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 best and most beautiful places to visit in Panama…
1. San Blas islands – one of the most stunning beauty spots to explore in Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of San Blas Islands
- Spend a night in one of the over water cabins for a unique and picturesque stay.
- Take a boat tour around several of the beautiful islands to admire the stunning scenery.
- Go scuba diving or snorkelling to discover the magnificent underwater world.
2. Panama Canal – an iconic must-see attraction in Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of Panama Canal
- Explore around the Miraflores Visitor Center, a four-story interactive museum, to learn about the history of this landmark.
- Capture an Insta-worthy shot overlooking the canal with a scenic background.
- Be sure to check out one of the five locks and watch how it in action to discover how it all works.
3. Playa Venao – one of the most beautiful beaches in Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of Playa Venao
- Take a diving lesson to try something new and experience the water in a different way.
- For those who love to party, enjoy the lively bars and signature cocktails located along the beachfront.
- Slow down and relax after a day at the beach with a rejuvenating massage from the nearby Nourish Spa.
4. Bocas del Toro – a popular eco-tourist destination in Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of Bocas del Toro
- Rent an E-bike to explore through Bocas Town before reaching the beautiful Playa Bluff beach.
- Take a stroll along the breathtaking white sand beaches to soak up the glistening sun and spectacular views.
- Discover the hype of riding the waves around this area by renting a board to go surfing on one of the beaches.
5. Casco Viejo – Panama’s most charming and charismatic neighborhood
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.
My must-do highlights of Casco Viejo
- Sip on a cup of coffee made from the famous gesha beans locally grown in Panama.
- Wander to the Plaza Francia to view some of the best panoramic skylines of the city.
- Enjoy the array of handmade traditional crafts and maybe even buy one as a souvenir.
6. El Valle de Antón – known for its numerous mountain hiking trails and historic attractions
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.
My must-do highlights of El Valle de Antón
- Enjoy a sunrise hike via The Sleeping Indian trail before admiring the beautiful landscape in the daylight.
- Adventure to El Macho Waterfall, the largest in the area, by crossing a high suspension bridge through the rainforest.
- Visit the Sunday market (which is open 7 days a week) well known for being a landmark of the town.
7. Pearl islands – a beautiful collection of over 200 islands and islets
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 favorite 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 snorkeling.
My must-do highlights of Pearl Islands
- Spend some time out on the pristine waters by kayaking or snorkelling, a perfect spot for both these activities.
- Find one of located around the island for the most ideal location to sunbathe.
- Explore through the lush jungles by foot or for a bit more adrenaline rush speed, take a squad.
8. Gulf of Chiriquí – home to thousands of pristine islands and unspoiled beaches
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.
My must-do highlights of Gulf of Chiriquí
- A main must-do is to venture along the Lost Waterfalls Trail where you will discover three breathtaking natural showers.
- Climb up to the highest peak in Panama, Volcan Baru National Park, for the most impressive views overlooking the ocean.
- Make sure to take some Instagrammable pictures of the beautiful surrounding landscape.
9. Soberania National Park – a stunning spot to visit and explore in Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of Soberania National Park
- Climb up to the top of the spiral staircase in Panama Rainforest Discovery Center for a birds eye view above the canopy.
- For those who love a scenic hike, take the Plantation Road trail to find several waterfall viewpoints and exotic tropical plants.
- Go for a swim in the natural pools located by the El Charco Trail surrounded by picnic spots and beauty.
10. Boquete – a small and scenic mountain town in Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of Boquete
- Get your adrenaline pumping with having a go on the exciting zipline overlooking the forest.
- For an interesting adventure, take the hanging bridges tour which is the second longest and highest in Central America.
- Go at a relaxed pace by strolling through the town center for an afternoon of shopping.
11. Santa Catalina – a fishing village turned surf town on the Pacific Coast of Panama
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.
My must-do highlights of Santa Catalina
- Ride some of the best waves in Central America at La Punta beach.
- Watch the sun go down at La Coquita, well known for the brilliant black sand shadows at night.
- Kayak over to the white sand beach on Isla Catalina and hike up to the viewpoint on the island.
