Panama Holiday Planning Guide
With a lively banking sector and a booming tourism industry, Panama remains one of the most powerful nations in the Americas, though it's also one of the smallest by land area. The country boasts coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, so it's not surprising most Panama holidays include some form of seaside entertainment. With outstanding beaches all over the country, it's easy to find an ideal spot to swim, snorkel, dive, fish, sail, or simply kick back on the sand with a few cold drinks. The country's best-known landmark and one of the world's most significant shipping routes, Panama Canal tops most tourist itineraries--many choose to see this engineering wonder by traveling the length of it by train.
Places to Visit in Panama
Regions of PanamaBocas del Toro Province
: An archipelago discovered by Columbus and his crew in 1502, this area, with two national parks and excellent snorkeling spots, continues to be a favorite eco-tourism and water sports destination for foreign visitors.Colon Province
: The hub of Panama's commercial activity, this province boasts vibrant ports and colonial forts surrounded by rainforests with abundant wildlife.Panama Province
: See the iconic Panama Canal and explore the rich cultural heritage in the country's largest urban centers with many popular tourist attractions in Panama.Chiriqui Province
: Nestled between the calm Pacific coast and scenic volcanic highlands, Chiriqui Province attracts visitors with its pristine nature and plenty of chances for adventure tourism.
Cities in PanamaPanama City
: The country's commercial hub, the capital provides an opportunity for a diverse Panama itinerary--it's a city of contrasts, boasting super-modern high-rises surrounded by shantytowns and rainforests.Boquete
: Fresh mountain air, hot springs, and coffee farms make this tourist destination popular with visitors looking for unspoiled natural scenery, outdoor adventure, and a laidback lifestyle. Bocas Town
: A popular tourist destination throughout the year, this town with colorful stilt houses makes a good base for exploring the archipelago known for its soft-sand beaches and abundant marine life.El Valle de Anton
: Nestled in a wide caldera at the foot of a volcano, this town offers elegant spas, hot springs, and outdoor adventure sports amid fabulous rainforests with many waterfalls.Colon
: This seaport offers a diverse selection of sites, ranging from colonial fortification with rusty canons to modern high-rises surrounded by shantytowns.Portobelo
: This quiet town includes the ruins of World Heritage-listed colonial fortifications and attracts tourists with its Afro-Caribbean heritage.
Things to Do in Panama
Popular Panama Tourist AttractionsPanama Canal
: The most famous of all tourist attractions in Panama, this 77 km (48 mi) long marvel of engineering links the Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean.Casco Viejo
: The World Heritage-listed area of Panama City's downtown remains one of the most popular spots on many Panama itineraries. Red Frog Beach
: Part of a vacation resort, this narrow secluded golden-sand beach backed by rainforests offers gorgeous surroundings with plenty of wildlife.Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador)
: Linking four islands and guarding the entrance of the Panama Canal from waves, this popular weekend getaway attracts joggers, cyclists, picnickers, and walkers with its lanes, parks, eateries, and views of the city.Albrook Mall
: A good spot for shopping and dining, this mall contains two floors of shops and eateries.Gatun Locks
: Marvel at the spectacle of huge ships being moved across gigantic locks, dropped 29.5 m (97 ft) from the Gatun Lake into the Atlantic. Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama
: Learn about the epic construction of the Panama Canal from the construction workers' point of view, exploring artifacts exhibited in a historic 19th-century building that served as the headquarters of both the French and American companies involved in the canal-building project.El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden
: Get a good overview of Panama's diverse wildlife--including tapirs, dwarf leopards, spider monkeys, golden pheasants, and white peacocks--while enjoying a bucolic man-made landscape.Panama La Vieja
: Explore the ruins of a 16th-century World Heritage-listed colonial city, once home to 500 houses, convents, chapels, and hospitals.Dolphin Bay Preserve
: Tourists come here to hang out with bottlenose dolphins and combine a jungle trek and snorkeling with a visit to a local village.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Panama
Cuisine of Panama
An eclectic mix of Spanish, Native American, and Afro-Caribbean influences, Panama has a rich and diverse tradition in culinary arts, promising an intense gastronomic experience on your Panama vacation.
Coconut, seafood, root veggies, and tropical fruit are abundant in the coastal regions, with the Caribbean coast having more spicy and traditional dishes due to its Afro-Antillean influence. Many communities in the interior prefer to cook with meat, chicken, beans, rice, and starchy fruit.
Fuel your tour of Panama with a typical plate of roasted chicken or fried whole fish served over white rice, lentils, and red beans, preceded by chicken soup with cilantro.
Breakfasts can get heavy, with fried dough or corn-based tortillas.
Follow up a meal or energize your sightseeing experience with fried yucca, a "tres leches" sponge cake, or a "raspado," a snow cone with delicious local fruit.
