Panama


Panama destinations

about From clear turquoise seas to the coffee farms and cloud forests of Chiriquí, Panama can be as chilled out or as thrilling as you wish.

Endless Summer

With a spate of deserted islands, chilled Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best of beach life. And a whole other world begins at the water's edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in the Pacific, snorkeling the rainbow reefs of Bocas del Toro or setting sail in the indigenous territory of Guna Yala, where virgin isles sport nary a footprint. Meanwhile surfers will be psyched to have world-class breaks all to themselves. Hello, paradise.

Cosmopolitan Panama

The dazzling blue coastline and shimmering skyscrapers say Miami, though many joke that you hear more English spoken in Panama. Panama City is culturally diverse and driven, rough-edged yet sophisticated. And there's much that's new or improved. Central America's first subway is operating, the historic Casco district has been beautifully restored and a massive canal expansion completed. Take in the city's funky particulars. Pedal the coastal green space, explore the Casco or attend an avant-garde performance and you will realize this tropical capital isn't just about salsa: that's just the backbeat.

The Great Outdoors

In Panama, nature is all about discovery. Explore the ruins of Spanish forts on the Caribbean coast or boat deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe. Wildlife is incidental: a resplendent quetzal on the highland trail, an unruly troupe of screeching howler monkeys outside your cabin or a breaching whale that turns your ferry ride into an adrenaline-filled event. Adventure tourism means zipping through rainforest canopies, swimming alongside sea turtles or trekking to sublime cloud-forest vistas. One small tropical country with two long coasts makes for a pretty big playground.

Lost-World Adventure

You don't have to make it all the way to the Darién to get off the beaten path – though if you do, you've hit one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. Go where the wild things are. Soak in the spray of towering waterfalls near highland Santa Fé. Visit one of Panama's seven indigenous groups through community tourism. Live out your castaway fantasies in the Guna Yala or idle on a wilderness beach in Península de Azuero. Howl back at the creatures sharing the canopy. Panama is as wild as you want it to be.

612577

The most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, Panama City is both vibrant metropolis and gateway to tropical escapes. Many worlds coexist here. Welcoming both east and west, Panama is a regional hub of trade and immigration. The resulting cultural cocktail forges a refreshing 'anything goes' attitude, more dynamic and fluid than its neighbors.

Unflinchingly urban, the capital rides the rails of chaos, with traffic jams, wayward taxis and casinos stacked between chic clubs and construction sites. A center of international banking and trade, the sultry skyline of shimmering glass and steel towers is reminiscent of Miami. In contrast, the colonial peninsula of Casco Viejo has become a hip neighborhood where cobblestones link boutique hotels with rooftop bars and crumbled ruins with pirate lore.

Escape is never far. Day trip to sandy beaches (Pacific or Caribbean), admire the canal, or explore lush rainforests of howler monkeys, toucans and sloths.

Sights

Casco Viejo

Following the destruction of the old city by Captain Henry Morgan in 1671, the Spanish moved their city 8km southwest to a rocky peninsula at the foot of Cerro Ancón. The new location was easier to defend as the reefs prevented ships from approaching the city except at high tide. The new city was also easy to defend, as a massive wall surrounded it, which is how Casco Viejo (Old Compound) got its name.

In 1904, when construction began on the Panama Canal, all of Panama City existed where Casco Viejo stands today. However, as population growth and urban expansion pushed the boundaries of Panama City further east, the city’s elite abandoned Casco Viejo and the neighborhood rapidly deteriorated into a slum.

Today Casco Viejo's crumbling facades have been mostly replaced by immaculate renovations. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, the area is getting international recognition. The newly restored architecture gives a sense of how magnificent the neighborhood must have looked in past years. Some developers, committed to mitigating the effects of gentrification here, are creating one affordable unit for each high-end one constructed, and working on interesting local cultural initiatives. Yet the consensus is that most of the neighborhood's former occupants have already been relegated to the periphery.

