Chances are you stumbled upon this article because you are trying to plan a trip to Panama, are looking for the top things to do in Panama, and are researching to make it the most epic trip possible! I want to help you with that and tell you not just the tourist things to do in Panama but also the hotspot places to visit in Panama so you can plan your itinerary a bit as well – no FOMO here.
Like in any tourist town, some things to do are just there for tourists and aren’t actually that much fun or worth doing but are created just to make money – I’ve left some things off this list because they just aren’t actually that cool or fun! I’ve tried to narrow it down to the best of the best so you can make sure you don’t miss the good stuff.
I was going to do a separate article on things to do in Panama City separately since many of the top things to do in Panama are in the capital city, but really it would end up being repetitive so I’ve just put the 10 or so for the city in this post as one big post for Panama as a whole.
In this article, I am going to focus on experiences in Panama. I have more articles you might want to check out like my complete guide to Panama with travel tips like transportation, currency, safety, etc and also a Panama itinerary for two weeks that you’ll want to check out. In my itinerary, you’ll see full breakdowns of where I stayed, ate, and even more cool things to do in Panama City, Boquete, San Blas Islands, the Gulf of Chiriqui, and Bocas Del Toro.
37 Things to Do in Panama
1. See a sloth
Yes, it’s kind of crazy to put this first – but it was my goal on this trip and because I didn’t want to do the two main ways of seeing one (a tour with loads of backpackers or a reserve where they have been taken from their natural habitat), I wasn’t sure if it would happen.
I am pleased to say after I had given up hope, with just two days left, I saw a sloth on Red Frog Beach that came out to cross the road! What luck. If you are desperate to see one, they are naturally here (hiding) and you might see one from your Airbnb in Bocas Del Toro, on a tour in Boquete or Bocas Del Toro you can visit “sloth island” where from a boat you can see them on shore.
You can book tours at any agency and will see signs for this frequently. In Panama City, you can take a day tour to the rainforest if you are short on time. There are tons of highly reviewed ones to choose from that also include visiting the Embera Indians and more.
2. Visit the Panama Canal
It wouldn’t be a real list of what to do in Panama if I didn’t have visiting the Panama Canal on here. While you might want to skip this (won’t lie, I did want to skip it), it is worth seeing. You go to Miraflores locks and buy a ticket there (Uber is great) then watch a little movie, and wait to see the boats go by.
The history of this canal is actually very interesting – but you don’t need a tour for this (that would be overkill and a waste of money). Make sure to look online first to see what time the boats are coming as they aren’t just going through all the time – they are spaced out sometimes with hours in between. FYI they go so slow that you don’t even realize they are moving at first!
3. Try the coffee in Boquete
Boquete is a town in the highlands of Panama that is known for its coffee. It’s a little cooler and less humid up here – and great for coffee plantations. Their famous cup of jo is called “geisha coffee”. Here is a tour you can book if you want it arranged ahead of time or you can alternatively book them in person at the tourist agencies in town as low as $30.
I didn’t do a tour at all because I have toured so many coffee plantations on my travels, but many readers have told me it was their favorite memory of Panama so if you’ve never done a coffee tour, check it out. Personally, I didn’t like geisha coffee – but then, I need my chocolate coffee creamer to enjoy any coffee, lol!
Read More: 16 things to do in Boquete (plus a travel guide on where to eat, sleep, and shop!)
4. Cook fresh lobster over a fire in the Caribbean
Hands down best meal in Panama? Fresh lobster in San Blas. We bought it from Guna Yala tribesmen that were passing by our catamaran for $5 and took it to a small island where captain used his machete to cut wood, make a fire, and cook it with butter and garlic. It was pure bliss! You’ll pay $40 for lobster at the nicer resorts in Bocas Del Toro, so definitely hit up San Blas for your seafood cravings.
5. Enjoy the live jazz music in Panama City
Panama City is all about Jazz music. In fact, even in the hills of Boquete, they were playing live jazz in the restaurants. The most popular spot in Panama City is Danilo’s Jazz Club inside the American Trade Hotel. For nightlife, there are so many bars. I liked Casa Bruja which has it’s own brewed beer with some really cool flavors. Other top bars are La Jirafa de Maria Del Alma and 1400 Bar.
6. Splurge on a tiny private plane in San Blas Islands
Are you super rich? Then you should fly a private plane in and out of San Blas instead of taking a private car or shuttle. It saves time and is basically the best views you’ll see in your life. San Blas does not have an “airport” but has some islands big enough to land small planes on (I’m talking 8-seaters) that left from Albrook Airport in Panama City (a smaller airport in town, not the main international airport).
We got incredibly lucky because a chartered flight dropped people off who paid nearly $4,000 to get to San Blas and it was going back empty – so offered us seats for $75 per person (what the overland transport costs). It was the coolest memory of the trip and who knows, you might find a deal online!
