Travel Planning Guide for Panama

In terms of Central America travel, Costa Rica gets most of the buzz ~ particularly from American travelers.  Countries like Panama seem to fly under the radar, even though they offer many of the same features: beautiful beaches (Panama’s may even be more beautiful), amazing nightlife in cosmopolitan Panama City (while Costa Rica’s capital city San Jose is nothing to write home about), great surf spots, breathtaking hiking in the Valle de Anton, & the lush, tropical biodiversity this region is known for.  To get you (& me!) inspired for a trip to this stunning region, here’s my “Travel Planning Guide for Panama!”

Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

My friend & I are planning a trip to Panama in just a few weeks, & I sent this photo to her last night & said, “We HAVE to go here!!” She agreed. This photo was taken on Bastimentos Island, which is part of the Bocas del Toro island chain.

Map of Popular Panama Destinations

My friend & I are headed to Panama on a 10-day trip, & this guide will take you through our decision-making process for how we came up with our itinerary.  Below are some of the country’s most popular destinations, & we know that in 10 days we can’t see them all: we had to pick & choose what was most important for us.

PTY (International Airport)

San Blas Islands = Remote Beaches

Bocas del Toro = Beach

Panama Canal

Valle de Anton = Hiking

Boquete = Coffee

When to Visit Panama

    • Panama essentially sits directly on the equator, guaranteeing year-round warm temps: typically in the 80’s during the day, & dropping only into the 70’s at night (unless you’re in higher-altitude terrain).  Similar to Costa Rica: BRING STRONG SUNSCREEN!!!! I cannot emphasize this enough: the sun is beyond intense here.
    • Because of year-round warm temperatures, there are really only two seasons in Panama: the DRY season (January to April), & the WET season (May to December). We’re traveling during the dry season, so hotel prices are a little higher: but compared to the States, prices are cheap. Expect fewer crowds & slightly cheaper prices during the rainy season.

 Travel Planning Guide for Panama City

Most people flying in & out of Panama will fly out of Tocumen International Airport (PTY).  So the first question to ask when planning your Panama trip is: how many days do you want to spend in Panama City?  If your time is limited & you want to get right to the beach, you may want to spend just a night or two here.  But there’s enough to see that it may be worth tacking on an extra day or two onto your itinerary ~ you’ve got gorgeous five-star hotels like the Waldorf Astoria that only cost around $150/night, tons of shopping, the Panama Canal, & all kinds of rooftop bars & pools to explore. 

In our 10-day itinerary, we opted to stay in Panama City for a total of four nights: giving us plenty of time to explore the city without feeling rushed. 

Travel Planning Guide for Panama City, Girl Who Travels the World

Panama City’s skyline is one of the most breathtaking in all of Central America.

Travel Planning Guide for Panama City, Girl Who Travels the World

Omar Park makes for a lovely escape right next to Panama City’s skyscrapers.

Where to Stay in Panama City?

The next question to ask yourself is: which Panama City neighborhood do you want to stay in?  The main city center has a little more of a skyscraper/business-kind of feel ~ but it also has some of the city’s finest hotels.  The Casco Viejo neighborhood gives you a little more character & color; plus it’s where some of the city’s best restaurants & rooftop bars are…many with gorgeous views of the city skyline.  Based on a bit of research, the neighborhoods that looked best for our stay were Casco Viejo & the upscale Marbella neighborhood, which is by the water, & fashionable hotels like the W & Waldorf Astoria.

Another benefit of staying in Casco Viejo, besides the ability to walk to restaurants & bars ~ is that if you’re flying to Bocas del Toro, you’ll most likely be flying out of PAC (the smaller Albrook Gelabert Airport), not PTY: & Casco Viejo is much closer to this airport.  When returning to Panama City for our flight home, we chose to stay closer to PTY, in the Marbella neighborhood: which is just a quick hop onto the highway that takes you back to Tocumen International Airport.

Travel Planning Guide for Panama City, Girl Who Travels the World

Take advantage of the city’s numerous rooftop bars: many of which are in the colorful Casco Viejo neighborhood, where some of the city’s best nightlife is.

How to Plan a trip for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

This photo by my friend Micaela Shalane has long-captured my imagination: it was taken in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City, which looks similar to colorful Havana, Cuba. Find her on Instagram @CreateWander

Travel Planning Guide for Panama City, Girl Who Travels the World

The Amador Causeway at sunset. This six-kilometer boardwalk extends from Panama City out into the ocean! It’s a popular spot for walkers & cyclists, & sits at the southern end of the Panama Canal.

Hotel We’re Most Excited About in Panama City: The hip Tantalo Hotel has vibrant, colorful rooms ~ & it’s one of Casco Viejo’s most beautiful rooftop bars, with great food. After a long flight, what could be better than checking into your hotel….then simply walking upstairs to one of the city’s hippest nightlife spots?@!