Change continues to prove tricky for the Casco. The expansion of the Cinta Costera, a coastal beltway, has ringed the peninsula with an elevated highway built some 8m above the sea and 200m offshore. With little regard for environmental concerns, the project threatened the area's World Heritage status. Worst of all, the US$189 million project, created to fix city traffic problems by providing an alternative route, has not been effective as it does not bypass the worst bottleneck areas.

Parque Natural Metropolitano

On a hill north of downtown, the 265-hectare Parque Natural Metropolitano protects vast expanses of tropical semideciduous forest within the city limits. It serves as an incredible wilderness escape from the trappings of the capital. Two main walking trails, the Nature Trail and the Tití Monkey Trail, join to form one long loop, with a 150m-high mirador (lookout) offering panoramic views of Panama City, the bay and the canal, all the way to the Miraflores Locks.

Mammals in the park include tití monkeys, anteaters, sloths and white-tailed deer, while reptiles include iguanas, turtles and tortoises. More than 250 bird species have been spotted here. Fish and shrimp inhabit the Río Curundú along the eastern side of the park.

The park was the site of an important battle during the US invasion to oust Noriega. Also of historical significance, concrete structures just past the park entrance were used during WWII as a testing and assembly plant for aircraft engines.

The park is bordered to the west and north by Camino de la Amistad and to the south and east by Corredor Norte; Av Juan Pablo II runs right through the park.

Pick up a pamphlet for a self-guided tour in Spanish and English at the visitors center, 40m north of the park entrance.

Panamá Viejo

Founded on August 15, 1519, by Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila, the city of Panamá was the first European settlement along the Pacific. For the next 150 years it profited mainly from Spain’s famed bullion pipeline, which ran from Peru’s gold and silver mines to Europe via Panamá. Because of the amount of wealth that passed through the city, the Spaniards kept many soldiers here, and their presence kept the buccaneers away.

In 1671, 1200 pirates led by Captain Henry Morgan ascended the Río Chagres and proceeded overland to Panamá. Although the city was not fortified, it was protected on three sides by the sea and marshes, and on the land side was a causeway with a bridge to allow tidal water to pass underneath. But to the bewilderment of historians, when Morgan and his men neared the city, the Spanish soldiers left this natural stronghold and confronted the buccaneers in a hilly area outside town.

It was the first of many mistakes in battle. After the Spanish force fell to pieces nearly everything of value was either plundered and divvied up or destroyed by fire.

For the next three centuries, the abandoned city served as a convenient source of building materials. By the time the government declared the ruins a protected site in 1976 (Unesco followed suit in 1997), most of the old city had already been dismantled and overrun.

So little of the original city remains that its size, layout and appearance are the subject of much conjecture. Today much of Panamá Viejo lies buried under a poor residential neighborhood, though the ruins are a must-see, even if only to stand on the hallowed grounds of one of Central America’s greatest cities.

For safety reasons, explore the area only during daylight hours.

Panamá Viejo buses will drop you off at the Mercado Nacional de Artesanías behind the first remnants of the old city as you approach from Panama City.

Book your Flight & Stay in Panama City

All Tested by Experts · No Hidden Fees · Secure Booking · Best Neighbourhoods

Sleeping

Panama City offers every kind of accommodation. A glut of options means that many charge bargain rates for their category. For those who prefer the quiet life, outlying neighborhoods have excellent B&B options. These include the former US-occupied neighborhoods of Albrook, Ancón and Amador, located in the Canal Zone.

Entertainment

If you’re not looking to get blotto, there are numerous ways to spend a moonlit (or rainy) evening in the city. A good place to start is the arts section in the Sunday edition of La Prensa or the back pages of the Panama News.

Eating

Boasting the most innovative contemporary cuisine of Central America, Panama City is a fun place to dine out. There are literally hundreds of places to eat and – thanks to a big immigrant population – cuisine from every corner of the globe.

Drinking & Nightlife

Bars and clubs open and close with alarming frequency in Panama City, though generally speaking, nightlife is stylish, sophisticated and fairly pricey. The well-to-do denizens of the capital love a good scene, so it’s worth scrubbing up and donning some nice threads. Remember to bring ID. Most clubs have a cover charge of US$10 to US$25.

