Panama is so often left off of people’s plans for Central America!
It just doesn’t seem to come across as a gritty, off-beat backpacker destination in the same way that Guatemala and Nicaragua do; lacks in the tourist draw of Mexico’s beaches and Costa Rica’s cloud forest adventures; and definitely doesn’t have the romantic danger-appeal associated with El Salvador and Honduras.
Panama is seen as a sterile mini-USA sitting awkwardly between Central and South America – an unavoidable obstacle of retirees waiting to suck you in for a week and spit you out into Colombia with a severely impaired budget.
Or so we thought – and heard – on our approach to this funky little country that we so grossly underestimated.
Make time for Panama.
As a way of introducing Panama to the backpacker scene, we’ve cobbled together our “Top 5 Experiences in Panama” to give you a taste of what you can expect from a visit here! The list includes general places but also specific activities, hostels and tours that shouldnt’ be missed!
1. Isla Bastimentos
Archipelago Bocas del Toro is very much on the radar of all travellers coming this way. What people often seem to confuse, however, is the distinction between Bocas del Toro (the group of islands) and Bocas del Toro (the party town on the area’s largest island – Isla Colon).
Getting out to the smaller, less commercialised spots is where the real beauty of Bocas lies.
While Isla Colon has your party hostels and Isla Caranero’s all about the beaches, it’s Isla Bastimentos that steals the show with its Caribbean feels and endless opportunities for water-based fun!
Despite stormy weather upon arrival and some serious doubts as to how long we’d be able to entertain ourselves, we spent an impressive 8 days and could have stayed longer.
Pretty much everyone is catered to here. Beautiful beaches are accessible on foot via (sometimes muddy) hiking paths that last anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the beach you’re aiming for.
There’s (apparently) good surfing in the windy season or – failing that – incredible Scuba Diving. I say ‘apparently’ because I was very much there for the diving, and when the surf is bad the diving great, and vice versa).
A huge swathe of Bastimentos is protected as a National Park and its reef is in pretty great condition. If you’re not a diver, you can spend your days in a kayak circumnavigating the island – but make sure you bring a mask and take regular snorkelling breaks!
The desert island beaches of Zapatilla Caye make a great day trip – just stop by the port in Old Bank and ask which boats are heading that way. Going in a bigger group will be cheaper.
This, plus a whole host of other things that we didn’t get round to! Boats run daily to the beaches around the island if you don’t fancy the hikes, and the trip to the Bat Caves is supposed to be excellent.
A boat from Bocas town to Old Bank on Bastimentos costs $3 per person. There’s no ATM on the island so bring cash from the mainland (you do have one ATM in Bocas town but it’s unreliable and charges huge withdrawal fees). Fresh produce is hard to come by in the shops on Basti, so consider stocking up on fruit and veg before you make the trip across. Hostal Bastimentos is a great budget option with friendly staff, a kitchen and the best water pressure in town.
Eating out on the island will cost between $7 and $12 for a main course and a beer – expect typical Caribbean fare of coconut rice, fish, plantains and beans but also a couple of solid burger and asian options!
For divers: Scuba Eco 6 is a fantastic dive school located in Tio Tom’s guesthouse. They have great equipment, lovely instructors and a strong focus on marine conservation and sustainable diving practices. Check them out here.
2. Finca Dos Jefes (Cafés de la Luna), Boquete
We’ve drunk a lot of coffee and seen a lot of coffee farms over the course of our 6 months in Central America. Finca dos Jefes was by far the best coffee experience we’ve had.
A tour of the farm gives you an incredibly informative insight into ecologically sustainable methods of coffee production (and lets you appreciate just how much damage commercial coffee farms cause the environment – but it isn’t shoved down your throat, I just happened to find it fascinating/terrifying).
The finca is pretty small so the walking tour of the plants, drying beds, storerooms and roastery doesn’t take too long but is a gorgeous stroll in the sun with impressive views of Boquete’s valley.
The trip concludes with a mini cupping session (coffee speak for ‘tasting’) and the chance to roast your own beans, which you’re then given a bag of as a gift to take away!
