Panama City is a lot of fun; it’s fast-paced and lively. But whether you live there or are just visiting, the bustle of the city can get to be a bit much. Fortunately, there are many easy day trips from Panama City that will completely change your environment. Closeby, you’ll find thick tropical jungle, green […]
Panama City is a lot of fun; it’s fast-paced and lively. But whether you live there or are just visiting, the bustle of the city can get to be a bit much. Fortunately, there are many easy day trips from Panama City that will completely change your environment.
Closeby, you’ll find thick tropical jungle, green mountains, gorgeous beaches, lovely local communities, huge lakes, and mysterious caves. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing escape or an adrenaline-pumping adventure, you’ll find just the ticket within a day’s journey of Panama City.
To help you decide what to do, we’ve compiled information on the best day trips from Panama City, organized by the following categories:
Any of the following destinations can also be great for weekend trips from Panama City if you’d like to stay for more than one day. In fact, you can get pretty much anywhere in Panama for a weekend getaway if you fly. But for now, we’ll stick to the area around Panama City.
Panama City is surrounded by rainforest, which forms a striking contrast to the sprawling concrete metropolis. An incredible variety of exotic animals live within the jungle, from monkeys and sloths to tropical birds. In fact, Panama is one of the top birding destinations in the world, due to its biodiversity.
If a nature retreat sounds like the perfect day trip to you, check out the following destinations.
Soberania National Park
This huge national park surrounds and extends from the Panama Canal. It’s less than an hour’s drive away from Panama City and includes hiking trails perfect for spotting birds and other wildlife.
The park’s most well-known area is Pipeline Road, near the town of Gamboa. This 10.8-mile (17.5 km) road delves deep into the forest. It was originally intended to accompany an oil pipeline, but that project was later abandoned.
Today, the road has become the best birdwatching spot close to Panama City, with 239 species recorded in this area alone. Stop by the Rainforest Discovery Center to see hummingbirds and other wildlife from their 100-foot (32 m) observation platform.
This conservation center also includes 0.7 miles (1.2 km) of maintained trails that will take you deeper into the jungle. While it’s definitely worth a stop for the views from the tower, you should know that the entry fee for the center is $30 for adult foreigners and $5 for children (minors not allowed on the observation tower). You can see just as much wildlife from Pipeline Road itself, especially if you venture deeper into the forest, towards the end of the road.
Either way, we recommend going birdwatching with a local naturalist guide to spot the highest number of birds. Your guide will know the bird calls and behavior and point them out to you. Go early in the morning to see wildlife at their most active hour.
Pipeline Road is the furthest Soberania trail from Panama City, on the other side of the town of Gamboa. Plantation Trail (4.3 miles long one way) and Las Cruces Trail (6.2 miles long) are two other trails closer to the city. If you’re looking for only a quick, easy walk in the forest, go for Charco Trail (0.5 miles long) which leads to a small pond.
Another popular destination within the park is Monkey Island. Hundreds of monkeys live on this island in Lake Gatun and you can get close to them on this day trip from Panama City.
Read more about Soberania National Park in our other blog post.
Altos de Campana National Park
Visiting this park is a perfect way to get off the beaten path. Although not as well known as Soberania, Altos de Campana has just as much untouched rainforest and biological diversity, along with hiking trails to breathtaking lookout points. Plus, it’s just a 1.5-hour drive from Panama City.
For views of Chame Bay and the Pacific coast mangroves, hike up the Cerro La Cruz trail. We recommend hiking with a local community naturalist who can guide you along the trail and point out wildlife.
Learn more about how to get to Altos de Campana National Park and what to expect in this blog post.
El Valle de Anton
This town is within a volcano’s crater and surrounded by lush green mountains and thick forest. There are a variety of mountain and waterfall hikes close by.
To reach the rim of the crater and admire views of the town below, hike up the India Dormida or Cerro Cara Iguana trails. Both of them will only take you about an hour of hiking to get to the highest point.