Shopping

The city has a number of markets where you can purchase handicrafts native to regions throughout the country. Here you’ll find a range of handmade goods, from baskets made in Emberá villages to molas (colorful hand-stitched appliqué textiles) from Guna Yala.

A number of shopping malls, some quite luxe, highlight the increasing love of Americana in Panama. Consumerism aside, these air-conditioned spots can be a good place to escape the heat.

Orientation

Panama City stretches about 20km along the Pacific coast, from the Panama Canal at its western end to the ruins of Panamá Viejo to the east.

Near the canal are Albrook airport, the Causeway and the wealthy Balboa and Ancón suburbs, first built for US canal and military workers. The colonial part of the city, Casco Viejo, juts into the sea on the southwestern side of town. In the south, the Causeway has numerous restaurants, bars and fine vantage points on the edge of the ocean.

Av Central is the main drag which runs through Casco Viejo. At a fork further east, the avenue becomes Av Central España; the section that traverses the El Cangrejo business and financial district is called Vía España. The other part of the fork becomes Av Simón Bolívar and, finally, Vía Transístmica as it heads out of town and across the isthmus toward Colón.

Travel with Children

Few venues in the city have baby-change facilities, so family-friendly cafes are the best bet. Elevators are common in upscale hotels and malls. Pavement in the city center, where there's also hanging electrical wires all around, is pretty atrocious for strollers, but the Cinta Costera offers a long paved coastal walk (sans bathrooms!) with pedestrian bridges. The brick streets and narrow sidewalks of Casco Viejo can provide a challenge though there's also some quiet streets on the peninsula.

LGBT Travellers

Panama City is fairly cosmopolitan and accepting of the LBGTQ community. The city has a bathhouse but few gay and lesbian clubs and bars. In most instances, gays and lesbians just blend in with the straight crowd at the hipper places. Gay Pride is held annually in downtown Panama City, usually in June. The parade is sponsored by Asociación Hombres y Mujeres Nuevos de Panamá (www.facebook.com/AHMNPCH), Panama's first and only gay and lesbian association.

What to do in Panama City

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

612577

Colorful and full of Caribbean-style clapboard houses, Bocas del Toro (better known simply as Bocas town) was built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century. Today it is a relaxed community of West Indians, Latinos and resident gringos, with a friendly atmosphere that is contagious. It’s an easy place to adapt to and even easier to linger on.

Bocas serves as a convenient base for exploring the archipelago; taxis marinos (water taxis) can whisk you away to remote beaches and snorkeling sites for just a few dollars. The real allure here, though, is simply to be able to slow down and soak up the Caribbean vibes.

Activities

Boat Tours

The most popular tours in the area are all-day snorkeling trips, which are perfect for non divers who want a taste of the area’s rich marine life. A typical tour costs US$25 per person, and goes to Dolphin Bay, Cayo Crawl, Red Frog Beach (US$5 entry) and Hospital Point.

A trip to the distant Cayos Zapatillas costs US$35, and includes lunch, beach time and a jungle hike on Cayo Zapatilla Sur.

Many ‘tours’ are really little more than boat transportation to a pretty spot. If you have your own snorkel gear (or if you rent it), you can also charter motor boats. Agree on a price before you go.

Diving & Snorkeling

Although experienced divers accustomed to crystal-clear Caribbean diving may be disappointed with the archipelago – nearly 40 rivers discharging silt into the seas around the archipelago reduce visibility dramatically – it still has much to offer. The islands' emerald-green waters are home to the usual assortment of tropical species and with a little luck you might see barracudas, stingrays, dolphins and nurse sharks. The better sites include Dark Wood Reef, northwest of Bastimentos; Hospital Point, a 15m wall off Cayo Nancy; and the base of the buoy near Punta Juan, north of Isla Cristóbal.

