Planning Your Trip to Panama
With a wealth of distinct regions (from wild rainforest-clad lowlands and sandy palm-fringed archipelagos to the chilly heights of Volcán Barú), it helps to know whether you want a beach-focused vacation or an immersion in nature. Perhaps your interests lie in Panama's history or its four indigenous cultures. Or maybe you're an adrenalin junkie looking for whitewater and zipline adventures. Once you identify what you want from your experience, you will be better able to maximize your time and balance these different interests to plan your itinerary.
If history is important, begin your trip in Panama City and the former Canal Zone, then explore the nearby sites associated with the early colonial Spanish Main, such as Portobelo. For culture, you can focus on the Azuero Peninsula, the heartland of Panamanian folkloric traditions, including its most important carnival. Beach-lovers should head to the beaches of the Pearl Islands or Bocas del Toro. Adrenalin fans will find prime adventure activities throughout the highlands, especially around Boquete. And nature lovers are spoiled for choice, from the semi-arid desert in Azuero to the coastal wetlands of Coiba Island and Golfo de Chiriquí.
In three days, travelers can experience Panama City and the Panama Canal in depth. With only one week, it's best to focus on no more than two regions, such as combining Panama City and the canal zone with the Central Caribbean or with the Valle de Antón. Plan on spending around 10 days for a holiday in Panama that covers multiple areas and highlights, adding the Azuero Peninsula, Boquete, or Bocas del Toro.
Panama has good domestic air service, so it's easy to fly between Panama City and David, or Bocas del Toro, in the far north. At the same time, the Pan-American Highway makes a self-drive vacation easy.
Panama in 3 Days
If you have only three days, it's best to focus on a single destination, and the logical choice is Panama City, which has heaps to see and do, especially if you include the Panama Canal. History buffs will be especially delighted by all colonial sites, plus the fascinating Panama Canal museums.
Begin with Casco Viejo, the restored colonial quarter—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—founded in 1673, and where highlights include Plaza Independencia and Catedral Metropolitana. On day two, head to Panama Viejo, the ruined original city founded in 1519 but abandoned in 1617 after pirate Henry Morgan's attack. Then explore the Balboa district, including the Panama Canal Administration Building. The next day, head to Miraflores Lock Visitor Center to experience the narrated passage of ships; ride the Gamboa Rainforest Aerial Tram; then hike in Parque Nacional Soberanía, good for birdwatching.
Panama in 1 Week
One week allows you to explore Panama City and the Canal plus one or perhaps even two other regions, such as Bocas del Toro or the Pearl Islands, for a more rounded experience of the country.
On this 7-day adventure, begin in Panama City with two days exploring the restored cobbled plazas of colonial-era Casco Viejo. Next day head to Panama Viejo to roam the ruins of Panama's first city; then to Miraflores Locks Visitor Center to watch ships transiting the Canal. On day three, enjoy a boat tour through the canal before paddling on day four up the Chagres River to visit a village of the indigenous Emberá people. The next day, an aerial tram ride at Gamboa Rainforest precedes spotting wildlife in Soberanía National Park and, on your final day, a train ride to the sleepy Caribbean town of Portobelo.
Begin this 7-day family adventure in Panama City by exploring the restored cobbled plazas of colonial-era Casco Viejo or visiting the Biomuseo to learn about Panama's biodiversity. Next, cruise through the Panama Canal locks by boat, then explore the wildlife-rich Metropolitan Natural Park or ruined 16th-century Panama Viejo. On day three, fly to Bocas del Toro for three days of beach-lazing, snorkeling, surfing, wildlife viewing, and soaking up this Caribbean archipelago's laid-back tropical island vibe. Flying back to Panama City on day six, you'll have time to climb Cerro Ancón for panoramic city views.
A week based in Panama City gives you time to venture further afield on this 7-day itinerary. Start by exploring the modern city around Punta Paitilla, or pedal along the Causeway, before exploring the ruined Panama la Vieja and restored cobbled colonial city of Casco Viejo. Next, enjoy a full-day mini-cruise through the Panama Canal locks; spend a day exploring luxuriant Soberanía National Park, plus a boat ride around Gatun Lake; then paddle up the Chagres River to visit an indigenous Emberá community. Finally, treat yourself to a day excursion by ferry for lazing on the beaches of the Pearl Islands.
Panama in 10 Days
Have a little more than a week? Ten days provides sufficient time to mix and match several distinct destinations and experiences. Here are three great options in this time frame for different types of travelers.
On this 10-day island-focused itinerary, begin with a day exploring Panama Viejo or cycle the Causeway in Panama City. Then, fly to the Pearl Islands for two days enjoying pristine beaches and water activities, including whale-watching (July-October). Return to Panama City for a guided walking tour of Casco Viejo, then head to Miraflores Locks Visitor Center to watch ships passing along the Canal. End with two days in Bocas del Toro, with snorkeling, surfing, and spotting wildlife in Bastimentos National Marine Park and San San-Pond Sak, before hopping a flight back to Panama City for more sightseeing.
This 10-day itinerary focused on Panama's Pacific coast combines exploration and relaxation. Start in Panama City with options to explore Casco Viejo by Segway, hike Cerro Ancón, and/or bike the Cinta Costera before paddling up the Chagres River to visit an indigenous Emberá community. Then embark in a rental car to Veraguas for five days, including a nocturnal marine turtle observation outing, a day trip to Coiba Island (the "Galapagos of Central America") and Granito de Oro, plus free time in Santa Catalina. Return to Panama City to watch ships transiting the Canal at the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center.
This 10-day itinerary begins in Panama City with a flight to David, then a boat ride to Isla Palenque, in the Gulf of Chiriquí for two days to snorkel, kayak, and hike before heading to Boquete for rafting, ziplining, coffee-estate tours, and hiking Barú Volcano National Park. On day six, you'll fly to Panama City and continue to laid-back Portobelo for three days to explore the colonial fortresses, snorkel or scuba dive, and even enjoy an unforgettable sunset river journey. Finally, go back to Panama City, where you'll visit the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center and tour Casco Antiguo and the impressive Biodiversity Museum.
Panama in 15-17 Days
With two or three weeks to explore, you can gain a full sense of Panama's geographic, ecological, and cultural diversity using the following two suggested self-drive itinerary options.
Spend four days at leisure to discover Panama City, the Canal, Gatun Lake, and the surrounding region on this 15-day self-drive itinerary before driving to beautiful El Valle de Antón (an ecotourism center in an extinct volcano) for hiking and ziplining. Then, head to the Azuero Peninsula for two days in the heart of Panamanian folkloric tradition before continuing north to Boquete to explore the heights around Volcan Barú National Park, with activities from ATV tours to ziplining. Finally, head to Boca Chica and Gulf of Chiriquí Marine Park for three days before dropping off your rental car and flying back to Panama City.
Start this 17-day itinerary with two days exploring Panama City, including Casco Viejo, ruined Panama Viejo, and Miraflores Locks, then drive to El Valle de Antón for active adventures such as hiking to Slot Canyon. Next, drive the Azuero Peninsula for two nights at surfer-friendly Playa Venao before heading to the wilds of Santa Fe National Park, where you'll stay at a coffee plantation. Then on to Boquete for ziplining and other outdoor activities; Bocas del Toro for three days of laid-back Caribbean lifestyle; plus two days in the Gulf of Chiriquí, including a sailing adventure, before flying back to Panama City.
More Great Panama Itineraries
Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Panama? Check out these other Panama itineraries, with outdoor adventures, cultural trips, and best-of tours to hit the highlights.