Panama is a country located in Central America and is bordered by Colombia and Costa Rica. Due to its unique geographical location between North and South America, Panama is considered the “bridge” between these two continents. The country is best known for the Panama Canal, an 81 km long canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The canal is of great importance for intercontinental boat traffic, as it eliminates the need to sail all the way around South America. However, the presence of the Panama Canal is not the only thing that makes Panama special. It offers beautiful natural areas, stunning beaches, and much more! In this article, you will find the ultimate 17-day travel itinerary for Panama, including information about transportation, where to stay and things to do.
We visited the following places:
- Bocas del Toro
- Santa Catalina
- Panama City
- San Blas Islands (Guna Yala)
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Traveling from east to west or vice versa
Depending on how you travel to Panama, you can use the travel itinerary in this article or reverse it.
We entered Panama from Costa Rica, so we started on the east side of Panama, in Bocas del Toro.
Bocas del Toro (4 or 5 days)
Bocas del Toro is a city and province located in the northwest of Panama, near the border of Costa Rica. Bocas consists of mainland and several islands, all of which are easily accessible by water taxis. The islands of Bocas del Toro have a relaxed atmosphere, and you will find some beautiful beaches there. That’s why Bocas is an extremely popular destination among tourists!
If you, like us, travel from Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, the easiest way to get there is by taking a shuttle service from San José or Puerto Viejo. We chose the shuttle service of Caribe Shuttle from San José. Our journey took about 10 hours, and the price was approximately 75 euros per person. A van picked us up at our hotel in San José. We had lunch halfway at Banana Azul in Puerto Viejo. After lunch, the shuttle took us to the border between Costa Rica and Panama. Here we went through passport control, paid a 10 euro exit fee, and then boarded a new bus that took us to the port in Almirante. A ferry was already waiting for us at the port to take us to Isla Colón. Everything was well organized!
Things to do in Bocas del Toro
In Bocas, you can engage in various activities such as island hopping, the Zapatilla Islands Boat Tour, visiting different beaches, including Boca del Drago, Starfish Beach, and Red Frog Beach, and exploring the island by bike or quad. If you’re in Bocas del Toro on a Friday and love a good party, don’t miss Filthy Friday!
We stayed 4 nights on the main island, Isla Colón, where you’ll find the lively Bocas Town. This island has the most restaurants, shops, and an ATM. We stayed four nights at The Lighthouse at Casa Max, a great hotel in a convenient location with a very friendly and helpful owner.
Boquete (2 or 3 days)
From Bocas del Toro, you travel to Boquete, a small town known for its breathtaking landscapes, adventurous hikes, and coffee plantations.
For this trip, we again opted for a shuttle service (including a boat ride). This time, we chose Hello Travel Panama. Our trip took approximately 6.5 hours and cost $30 per person.
Things to do in Boquete
Whether you’re looking for beautiful nature trails, delicious coffee, or simply relaxing, Boquete has something for everyone. Explore one of the many trails, such as the Lost Waterfall trail, the Pipeline Trail, and/or the Quetzales Trail. Visit Volcan Baru National Park, visit a coffee plantation, take a stroll through the center of the town or choose for adventure and go ziplining or rafting.
If you’re looking for accommodation with fantastic views, Hacienda Los Molinos Boutique Hotel is the perfect choice for you! The hotel is located just outside Volcan Baru National Park, about a 10-minute drive from the center of Boquete.
Another popular accommodation option is Bambuda Castle, located just a 15-minute drive from the city center. Bambuda Castle offers unique overnight stays, such as a room in one of the castle towers, garden bungalows or a Hobbit House.
Santa Catalina (3 or 4 days)
From Boquete, you travel to Santa Catalina, a small village located on the southern coast of Panama. Santa Catalina is known for its pristine beaches, fantastic surf spots, and a relaxed atmosphere.
Once again, we opted for the shuttle service provided by Hello Panama Travel. The journey took approximately 5 hours and cost $35 per person. It is also possible to travel by public transportation, but that involves multiple transfers and takes around 8-10 hours.
Things to do in Santa Catalina
If you love surfing, Santa Catalina is the perfect destination for you. The village is famous for its excellent surf beaches. Popular surf spots in Santa Catalina include Playa Santa Catalina, Playa Estero, and Playa Punta Brava. Additionally, Santa Catalina attracts many divers as it serves as a gateway to Coiba National Park. This park is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers stunning natural surroundings where you can hike, dive, and snorkel. While diving, you can enjoy spectacular coral reefs, colorful fish, turtles, sharks, and even whales. Just days before we arrived, orcas were spotted during a dive.
We stayed for 3 nights at Casa Maya in a charming cottage with a private bathroom and kitchen. The accommodation is located about a 5 to 10-minute walk from the center of the town.
Panama City (4 or 5 days)
Panama City is the capital of Panama and is situated at the entrance of the famous Panama Canal. The city offers a unique blend of modern skyscrapers and historic buildings.
To travel from Santa Catalina to Panama City, you need to allocate some time as there is no shuttle service available. First, you take a bus from Santa Catalina to Sona. In Sona, you transfer to a bus heading to Panama City. If everything goes smoothly, the journey takes about 8 hours. However, if your bus is delayed and you miss the transfer in Sona, it can take up to 10 hours.
Things to do in Panama City
Panama City has something for everyone. You can indulge in shopping at one of the many shopping malls, go for a walk and spot wildlife at the Metropolitan Natural Park, stroll through Casco Viejo, the historic center of the city, or take a walk along the Cinta Costera. Of course, a visit to the Panama Canal, where you can witness the passage of enormous ships, is a must.
We stayed for 4 nights at the Nomada Republic Container Hotel, a trendy container hotel located in the modern city center. The containers are equipped with a private kitchen, bathroom, and air conditioning. And all of this in a prime location!
San Blas Islands (3 or 4 days)
From Panama City, you can visit the San Blas Islands. The San Blas Islands, also known as the Guna Yala Islands, are a paradise archipelago located on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Some of these idyllic islands are inhabited by the indigenous Guna people. The archipelago is renowned for its pristine white sandy beaches, palm trees, turquoise waters, and beautiful coral reefs. Here, you can relax, snorkel, and completely unwind.
How to reach the San Blas Islands and things to do
You can visit the islands in different ways, namely:
- Day trip from Panama City: You sail along various islands in one day and engage in different activities.
- Multi-day sailing trip with accommodation on the boat: You sail for multiple days, visiting different islands and participating in various activities. You stay on the boat. It is also possible to embark on a multi-day sailing trip from Cartagena in Colombia.
- Multi-day trip with accommodation on one of the islands: You take a speedboat to one island, stay there for several nights, and engage in multiple activities from there.
For ourselves, we chose the multi-day trip with accommodation on one of the islands. We opted for the three-day El Original Experience by Cacique Cruiser. We stayed two nights in a beach hut on Aroma Island (Asseryaladub). From this island, we visited other islands such as Perro Chico and Isla Perro Grande, where we snorkeled and visited a sandbank. We paid $217 per person for this experience. The price included the transfer from Panama City to San Blas and back, the boat trip, accommodation on the island, meals and drinks, and the tax for the Guna Yala territory.