A two-tank dive will cost around US$85; there are also dive certification courses. A number of reliable suppliers offer good-value snorkeling and diving trips out of Bocas.

Book your Flight & Stay in Bocas del Toro

All Tested by Experts · No Hidden Fees · Secure Booking · Best Neighbourhoods

Sleeping

Bocas town is a major tourist draw, though many people don't realize there is no town beach. Water shortage can be a problem, so it’s recommended that you take short showers.

There are lodgings in a range of prices. Reservations are a good idea between December and April, and during national holidays (especially in November) and local festivals. Discounts can be considerable in low season.

Eating

Although Bocas town is a small place, there’s no shortage of great restaurants serving up an impressive offering of local and international cuisine, from inexpensive street eats to high-end restaurants. A number of food carts ply their wares around town; ask for bottled water in your batido (fruit shake). Chinese-owned supermarkets can be found everywhere.

Drinking & Nightlife

For its size, Bocas offers a surprisingly varied and lively nightlife, with bars and clubs along the waterfront or just a short water-taxi ride away on Isla Carenero.

Filthy Fridays (www.filthyfridaybocas.com) is a wildly popular three-island party crawl. Your ticket (US$35) includes boat rides, shots and temporary tattoos, but you're on your own with the hangover.

Shopping

You’ll find a selection of molas (colorful hand-stitched appliqué textiles) and a range of other handicrafts for sale by indigenous Guna people near central Parque Simón Bolívar.

Travel with Children

Panama is a family oriented culture and is generally very accommodating to travelers with children. The same can’t be said of many businesses owned by expats, who very clearly state the age requirements of their guests.

Most of Panama is quite safe to travel with children, though dengue fever and, less so, malaria are present in some limited areas. Bring good insect repellent and light long-sleeved tops and long pants.

A number of tours, some low intensity, are an enjoyable way for you and your children to see Panama’s lush environment. Look for agencies with tailored family outings.

Getting there

Boat

If you don’t fly into Bocas you’ll have to take a water taxi (US$6) from Almirante on the mainland. On the waterfront, Taxi 25 makes the half-hour trip between 6am and 6:30pm every 30 minutes.

Caribe Shuttle runs a combination boat-bus trip (US$33) to Puerto Viejo and Cahuita in Costa Rica three times daily. There's also an option to go on to San Jose (US$76). It provides a hotel pickup but you must reserve one day in advance.

Shuttle

Hello Travel Panama offers reliable air-conditioned shuttle service (including boat) to Boquete (US$30, five hours) with a stop at Lost & Found, and Puerto Viejo (US$33) or San Jose (US$76), Costa Rica.

What to do in Bocas del Toro

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

612577

Boquete is known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural surroundings. Flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits flourish in its rich soil, and the friendliness of the locals seems to rub off on everyone who passes through. Boquete gained a deluge of expats after the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) named it a top retirement spot. Until you see the gated communities and sprawling estates dotting the hillsides up close, though, you'd be hard-pressed to see what the fuss is about.

The surrounds, however, are another matter. Boquete is one of the country’s top destinations for outdoor-lovers. It's a hub for hiking, climbing, rafting, visiting coffee farms, soaking in hot springs, studying Spanish or canopy touring. And, of course, there’s nothing quite like a cup of locally grown coffee.

Sights

With its flower-lined streets and forested hillsides, Boquete is ideal for taking picturesque strolls. Visit Parque José Domingo Médica in the central plaza for flowers, a fountain and a children’s playground. Nearby is an old railway and an exhibition wagon left over from the days when a train linked Boquete with the coastal town of Puerto Armuelles.

Book your Flight & Stay in Boquete

All Tested by Experts · No Hidden Fees · Secure Booking · Best Neighbourhoods

Activities

Adventure-hub Boquete has the lion's share of outfitters in the region, so it's not a stretch to book coastal trips such as sea kayaking or sportfishing here. Hostels and various agencies rent bicycles, scooters and ATVs (quad bikes), which are a good way to explore the charms of the surrounding hillsides. Hiking With its breathtaking vistas of mist-covered hills and nearby forests, Boquete is one of the most idyllic regions for hiking and walking. Several good paved roads lead out of town into the surrounding hills, passing coffee farms, fields, gardens and virgin forest. Trails are mostly poorly marked, and seasonally affected by floods and landslides which can change the routes. In the past there have also been security issues. For these reasons it's really best to hire local guides to explore the trails.