12. Isla Taboga – also known as the “Island of Flowers”
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 been 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.
My must-do highlights of Island Taboga
- Take a stroll though the vibrant town where the quiet Spanish-settled town is filled with colorful houses.
- Spend the day sunbathing on Playa Restinga and walk along the sandbar during low tide to Isla El Morro.
- Walk to the viewpoint at Cerro de la Cruz for a spectacular sight of the island and surrounding ocean.
13. Sunset Coast, Azuero Peninsula – a region is remarkable beauty and stunning beaches
Sunset Coast is named for its expansive coastline situated in the western portion of the Azuero Peninsula. You will love visiting Sunset Coast because with how the Azuero Peninsula is shaped, this is the only area to see a breathtaking coastline sunset hence its name.
When you visit Sunset Coast, be sure to stop by Coiba National Park to see the biggest coral reef in the Pacific. Jump in and go scuba diving or snorkeling to catch the beautiful coral reef. Embark on deep-sea diving for one of the best undersea experiences worldwide.
Be mindful of the jaguars and ocelots that freely roam in Coiba National Park. If you are lucky, you may spot a scarlet macaw since they regularly dwell in that area.
My must-do highlights of Sunset Coast
- The highlight is in its name, catch a magnificent sunset over the coastline with a cocktail in hand.
- Cool down by going for a swim in the Pacific ocean with an entrance point located in Cobia National Park nearby.
- Wander along the long shore to wind down as the day comes to a close.
14. Los Cangilones – a natural canyon slot in Chiriqui and a very popular tourist destination
Los Cangliones is your go-to destination for village shopping and canyon views while jumping in the nearby waters. The bus to get there is cheap and only costs $1.50 per person per ride.
A mini supermarket greets you when the bus drops you off so you can pick up any snacks or beach supplies that you need.
It is a short walk to the canyons and waters where you can privately sunbathe, swim, and sightsee depending on how many people are nearby. Be sure to pack a big picnic so that you can enjoy the wondrous views after a fun swim in the water.
My must-do highlights of Los Cangilones
- Grab lunch at the local supermarket to enjoy whilst spending a day by the canyons.
- If you’re looking for a thrill, jump off the natural rock formations into the aqua-colored waters.
- Swim through the crystal-clear canyon that stretches 40 metres long.
15. Punta Chame – a quiet hidden gem and a great place to go kitesurfing
Punta Chame is a very small city with only a population of 443, but the beaches are untouched and beautiful. The waters to the left are more shallow and calm so it is easier for you to go kitesurfing.
Walk the white sand for a lovely beachside experience. Be prepared because it goes 22 miles long. A portion of the beach meets the Pacific Ocean. Make it a whole day trip to explore this stretch of beach land to see its vast beauty while taking some swims in between.
Be mindful of possible jellyfish in the water or washed up on the beach. They can sting even when they are dead so tread with caution.
My must-do highlights of Punta Chame
- On a day when the ocean is calm, hire a paddleboard for a fun way to explore around the coast.
- Explore through the fishing village and surrounding areas of this petite city by hiring a bike.
- Have a go at kite surfing, the ocean conditions are perfect for all abilities.
16. Isla Perro – the most famous and one of the most beautiful islands of the San Blas Islands
This paradise-like island is part of the San Blas islands but deserves a special mention of its own. Isla The small island is surrounded by crystal blue waters with tropical palm trees throughout the area. Because of its clean waters, snorkelers love to explore marine life throughout Guna Yala.
The most unique aspect of Isla Perro is the shipwreck in front of the island. Snorkelers can find artifacts from the army gunboat that washed ashore many years ago. With a low tide, you may see the rusty bow protruding from the water.
If you do not want the water adventure to end, you can rent one of the 30 campsites available. Then, you can explore more of the territory the next day.
My must-do highlights of Ilsa Perro
- Go snorkelling in the clear turquoise waters to discover the beautiful under water world.
- Capture an Insta-worthy shot next to one of the picturesque palm trees and surrounding landscape.
- Slow down and relax along the golden sands with a walk or by sunbathing.