7. Decide if you’re up for visiting the indigenous Embera Indians
The Embera Indians live in the rainforest in some areas of Panama. You can go on tours to see their village in the Gamboa rainforest – but sometimes village tours are very fake and set up for tourists. Reviews are wishy-washy and that can sometimes be because those who loved it haven’t traveled a lot or aren’t aware they are fake and set up just to make money.
While these Indians do still dress and live the way they are portrayed, for me these tours didn’t mesh and I decided not to do it. You can read about the tours on Viator or this top-ranked Tripadvisor tour with those links. You can also do day trips out to see the jungle and Embera at El Valle de Anton as well as hot springs.
8. Visit the oldest cafe in Panama City
The Coca-Cola Cafe is the oldest Cafe in Panama City, located just outside Casca Viejo in a safe part of town – you can walk there to have beans, rice, and Panamanian specials of the day and of course a Coca-Cola.
9. Hike Baru Volcano in Boquete
This is not for the faint of heart or for those traveling alone – you should do this in a tour group (some girls were actually, possibly murdered in Boquete some years back hiking alone, while others say they were lost – either way, you shouldn’t do this hike alone, you should always go with a guide). You can do this tour with an agency or book online and it will involve either A. sleeping at a camp half-way there or B. taking a 4×4 most of the way so you just hike the summit. Option B is more expensive. You should really book this once you arrive and see if there are groups going that you can join. You will see signs to book everywhere so don’t stress about it.
10. Zipline in Boquete
Never been ziplining? The highlands of Boquete are a great place to try it for the first time. You can also do this in Bocas Del Toro. The ziplines go through a beautiful rainforest and tours take around 3 hours to complete. You can book this in person at agencies which head up to the hills from the town early in the morning around 7 AM and then bring you back into town after around 12 PM.
11. Try the street food in Panama City
From sweet snacks covered in syrup to savory empanadas, there are so many tasty things on the street to try. Panama is a clean city where you can drink the tap water and you don’t need to worry about getting sick from street food here. You can try the fruit juices and take cut up fruit with you while you walk around for a healthy snack to help you cool down.
12. Take a tour to Zapatillas island
So here’s the thing: you have San Blas Islands in Panama which are STUNNING but harder to reach, you have Bocas Del Toro which is pretty amazing but not San Blas amazing. On Bocas Del Toro, you have an island called Zapatillas which is basically San Blas beauty on the Bocas side. If you aren’t going to San Blas, this should be your number one thing to do in Bocas Del Toro. If you have been to San Blas it will seem like more of the same.
13. Try a rum/food/historical tour and learn all about Captain Morgan
Wait – Captain Morgan isn’t just a man on a bottle of rum!? Nope, he’s real! He was also called Henry the Terrible and he raided and attacked Panama City in 1670. He supposedly got a small amount of fortune from it, but since Panama was so rich then, it’s said he actually just kept it all for himself and hid out in Jamaica. I took my tour through PTY Life and it was a food/drink tour as well as history. I loved it and booked through TripAdvisor (it’s the top-ranked tour in Panama City). You can also take this top-ranked Viator tour if PTY isn’t available.
14. Buy Panamanian sandals but be ready to break them in
Are these not the cutest leather sandals you’ve ever seen? They are actually what the Panamanians wear and are not just made for tourists. In the local markets near Santa Ana, you can get them for $10 in a variety of natural colors like tan, brown, and yellow. Be ready to work to break these in because they are not comfortable at first!
15. Learn to surf or dive in Bocas Del Toro
Panama isn’t exactly known for it’s surfing, but if you were going to do it anywhere, it would be Bocas Del Toro. There are surf shops and dive shops all over the main strip so just walk around and compare prices. Diving will be good here because the visibility is great in the peak-season. You can even dive with whale sharks in some parts of Panama (not Bocas) so look into where you might like to dive most – since diving is all over the country.
16. Eat at El Trapiche in Panama City for the best authentic Panamanian meals ever
For our last meal on day 5 of being in Panama City – and already trying a lot of local food – we wanted to really make sure we tried the best of the best for a truly authentic local cafe. I found El Trapiche online and it was fantastic! You must have a lunch here. Try the starter with a mixed plate of all the street food for $5 (great if you hadn’t done a tour and didn’t get a chance to try much local food). Then get either a sandwich (they are AMAZING and on this fluffy deep-fried bread or a plate of local food like beans, rice, and pulled chicken or pork. This is away from Casco Viejo and we took an Uber here.