Although many visitors will be content with picturesque strolls along the river, the more ambitious can climb Volcán Barú. There are several entrances to the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, but the most accessible trail starts near Boquete.

It's possible to access the Sendero Los Quetzales from Boquete, though the trail is uphill from here; you’ll have an easier time if you start hiking from Cerro Punta above Volcán. Landslides have affected the trail in the past. Ask locals about conditions before heading out.

Rafting

Adventure seekers shouldn’t miss the excellent white-water rafting that's within a 1½-hour drive of Boquete. Ríos Chiriquí and Chiriquí Viejo both flow from the fertile hills of Volcán Barú, and are flanked by forest for much of their lengths. In some places, waterfalls can be seen at the edges of the rivers, and both rivers pass through narrow canyons with awesome, sheer rock walls.

The Río Chiriquí is most often run from May to December, while the Chiriquí Viejo is run the rest of the year. Rapids are III and III-plus, and tours last four to five hours.

When booking a trip, inquire if the outfitter uses a safety kayak for descents and if guides are certified in swift-water rescue. These should be minimum requirements for a safe trip.

Birdwatching: the Resplendent Quetzal The lore of the resplendent quetzal originated during the era of the Maya and the Aztecs, who worshipped a deity known as Quetzalcoatl (Plumed Serpent). This mythical figure was often depicted wearing a crown of male quetzal tail feathers and was believed to be responsible for bestowing corn upon humans.

A popular legend regarding the scarlet-red breast of the quetzal originated during the colonial period. In 1524 in the highlands of Guatemala, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated Tecun Uman, the last ruler of the Quiché people. As Uman lay dying, his spiritual guide, the quetzal, stained its breast with Uman’s blood and then died of remorse. From that day on, all male quetzals bore a scarlet breast, and their song hasn’t been heard since.

Today quetzals are regarded in Central America as a symbol of freedom, and it’s commonly believed that they cannot survive if held in captivity. Birdwatchers from far and wide continue to brave the elements in Panama for the chance to see the most famous bird in Central America.

The best time to spot a quetzal is in April and May when they nest in the highlands and wait for their young to hatch. Look for their nests in rotted tree trunks that they carve out with their beaks.

Sleeping

Popular with a wide range of travelers, Boquete has lodgings ranging from hostels to high-end boutique lodgings, with solid options in between. Because of the cool climate, all of the places to stay in Boquete have hot-water showers. Many have air-con too, though you probably won't need it.

Eating

Boquete has numerous well-priced restaurants to choose from, and the produce and coffee here is among the best in Panama.

Drinking & Nightlife

Boquete offers little evening excitement, unless it’s festival time. Bars generally close at midnight on weekdays and 2am on weekends.

What to do in Boquete

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

612577

Officially known as El Valle de Antón, this picturesque town is nestled in the crater of a huge extinct volcano, and ringed by verdant forests and jagged peaks. El Valle is a popular weekend getaway for urban dwellers in need of fresh air and scenery and is also a retirement community for foreigners, with some 200 resident expats from more than 40 countries. With an extensive network of trails, this is a superb place for walking, hiking or horseback riding. Nearby forests offer excellent birdwatching, and the valleys of El Valle are home to an impressive set of waterfalls and natural pools.

Sights

Among the attractions of El Valle are the handful of waterfalls that cascade down the surrounding hillsides into the valley floor.

To reach the best of these falls, follow Av Central westward through the centre of town until it branches. The road to the right leads north to the Canopy Adventure zipline tour, the Chorro El Macho waterfall and some petroglyphs. The road to the left goes to the Chorro Las Mozas waterfall.