So, to recap: a half day $30 tour to Finca dos Jefes includes a great chat about coffee, a tour of the farm, a chance to learn something new about sustainable coffee production AND a bag of coffee with the satisfaction of knowing you roasted it yourself.
Oh, they also build boarding houses for schools in rural areas and donate fruit and chickens grown on the farm to go towards school dinners. Coffee saints?
The tour can be booked online here or via hostels in town, and their coffee (Cafés de la Luna) can be consumed in various cafes around Boquete, as well as a couple of places in Frankfurt, Germany.
3. Lost and Found Lodge, somewhere between Bocas del Toro and Boquete
A jungle hostel in the cloud forest with un-real views over the hills below it.
You could go here for the incredible setting (and excellent hammock set-up) alone, but they also offer treasure hunt hikes, family style dinners, jungle survival training in the form of a free night hike every evening and just somewhere different and unexpected to shake things up a bit!
Bringing food with you is a good idea if you’re hoping to cook, but there’s a few staple items available to buy at reception (pasta, sauce, eggs etc.) A fruit and veg seller at the bottom of the access road is convenient mid week but closed at weekends.
Lost and Found is located on the road that runs between Bocas del Toro and David, where you can make a connection to Boquete. Tell the bus conductor you’re getting off at Lost and Found, but keep an eye out for the sign incase they’re driving too fast to notice it.
From the main road, it’s a steep 15 minute hike to the hostel over a classic jungle foot path – don’t wear flip flops.
4. Coiba National Park, Santa Catalina
To me Coiba National Park seemed a bit like the film ‘Walking with Dinosaurs”. You’re in a place that is remote and undeveloped and has kind of avoided evolution for a pretty long time – to give a very basic run-down of things.
It’s often referred to as the Galapagos of Panama and, although we didn’t explore so much on-land, the opportunities for diving and snorkelling are fantastic.
On top of its unique ecological status, Coiba’s location in the Pacific means that the marine life is inevitably bigger, less tropical and scarier than anything you’ve seen before in the Caribbean.
Currents are strong – especially in certain dive sites – but you have the chance to swim with white tipped reef sharks, huge schools of tuna, turtles, big eye jacks, barracudas….the list goes on. Any underwater excursion here is sure to be an adventure. One that not too many tourists are clocking on to for the time being.
There are a few decent hostel options in Santa Catalina town, or some surf camps right on the beach if you prefer to be on the sea. Wi-Fi is almost non-existent in town, and there’s no ATM.
For diving we 100% recommend Water Baby Dive Center – professional, well priced and a very all-round service! Aside from 2 great dives/snorkels, we had time to walk around the Park’s ranger station and up to a view point, meet ‘Tito’ the resident crocodile and were taken to a different, deserted island for an included – and delicious – lunch, plus snacks of fresh fruit for the boat ride back. The team are great fun and we guarantee you’ll have a great time diving or snorkelling with them!
Check out Water Baby Dive Center’s instagram here, or find them on Facebook.
5. Mercado de Mariscos, Panama City
If you’re not a fish eater then you’re not in luck, as this place is a delicious, chaotic and very pungent experience that gave us some of our best meals in Panama.
Try not to get sucked in by the first menu-bearing, beer-promising tout you come across. Instead, take a walk around the various restaurants and decide what you like the look of. Everyone serves pretty much the same menu, so it’s easiest to base your judgement on portion size and the number of customers at each place.
The market is perhaps best enjoyed at lunch. Take a break from the heat with a ceviche and a cold beer before a walk along the Cinta Costera into Casco Viejo.
If you’re coming hungry beware: it may be a market, but it’s very easy to rack up a $40 bill without realising. Trust us.
The moral of this post is: don’t skip Panama!! On the one hand we’re sorry that we underestimated it, but it was also amazing to have our expectations smashed to smithereens while we were busy having an exhausting adventure-filled 3 weeks! Sorry to have ruined the surprise…we hope you love Panama as much as we did!