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Things to Do in Panama

From the kaleidoscopic reefs of Bocas del Toro to the dense, steamy jungles of Darien National Park, Panama forms a physical and cultural bridge between Central and South America, lapped by the Caribbean on one shore and the Pacific Ocean on the other. From glossy, sun-drenched Panama City to the tiny fishing villages scattered across the islands, Panama offers a heady mix of nature and culture, modern and traditional. History buffs can take a luxury cruise on the Panama Canal, passing through the Miraflores Locks and stopping in Panama City for a walking tour of UNESCO-listed Casco Viejo, the old colonial district. Many jungle treks and bird-watching trips are also available from the capital. Top draws for nature lovers include Gamboa rainforest, El Valle de Anton, Gatun Lake, and Chagres National Park, home to native Embera people and Monkey Island. Divers and snorkelers flock to Bocas del Toro, not far from the Costa Rican border, for its legendary coral reefs and wrecks. Book a multi-day sailing trip to explore further along the Caribbean coast, and if you dream of deserted tropical isles, charter a private boat to the San Blas archipelago. Only a fraction of its 365 tiny islands are inhabited, despite miles of perfect white-sand beaches. And if time permits, you could sail all the way to Cartagena from here. With easy access to both Colombia and Costa Rica, Panama makes an ideal launch pad for extended trips in either Central or South America.
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Panama Canal
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The first ships sailed through the Panama Canal in 1914, shaving nearly 9,000 miles off what was otherwise a very long sailing trip around South America. The engineering marvel transformed global trade, and today, 100 years after it was first installed, the canal has once again been expanded with new locks and widened existing ones, modernizing Panama Canal transit by allowing larger ships to pass from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean side to Colon on the Atlantic Ocean side.

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San Blas Islands
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A string of 378 tiny islands dotted along Panama’s northwest coast, the San Blas Islands offer a welcome change of pace from the mainland. This region provides everything you’d expect from a Caribbean paradise: coconut palms, white sand beaches, azure waters, and a complete absence of electricity, tourist resorts, and stress.

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Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador)
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The palm-lined Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador) follows Panama Bay and then heads onto the Bridge of the Americas, which runs parallel to the entrance to the Panama Canal and leads to three small coastal islands. The 3.7-mile (6-kilometer) road includes popular paths for runners and cyclists and passes a number of sights.

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Monkey Island
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Panama’s Monkey Island on Lake Gatun is home to four monkey species—mantled howler, white-faced capuchin, Geoffroy’s tamarin, and lemurine owl monkeys)—as well as crocodiles, toucans, sloths, iguanas, and numerous exotic birds. Riverboat tours to the island offer visitors the chance to observe the monkeys and other wildlife.

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Miraflores Locks
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The world-famous Panama Canal is a must-see for visitors to Panama City, but to fully appreciate it, head to the Miraflores Locks. The engineering marvel in action is a mesmerizing scene, with some 700 tons (635 tonnes) of machinery, reinforced against the mighty Pacific, and cargo-laden ships squeezing through with just inches to spare.

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Casco Viejo
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Panama City's oldest and hippest neighborhood comprises a Tejas-tiled cluster of pastel colonial buildings at the tip of a heavily fortified peninsula. These ramparts successfully protected the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast; today they make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with plazas, churches, and narrow streets.

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Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon)
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Visible from nearly anywhere in Panama City, Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon) stands proudly above everything else in an otherwise flat region, with its immense flag flying high. At 199 meters above sea level, it’s the highest point within the city, and from the top you can see all the main points of interest. It’s possible to see not only the modern part of Panama City, but also the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway, the Bridge of the Americas and Old City.

In the middle of this bustling city, Ancon Hill serves as a little natural paradise. The forest has plenty of animals—sloths, armadillos, toucan and deer—and a slow walk up the hill provides the chance to see many of them. Once at the top, spend time watching the ships pass through the canal. It’s a pleasant walk from Mi Pueblito, and serious bikers take the challenge of riding up the hill. Go early to beat the heat, and don’t forget your camera!

There’s also history wrapped up here. The name Ancon was used for the first boat that officially crossed the Panama Canal in 1914, and although it was under the jurisdiction of the United States during part of the 20th century, Panama took control in 1977.

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Gatún Lake (Lago Gatún)
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The tree-lined shores, tiny islets, and blue-green waters of Gatún Lake (Lago Gatún) cover what was once the fertile Chagres River Valley. When it was created in 1913, Gatún Lake was the largest man-made lake, buttressed by the biggest dam, in the world. Today, it forms an integral part of the famous Panama Canal.

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Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Americas)
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The Bridge of the Americas (Puente de lasAmericas)****spans the Panama Canal, which is perhaps the most important public works project in history. Made of steel and reinforced concrete, the bridge is 5,425 feet long, and at high tide, the clearance is 201 feet, under which ships crossing the canal must pass.

