to 16 hours and I would not recommend this trip unless you absolutely have no other options. There are two daily connections with the company Ticabus. If you have more time, I’d recommend breaking the journey up from San José to Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica, cross boarders there to Bocas del Toro and head on to Panama City from there. I’ll talk about the opposite direction later in that post. If you take the bus, you’re going to get into Albrook Station from where you can take a taxi, Uber, bus or metro to the city.
Where to stay: Once you’ll reach Panama City, you’ll soon realize that there are two main districts: Casco Viejo and the Financial District. Casco Viejo is where you’ll find a ton of restaurants, bars and hostels (and fancy, expensive boutique hotels). The Financial District is home to some major American-style shopping malls, big hotel chains and casinos. I stayed at a private double room with shared bathroom at the Selina Casco Viejo Hostel, which was already on the more expensive side hostel-wise (and the room didn’t have any windows). The location was very good though, but I think that’s true for every hostel in this area. I’d recommend staying in this area and take an Uber to the Financial District, if you really want to (there’s not much to see over there).
What to do: Obviously, you can’t get around the Panama Canal. You have the best view of the canal at the Miraflores locks. I was a bit sceptical at first because you know…ship comes in, the locks close, water fills and empties, locks open. Seemed pretty dull to me and 20 USD seemed quite an expense for this. Surprisingly, I enjoyed my time there much more than I’d expected. I have learned a ton about cargo ships, the canal and the history and in my opinion, it was money well spent. We got there in the late afternoon, when many people were already leaving, and stayed until the visitor center closed. This seemed like a wise choice, since it can get very crowded. You can opt to just go for a drink in the restaurant, but this is only indoors and you will need to depend on your luck to catch a window seat.
Casco Viejo: The old town of Panama city is great for a stroll, to have coffee (if you fancy, you can try a cup of the world’s most expensive coffee called Geisha Coffee in some of the shops), just wander around and marvel at the beautiful buildings there.
New town: If you’d like to do some shopping, catch an Uber and drive to one of the many malls or come here for a drink on a rooftop bar for sunset (we chose the JW Marriott).
Where to eat: We have found some pretty amazing places to eat around Casco Viejo. Our favorite was by far «The Fish Market Casco», closely followed by «CasaCasco», «Tacos la neta», and «Tántalo Kitchen»
Bocas del Toro – 3-4 days
How to get there: You basically have two options: Take the bus (10-11 hours) to Almirante and take a boat to Bocas (30 minutes) or fly directly to Bocas (45 minutes). We opted for the night bus and boat from Panama city and it was ok for one leg of the trip, but very uncomfortable and COLD! Overnight buses from Panama City to Almirante depart at 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m, take around 10 to 11 hours, and cost about $30 per person. Buses are (extremely!) air conditioned, modern and have somewhat reclinable seats. You’ll arrive to Almirante between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. halfway deep-frozen. From there you’ll have to take a taxi ($1/person) to the water taxi landing and from there a boat (water taxi), which costs $6. We reached Bocas del Toro at 7 a.m. and had to wait for another hour for a cafe to open, as we didn’t want to show up at our booked Bed and Breakfast at this time of day.
Where to stay: Bocas del Toro consists of 6 bigger islands and countless smaller islands. You can find the biggest variety of accommodation on Isla Colón. Bocas del Toro has a reputation of being a party town and this seems to be true for the center of Bocas Town. We opted to stay a bit outside of the town center, where the houses were built over water and you felt like you were in paradise. This is also where we found the most perfect Bed&Breakfast called Barrbra bnb over the sea. Marco, the owner, is French-Canadian and just the sweetest person on earth. His place is a typical house over the sea, with an outdoor-kitchen you can use. He offers to organize various trips for you or you can just hang out in a hammock or on one of the swings and jump into the water whenever you fancy. I honestly could have easily stayed here a week! Please do yourself a favor and book a room here if you come to Bocas del Toro.
What to do: There are some of the most stunning beaches right around the area of Bocas del Toro. You can reach them either by (e-)bikes, organized day trips or by hiring a boat taxi yourself. Some of the most popular (yet not too crowded) things to do are: Visit Cayos Zapatillas, take a trip to Red Frog Beach or Bluff Beach, bike to Boca del Drago and Playa Estrella or hire a kayak and paddle through the mangroves. Personally, I liked hiring an e-bike and cycling to Boca del Drago best. We stayed at one of the completely empty and absolutely stunning beaches before Playa Estrella. Playa Estrella was far too crowded and touristy for me and it made me sad to see how tourists picked up the starfish from the sea just for perfect instagram picture, eventhough there were plenty of signs asking people not to do this, because the starfish will die.
Where to eat: Bocas del Toro will forever be in my memory for the best fish burger and ceviche. You can find it at Capitan Caribe and thank me later 😉
Still think Panama is kinda boring and Costa Rica sounds so much better? Or have I convinced you that it’s actually Panama you need to visit? Let me know if you’ve been to Panama, how you liked it and if you have any other recommendations! In the meantime, I’ll just leave you with this picture to stare and daydream at.