Activities

Hiking

Surrounded by humid cloud forest and peaks that rise more than 1000m, El Valle is a hiker’s paradise. From the town center, an extensive network of trails radiates out into the valley and up the hills, and there are possibilities for anything from short day hikes to excursions of several days. Serious trekkers should consider excursions to the tops of Cerro Cara Coral, Cerro Gaital and Cerro Pajita to the north, Cerro Guacamayo to the south and Cerro Tagua to the east. For the most part, the valley floor has been cleared for human habitation while the peaks remain covered in dense forest. For these hikes you will require the services of a guide as trails are not well marked and cloud cover can descend quickly.

On a clear day it's possible to make an ascent to the top of La India Dormida on your own; there are well-defined, safe trails here. The most direct route is to follow the path up past La Piedra Pintada, staying close to the stream till you reach the top. If the weather looks variable, hire a guide – or at least seek out local advice – before hitting the trails.

According to local mythology, the ‘Sleeping Indian’ was a local maiden who fell in love with a conquistador. When her father refused to allow their marriage, she took her own life. She was buried in the hills, with the mountains taking on her shape as they rise over the valley; the outline of her forehead, nose, chin and breast is easily discernible. Legend has it that she is awaiting the day when her forbidden lover can claim her.

The Holy Ghost Orchid

While hiking through the forests around El Valle, be sure to keep an eye out for a terrestrial orchid known as la flor del Espíritu Santo, or the ‘Holy Ghost orchid’ (Peristeria elata), which was awarded the title of 'national flower of Panama' in 1936. Named by Spanish missionaries during the colonial period, the flower is shaped like a red-spotted dove emerging from ivory petals.

The flower is most commonly found along the forest floor beside trails, but it also grows on the branches of large trees. It blooms from July to October and has an unforgettable aroma. The orchids are under threat from overharvesting and should not be picked.

Canopy Tours

These tours involve a series of platforms anchored into the trees and connected by ziplines. Originally used by biologists to study the rainforest canopy and its wildlife, today they function primarily as amusement for adrenaline-seekers.

Birdwatching

The forests around El Valle offer numerous opportunities for birdwatching, with some 339 (at last count) species spotted. The area is especially rich in hummingbirds – commonly spotted species include the green hermit, the violet-headed hummingbird and the white-tailed emerald.

Book your Flight & Stay in El Valle

All Tested by Experts · No Hidden Fees · Secure Booking · Best Neighbourhoods

Sleeping

Although reservations are generally not necessary, be advised that El Valle can get busy on weekends and national holidays as urban dwellers flee the capital and head for the hills.

Eating

Don't expect to find many Panamanian restaurants here; El Valle is far too cosmopolitan for that. Top-end international fare and pizza won't pose a problem, however.

Drinking & Nightlife

There are few dedicated bars as such in El Valle, but all cafes and restaurants serve drinks, and los chinitos (the Chinese grocery stores) are well stocked with beer, wine and spirits.

Getting There & Away

To leave El Valle, hop aboard a bus traveling east along Av Central; on average, buses depart every 30 minutes. Final destinations are marked on the windshield of the bus. If your next destination isn’t posted, catch a bus going in the same direction and transfer.

To reach El Valle from the Interamericana, disembark from any bus at San Carlos, about 3km east of Las Uvas, the turning for El Valle. Minibuses collect passengers at the station here and travel to El Valle (US$1.50, 35 minutes, every half-hour). Last departure is 4pm weekdays and 7pm at weekends. From Panama City the trip to El Valle takes just over two hours (US$4.50).

What to do in El Valle

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

612577

Among Central America's top surf spots, Santa Catalina has right and left breaks comparable to Oahu’s Sunset Beach on a good day. Enjoy it while it’s still somewhat remote, undeveloped and home to some seriously wicked surf. Life here is pretty tranquil, in a fishing village where skateboards rip down main street and kids go barefoot but clothing is required to walk to and fro the beach. Most non-surfers discover the area as the main springboard for day and overnight trips to Isla de Coiba and its national park, where there's outstanding scuba diving and snorkeling.

