On my most recent trip to Panama, I absolutely fell in LOVE with this country but also learned so much! It absolutely stole my heart and has now replaced Belize as my favorite Central American country. (Sorry, Belize!) After experiencing 2 weeks in this heavenly place, I walked away feeling I had really gotten to know the destination and that it had an identity of its own. This was something seriously lacking in Costa Rica, in my personal opinion.
Before traveling here, I worried perhaps it would feel sterile or synthetic like Costa Rica since so many ex-pats live there and it seems to be quite a popular destination… I couldn’t have been more wrong! Sure, there are communities of ex-pats but honestly, I didn’t even meet another American until 10 days in to my trip. Not that meeting a fellow American abroad is ever a bad thing. It was just starkly different from what I had anticipated.
After spending 2 weeks there myself, I feel there are certain things I did perfectly and others I wish I had done differently. Being such a small country, it is definitely possible to experience a decent amount and leave feeling like you really got to know this wonderful country.
I’ll outline my itinerary and let you know what I would suggest changing to make yours better and also include another week. Because while you can experience a lot of Panama in 2 weeks, I think 3 would be prime and I know exactly what I would have done, had I been able to stay another 7 days.
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4 Nights in Panama City
*I list this as 4 nights because I only spent 4 days in the city and then 5:00am on my 5th day was leaving for the San Blas Islands.*
For my time in Panama City, I stayed at the Magnolia Inn in Casco Viejo (AKA Casco Antigua) and really loved this neighborhood. For decades, Casco Viejo was an extremely poor and neglected neighborhood of the city and it wasn’t until the Presidential Palace moved there, that a revitalization effort took place. Now it’s full of trendy eateries, cafes, and hotels which sit directly next to dilapidated, (literally) crumbling buildings. It’s an incredible visual dichotomy.
Casco Viejo is a small neighborhood that you can explore in about a day and one where you are pretty safe. You can mostly get around on foot but if needed, Uber is available in the city and is very cheap. At night, there are drug dealers and gang members on the streets but they avoid tourists mostly because they don’t want the police snooping around. Still, I would not advise carrying your wallet or more cash than necessary and always keep your valuables safe and locked up. Pick-pocketing can be a problem here as well. One of the people in my dorm had his phone stolen right out of his pocket while walking around on his first day there.
For my time, I decided to focus mainly on all the trendy spots to eat which I’ll be sharing here on the blog soon! Trust me, if you want a good meal, you won’t have a hard time finding one in Panama City.
Now, honesty time…
Panama City is definitely the part of my itinerary I wish I had cut in half and most people agree with me who have spent time in Panama City. Frankly, I’m not totally sure why I didn’t just add more time to my stay in Bocas Del Toro. Originally I was going to spend 2 days in Boca Chica but cut that part of my trip out to avoid taking two domestic flights and all the added expenses. Now, I know better.
Really, you don’t need any more than 2 days in the city. One to experience all of Casco Viejo (or another part of the city if you prefer) and another to do the touristy stuff like the Panama Canal. If you’re worried that’s not enough time, don’t fret: To go to most regions, you’ll have to return to Panama City before venturing onward.
While you don’t need a lot of time here, you absolutely cannot miss the Panama Canal. I almost skipped it and am so glad I didn’t. The ticket is a hefty $20 but very worth it. (You also get a museum and Imax film about the Canal for this price. Though my dumba** missed that part!) This feat of human engineering and ingenuity is astounding in person. I would recommend getting there before 9:30 AM. The Canal usually switches directions midday (between 10:30a – 4:30p) so no ships are going through. It gets packed quite quickly, so getting there right after they open (8:00a) like I did will allow you to find a good spot with an excellent view.
In the same day, you can visit the Biomuseo (Biodiversity Museum) which is a short Uber or taxi ride from the canal. Tickets are not cheap here either… A whopping $18! Quite a kick in the shin to me coming from Washington, DC where almost all of our museums are free! If you’re on a tight budget, you can certainly skip it but it is a well thought out and beautiful museum if you’re a traveler who enjoys them. The information was fascinating and I didn’t regret spending the money.
4 Days, 3 nights in the San Blas Islands
This is a part of my trip that I feel I planned extremely well and have almost zero regrets. The only being that I actually under packed!
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago off the Southeast of Panama and about a 2-3 hour drive from the city, plus a 30+ minute boat ride. There are many ways you can experience the San Blas and I’ll briefly mention them below but I would absolutely recommend going the way I did, which was with a company called Cacique (Kah-seekh) Cruiser and you’re based in a hut or tent on an island rather than a boat.
The San Blas or Guna Yala is an autonomous indigenous territory of Panama. Meaning, they observe their own laws… but also observe some Panamanian laws. Not only are these islands unbelievably stunning, their culture is also endlessly fascinating. I’ll be sharing an in-depth account of my full experience on these islands with Cacique on the blog in the near future.
