My wife and I want to take a 1-2 week vacation in Panama in the month of December. We want to land in Panama City, rent a car, and travel from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean, and see points in between. I guess, we want to see what Panama has to offer, including a little bit of culture, and lots of natural beauty.
I want to travel on a budget, and prove to my wife that Panama can be both affordable and rewarding! I was hoping you could point us in the right direction.
Another possible consideration would be if there was a way to research/discover a way to make a modest income in an investment or business capacity. This is not my primary goal for the immediate future, but just want to keep my eyes open should a good opportunity arise.
Thank you for your email. We’d be happy to assist.
Renting a car to see Panama is a good idea. The more time you have, the better, because some of the distances are pretty far. Hertz, Thrifty, Budget, and the other big agencies all have offices in Panama City and are quite affordable.
Most people spend a couple of days in Panama City, checking out Casco Viejo, Amador, and the Panama Canal. You don’t really need a rental car in Panama City, so I’d suggest using taxis in the city (and from the airport) until you are ready to leave to the country side. If you try to see the city in a rental car you will probably end up spending too much time caught in traffic and getting lost – a taxi driver is a much better option.
Leaving Panama City
It is pretty easy to drive around Panama once you leave the city, although, you should probably have hotel reservations in advance as many places fill up and you don’t want to waste time looking for accommodations.
Hotels have become more expensive over the years but it really depends on your budget. “Nice” places usually come in around $100/night and go up from there. “Budget” places are closer to $50/night and of course there are cheaper places but it starts to get pretty rustic at under $50/night. I could probably make some recommendations based on your budget and my travel agent may be able to assist with reservations.
Gamboa, just outside Panama City, is actually pretty good for spotting for wildlife considering how close it is to a major metropolitan center. The kayak tour there is great and you don’t even have to stay at the resort to rent kayaks, but you will need a good guide to spot wildlife. Kayaking around Gamboa is the best place to see monkeys, crocs, and even toucans if you are lucky.
Portobelo is more of a historical/cultural excursion where you’ll find remnants of Henry Morgan’s attack on Panama, and a Caribbean micro-culture unique only to Panama. The beaches are OK but not exceptional. The seafood is really good and the area around Portobelo is very scenic, with rolling green hills dropping into the turquoise Caribbean seas. The beaches get nicer (and the road gets worse) the farther east you go beyond Portobelo, but there are better “beach destinations” in Panama so don’t go if you aren’t interested in the historical/cultural element.
Heading west from Panama City along the InterAmerican highway, El Valle is a highland village about 90 minutes from the Panama City limits. El Valle has mud baths, waterfall hiking, and an artisan market on Sundays. There are decent places to stay in El Valle at reasonable prices.
Also about 90 minutes outside the city, Santa Clara is one of the nicest, and easiest to access sandy beaches on the Panama mainland. A lot of people stay at the resorts near there (Decameron, Playa Blanca, among others). Alternatively you can just stop at Santa Clara for the day and hang out at the beach – you’ll find a decent restaurant, shady beach huts with hammocks for rent, and fresh water showers. There are other non-resort lodging options in the area.
La Laguna is also an interesting stop – it’s a natural lagoon at the top of a mountain, surrounded by cloud forest and mountains. La Laguna is inland from Coronado about 30 minutes and is easy to reach by car. La Laguna is generally not touristy at all. The turn off to La Laguna is before Santa Clara or El Valle if you are heading west out of Panama City.
Pedasi vs. Santa Catalina
Considering your time constraints, you’ll need to decide if you should either head down to Pedasi or Santa Catalina (to see both of these areas would probably be too much driving for a two week trip if you are also planning to visit Bocas). Pedasi and Santa Catalina beaches are ideal for surfing and fishing. Surf board rentals and fishing captains are generally available in both locations.
Pedasi is attracting more and more expats and has a little more to offer in terms of town facilities than Santa Catalina (Pedasi is also closer to Las Tablas whereas Santa Catalina is fairly remote, over an hour to the next largest town). Apart from surfing, visitors choose Santa Catalina if they intend to also visit Isla Coiba – one of the most pristine islands anywhere. If you are on a budget or time constraint, you could visit Isla Iguana near Pedasi instead of the Catalina/Coiba combo. Isla Iguana is a beautiful island and very easy/cheap to reach when compared to Isla Coiba.
Formerly a remote island prison camp, active during Noriega days, the beaches and scenery around Isla Coiba are super nice, but there is nowhere to stay on the island apart from camping or maybe staying at the ANAM ranger station, so most people go to Coiba for the day from Santa Catalina.
