Panama is a stunning country with much to see and do, but for the uninitiated, the sheer variety of activities you can do here can be a little overwhelming. If you’re planning a Panama vacation, check out our list of the top five things to do and get ready to experience a trip you’ll never forget.
1. Take a tour of the Panama Canal
Alongside the Suez Canal in Egypt, the Panama Canal is one of the most famous and important waterways in the world. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, this stretch of water has served as a trade route for centuries. Today, a cruise along the Panama Canal is one of the most popular tourist activities in the country and offers you a unique opportunity to enjoy the stunning scenery of this beautiful country.
Many tour companies offer excursions along the Panama Canal in a variety of vessels. From luxury cruise liners to amphibious buses, there are many ways to experience this remarkable feat of engineering. In addition, there are several major departure points along either bank of the canal, including Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the western shores, and Colón on the northern Atlantic coast. You can choose a dock from which to depart and see certain parts of the canal, or embark on a full-length voyage along the waterway and experience the entirety of the canal.
Another way to see this remarkable canal is by train. Taking a leisurely ride on the Panama Canal Railroad is an ideal way to spend an afternoon, as you can marvel at the rich beauty of the Panamanian countryside from the comfort of a train car and cover a great deal of ground in a short time. Running closely alongside the canal for some stretches of the journey and running through tropical rainforests in others, a train ride along the Panama Canal is the perfect way to see this striking national treasure.
2. Spend some time in an Embera Village
The indigenous people of Panama have a rich history and vibrant culture, and nowhere else is this more evident than the Embera villages. Located just 90 minutes from Panama City, these settlements embody the warmth of the Panamanian people and provides visitors with a fascinating glimpse into the traditional lifestyle of the country’s indigenous people.
One of the largest villages is are located approximately 4 miles upriver from Lake Alajuela along the Chagres River. The local people are remarkable craftsmen, and you can purchase authentic handmade goods during your stay. They are curious about the lifestyles of visitors, and are extremely welcoming to tourists. After meeting the locals and touring their village, you can sit down and enjoy a traditional meal of patacones (fried green plantains) and fried chicken or fish. You’ll also have the chance to learn about how these people hunt, treat their sick and complete various spiritual and tribal customs.
3. Walk Around Old Town Casco Viejo
Panama City is one of the most exciting cities in Central America, and it is also home to Casco Viejo, or the Old Town, a historic district and World Heritage Site.
The sense of history in Casco Viejo is palpable, and everywhere you turn, you’ll see evidence of Panama’s rich cultural influences and fascinating history. Originally constructed following the almost total destruction of Panama City in the 1670s, the district soon became a thriving center of commerce. As the city grew up around it, Casco Viejo retained much of its colorful past, as the area was a favored haunt of pirates and other unsavory characters during Panama’s Colonial period.
Today, many of the walkways and charming side streets of Casco Viejo are largely the same as they were in the late 17th century, and the district is home to many of Panama’s most beloved historic monuments and landmarks. Highlights of a walking tour of the district include stops at La Iglesia San Felipe Neri, one of the oldest churches in Panama; the Catedral Metropolitana, which is among the oldest and largest cathedrals in Panama City; and Casa Gongora, a historic mansion that dates back to colonial times.
Despite being one of the most historic parts of Panama City, Casco Viejo is also an up-and-coming area for the city’s young people. Casco has a vibrant arts scene, and the bars and clubs throughout the neighborhood attract a lively crowd when the sun goes down. As one of Panama City’s most culturally diverse regions, it should come as little surprise that you can enjoy food from around the world in the district’s many restaurants, dance the night away to Cuban jazz and other music in Casco’s rum bars, and even take rooftop yoga classes to enjoy a moment of peace and serenity overlooking the Panama Canal.
To preserve the enduring legacy of Casco Viejo for future generations, the area is currently undergoing a major renovation project to preserve its historic architecture.
4. Wake up to a coffee tour
Far from a mere morning beverage, coffee was instrumental in the development of Panama’s agricultural industry, and today, the precious coffee bean remains one of the country’s most important exports. If you’ve ever wondered how coffee gets from the plantation to your cup, why not take a coffee tour?
Many of the country’s largest and oldest coffee plantations are located in the province of Boquete, as this region was and is one of Panama’s largest coffee-producing areas. During one of these tours, you’ll learn more about the history of coffee production in Panama, as well as how early farmers lived and made their livelihoods from the production of this important crop. You’ll also discover the difference between various types of coffee, and master the art of making the perfect cup of joe. If you’ve ever found yourself turning your nose up at the brands in your local supermarket, these tours are definitely for you.
5. Brave the rapids on a kayaking/rafting adventure
There’s no better way to get your heart racing than by experiencing the adrenaline rush of kayaking or rafting down one of Panama’s mighty rivers.
The Chiriquí River is arguably the best river in the country for rafting adventures, as some parts of the waterway are ideally suited for beginners while others will test the skills – and the bravery – of even the most seasoned rafter. Many tour companies offer guided excursions along the river, including equipment rental, so all you need to do is show up. Whether you want to glide slowly down the Chiriquí and marvel at the lush forests and exotic wildlife on either side of you or speed down some of the most intense rapids in Central America, Panama has it all.
While rafting is most definitely an exercise in teamwork, kayaking is a much more individual experience. To truly connect with Mother Nature during your trip to Panama, a kayaking expedition is hard to beat. After learning the ropes in a shallow part of a river, you’ll embark on your solo journey down the waterways that wind through some of Panama’s most breathtaking scenery. There are several excellent places to kayak in Panama, including the waters of Bocas del Toro, parts of the Chiriquí River, Colón and even sections of the Panama Canal. Whether you’re a seasoned kayaker or have never set foot in a kayak before, you’ll never forget your kayaking adventure in Panama.