Our Itinerary for Panama

  • 3 Nights in Panama City: Fly into Tocumen International Airport (PTY); then Uber into Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood. Stay here for first three nights of trip & get acquainted with Panama. 
  • 5 Nights in Bocas del Toro: Fly from Albrook Gelabert Airport (PAC) to Bocas del Toro (BOC).  Arrive in Bocas Town, & take a 5-minute taxi ride to our first hotel: the darling Hotel Bocas del Toro, which is located right next to the main ferry dock. Stay 3 nights in town, & 2 more in the jungle (by a surf break): at Jungle Paunch Villas.  Islands we plan to focus on: Isla Colon (the main island where Bocas Town is), Isla Carenero (a one-minute water taxi ride from Bocas Town), Isla Solarte, & one of the region’s most beautiful islands: Isla Bastimentos, which is also one of its largest.
  • 1 Final Night in Panama City: Fly back to Panama City (PTY), stay one final night in Panama City, at the gorgeous Central Hotel in the Casco Viejo neighborhood.

Which Islands to Visit: San Blas or Bocas?

If your time in Panama is limited & you want to visit their beautiful beaches, you’ll need to make a choice: do you want to visit the pristine white sand beaches of the barely-developed San Blas Islands, or do you want more of a “party” atmosphere, & more choice in terms of hotels in the nine-island archipelago known as Bocas del Toro

For us, this was a pretty easy decision: we chose five nights in Bocas del Toro.  While Bocas Town (where you fly into) is known as a constant party, in doing some research, we realized that you don’t have to travel too far from there to discover beautiful, more remote beaches.  But we wanted the option to party, so our first few nights in the islands we’ll stay somewhere close to Bocas Town, & then venture further out to more remote beaches later. 

Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

The San Blas Islands have those idyllic, white-sand beaches that you daydream about: but it’s hard to get to, & once you’re there, you’ll find few amenities & very little nightlife (some places don’t have electricity)! This is why we chose Bocas del Toro over visiting the San Blas Islands.

Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

A remote beach on Bocas del Toro: simply beautiful.

Also, something to note: if you’re a surfer like my friend (who’s bringing her board to Panama), there are far more surf spots in Bocas del Toro vs. the San Blas Islands ~ which gave us one more reason to stay in Bocas del Toro.

Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

Bocas Town is on Isla Colon, the most populated island in Bocas del Toro. But this shot is of Bastimentos Island ~ which you reach via a 15-minute water taxi ride. It looks STUNNING!!

Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

With its eastern border on the Carribean Sea, BOTH Bocas del Toro & San Blas are blessed with heavenly turquoise waters.

How to Get to the San Blas Islands: One of the reasons we chose NOT to visit the San Blas Islands is because of how long it takes to reach them. First, you’ll need to take a taxi (or rent a car) for a three-hour drive across Panama to Masargantupo, where you’ll then need to take a one-hour water taxi to reach the islands. The one-hour flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro seemed like a much easier option for such a short trip!

Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

The San Blas Islands.

Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro, Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

These incredible huts-over-the-water accommodations are located at Azul Paradise Resort, on Isla Bastimentos.

The Hotel We’re Itching to Stay at in Bocas del Toro: The gorgeous huts-over-the-water at Azul Paradise, located on the eastern side of Isla Bastimentos. Also on Bastimentos is the jungle-themed Palmar Beach Lodge.

Other Great Destinations in Panama

Because we only have 10 days in Panama, there are a few places we’d love to go, but simply don’t have time for.  I’m long past wanting to move around every single day of a trip: you come home more exhausted than when you left! 

Boquete is a lovely part of Panama known for its coffee production & lovely vistas; while surfers will find some excellent & well-hidden surf breaks on Panama’s West Coast ~ in & around Cambutal.  Avid hikers can take in breathtaking vista after breathtaking vista in the hills of the Valle de Anton….& I highly encourage you to look up both Jackson Groves’ Instagram account, as well as my friend Micaela Shalane’s, who now goes by the handle @CreateWander, for absolutely STUNNING photos of Panama!

Ultimate Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

Boquete is a popular destination in northern Panama (a good side trip from Bocas del Toro), known for their coffee plantations & beautiful valleys.

Ultimate Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

If you’re a surfer: check out the Cambutal area. My friend starts her trip here, at a remote surf break about 7-hours from Panama City.

How to Plan a Trip to Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

I first got inspired to visit Panama by Instagram wunderkind Jackson Groves: his hiking pics of the Valle de Anton are spectacular. Find him on Instagram @jackson.groves

Ultimate Travel Planning Guide for Panama, Girl Who Travels the World

More shots of the Valle de Anton, also called the Cocle region.

Travel Planning Guide for Panama

UPDATE: Since I’ve written this article, my friend & I have already traveled to Panama ~ & I’ve written a SUPER extensive article about travel in Bocas del Toro, which discusses where to stay & how to get aroung the islands.  And I’ve also created a photo gallery of my favorite playa on the islands: Red Frog Beach….

xoxo Noelia 

Read Next: Photo Tour of Casco Viejo in Panama

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How to Plan a Trip to Panama, Girl Who Travels the World