Bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia, Panama is the country that links Central and South America. If you’re looking for cheap things to do in Panama City, Panama, visit Cinta Costera and Casco Viejo, the capital’s hip and historic neighborhood. Alternatively, one of the most romantic things to do in Panama City, Panama is to enjoy a picnic on Ancon Hill, where you can take in beautiful city views.
There isn’t a shortage of adventurous things to do in Panama either. Visitors can go snorkeling around the San Blas Islands, cruise along the Panama Canal, and hike to Volcán Barú’s summit. Here are a few more unique things to do in Panama.
1. Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is a 51-mile artificial waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Opened in 1914, around 14,000 vessels pass through the canal annually. The best place for people to see the Panama Canal is from the Miraflores Visitor Center. From the center’s three observation decks, you can watch vessels travel through the last section of the canal and its locks. Otherwise, there are canal day tours available from Panama City as well.
2. San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of 365 islands and cays – with 49 of them inhabited. Located on the country’s Caribbean side, the Kuna people (a tribe indigenous to Panama) run the islands and are very protective of their land, culture and independence. This means there are no luxurious chain hotels or restaurants. The best way to see the San Blas Islands is on a sailing trip from either Panama or Colombia. Expect to see lots of palm trees and crystal clear turquoise water.
3. Panamá Viejo
Panamá Viejo is the last remaining part of the old Panama City. Together with the Panamá historical district, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The site includes ruins from the 16th century, when the city was the first European settlement along the Pacific Ocean. One of the most well-preserved buildings is the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Today, you can tour the ruins, climb the Cathedral’s lookout tower, and visit an onsite museum.
4. Gatun Lake
Located south of Colón, Gatun Lake is one of the world’s largest artificial lakes. But more importantly, it’s a major part of the Panama Canal, as ships traverse the lake for 21 miles. There are several attractions and tours available on Gatun Lake. You can do night time and eco-adventures, or visit Barro Colorado, an island and National Monument in the middle of the lake. Then there’s Monkey Island, which is home to many curious capuchin and howler monkeys.
5. Casco Viejo, Panama
Casco Viejo is known as Panama City’s most charismatic and hip neighborhood. Translated to Old Town in English, the historic UNESCO World Heritage-listed area is only four avenues wide. Some of the best things to do in Panama City’s smallest neighborhood include visiting the Interoceanic Canal Museum; sipping an expensive cup of Geisha coffee at Cafe Unido; enjoying traditional street food from local vendors; and shopping in the boutiques (don’t leave without purchasing an iconic Panama hat).
Miraflores is the name of one of the Panama Canal’s three locks. As mentioned previously, the lock is also home to the Miraflores Visitor Center, which is one of the best places to view the canal in action. The center is home to three observation decks (admission fees apply), as well as a theater, gift shop, restaurant and four exhibition halls. The halls feature displays on the canal’s history and biodiversity, while the restaurant has impressive canal views.
7. Taboga Island
One of the top things to do in Panama City is a day trip to Taboga Island. Known as the ‘Island of Flowers,’ the volcanic island is located approximately 20 minutes from the city’s shoreline. Tourism is the island’s main industry, with regular ferries between the island and mainland. On Taboga Island you can relax or go snorkeling at the beach; hike up to its highest points; or do a boat or whale watching tour.
8. Volcán Barú
Volcán Barú is an active stratovolcano and the country’s highest point. It’s located 22 miles from the Costa Rica border. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (on a very clear day, that is). The best way to experience Volcán Barú is on a sunrise summit hike. However, it’s a very challenging trail and it takes experienced hikers five to six hours to reach the summit, so proceed with caution!
9. Ancon Hill
Ancon Hill is a 654-ft hill overlooking Panama City. It’s one of the city’s most popular lookouts, as from the two viewpoints at the top you can see the city skyline, the canal, and the historic neighborhood of Casco Viejo. To reach the summit, you do have to walk for about 30 minutes along a paved road through thick jungle. Keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife, like toucans, eagles soaring overhead, and Panamanian guinea pigs.
10. Boquete Bees (now called NatureBoquete)
Located on the side of Volcán Barú, NatureBoquete is set on a coffee estate. Their mission is to “provide inspirational nature-based experiences and products.” Some of the experiences on offer include the renowned VIP Honey and Butterfly Tour. This involves their famous honey tasting, a tour of the butterfly house and laboratory, and a farm walk. There’s also the Short and Sweet Coffee Tour, the Butterfly Cacao Ceremony, and daily yoga practices as well.
11. Cinta Costera
Cinta Costera (meaning Coastal Beltway) is a land reclamation project in the capital that cost a cool $189 million. Extending from Paitilla to El Chorrillo, a visit is one of the best things to do in Panama City. Head to the beautiful waterfront boulevard for a walk, bike ride or skate – whatever suits you. On the weekend, Cinta Costera comes alive with music and street artists. It’s also where a lot of the city’s best events happen.
12. Panama Metro
Established in 2014, the Panama Metro is a rapid transit system that connects the north and east sides of Panama City to the central business district. It was opened to help ease traffic congestion, and to be a viable alternative to the Metrobus transport network. As Central America’s first subway, the Panama Metro currently consists of two lines: one is 9.8 miles long, while the other is a 13-mile route. It’s definitely one of the easiest ways to get around Panama City.
BioMuseo focuses on the origin of the Panamanian isthmus and its significant impact on biodiversity across the globe. The multicolored building was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. It’s home to the Biodiversity Park, which is a living extension of the museum. It features many native flora species and eight interactive stations. Inside, there are eight galleries. Panamarama is an interactive display on the country’s ecosystem, while the Gallery of Biodiversity features a massive multicolored stained glass wall.
14. Isla Perro
Isla Perro (also referred to as Dog Island) is one of the most famous islands in the San Blas archipelago. It’s known for its water, which visitors say may be the clearest and cleanest in the world. It also has a former army gunboat shipwreck on its shores. These two things combined make this one of the region’s best snorkeling spots. Isla Perro is about an hour from the mainland, and can be reached by sailboat or water taxi.