Don’t miss the abandoned prison camp if you go to Isla Coiba, it’s a bit spooky but interesting to see, with long forgotten filing cabinets full of prisoner details and unmarked burial sites. Snorkeling around Coiba is fabulous, often revealing sea turtles among other underwater life. Scuba diving is supposed to be excellent here.
Isla Coiba is a serious deal and would require some planning to get there. Boats and captains for the trip to Coiba generally need to be reserved well in advance and it can be expensive unless you go with a larger group. You might get lucky and find a group to join with upon arrival, but if this is a must-see on your itinerary, you are better off to make advance arrangements with a reliable operator.
Next, head further west to David and up to the quaint coffee growing village of Boquete. In Boquete you should check out Finca Lerida (gorgeous coffee estate with a great restaurant for lunch), El Explorador (botanical gardens with a quirky theme), and Mi Jardin Su Jardin (more botanical gardens with an even quirkier theme). There is also great hiking around Boquete and scenic loops to drive. There is a 9 hole golf course in Valle Escondido, a residential resort near the center of town.
Bocas Del Toro
There is a nice short cut from Boquete to Bocas through Gualaca, ask for directions when you are getting ready to leave Boquete. The drive to Bocas is spectacular as you cross the continental divide and descend down to the Caribbean, especially if the sun is shining. Leave your car in Almirante in the secure parking area (usually the local kids show you the way) and take the water taxi to Bocas town on Isla Colon.
Bocas has some really nice sandy beaches but they are outside of Bocas town where most of the lodging is located. To access the best beaches in Bocas, you should take a boat from town to Isla Bastimentos followed by a short walk across the island. Your boat captain will advise you. It is easy to find guides and gear to go snorkeling, kayaking, or fishing on demand in Bocas.
Santa Fe and La Pintada
The drive back from Bocas to Panama City is a long one (roughly 10 hours), and should probably be broken up into 2-3 days. Although you can fly from Bocas to Panama City, there are no services that I am aware of to drive your rental car back for you (there is a business opportunity for someone).
There aren’t many places to stay along the road back from Bocas to David, and there isn’t all that much to see between David and Penonome (except maybe Tole, a prominent indigenous village).
A couple of options to break up the drive are Santa Fe and Penonome. Santa Fe is a quaint highland village just inland from Santiago that not many tourists visit – it’s basically a less touristy version of Boquete. You could also stop overnight in Penonome to see La Pintada. La Pintada is a small village with some scenic highlands, hat and cigar making, and hardly a tourist in sight. You could choose to stop at El Valle and/or Santa Clara on your way back to Panama City, instead of on the way out.
San Blas can be a unique adventure if you have an extra 2-3 days. Fly to San Blas from Panama City and live with the Kuna Indians on a sparsely populated Caribbean island. If you have a monster 4×4, a winch, and nerves of steel, you could try to drive from Panama City to San Blas via Chepo.
Travel Tips and Warnings
I doubt you could do all of the above in two weeks, don’t stress yourself out trying to see everything on one trip. You can always come back to see different places next time.
Check the calendars for annual festivals. Almost every town and village in Panama celebrates a festival at some point during the year, plus there are national festivals like Independence Day, Semana Santa and Carnaval when the whole country shuts down to celebrate. Arriving for a festival can complicate your travel planning but can also make the experience more memorable!
About the only warnings would be to watch your speed on the roads, there are frequent speed traps and motorcycle cops along Panama roadways. It is often hard to know what the speed limit is, sometimes there are no signs or very few signs – just try not to be the fastest car at any point. Driving in Panama City can be hectic – avoid driving in or near the city anywhere close to rush hour (7 – 9 AM, 12 – 2 PM and 4 – 7 PM). The lightest traffic is mid-morning, or weekends. Also it is illegal to not wear your seatbelt or to talk on the phone while driving.
Work and Business
As far as business/work opportunities go, getting an actual job in Panama isn’t a great option, it probably won’t pay much unless it is higher level management, in which case you’ll need to speak fluent Spanish. Creating a business or partnership is a better way to go. Opportunities would depend on your skills and knowledge. There is a lot of growth still in various sectors of Panama so plenty to consider. Something will probably occur to you as you get to know the country and start meeting people.
About The Author: Michael recently updated his book Panama investment opportunity, which is now available for instant download from Amazon.com. Panama 101 lists accommodations, taxi drivers, tour operators and many other resources.