Twenty million U.S. dollars went into building the four-lane bridge, which replaced smaller ones and greatly increased road travel and capacity over the canal. It was inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1962, and allows the passage of cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The Bridge of the Americas was originally called the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, named after the ferry that used to operate on the canal before the span was built. Panama aptly renamed the bridge, since it not only connects the capital with the rest of Panama, but also unites Central and South America.

The bridge is not just useful, it’s beautiful. Seen from different angles, whether on a sunny or cloudy day, at sunset or when it is brightly lit at night, the Bridge of the Americas is a piece of world history worth the effort to see.

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Soberanía National Park
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On the east side of the Panama Canal, Soberanía National Park—one of the most accessible of the country’s protected parks—is a paradise for hikers, fishers, and bird-watchers. Some 1,300 plant species, 55 amphibian species, and hundreds of mammals, birds, and reptiles call the park home.

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More Things to Do in Panama

Metropolitan National Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano)

Metropolitan National Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano)

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Easily accessible Metropolitan National Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano) ranks as one of Latin America's only municipal wildlife reserves, encompassing 573 acres (232 hectares) in the heart of the city. Though not exactly pristine—it was a key staging area during the 1989 US invasion—it remains a remarkably well-preserved dry tropical forest, one of the world's most threatened biomes.

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Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Ruins)

Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Ruins)

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Spanish conquistadors laid claim to the land now known as Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Ruins) on August 15, 1519, making it the oldest permanent European settlement on the Pacific. A stark juxtaposition to modern Panama City across the bay, the ruins of Old Panama include a cathedral and several stone buildings and walls.

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Biomuseo

Biomuseo

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In a country with so much biodiversity, it’s not surprising to see a museum dedicated to the natural marvels found here. The 4,000-square-meter Biomuseo was designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect who designed the beautiful Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. This site takes visitors on a journey through time to when the Isthmus of Panama was formed, joined two continents and divided oceans.

There are seven permanent exhibitions that focus on art and science education here. When the isthmus was formed, there was an interchange of species between North and South America, an effect depicted in a series of 72 sculptures of those species. Audiovisual presentations also show the natural wonders of Panama’s ecosystems.

Another exhibition consisting of 16 columns tells the story of the cultural diversity in Panama. Two aquariums examine how the Pacific and the Caribbean changed when they were separated by the isthmus, and another display explores the relationship between Panama’s biodiversity and the rest of the world.

An outdoor Biopark serves as a living extension of the museum, with a selection of endemic plants that contribute to an understanding of Panama's biodiversity and makes for a pleasant place to take a walk.

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Bayano Lake Caves (Lago Bayano Caves)

Bayano Lake Caves (Lago Bayano Caves)

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Sparkling like a jewel at the edge of the enormous Darién wilderness, tranquil Bayano Lake (Lago Bayano) was created in 1976 and has been a scenic escape from the big city ever since. The famed Bayano Lake Caves, a Paleolithic cavern carved by water erosion over the centuries, riddle the lake’s undulating southern shore.

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El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden

El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden

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This nearly seven-acre botanical garden and zoo began as a privately owned nursery, for which the owner gradually began collecting animals and birds. Other people donated animals as well, with the most famous having once belonged to the dictator Manuel Noriega. In time, the site evolved into a public zoo, which now has animals from all around the world, some even from as far away as Madagascar.

Among the endemic animals are the Capuchin and spider monkeys, ocelots, toucans, jaguars, macaws and sloths. This is also one of the best places to see the striking, endangered, Panama native rana dorada, also known as the golden frog.

The onsite Centro de Conservación de Anfibios, with anquarium and exhibits, serves as a center for amphibian studies, sponsored by zoos from the United States. The zoo is surrounded by trees and a botanical garden, a pleasant area to picnic.

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Chorro el Macho Waterfall

Chorro el Macho Waterfall

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One of the best attractions in Anton’s Valley (Valle de Antón) is the Chorro el Macho waterfall. This 280-foot (85-meter) waterfall is just a short way north of the town of La Mesa and is one of the most beautiful areas of the valley.

A pleasant half-hour walk through the rain forest on well-marked paths leads you to the waterfall. At the foot sits a large natural pool, and walking paths run through the area for exploration, with suspension bridges running over the river.

For the adventurous, there are also zip lines through the treetops that provide breathtaking aerial views of the Chorro el Macho waterfall. If visiting with a guide, they can point out local animals, birds and butterflies, as well as various points of interest. The falls are most spectacular in the wet season.

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Mi Pueblito

Mi Pueblito

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Panama is a melting pot of diverse cultures, including those of Spanish, African and indigenous roots. Traveling around the country to see how these different societies live is fascinating, but it can be a challenge to fit them all into one trip. Close to Panama City is Mi Pueblito, however, a little tourist town that has them all in just one place.

The town has life-size representations of villages found throughout the country, including a typical Spanish-style colonial town, complete with a public square with a Catholic church and mayor’s office. There’s also a school, a barber shop and houses with traditional kitchens and furnishings.