17. Pedasi – a small fishing village popular with ex-pats
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 the 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.
My must-do highlights of Pedasi
- Indulge in delicious cuisine from around the world whilst watching live entertainment at one of the restaurants.
- Keep an eye out for when the next festival is so you can attend and embrace the local culture.
- Lay out along the shores of the beach to soak up the marvellous rays from the sun.
18. Isla Grande, Province of Colón – a small island off of Panama’s Caribbean coast
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, snorkeling 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.
My must-do highlights of Isla Grande, Province of Colón
- Sip on refreshing cocktails at The OC Bar & Lounge with a view overlooking the Caribbean Ocean.
- Take a boat tour around the coastline to observe the beautiful landscape of vegetation from a different perspective.
- Taste freshly made seafood at one of the restaurants located around this location.
19. Panama City – one of the best places to visit in Panama
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 center 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.
My must-do highlights of Panama City
- Wander through the streets of Casco Viejo to admire the spectacular architecture through the Old Town Quarter.
- Check out the large Artisan Market filled with handcrafted goods, perfect for a memorable souvenir.
- Take a visit to Plaza De La Independencia surrounded by an array of shopping boutiques and restaurants.
20. Península de Azuero – one of the most diverse places to explore in Panama
Azuero Peninsula is one of the best places to visit in Panama. Considered to be an unassuming place that blends rich culture, amazing architecture and interesting history.
The peninsula consists of three provinces Herrera, Los Santos and Veraguas which results in two regions – The East and the West sides.
The East area is famous for its annual lively activities, including their carnival. If you are a fan of surfing and nature then Pedasí is your place.
A charming fishing town surrounded by Spanish colonial architecture. The West area is well-known for stunning beaches and their focus on farming and cattle ranching. Whatever you decide to do, rest assured that Panama will cover great things and places where you can explore and tour.
My must-do highlights of Península de Azuero
- Explore around the untouched areas to discover the natural beauty and hidden gems.
- Dance the night away after a day of searching on the ocean with one of the cool beach parties.
- Slow down and relax with a yoga retreat hosted by Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort.
21. Cerro Ancon – a scenic protected area which has become an “island” of forest cover within an urban area
Cerro Ancon is a small trail hike surrounded by canyons and waterfalls. You start your journey at the Mi Pueblito trailhead. Travel the stairway at this entrance to begin the hike.
It is free to hike the area of 654 feet in elevation and takes only 30 minutes to complete the entire venture. The trail is home to a jungle that is inside of a city of over 1 million individuals.
Watch for the incline as you hike. You can see Casa Viejo with scenic views of the Panama Canal during your journey. The Bridge of the Americas is a sight to behold above the canal.
The Miraflores Locks is one of the three locks throughout the Panama Canal and is named after the gate to the Pacific.
My must-do highlights of Cerro Ancon
- Have your camera ready to capture the most breathtaking shots along this trail.
- Stop and take in the picturesque scenic views overlooking the Panama Canal.
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Becky Moore – Owner, writer and photographer
My first true adventure began as a six month voyage around South East Asia as a fresh faced backpacker and ever since I’ve lived a semi nomadic existence, clocking up visits to over 40 countries. I’m a lover of US Road Trips, deserted beaches bathed in warm glow of a sunset, Cuban mojitos, travel destinations far away from the tourist crowds and all things Scandinavian – from cloudberry liquors to Nordic noirs. When not wandering the world and running Global Grasshopper, you’ll find me walking my ex Athens street dog in leafy South West London, strolling around the Brighton Lanes on random day trips, hunting for photogenic landscapes or daydreaming about my favourite places; Havana, Copenhagen, Italy, Borneo, Finland, Greece, Berlin, Laos, California and the surreal and beautiful landscapes of a wintry Iceland.
I’ve been quoted in Forbes, National Geographic, The Times, Yahoo Travel, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Thrillist, British Airways Magazine, Entrepreneur, express.co.uk, Wanderlust, Telegraph Travel, Daily Mail and metro.co.uk. Find me on Linkedin or Facebook.