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Things to Do in Panama

From the kaleidoscopic reefs of Bocas del Toro to the dense, steamy jungles of Darien National Park, Panama forms a physical and cultural bridge between Central and South America, lapped by the Caribbean on one shore and the Pacific Ocean on the other. From glossy, sun-drenched Panama City to the tiny fishing villages scattered across the islands, Panama offers a heady mix of nature and culture, modern and traditional. History buffs can take a luxury cruise on the Panama Canal, passing through the Miraflores Locks and stopping in Panama City for a walking tour of UNESCO-listed Casco Viejo, the old colonial district. Many jungle treks and bird-watching trips are also available from the capital. Top draws for nature lovers include Gamboa rainforest, El Valle de Anton, Gatun Lake, and Chagres National Park, home to native Embera people and Monkey Island. Divers and snorkelers flock to Bocas del Toro, not far from the Costa Rican border, for its legendary coral reefs and wrecks. Book a multi-day sailing trip to explore further along the Caribbean coast, and if you dream of deserted tropical isles, charter a private boat to the San Blas archipelago. Only a fraction of its 365 tiny islands are inhabited, despite miles of perfect white-sand beaches. And if time permits, you could sail all the way to Cartagena from here. With easy access to both Colombia and Costa Rica, Panama makes an ideal launch pad for extended trips in either Central or South America.
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Casco Viejo
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Panama City's oldest surviving neighborhood is also its most defensible, a tejas-tiled cluster of primly painted colonial buildings at the tip of a heavily fortified peninsula. These ramparts successfully protected the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific Coast, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After decades of neglect, Casco Viejo is finally being revitalized. New hotels and restaurants, some quite elegant, are occupying the centuries-old buildings. Iconic landmarks like El Arco Chato (Flat Arch), which may date to neighborhood's founding in 1671; the 1798 Metropolitan Cathedral; and many other pretty plazas, palaces, markets, and gold-gilt churches have been refurbished, as have the narrow streets, draped in flowery French balconies, which connect them. Well worth a wander.

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Amador Causeway (Calzada de Amador)
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Palm-lined Amador Causeway is famed for the fantastic views of Panama's skyscraping downtown, a yacht-strewn panorama across the Panama Bay to the graceful steel span of the Bridge of the Americas at the entrance of the canal. Scenic running paths follow the water, paved with stones used in the Canal's construction, along a causeway that stretches almost 3km (2mi) into the Pacific, connecting the city to three small islands: Noas, Perico and Flamenco.

Visitors from around the city and world come to here to play, plied by upscale shopping centers and local vendors displaying their wares to crowds strolling the causeway. It's also the city's hippest nightlife district, home to elegant bars, casual clubs and other entertainment venues.

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Panama Canal
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By any estimation among the grandest public works projects in the history of humankind, the Panama Canal is an engineering triumph that cost US$350 million, claimed some 27,000 lives, and transformed global trade forever. Today, it is undergoing a massive and politicized US$5.3 billion retrofit, reinforcing its place as the strategic lynchpin of world shipping, surrounded with international intrigue on a scale we civilians can only imagine. Travelers can enjoy the canal in several ways, beginning with the excellent Miraflores Locks Visitor Center just outside the capital. More ambitious explorers can book a variety of tours taking in all or part of the 77km (48mi) trip across the continent.
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Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Americas)
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The Bridge of the Americas spans the Panama Canal, which is perhaps the most important public works project in history. Made of steel and reinforced concrete, the bridge is 5,425 feet long, and at high tide, the clearance is 201 feet, under which ships crossing the canal must pass.

Twenty million U.S. dollars went into building the four-lane bridge, which replaced smaller ones and greatly increased road travel and capacity over the canal. It was inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1962, and allows the passage of cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The Bridge of the Americas was originally called the Thatcher Ferry Bridge, named after the ferry that used to operate on the canal before the span was built. Panama aptly renamed the bridge, since it not only connects the capital with the rest of Panama, but also unites Central and South America.

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Miraflores Locks
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It is a mesmerizing scene, the massive machinery - some 700 tons of it, reinforced against the mighty Pacific - of iconic Miraflores Locks in operation. It is particularly impressive when Panamax barges, specifically designed to thread the world's most important shipping bottleneck with only centimeters to spare, slides through.