Activities

There's a variety of superb snorkeling and spear-fishing spots that some locals will divulge. Guiding is an informal business here; look for certified scuba and surf instructors through your lodging. You can also find locals who will lead horseback-riding tours through the nearby forests.

Surfing

The best waves are generally from December to April, though there's surf here year-round. Unlike the Caribbean, the Pacific offers fairly consistent sets, though a good swell will really give a boost to the surfing here. Be advised that many of the breaks in the area are over rocks, and can easily snap your board if you don’t know what you’re doing. Most of the accommodations in town rent boards and offer surfing lessons.

Fishing

The area is famous for big fish, including yellowfin tuna, wahoo, snapper, Spanish mackerel, jacks and rooster fish. Though there's no major sportfishing operator in town, many local fishers rent their boat and services for the day. Prices depend on the number of people in your party and your destination, since gasoline is very expensive. Cabañas Rolo arranges half-day trips to Isla Cébaco with a knowledgeable local captain.

If you’d prefer to go after reef fish (including snapper and grouper), there are some hidden spots along the coast. Plenty of rocky ledges serve as hideouts for lobster, though be sure to only harvest adults – lobster are in danger of being overfished throughout Panama.

If you are sportfishing in Parque Nacional Coiba, you must obtain a fishing permit (US$50) from any mainland Ministerio de Ambiente office; the nearest is Santiago.

Diving & Snorkeling

Diving and snorkeling are a great way to see some of the spectacular marine life around Isla de Coiba. There is an incredible variety of fauna and even whale sharks have been sighted here. Two-tank dives start at US$135 per person, though diving in the park costs more since the distance is much greater. The rule requiring boats to stay overnight with their diver clients has made multiday trips to Coiba very expensive; an overnight with two days in the water is now US$250. Visitors usually check all shops to see which has a trip visiting their preferred destination.

Snorkelers are better off taking independent snorkel tours as dive companies generally prefer to focus on their deepwater clients.

Book your Flight & Stay in Santa Catalina

All Tested by Experts · No Hidden Fees · Secure Booking · Best Neighbourhoods

Sleeping

There's a slew of budget lodgings and a few decent mid range offerings. Santa Catalina has not-infrequent water shortages, so mind your usage. A flashlight is handy for power outages. The internet is slow and spotty.

Beach

To access the lodgings along the beach, take a left-hand turnoff after arriving in town – it’s the only other major road in town.

Eating

There's a fair number of restaurants with a focus on pizza or seafood. If self-catering, you can buy excellent fresh fish to prepare yourself. A number of small shops sell basic groceries.

Drinking & Nightlife

Nightlife can sprout up at the bars in the local restaurants but it's relatively quiet compared to other beach destinations.

Getting There & Away

To reach Santa Catalina from Panama City, take a bus to Santiago, then another to Soná where buses leave for Santa Catalina (US$5, 1½ hours) at 5:30am, 8:40am, 11:20am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm and 4:45pm. Sunday services vary. If you miss the bus, hire a taxi from Soná to Santa Catalina from US$45. Direct Panama City–Soná buses run every two hours.

From Santa Catalina, seven buses serve Soná daily, leaving at 6:15am, 7am, 8am, 10:45am, 1:30pm, 3:30pm and 6pm. In Santa Catalina, the bus stops at the intersection with the beach road. If you’re staying outside the town center, most lodgings are a 1km walk on mostly flat but unshaded terrain. Note that there are never taxis in town, unless, of course, someone is arriving from Soná.

For direct shuttle service to Boquete (four hours), use Hello Travel! Panama. These air-conditioned minivans are a good time-saving way to get around Panama without dealing with confusing transfers. You can also go to Las Lajas, Horconcito or David. Departs at noon daily with pick-up on the main road or your hotel. Reserve online.

What to do in Santa Catalina

Best attractions, Tours & Excursions for you, check it out!

WhatsApp chat