Depending what style of traveler you are, make sure to read either my Minimalist or Stylish Packing Guide to the San Blas Islands.
Although, after surviving the most INSANE tropical storm of my life on our island, I was extremely grateful I wasn’t on a boat during it so do keep that in mind! You can hear more about that in my San Blas Experience post.
4 days and 3 nights in the San Blas was the *perfect* amount of time. I enjoyed every minute of every day and slept like a baby every night but you are roughing it and by the end of my 4th day, I was ready to go home and take a long shower.
If you’ve read anything else about San Blas, most articles will tell you to make sure you visit Bocas Del Toro before San Blas because you’ll be disappointed in Bocas after seeing the pristine beauty of San Blas… but I highly disagree! I actually think I might have become depressed had I gone straight back home after San Blas. If you go to Bocas understanding you’re just going to have a different experience, I think it really doesn’t matter what order in which you visit them.
1 Night in Panama City
Most San Blas tour companies will drop you back off in Panama City so staying an additional night here is necessary. You also need to return to collect your luggage since you can’t really bring it all with you to the islands.
The friends I’d made in San Blas all happened to be returning the same day as me so we got together for some dinner at the delicious Nomada Eatery in Casco Viejo, found a rooftop for some drinks and crashed before heading to our new regions the next morning.
5 days, 4 nights in Bocas Del Toro
As I mentioned in the first part of this itinerary, I do wish I had spent less time in Panama City and more time in Bocas Del Toro.
By far, the best way to get to Bocas Del Toro from Panama City is to fly. Tickets are usually around $117 for a roundtrip and the flight is only an hour. Driving, however, takes 10! Night buses are available and if you’re a lucky SOB who is able to sleep anywhere, that is certainly an option as well. To save time and stress, I chose to fly and would recommend this to others. The airports are small and not fussy and flights are very reliable.
Bocas Del Toro is another archipelago of Panama but is Northeast, near the Costa Rican border. Vastly different from the San Blas, these islands are unique and incredible. I was nervous before leaving for my trip because I kept reading that you should always visit Bocas Del Toro before San Blas rather than after because you can’t help but be disappointed. Again, I did not find this to be true.
The islands are yes, incredibly different. Bocas is more jungle and surf, while San Blas is calm, turquoise waters with plush white sand beaches but both are nothing short of amazing. Bocas has an incredibly diverse ecology with adventures galore!
Want to go looking for sloths? You got it.
Incredible snorkeling? Check.
Surf lessons? You betcha!
The possibilities are nearly endless and there are even beautiful white sand beaches with calm waters to swim in, you may just have to go a little more out of your way to get to them.
My time in Bocas is punctuated by 2 regrets….
The first, being that I did not spend more time on Isla Bastimentos in the stunning hotel The Firefly. I spent 3 nights here and knew immediately upon arrival that I should have scheduled more. I honestly could not recommend this hotel highly enough. I love this place so much that it is my first hotel I did a full feature post to share my review with you.
My second, is that I spent any time at all in Bocas Town. Bocas Town is on Isla Colon and is the island where the airport is so you will have to go through it. Without realizing how truly easy and cheap it was to move between the islands, I booked a single nights stay in Colon and figured I could also check that out before heading to Basti the next day. Words can’t fully express my disappointment. I immediately began to think that everyone was right; I should have done San Blas last and this place isn’t at all what I thought it was!
It didn’t help that I got dropped at the wrong hostel–an experience you can read more about here–and the hostel I ended up staying at was honestly the most disgusting place I’ve ever stayed in my life. (Seriously, you should read the story. It’s quite funny and can hopefully help you avoid some of the mistakes I made–not just in Bocas but during my entire trip!) The town was just… Not a place one wants to vacation. Finding a decent meal was a nonstarter and everything was outrageously overpriced and no one has WiFi worth a damn so even trying to google “HOW THE HELL DO I GET OUT OF HERE” was nearly impossible.
My time in Basti though, was sublime. Even though I was visiting at the start of rainy season (and it did rain every day), I found it absolutely dazzling and enjoyed every second of my time there.
How I Would Advise You Spend Your 2 Weeks
So now that we’ve covered my itinerary and discussed some of the up’s and down’s, here’s what I would suggest for your 2 weeks in this outstanding country, along with some accommodation recommendations! I think if you follow this itinerary, your trip could be even more magical than mine and you would have the most optimal experience.
3 Days, 2 Nights in Panama City
Keep in mind, this includes your arrival day and departing early morning on your third day so really, it’s only 2 days you’re spending here. While there, make sure to check out some rooftop bars, fantastic food and of course, the Canal. Or, you could take a day trip to the Bayano Caves which looks like a real treat I’m sad to say I missed out on! I loved staying in Casco Viejo and will recommend places for this area.