You can watch it all from the four-story Miraflores Visitor Center, a fascinating museum complex adjacent to the locks. Peruse the exhibits and enjoy the short film to fully appreciate the scale of the awesome undertaking that was the Panama Canal. Three observation decks and an onsite restaurant offer outstanding views.

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Monkey Island
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This popular excursion offers a festive excuse to explore a bit of the Canal, visiting an island that has been "taken over" by four species of monkey: capuchin (white face), howler, Geoffroy's tamarin, and grey-bellied nocturnal monkeys. Boats head out to the island throughout the day, where sharp-eyed photographers might also spot sloths, caimans, and bright tropical birds such as toucans.

Unfortunately, the island's overwhelming appeal has led to strict regulations, and guides are no longer allowed to feed or tease monkeys - so don't count on that National Geographic shot. Trips can be combined with fishing, kayaking, canopy tours, and other adventures.

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Gatún Lake (Lago Gatún)
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The glistening, artificial heart of the Panama Canal, Lago Gatún covers what was once the fertile Chagres River Valley, until 1907 home to scores of small villages and wondrous rainforested tracts. When it finally filled, by 1913, it was the largest man-made lake, buttressed by the biggest dam, in the world.

Today, swathed in rainforest and scattered with islets, Lake Gatún is the most scenic spot on this famed passage between the oceans. This well-watered world surrounded with protected parkland, beautiful lodges, monkeys and rare tropical birds, as well as a fine selection of family-friendly amusements, including zip-line canopy tours and aerial trams. Boat tours can easily be arranged to include fishing, hiking and more.

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Soberanía National Park
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Learn about the plants and animals of Panama at Soberanía National Park, a tropical forest just 20 minutes outside of Panama City. Located on the east side of the Panama Canal and forming part of its water basin, this is one of the most accessible of the country’s protected parks, with almost 55,000 acres of forest to explore.

Declared a protected area in 1980, there are some 1,300 plant species, 79 reptile and 55 amphibian species in the park. Among the 105 mammal species are monkeys and tamarins, sloths and anteaters, which are often spotted by visitors.

In addition to the site’s fishing activities, eco-studies and hiking, it’s also one of the best bird-watching areas of Central America, as bird-watchers come from all over to spot some of the 525 known species. The Rainforest Discovery Center has an observation tower for visitors to look out from, but for a more active route, hike along the Pipeline Road to spot birds.

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Biomuseo
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In a country with so much biodiversity, it’s not surprising to see a museum dedicated to the natural marvels found here. The 4,000-square-meter BioMuseo was designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect who designed the beautiful Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. This site takes visitors on a journey through time to when the Isthmus of Panama was formed, joined two continents and divided oceans.

There are seven permanent exhibitions that focus on art and science education here. When the isthmus was formed, there was an interchange of species between North and South America, an effect depicted in a series of 72 sculptures of those species. Audiovisual presentations also show the natural wonders of Panama’s ecosystems.

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More Things to Do in Panama

Plaza de Francia

Plaza de Francia

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When visiting Panama’s Old City (Casco Antiguo), check out the Plaza de Francia on the far southeast side. This public square stands as a testimony to the people who worked on—and gave their lives for—the Panama Canal.

Built in 1921 by Leonardo Villanueva Meyer, the square's main attraction is a 60-foot (18-meter) obelisk. The monument outlines the history of the canal and honors those 22,000 workers and engineers who died, mainly due to disease, while building it. The statues surrounding it show prominent people who participated in the construction at the time of the French involvement, and the Gallic rooster sitting on top of the obelisk is one of the national emblems of France.

Besides the monument, near this plaza you will find the France Embassy and the Esteban Huertas Promenade. There’s also an impressive view of the Panama City bay, the Bridge of the Americas and the Amador Causeway.

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Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon)

Ancon Hill (Cerro Ancon)

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Visible from nearly anywhere in Panama City, Ancon Hill stands proudly above everything else in an otherwise flat region, with its immense flag flying high. At 199 meters above sea level, it’s the highest point within the city, and from the top you can see all the main points of interest. It’s possible to see not only the modern part of Panama City, but also the Panama Canal, the Amador Causeway, the Bridge of the Americas and Old City.

In the middle of this bustling city, Ancon Hill serves as a little natural paradise. The forest has plenty of animals—sloths, armadillos, toucan and deer—and a slow walk up the hill provides the chance to see many of them. Once at the top, spend time watching the ships pass through the canal. It’s a pleasant walk from Mi Pueblito, and serious bikers take the challenge of riding up the hill. Go early to beat the heat, and don’t forget your camera!