Or, go for more of a challenge with the Cerro Gaital Trail, which takes about 3 hours round-trip and includes steep inclines. Finally, Chorro El Macho is the star waterfall of the area, towering at 115 feet (35 m) tall.
You can also appreciate flora and fauna from within town at four nature centers: the Butterfly Haven, Serpentarium Maravillas Tropicales, the Aprovaca Orquideas Botanical Garden, and El Nispero Zoo. Each of these centers is small but is worth a visit.
See our other blog post for a full description of things to do in El Valle de Anton.
Although possible to visit in a day, we recommend discovering El Valle de Anton on weekend trips from Panama City, because it is a bit further away. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive there from the city. At the same time, it’s also possible to enjoy the town and its incredible surroundings on a day tour.
Perhaps you’re looking for a beach getaway to unwind and destress. Panama City is uniquely positioned with easy access to fantastic beaches on both its Pacific and Caribbean coast.
Pacific Beaches near Panama City
Head west of the city for wonderful Pacific beaches such as Gorgona, Coronado, and El Palmar, which are all accessible by car via the Pan-American Highway (Route 1). This beach day tour takes care of all the logistics so that you can enjoy the sand and waves worry-free.
To avoid the crowds, head to nearby islands such as Taboga, Otoque, and the Pearl Islands. On the boat ride over, watch for humpback whales between July and October (their migrating season), along with dolphins and sea turtles.
Caribbean Beaches near Panama City
The two best beach options on the other side of the Panama isthmus are next to the town of Portobelo and in the San Blas Islands. You’ll find beautiful reefs and ideal snorkeling conditions in both places.
There are three beaches worth visiting near Portobelo: Playa Blanca, Playa Frances, and Playa Huerta. All three charge $10-15 as entrance fees but offer wonderful snorkeling and a tranquil environment. If you’re going for the day, bring your own food and beverages, as you won’t be able to buy any near the beaches.
To the east of Portobelo, you’ll find two gorgeous islands: Isla Mamey and Isla Grande. They both have lovely beaches. Isla Grande is bigger and more developed, with restaurants and a historic lighthouse. On the other hand, a day trip to Isla Mamey will allow you to escape the crowds and enjoy the soft sands of a pristine beach.
The San Blas Islands are further away to the east of Portobelo, so they work well for weekend trips from Panama City, but you can experience them in one day if you start early.
The San Blas archipelago includes more than 400 islands under the control of the Kuna Yala indigenous people. Travelers are only allowed to visit some of the islands. Due to these tourism restrictions, booking a tour is the only way to reach the islands.
However, the remote location and restrictions around visiting the San Blas Islands have preserved them wonderfully. These are some of the most picturesque islands you will ever experience, with totally calm, clear, and warm Caribbean waters. Visiting them is definitely worth the trip if you can.
Outside the city sit quaint local communities, each with their own history and mix of cultures. You’ll find examples of European, indigenous, and Afro-Caribbean influence throughout Panama, especially in these smaller towns. Take a day to appreciate these unique cultures first-hand.
To experience a completely different culture and way of life, visit an indigenous Embera village. Many of the Embera people still live as their ancestors did, on the banks of rivers in the rainforest.
The Embera people are known for their distinctive housing style, structures built on stilts, open on the sides. You’ll also notice their brightly colored and patterned clothing. Women wear skirts and sometimes go topless, while men wear long loincloths.
A lot of hotels and travel agencies offer tours to indigenous Embera towns, but you should try to pick an operator that you know works well with the local community, instead of exploiting them. By choosing this tour, you can book directly with a community tourism group in one such village.
Learn more about the Embera people and responsible travel in this blog post.
Chicá and El Cacao Communities
These two charming, rural towns are in the mountains to the west of Panama City. Both have beautiful rivers, cascading waterfalls, and friendly locals. Agriculture is a main source of income for both of these sleepy towns.
