From mechanical locks to shimmering Pacific beachfronts and salt-washed Carib towns where the best waves are the currency, we've put together our pick of the top 10 places to visit in Panama. Warning: wanderlust may be induced…
Bocas del Toro
For many, this land of tropical forests and misty bayous is the quintessential dose of Panamanian natural beauty. Spilling into the Caribbean Sea on the extreme north-eastern edge of the country, it comes dressed in coconut palms and ringed by verdant mangroves. Bocas – as it's simply known to the locals – is actually a province all of its own; one which fragments into a series of little islands as it meets the warm waters of the ocean. The major town here is also called Bocas del Toro: a salt-washed medley of Carib-colored homes and beer shacks, where surf boards are the weapon of choice and lazy days on the beaches are compulsory. Don't worry, we head straight here on our Bocas Breeze Panama itinerary!
Along the bends of Panama Bay, just north from where the forest of high-rise business blocks loom to form the heart of Panama City, you'll find this sprawling and fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's the only remaining part of the original city that was founded here by the conquistadors back in 1519, and comes complete with crumbling churches, lichen-spotted buildings from centuries gone by and ruined homes where the first Spanish settlers would have lived. It's considered to have been one of the first European towns on the entire west coast of the Americas, and bears the scars of everyone from Welsh pirates to colonial naval fleets. Put simply: this aged area on the outskirts of the capital is a real must for any history buffs!
San Blas Islands
Rising and falling in and out of the Caribbean waters just off the north coast of mainland Panama, this peppering of over 300 islets, cays, and sandbanks is arguably the most irresistible tropical destination in the country (apart from Bocas, of course). Looking like something plucked straight from the pages of Robinson Crusoe, the archipelago of the San Blas is made up of swaying palm trees and sand so white you'll need Ray Bans to even think about landing. The area is not only for relaxing though – it's also home to the earthy Kunas islanders, who have a fascinating culture that's totally different to most of Central America.
Playa Las Lajas
The wide, golden sands that fringe the Gulf of Chiriqui find their zenith at Playa Las Lajas: a long section of perfect powder that glows hot under the Pacific sun, and comes dressed in the occasional sprouting of wild mangrove forests from the nearby swamps. The vibe is chilled and laidback, and there's a smattering of local tavernas to munch fresh seafood dishes in as you while away long and lazy days by the shore. What more could you want?
The name Miraflores has become synonymous with the elaborate and eye-opening lock system that exists up and down the Panama Canal. That's because this spot on the courses of the great waterway that cuts right through the heart of Central America is where you'll find one of the best visitor centers, offering an insight into the history of construction, the engineering, and the human and natural impact of creating the mighty canal. One of the major highlights is watching the locks themselves in action. Be sure to take along some binoculars and wait for one of those hulking tankers to activate the gates – you'll see what we mean!
El Valle de Anton
The high-perched hamlet of El Valle de Anton offers a respite from the scorching tropical heat of the lowlands, thanks largely to its place in between the misty woods and craggy ridges of an extinct volcanic cone. You'll find it hidden right in the heart of the country, where virgin rainforests erupt on all sides and the occasional multi-coloured bird can be seen flitting through the canopies. El Valle isn't just great for escaping the heat though; it's also a fine place to undertake some hiking (there aren't too many people on the trails here), horse riding, or even waterfall watching in the woods.
A much-loved stopover on LBW tours of the past, the humid heights of Boquete have a smorgasbord of treats on the menu for the lover of the great outdoors. You can pull on the walking boots and hit the trails in the company of smoking volcanic peaks. You can brave the roaring rapids of the Caldera River. You can seek out kaleidoscopic parrots in the boughs overhead. Or, you can take things easier – just opt to kick-back in a hammock between the tin-roofed shacks of the lively little town, and be sure to grab an aromatic coffee fresh from one of the surrounding plantations.
Peppering the Pacific Ocean some 30 miles from the coast of mainland Panama, the Pearl Islands really do live up to their name. They are all fringed by golden sands that slope softly down to seas of turquoise blue; dotted with royal palm blooms and waxy orchids; ensconced in a series of beautiful coral reefs, where sailfish meet mahi mahi meet bojala in the currents. The island of Contadora is the most popular, and there's a clutch of great resorts there, all mixed in with some rustic shack accommodations just meters from the shoreline. Walking is the best way to get around, and you'll find you're able to hop between several of the paradisiacal coves in a single day! (It's in this neck of the woods that LBW host that legendary Island Life package.)
The off-beat backpacker mecca of Santa Catalina really is about one thing and one thing only: the ocean. Buffeted by the endless swells of the great Pacific blue, the land here was first discovered by intrepid wave riders sometime in the last century. Eager to preserve its idyll, those guys went out of their way to keep news of the awesome left-to-righters on the down low. But the story was too great to hide, and today Santa Catalina is on the up. It magnetizes surfers and beach bums, all of whom come to feel the fresh spray of the sea in the shadow of the primeval rainforests all around.
It's just a short hop, skip and jump across the Pacific straits to Isla Taboga from Panama City, which is precisely why this small speck of land in the ocean is one of the favourite getaways for dwellers of the capital. Built up and packed with places to stay and restaurants to eat in, it's usually bustling with bankers and business people and local families from the mainland. The beaches are lovely though, with golden-hued sands and the occasional leaning palm tree offering shade. Watersports remain another major pull – expect jet skis and fishing excursions aplenty.
Can you think of any other awesome places to visit in Panama? We know there are loads more, and we'd love to hear about them in the comments below. Or, if you think it's time you went to explore this sun-kissed land in the heart of Central America, be sure to check out our Panama itineraries.
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