One area shows the lifestyle of Africans who came to Panama to work on the canal, with a typical Protestant church, wood houses and representations of well-known buildings that form part of Panamanian history. Visitors can also get a glimpse into the culture of an indigenous village, with the huts, tools and instruments the country’s indigenous people use. Members of this group sell their beautiful handmade crafts in Mi Pueblito, and there are also restaurants and cultural events that are hosted here on the weekends.

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Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum (Museo del Canal Interoceánico)

Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum (Museo del Canal Interoceánico)

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This popular museum and top Panama City attraction is located inside a stunning, well-restored colonial building that once housed the French and U.S. companies charged with building the canal. Visitors interested in learning more about the famous waterway can wander the halls of this beautiful four-story white and green structure where displays showcase information about the political, social and historical impact of the iconic Panama Canal. Although signage is in Spanish only, English-speaking guest can opt for audio tours for a small additional fee.

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Punta Culebra Nature Center

Punta Culebra Nature Center

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This outdoor museum is located on an island at the end of the Amador Causeway, a four-mile-long road on a strip of land made from soil and rock that was extracted during the construction of the Panama Canal. At Punta Culebra Nature Center, a total of 3.7 acres (1.5 hectares) are dedicated to the study of marine biodiversity and the great natural wealth found in the area.

The Smithsonian Foundation of Panama has a space here dedicated to marine science and education, as well as to the conservation of coastal environments. Visitors can learn about marine life in Panama and other regions of Central and South America through science exhibitions, movies and art exhibits. There is also a turtle tank and an aquarium comparing the marine life in the Pacific to that of the Caribbean. The touching pool provides the opportunity to come into close contact with starfish, stingrays, sea urchins and octopuses.

Outdoor paths wind through a dry tropical forest with birds and iguanas, and from the observation deck, visitors can appreciate the scenic views of the Panama Canal.

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Plaza de Francia

Plaza de Francia

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When visiting Panama’s Old City (Casco Antiguo), check out the Plaza de Francia on the far southeast side. This public square stands as a testimony to the people who worked on—and gave their lives for—the Panama Canal.

Built in 1921 by Leonardo Villanueva Meyer, the square's main attraction is a 60-foot (18-meter) obelisk.The monument outlines the history of the canal and honors those 22,000 workers and engineers who died, mainly due to disease, while building it. The statues surrounding it show prominent people who participated in the construction at the time of the French involvement, and the Gallic rooster sitting on top of the obelisk is one of the national emblems of France.

Besides the monument, near this plaza you will find the France Embassy and the Esteban Huertas Promenade. There’s also an impressive view of the Panama City bay, the Bridge of the Americas and the Amador Causeway.

The plaza is also near the former Supreme Court building, which now serves as the National Institute of Culture and is home to the Anita Villalaz Theater, where theater performances, concerts and conferences take place throughout the year. In fact, you might recognize the building from some scenes in the James Bond movieQuantum of Solace.

On one side of the plaza, vaults known as Las Bóvedas, which were originally part of the fortified wall around the Old City, are the source of legends and urban myths. Stop in at any of the stores in the area and listen to the shopkeepers tell you about the experiences prisoners once had in these dark recesses. In recent decades, the vaults have been restored and are now home to galleries, shops and a French restaurant.

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Colon 2000 Cruise Terminal

Colon 2000 Cruise Terminal

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Colon, Panama was founded in 1850 by Americans working to build the Panama Canal. Not surprisingly, today it is the main jumping off point for those who want to see the Panama Canal in action. It is also home to the world’s first transcontinental railway, and the surrounding area features pristine beaches and a variety of exotic plants and wildlife.

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Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas)

Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas)

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“Garzas” is Spanish for herons, and you’ll see the birds roaming freely in the Andalucian-style courtyard of the Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas) in Panama City. The African herons were a gift celebrating the completion of palace renovations in 1922. The President of Panama lives in the upper floors of the building.

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Embera Village

Embera Village

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Panama is home to seven indigenous tribes, including the Embera, who live in the middle of the rain forest and have mostly resisted modernization. Houses are typically built on stilts at the riverside, where they’re organized around a communal dwelling. Visit an Embera village for a unique glimpse at a traditional way of life.

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Piedra Pintada

Piedra Pintada

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If visiting the Anton Valley, the Painted Rock (Piedra Pintada) is a must-see attraction. Located at the foot of the La India Dormida mountain, this large boulder has an underside covered with pre-Columbian petroglyphs.

Rumor has it that the Painted Rock tells the history of the area, but since no one has been able to decipher the petroglyphs, it’s still just a theory. Everyone that visits tends to just come to his or her own conclusion.

Whatever the accurate tale, this is also an ideal place for a long hike through the forest along the nearby river, which gives visitors the opportunity to see animals, butterflies and birds. To get the most out of the area, go with a guide that can tell you about the wildlife you’ll encounter along the way.

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