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Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Ruins)

Panamá Viejo (Old Panama Ruins)

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Long before smallpox, conquistadors, and Catholicism made the Americas safe for European occupation, a group of Spanish sailors laid claim to the indigenous settlement of Panamá, "Land of Plenty." It was August 15, 1519, and they had no sense of what their tiny village would one day become.

Though Panama City is considered "Oldest Permanent European Settlement on the Pacific," the original Panamá Viejo (Old Panama) was abandoned after a devastating 1671 attack by Captain Morgan's pirate army. Today, you can wander its worn remains, including the old cathedral and several stone buildings and walls.

The juxtaposition with modern Panama City, visible across the bay, is startling. Fascinating finds from ongoing archaeological excavations are displayed at the onsite museum.

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Mi Pueblito

Mi Pueblito

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Panama is a melting pot of diverse cultures, including those of Spanish, African and indigenous roots. Traveling around the country to see how these different societies live is fascinating, but it can be a challenge to fit them all into one trip. Close to Panama City is Mi Pueblito, however, a little tourist town that has them all in just one place.

The town has life-size representations of villages found throughout the country, including a typical Spanish-style colonial town, complete with a public square with a Catholic church and mayor’s office. There’s also a school, a barber shop and houses with traditional kitchens and furnishings. One area shows the lifestyle of Africans who came to Panama to work on the canal, with a typical Protestant church, wood houses and representations of well-known buildings that form part of Panamanian history.

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Punta Culebra Nature Center

Punta Culebra Nature Center

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This outdoor museum is located on an island at the end of the Amador Causeway, a four-mile-long road on a strip of land made from soil and rock that was extracted during the construction of the Panama Canal. At Punta Culebra Nature Center, a total of 3.7 acres (1.5 hectares) are dedicated to the study of marine biodiversity and the great natural wealth found in the area.

The Smithsonian Foundation of Panama has a space here dedicated to marine science and education, as well as to the conservation of coastal environments. Visitors can learn about marine life in Panama and other regions of Central and South America through science exhibitions, movies and art exhibits. There is also a turtle tank and an aquarium comparing the marine life in the Pacific to that of the Caribbean. The touching pool provides the opportunity to come into close contact with starfish, stingrays, sea urchins and octopuses.

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Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas)

Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas)

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“Garzas” is Spanish for herons, and you’ll see the white birds roaming freely in the Andalusian-style courtyard of the Presidential Palace (Palacio de las Garzas) in Panama City. The African herons were a gift celebrating the completion of renovations of the palace in 1922, but they’re not the only famous residents; the President of Panama lives in the upper floors of the building.

Originally built during the seventeenth century when Panama was under control of the Spanish crown, the neoclassical white mansion in Casco Viejo was a customs house for a time before its conversion into the official presidential residence in 1922.

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Metropolitan National Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano)

Metropolitan National Park (Parque Natural Metropolitano)

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This amazingly accessible park claims to be Latin America's only municipal wildlife reserve, draped luxuriantly across 232 hectares (573 acres) in the city center. Though not exactly pristine (it was a key staging area the 1989 US invasion), it remains a remarkably well-preserved dry tropical forest, one of the world's most threatened biomes, walking distance from the modern city.

Though hikers never quite escape the drone of civilization, it's easy to forget when wandering 4km (2.5mi) of trails along the Curundo River and up Mirador Cerro Cedro (150m/492ft), the second highest spot in the city. Squirrel monkeys (mono titis), two- and three-toed sloths, coatis, green iguanas, toucans, and many other animals call the park home.

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San Jose Church (Iglesia San Jose)

San Jose Church (Iglesia San Jose)

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Everyone loves a good pirate story, and Panama, a country that has received more than its share of pirate attacks, has plenty of them. Perhaps the most endearing tale to survive to this day is about a church built in the original Panama City in the late 1600s. The intricate altar inside, made of mahogany and covered in gold, had both Colonial and indigenous art influences and was appropriately called the Golden Altar. According to the legend, English pirate Henry Morgan arrived in Panama in 1671 and then sacked and burned Panama City. He soon turned his attention to the church, which was under construction. Knowing what was to come, a priest darkened the precious golden altar to make people think it was just wood—the pirates believed the ruse and the altar was saved.

The altar was later taken from the destroyed city to the San José Church in the new city, which was protected by fortified walls, and has since been restored to its golden beauty, easy for all to visit.