17. Watch whales migrate in the Pacific with their babies
If you come to Panama in the “off-season” around August, you will be there at the right time to see the whales migrate in the Gulf of Chiriqui. Now, most people don’t travel to Panama at this time. If you are desperate to see the whales, then you can come at this “rainy” time but I warn you they are just popping up a bit and going back under. Magical, yes, but not like you see in some other places in the world where they jump up, show off, and bring on happy tears to the people watching. We did a 1-hour boat tour with our island hotel, Isla Palenque, for $70 but alternatively, you can do on from the mainland at the town of Boca Chica.
18. Avoid the big hotels and choose B&B
There are chain hotels in Panama City, but most other places have small boutique hotels and B&B’s. You aren’t going to find serious luxury that much around Panama but you will find cozy B&B’s run by kind families that will add such a great charm to your trip. Some of my favorites I stayed at were Casa Azul and Hotel Panamonte in Boquete, and Clementinas in Panama City. Of course, our sailing trip in San Blas was also with a cute, young couple (more on that later!). In places like Bocas Del Toro, you can consider Airbnb which has great options as well as world-renowned boutique hotels (I’ll share about these in a later article). For Airbnb, If you sign up with this link you can get $40 off your first Airbnb booking.
19. Spend a day in Boca Chica
When you head down to the Gulf of Chiriqui, there are usually transportation options from the hotel that you book and some people choose to stay inland in the Chiriqui region or at the luxe eco-resort, Isla Palenque (which is where I stayed). But Boca Chica itself is kind of the hub, right on the water, and it was cool vibes. We are told it has an amazing restaurant (the one right next to the main dock) but we didn’t get a chance to try it. I wish I’d spent a day in this little town and taken one day off of the Bocas Del Toro part of my itinerary.
20. Enjoy the street art in Panama City
Panama City actually has some amazing creative street art. Not just secluded into Casco Viejo, but all around town near Avenida Central and Santa Ana, you’ll find some great murals.
21. SUP and Kayak in both the Caribbean and Pacific
Get into water sports! You can rent Kayaks or SUP for an hour for around $5 at most places. The best place for me was San Blas because it’s just so absolutely stunning there and below the water are hundreds of starfish. Kayaking is great everywhere and even in the Pacific – who knows you might see a whale while you are out there.
22. Eat cafeteria style fast food
If you want to see how locals eat, cheap and quick, pop into one of their versions of fast-food “comida economica”. They are little cafeteria style places. You can just get whatever tickles your fancy on our tray and add a cup of coffee or tea, sit in the little school cafeteria style seats and enjoy! It’s nothing fancy but it’s what the men are all eating on their way to work early in the morning so it’s certainly authentic.
23. Get lost in the jungles of Chiriqui
While staying at Isla Palenque, we did a really cool “secrets of the island” tour but you don’t need to be only at this island – the jungles in this region are lush and full of boa constrictors, wild dogs, howler monkeys, and of course unique birds to the region. People come here from all over to do bird-watching. On our tour, we learned about the natives who once lived there; we found their burial sites and even pottery.
24. Stay in a restored hotel in Casco Viejo – which in the 90’s was the home of a gang
The American Trade Hotel is a member of the elite group of “small luxury hotels of the world” and if you want to splurge out in Panama City, this is the place to stay. While now, it’s totally renovated and designed top-of-the-nines, it was a run down building with a dangerous gang living in it just years ago. The whole area of Casco Viejo has been renovated and this hotel was one of the first ones. The building was originally built in 1917 in the “Bellavista” style of architecture when it was the meeting place of the richest of the rich during the boom of the Panama Canal. Later, as this part of the city was abandoned it was taken over by gangs and really the whole area was dangerous. Now, it’s trendy and this hotel is an icon.
To see what the old and new looks like, this first photo is an area with buildings which haven’t been renovated which will be right next to the images after! It’s a real mix.
25. Get a sighting of the Guna Yala tribal people
The “Kuna” or “Guna” people are the indiginous people of Panama and Colombia and they are still living the same way they did years ago – however, they do pop into Panama City to get supplied before heading out to the Guna Yala Islands (aka San Blas) where they live off the land. You cannot miss their colorful outfits, but don’t take photos of them. I’ll share more about them in a later article about San Blas.
26. Have a drink on a rooftop in Panama City
The “thing to do” in Panama City is to go to a rooftop bar and have a drink looking over the amazing skyline. If you do this in Casco Viejo, you’ll get the very best views. To narrow it down more, Tantalo is the most famous rooftop bar in Panama City.
27. Avoid the Bocas Del Toro starfish island tour and see them naturally in San Blas
Okay, if you aren’t going to San Blas then you can do the tour in Bocas Del Toro, but you should go to San Blas and if you do, you’ll naturally see starfish by the dozens all over. The captain of our ship told us it’s fine to touch them and take a quick photo but not to hold them out of the water longer than 10 seconds – we never took them out of the water and snapped a quick photo putting Mr. Starfish back down where he was. I had never seen one before and loved this experience!