Places to Stay:
4 Days, 3 Nights in San Blas
I couldn’t recommend booking with Cacique Cruiser highly enough.
Don’t forget to check out my packing guides! I learned so much from my time there and really feel these will help you tremendously.
If you want something a little more luxurious than Cacique, you won’t really find it on any island (you’ll only find huts and tents) but you can find a variety of catamarans and sailboats on San Blas Sailing or I Travel By Boat.
Alternatively, you could also book a 4 day sailing tour which lands in Colombia with San Blas Adventures (or you can start in Colombia and end in Panama). This seemed to be one of the most popular options that I saw heavily advertised while there but of course, we didn’t meet anyone who’d done it so I can’t provide any personal testimony.
Above all else; Make sure you DON’T just book a day trip! On our tours we picked up people each day doing this and every single person was so sad they didn’t have more time. Most people on the internet would agree with this: Stay at least one night. If you want, you can even leave it open-ended. Ask your hotel to hold your bags and let them know you may be staying more than 1 night in San Blas. If you want to book additional nights, once you’re there, you just let your guide know! Easy breezy.
1 Night in Panama City
As I stated in my own itinerary, this isn’t really an option and you won’t be able to bring your entire luggage to the islands with you so you’ll need to return, gather your things and get a good nights sleep before the next day.
7 Days, 6 Nights in Bocas Del Toro
You might see that number of days and being saying, “But Peyton, is this much time really necessary?” YES! Yes, it is! These islands have so much to offer but also, if you choose to stay at The Firefly–and I really hope you do–you’ll want 3 days to just spend THERE. It’s a beautiful oasis with gorgeous decor and amenities for you to rest and possibly nurse any sunburns you’ve incurred.
While in Bocas, you’ll want to…
- Go searching for sloths
- Visit the Bat Cave
- Snorkel at “Hollywood,” a Mangrove dozens of Starfish call home.
- Snorkel at Coral Caye
- Snorkel at The Blue Coconut (seriously, there’s so much amazing snorkeling)
- Visit Boca Del Drago (AKA Starfish Beach)
- Relax on the many beaches
- Take surfing lessons
- Visit the Zapatilla Islands
- Rent ATV’s and try to find hidden beaches
- Horseback riding
With so much to do on these islands, you’ll want as much time as you can have because you also want to make sure you allow time to just relax and enjoy the scenery!
Places to Stay:
If you have an additional week…
While you can experience much of what Panama has to offer in 2 weeks, I feel 3 would be a perfect amount of time. An additional week would allow you to comfortably explore the Pacific side of this country, of which I have heard incredible things. Many of my San Blas friends went from our trip to these places and provided me some excellent feedback.
Boca Chica is a beautiful lush, green jungle that also boasts beautiful beaches. Can you beat that!? I would suggest heading this way if you’re wanting to head out for an occasional adventure like a hike through the rainforest or some snorkeling mixed in with generous amounts of relaxation and enjoying the view.
While researching for my own stay, I found several beautiful accommodations at all budgets…
Budget: There are no hostels in Boca Chica and your cheapest options would probably be AirBNB’s but most are quite lovely and clean from the looks of it.
An essential if you have your scuba certificate! The island itself is a national park which is surrounded by a marine preserve with some of the best scuba and snorkeling around. You’ll see rays, sharks and whales in the sea and monkeys, birds, and more on land!
You cannot actually stay on Coiba since it is a park and will have to book a tour depending on whether you want to snorkel or dive. I would recommend staying in Santa Catalina and booking your tour from there.
A surfer’s paradise. Whether you’re wanting to learn, or already an enthusiast, you’ll find some of the best waves in Central America here. If you’re going with your partner and have no interest in the surf, lounge on the beach and enjoy the killer landscape around you or take a kayak trip nearby!
An incredibly unique part of the country, Boquete is actually a micro-climate of its own and can get quite cold here! Here, you’ll find cloud forests, coffee plantations and some pretty decent zip lining… Though not much else. Many locals will admit there isn’t much to do in Boquete but it is a lovely and unique place to visit even if only for a night or 2. The environment and landscape is utterly unique compared to the rest of Panama and great to see if you want a quaint town to relax in for a beat.
Budget: Hostel Gaia
Rounding up the Pacific…
My original Panama itinerary did include a few nights stay in Boca Chica but eventually I figured I wanted a more relaxed pace for this trip. While I don’t regret going with a slower pace, I do regret not seeing that side of the country. As you can tell, many of our friends went to Coiba Island and Santa Catalina and just fell in love with the place. I’m so convinced that I will definitely be going back to do a trip to this side of the country.
So now’s the time to ask…
When are you booking your ticket to Panama? After visiting myself, I cannot recommend it highly enough to just about any traveler. I’ve loved my time in this country so much that it already has me wanting to go back! Don’t forget to check out the rest of my posts covering this exquisite gem.