Take a tour of Chicá to learn about rural Panamanian life and their traditional “saloma” yodeling/singing. Chicá is also the turn-off point for Altos de Campana National Park, so you could combine visiting both the town and the park, even extending your trip into two days.
El Cacao is deeper in the mountains. On this day tour, hike to the secluded La Gloria Waterfalls near El Cacao and go for a swim in a natural pool. You’ll also get to enjoy a traditional Panamanian lunch.
Colón is a port town on Panama’s Caribbean coast with a fascinating historical site related to its past role in the Spanish gold trade.
Learn about Colón’s long history of pirates and changing populations as you visit Fort San Lorenzo. Furthermore, appreciate the modern engineering marvel of the Panama Canal at the Agua Clara Locks Visitor Center at the Caribbean entrance to the canal.
Both the Pacific side Miraflores Locks and the Caribbean side Agua Clara Locks are fascinating and you can enjoy a full canal experience on a transit tour. Your guide will tell you all about the history and modern-day function of the canal as you navigate from the Pacific to the Caribbean.
Another option for history buffs is the Panama Canal Railway, which runs parallel to the Canal and has an intriguing history all of its own. This historical day tour combines a train ride with a visit to forts in Colón.
Other than the fort, the locks, and a few other attractions, Colón is mostly a working town. It has a history of crime, so we don’t recommend walking around there alone if you can avoid it. Take a taxi instead.
Portobelo is another Caribbean port town, but with more things to do for travelers, including cultural and historical attractions.
For example, experience the Afro-Caribbean heritage of the region by trying food such as coconut rice and visiting Casa Congo, a cultural center and art gallery. We also recommend stopping by the San Felipe Church, also known as the Church of the Black Christ due to its annual festival for Portobelo’s patron saint, Black Christ.
Looking for an exciting day of adventure? Thanks to the variety of natural environments around Panama City, you’ll find plenty of adrenaline-fueled things to do.
First of all, take advantage of the rushing rivers, large lakes, and warm ocean waters of Panama to enjoy water sports such as swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, rafting, fishing, and more.
For snorkeling and scuba diving, we recommend the calm Caribbean waters near Portobelo, which offer interesting reefs to explore. See the beach section above for more details about beaches and islands near Portobelo.
You can always go sea kayaking, but there are also a variety of places inland to enjoy kayaking, from the Chagres and Pacora River to Lake Gatun. If you want an even more exciting experience, try whitewater rafting on the Mamoni or Chagres Rivers.
Panama is also great for sport fishing. This fishing tour to Lake Gatun includes all the equipment you’ll need and gives you the opportunity to fish for colorful peacock bass.
One of the best ways to experience the incredible landscapes of Panama is from above, on a zip line. There are plenty of places to go zip lining. We recommend ziplining in El Valle de Anton, over Lake Gatun, and at La Granja Campo y Aventura, an eco-center near Colón.
Bayano Lake and Bat Caves
Bayano Lake is 2 hours of driving to the east of Panama City, the opposite direction of where travelers usually go. This reservoir is the second-largest lake in Panama after Lake Gatun. It offers the chance to see unique wildlife in a stunning environment that is truly off the beaten path. The lake and its surrounding area are home to howler monkeys, crocodiles, three-toed sloths, and a variety of birds, including ringed kingfishers and toucans.
The adventure part of Bayano Lake is going canyoning and caving. On this tour, you’ll take a boat ride across the lake, then walk through waist-deep water in a cave. The caves on the south side of the lake are home to hundreds of bats and you can see them flying above as you explore.
While you can get to Bayano Lake on your own with a rental car, you’ll need to go with a tour to reach the caves. Remember to bring your passport, as there are security checkpoints on the road to the lake. If you go caving, you’ll also want to bring a dry bag to keep your electronics and other important items out of the water.
Even if you only have one day, there are still have so many attractions to discover on day trips from Panama City. Take a break from the city to experience the amazing variety of landscapes and activities which are just a quick drive away.