This is officially the first time I would rather write in German than in English. Not because I’m lazy. No, because I would love to quote Janosch, a German cartoon for kids: “Ohhh wie schön ist Panama!”. (Ohh, how beautiful is Panama). After spending over 3 months on and off traveling and living in Panama I know it better than any other country, maybe even including my home :D. So it’s about damn time I try to put all this knowledge in one post and hopefully help improve your stay in Panama. Because to be honest, it seems like most travelers don’t give Panama the attention it deserves. Ok, coming from the north, especially after visiting very similar Costa Rica, I can kind of understand. But give it a chance, take your time, see places and you might be surprised. Off the beaten path in Panama you actually still find true undiscovered gems for less money and with fewer other tourists than in the famous neighboring country.
So I hope you are ready for a long read because my plan is to take you all the way from the border of Costa Rica along my favorite stops to finish in Panama City. Are you up for more and want to continue traveling to Colombia, no worries, that’s also included. Are you ready? Let’s go!
First stop Bocas del Toro
The Archipelago of Bocas del Toro. On the very far corner, right next to Costa Rica, on the Caribbean Coast, lies Bocas del Toro. Whatever tour guide or blogpost about Panama you check, you can be sure this place is mentioned. And this is absolute justified. No matter what you are looking for, there is quite a good chance you might find it there… beaches, Backpackerparty, surfing, hiking, dolphins, artisanal beer, starfish, caves, monkeys, sloths, live music, good restaurants… you name it. Choose between the 10 main islands that vary from party island to hippie island, book yourself in at one of the countless really great hostels and get sucked into Bocas.
- Agua Lodge (partyhostel with water trampoline, swings and slackline)
- Hostel Hansi (quite, very clean hostel but still close to everything)
Bocas Brewery S.A. (tasty artisanal beer with interesting variations)
Lost and Found Lodge
Now it’s time to escape all the party and heat of the Caribbean and flee into the lush green rainforest. Jump into one of the local busses which will climb up the windy mountain road, past the last open fields with cows and kids playing, past a massive dam with a magical lake till you suddenly see the Pacific in the far and you know you made it over these stunning mountains, the Talamanca Mountain Range. But, don’t go down there, not just yet. Stay up here for a day, enjoy the fresh air, the good view, and a lively nature! There are more options up here, but I for once stayed at “The Lost and Found Lodge” and would not hesitate to come back here. Yes, again it is not a secret, but yes it is a hostel that is designed and run by people who truly love what they do. Communal dinner, scavenger hunts, night hikes or coffee tours or whatever you need to refresh after too much partying in Bocas. Stay for a few days breathing the fresh air and drinking the spring water. Your body will thank you 😉
Haven’t done enough hiking in the jungle? No worries. Our next stop brings us up to Boquete. Flag down a bus to David (they pass by more or less every half hour on the main street) and look up to the mountain range from there. Volcano Barú, the highest elevation in Panama. Hiding in its shade, surrounded by the lush green vegetation of the cloud forest once more, lies Boquete. Many good hostels, countless hiking trails, coffee farms, some say the best bird-watching in the country and obviously the fact it functions as a basecamp for Volcano Barú make this town a must see on your trip through Panama.
Hostel Mamallena (biggest hostel in Boquete with plenty of tours to offer)
Guess you are ready for some warmth, sun, and beach now? But still able to walk? Well, next up is the perfect stop for you on your way to the capital of Panama. Jump on a bus down to David and switch there for another bus in direction of Panama City (or Santiago) and get dropped off about an hour later at the street down to Las Lajas. Every bus stops on this corner. Ask the driver for “San Felix” in case he doesn’t know where Las Lajas is. From here you can either hope to catch one of the 3 buses that go down the 14 km to the beach or you can jump in a taxi (approx. 5-7 dollars a ride). What you will find is pretty certain to take your breath away. You arrive at the longest beach of Panama (25 km). As far as your eyes can see, nothing but unspoiled black beaches. When the tide is low it truly knows how to mesmerize you with clouds reflected on the wet black sand. Just wander along the beach for hours deep in thought or organize a bike and ride into the sunset watching the crashing waves. And yes, crashing waves means surfing as well. Come in the rainy season for the best surf and constant, not too big waves that are perfect for beginners.