Shopping in Panama
Panama boasts some of the largest duty-free shopping zones in the world. The duty-free zone in Colon
, for example, houses over 2,500 companies. Tourists go there for the cultural experience and a chance to snag deals on quality perfumes, cigarettes, liquor, jewelry, watches, clothing, and cosmetics.
Complete your Panama tour with a visit to either a formal or a makeshift crafts fair displaying and selling local handicrafts, like traditional bracelets and anklets, as well colorful and intricately woven "molas," embroidered blouses.Panama City
remains arguably the finest shopping destination in the country, where you can find everything from fine art to replicas of pre-Columbian gold pendants and "guayaberas," tropical dress shirts.
For avid shoppers, a trip to Albrook Mall
provides a chance to browse for special deals on everything from high-end clothing brands to inexpensive souvenirs.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Panama
Interesting Facts About Panama
● In Panama, you can swim both the Atlantic and the Pacific on the same day
● The American military controlled Panama Canal
● The Panama Hat is actually of Ecuadorian origin
● Panama was the first country in Latin America to adopt the American currency, and still uses it
● Panama boasts one of the world's grandest train lines, running from Panama City
● Panama City boasts one of the tallest towers in South America, the Trump Ocean Club, standing at 284 m (932 ft)
Things You Should NOT Do in Panama
Panama remains relatively safe compared to other Latin American countries, but you should not flash wealth or visibly carry your valuable belongings in public.
Be careful when taking photos, especially of children and women, as this may be met with suspicion and, sometimes, violence. Ask for permission from an adult before taking photographs of, or talking to, children.
Do not buy live birds or monkeys, or products made from turtle shells or leather products made from reptile skins--trade in these animals and their use for commercial purposes is against the law.
Holidays & Festivals in Panama
Most of Panama's national holidays are influenced by the Catholic calendar or are commemorated on historical dates of importance. Banks, public offices, and many businesses do not open on most official holidays, called "dias feriados."
The most celebrated festival in the country is the carnival taking place during the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday and the Catholic season of Lent. A family affair of national pride, this "Carnaval de las Tablas" involves entire neighborhoods competing in crowning queens, partying, and parading to festive music.
In Panama City
, "Fiestas Patrias" is arguably the most important cultural event--celebrated on November 3, it marks Panama's separation from Colombia. During this event, you can observe performances by top marching bands.
"El Cristo Negro" (The Black Christ) festival in Portobelo
celebrates the country's African roots through traditional dances, which originated with the region's African slaves.
You will not forget your Panama vacation in Bocas del Toro Province
during "Feria del Mar," a four-day festival celebrating the sea with a mix of activities and arts and crafts fairs.
Useful Panama Travel Tips
Common Greetings in Panama
You can probably get by during your Panama holiday with zero knowledge of Spanish, as most of Panamanians speak some English.
Despite this, you'll likely find it very useful to learn a few Spanish expressions, allowing you to greet the locals respectfully or ask for directions in case you get lost sightseeing.
Climate of Panama
Panama enjoys a tropical maritime climate, similar to many Central American countries. The hot, humid, and cloudy season lasts from May to January, and the dry part of the year spans January to May.
Generally speaking, temperatures in Panama hover around 32 C (90 F) during the day, and 21 C (70 F) in the evening.
The rainy season takes place between October and November, with humidity very high at about 80 percent. If you cannot tolerate hot, steamy weather common along the coast, go for the highlands where the temperatures rarely exceed 29 C (80 F).
Plan your tour of Panama by remembering that the best months to visit are from December to March, the dry season.
Transportation in Panama
The metro bus system covers Panama City
and the suburbs, but you may need to use Spanish to get by. Timetables and routes may be difficult to figure out, but drivers are generally very friendly and helpful.
Given that taxis are inexpensive and widely available, they may work as a more viable option for most tourists on holiday in Panama. Settle on a rate before you get into the taxi in order to avoid a misunderstanding or an exorbitant price at the end of the ride.
Except for the historic Panama City-Colon railway running parallel with the iconic Panama Canal
, there are no other railways in use in the country. Driving a rental car works as a comfortable alternative for anyone wishing to see or cross the Canal over a scenic wrought iron bridge.
Tipping in Panama
Tipping is not mandatory in Panama, but some restaurants will include a service charge on your bill--look for a line item showing an amount next to the words "la propina" or "servicio."
Generally speaking, if you are pleased with the service received, feel free to leave up to 10 percent of the total. In better hotels, you can tip the bellhop about $0.50 per bag and the cleaning staff $1 per night.
Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but rounding up your fare will show appreciation for a safe and pleasant ride. During your Panama holiday, tour guides will expect to be tipped--for a full-day excursion, tip $5-10 per person in your group, and half that for a shorter tour.