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Embera Village

Embera Village

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Modern Panama is home to seven indigenous tribes, and the Embera is one of its most well known native groups. Part of the Embera tribe migrated from the Choco region of modern day Colombia to Panama in the late 18th century. The indigenous people retain their own language, cuisine, culture, and customs, many of which can be seen on a visit to an Embera village. Traditional houses are typically built on stilts and often on the riverside, where they are organized into a small community with a communal house at its center. The Embera also keep their own government and family structures. Most of time, villages can only be approached by water; typically a traditional dugout canoe brings in visitors. As the Embera people live sustainably in the middle of the rainforest and for the most part have resisted modernization, a visit to an Embera village offers a unique glimpse at a preserved way of life.

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Metropolitan Cathedral

Metropolitan Cathedral

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Located on the Plaza Catedral in the Old City, the Metropolitan Cathedral is one of the most interesting tourist points in the area., as it showcases Panama’s colonial architecture and religious roots.

Work began on the church in 1688 but wasn’t finished until 1796, more than 100 years later. A dark stone façade is flanked by a white bell tower on each side and 67 columns support the high ceiling, while abundant artwork and beautiful stained glass windows complete the decoration.

Having at one time been in disrepair, the church has since benefited from a $4 million renovation. It has also witnessed many important events in Panama’s history, including the day in 1903 when the Republic of Panama declared itself a separate nation from Colombia on the plaza in front of the church.

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Afro-Antillean Museum of Panama (Museo Afro-Antillano de Panama)

Afro-Antillean Museum of Panama (Museo Afro-Antillano de Panama)

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The popular Panama Interoceanic Canal Museum may showcase the history, politics and influence of French and American workers who helped construct the Panama Canal, but the Afro-Antillean Museum is the place for travelers who want to learn more about the impact the nation’s West Indian community had on developing the infrastructure that still keeps this Central America destination up and running. Visitors can tour galleries and halls lined with images, stories and artifacts that showcase the dedication, drive and determination it took for West Indians to build local railroads and canals.

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San Blas Islands

San Blas Islands

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The San Blas Islands are a collection of 378 tropical islands off the coast of Panama, most of which are tiny and can be circumnavigated in only a few minutes. They belong to the indigenous Kuna people and are a paradise for beach lovers and anthropologists alike. The islands are an autonomous region and the Kuna still fiercely adhere to their ancestral traditions. Far off the backpacker trails, they are a place where visitors can play Robinson Crusoe for a while and delve into a pre-colonial culture among swaying palm trees, white sandy beaches and azure waters. Only 49 islands are inhabited and there is no electricity, no traffic, no big hotel complexes and most importantly, no stress. Accommodations are very basic and you likely won’t find anything more fancy than little bamboo bungalows with sand floors. Since life on the San Blas Islands is simple and happens more slowly, travelers come here to mostly do nothing for a few days.

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Chorro el Macho Waterfall

Chorro el Macho Waterfall

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One of the best attractions in Anton’s Valley (Valle de Antón) is the Chorro el Macho waterfall. This 280-foot (85-meter) waterfall is just a short way north of the town of La Mesa and is one of the most beautiful areas of the valley.

A pleasant half-hour walk through the rain forest on well-marked paths leads you to the waterfall. At the foot sits a large natural pool, and walking paths run through the area for exploration, with suspension bridges running over the river.

For the adventurous, there are also zip lines through the treetops that provide breathtaking aerial views of the Chorro el Macho waterfall. If visiting with a guide, they can point out local animals, birds and butterflies, as well as various points of interest. The falls are most spectacular in the wet season.

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El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden

El Nispero Zoo and Botanical Garden

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This nearly seven-acre botanical garden and zoo began as a privately owned nursery, for which the owner gradually began collecting animals and birds. Other people donated animals as well, with the most famous having once belonged to the dictator Manuel Noriega. In time, the site evolved into a public zoo, which now has animals from all around the world, some even from as far away as Madagascar.

Among the endemic animals are the Capuchin and spider monkeys, ocelots, toucans, jaguars, macaws and sloths. This is also one of the best places to see the striking, endangered, Panama native rana dorada, also known as the golden frog.

The onsite Centro de Conservación de Anfibios, with anquarium and exhibits, serves as a center for amphibian studies, sponsored by zoos from the United States. The zoo is surrounded by trees and a botanical garden, a pleasant area to picnic.

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