28. Try a chocolate making class in Boquete
Chocolate and coffee are the big food items in tourism in Panama and you can find chocolate making classes or coffee plantations tours around different areas. I saw chocolate making classes several times but it seems Boquete is the top place for this. Check out The Perfect Pair: Chocolate and Coffee where they offer classes and get a bite to eat while you’re there, too. If you aren’t going to Boquete, then check out Tropical Chocolate Cafe in Panama City which also had yummy chocolate and classes.
29. Eat at the MANY famous Food Trucks in Panama City to try Caribbean Panamanian fusion and more
There are so many and we tried several on our tour with PTY Life. You can take his tour to include this along with so much more in Panama City or check out his article on the best food truck in Panama City.
30. Try to spot a Boa and a Croc
News Alert: There are crocodiles and Boas in the water! Like, in the ocean where it’s paradise and beautiful and you are doing SUP, they are there. I am particularly nervous of crocs as a friend lost his girlfriend to one while snorkeling at a 5 star hotel, and I think about this a lot when I travel and get in the ocean – anywhere that fresh water meets the sea near rivers that flow in and brackish water or even in the middle of the sea where they can swim from island to island. A quick search shows many people who spotted crocodiles all over Panama even in San Blas. While sleeping on our catamaran in San Blas, a storm washed a 5-foot boa constrictor onto the dingy. He could have easily come onto the boat and found a warm place to sleep right next to me, lol! You are really in the jungle here. Other places we stayed also mentioned having boas around – and I’m quite used to it as we had pythons around our house in Goa, India but if you’re not, it might alarm you.
31. Buy a Panama hat – not an Ecuadorian one
All those hats with the black ribbon? They are actually Ecuadorian. If you want to wear a true Panama hat, go to the local market and get one like pictured above. I wore this around Casco Viejo and people would jokingly ask me in Spanish if I was from Panama or tell me it was a REAL Panama hat, so they definitely think it’s a big deal to get the real or fake ones!
32. Visit Coiba National Park
Off the Gulf of Chiriqui is the Coiba National Park. If you stay in Boca Chica, you can go out to the park to do tours, set up whale watching, and learn more about the region.
33. Rooftop sunset, drinks, or pool time at the W Hotel or Hard Rock in Panama City
I love to go to a rooftop to watch the sunset and have a drink – usually, 5-star hotels will let you use the pool as well so it’s a little taste of luxury without actually staying at the hotel. I did this when I lived in Goa sometimes, too! The W Hotel was great but the views from the Hard Rock are meant to be even better.
34. Walk across the second longest and highest hanging bridges in Central America
Hanging bridges are a fun, easy tour to do in Boquete that offer great views and a taste of the culture with a tour. You have to book with Tree Trek Adventures either online or once you’re there. We called and reserved over the phone the night before. You can go either 830 AM or 1030 AM. You can also do the ziplining through this same company. After, enjoy a coffee and look out at the views of the famous Volcano Baru.
35. Go photo crazy in Casco Viejo and pop into the following cafes
Panama City has a lot of great photo opportunities if you are really into taking them, like I am. Much of the “real Panama” is going to be in the financial district, Avenida Central, and Santa Ana, but the cute “Instagram” style stuff is going to be in Casco Viejo which is really designed to perfection.
So many cafes are adorable and TASTY like Mahalo (Thai Curry!), Tropical Chocolate Cafe, Super Gourmet Deli (such a good Italian sandwich), Tacos La Neta, Casa Bruja, and Nomade. We tried many more than that in 5 days and it’s a VERY small area so you really will have time to pop into all of them and all the little shops. There wasn’t anything I wanted to buy to be honest other than the hat and shoes!
36. Stay on a “secret island” in the Pacific
I mentioned Isla Palenque before, but you need to know it was one of the most amazing memorable parts of my trip to Panama. This hotel is on a tiny little island off of Boca Chica in the Gulf of Chiriqui, in the Pacific Ocean. I call it secret because it’s really not that well-known – yet some people come back year after year once they find it. It’s an all-inclusive experience with food included (lobster for lunch, local curry for dinner, delicious) and on-island tours included like learning about the stars or finding some animals in the jungle! SUP, kayaking, and more are all free. You can also do paid tours like the whale watching from here ($70). In the rainy season, it stormed SO big at night the whole sky would light up and I’ve never felt happier sleeping in our little villa by the sea, with an outside bathroom and shower, although of course super luxurious – this is a must-book! Pure luxury in the most unique place I’ve been! You can read more about it here and check out reviews.
37. Skip the day tours and sail the San Blas Islands
The big thing to do from Panama City is a day trip to San Blas and 99% of the articles I read from other bloggers did this – but don’t! You need to go stay on these islands whether it’s sailing or staying in a sand hut. I am going to put more information on this that you can read soon!
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