Hospedaje Ecologico Nahual (quite nature hostel with helpful staff)
You are a more advanced surfer or are simply ready for more black beaches? No problem… next stop is Santa Katalina. This time the beach is not as long and open, but has lots of small bays, islands and reefs. One of the main attractions is Isla Coiba, the infamous old prison Island. Around it you have one of the most untouched reefs in Panama. Plenty of shark, rays and pretty much all other types of water animal are hanging out and are waiting to be discovered by you – either scuba diving or snorkeling. Protected with a nature memorial status, tours here are expensive but definitely worth it for nature lovers. After a long day, go to one of the small family run restaurants and enjoy some delicious seafood with a view of the stunning sunset.
visit “La Panaderia Vieja” on the mainstreet for the best breakfast in town!
Let’s move on along the coast. Technically only a one-hour boat ride away in viewing distance lies Playa Morrillo. It’s a hidden gem and my favourite spot in Panama so far. This beach is as untouched as you can possibly find in Panama. Walk the sand where turtles lay their eggs at night to admire the sunrise. Spend your day in the hammock reading. Go surfing with the few locals who come here. While the tide is low you can even hike to one nearby island and climb it, but be sure to be back before the small land bride is reclaimed by the return of the high tide. Finally, sit at the beach sipping cold wine while the sun sets again, this time far out on the ocean, bathing everything in this special light. It’s hard not to become dreamy while talking about this place. If you are lucky enough you might even see baby turtles hatch 😉
Hostel Villo Vento Surf (right at the beach, clean rooms, amazing staff and food. A place to get stuck)
But now let’s move away from the beach. Let’s flee the hot and humid air and travel up into the mountains once more. Only .3 km up from the coast, in a hidden valley, lies El Valle de Anton. Exchange long black beaches for endless green jungle, exchange the salty seawater for the fresh cool water of the mountain rivers. Lace up your hiking boots and climb countless picturesque mountains or follow hidden paths through the jungle. You may even be lucky and see a colorful Tocan or if you are even luckier a Quetzal. Not into bird watching? Hot springs, butterfly sanctuary, waterfalls… you won’t get bored 😉
Bodhi Hostel (you´ll love everything about that hostel. Huge kitchen, beautiful common area, clean bathrooms, private curtains, tours, bikerental… i could go on and on)
You prefer it even quieter. You want no “city” around you at all? No problem! Move on to the next valley and you will find La Laguna. But you said no houses and civilization, so jump in a taxi or hike the last 4 km to the Mamallena Eco Lodge. An old French-looking mansion built by the side of a hill next to a river you can swim in; completed by lovely volunteers and staff that cook you a truly amazing dinner. After only 2 nights here I felt more rested and relaxed than I’ve felt after a week of doing nothing on the beach.
Mamallena Eco Lodge (magical finca with clean rooms, amazing views, delicious food and even a river with a nice yoga spot)
We nearly made it. Next stop, the big PTY. Panama City has it all, if you like it or not. Skyscrapers. Loud heavy traffic. A beautiful old town. Shopping malls. You name it. A lot of travelers tend to skip it. Don’t get me wrong, it is indeed just a big city which may look like it has nothing to offer at all – however, after living on and off here for quite a while, I kind of fell in love with it. Take a walk through old town, see the ships in the bay in front of town waiting for their passage trough the channel. Stroll over to the fish market and choose your fresh fish for a fresh cevice and wash it down with a cold beer while enjoying the shade. Or just escape the heat in an air-conditioned mall the size of an airport and shop the day away. If you get the chance try to connect with the Panamanian students to discover the excellent nightlife away from all the other tourists.
- Kame House Hostel (Huge Mansion hiding in the jungle of cerro Ancon with amazing views of oldtown)
- Hostel Mamallena (newly renovated hostel with many touroffers and friendly staff)
- Luna´s Castle (THE partyhostel in oldtown)
La Rana Dorada (delicious artisanal beer with a long happy hour)
San Blas Islands
We made it to the final stop. It might simultaneously be the most beautiful and the most expensive one in Panama. I know, I hear you all screaming: “The most expensive one?! Panama already killed my wallet!”, but this one is really really worth it. We are talking about the Archipel de San Blas. Over 360 Islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama are stretching all the way down to Colombia. These islands are extremely hard to get to. Managed by the locals they are completely independent from Panama and have near to no tourism so far. Sure bet you’re gonna love it. I could tell you all day about this gem but maybe I’ll just refer you to my blog post about it and the video if you want more impressions. Not done with traveling yet? Enjoy your last 4 days of Panama on the San Blas islands and afterwards continue traveling in Colombia.
Calquice Cruser (day trips or cruises to Colombia, everything is offered)
San Blas Adventures (4 days islandhopping including tours of the indiginous villages)