We spent 2,5 weeks during Christmas and New Year’s Eve travelling through Panama and I would love to give you some insights and recommendations about one of the less travelled gems of this world:
3 days Panama City, 2 days Guna Yala, 4 days Punta Chame, 4 days Santa Catalina, 4 days Boquete, 1 day Panama City
Destinations & Activities
Panama City is a fascinating city with a lot of developing going on. Certain areas with hotels, apartment and business towers already resemble a smaller version of Dubai. On the other hand, the old town is rather picturesque with nice little parks and lovely restaurants (e.g. Riesen). A must is a canal tour which is very impressive. We combined it with a guided rainforest walk (organised by Yala Tours). But you don't want to go to Panama and only visit Panama City because you would miss the best parts.
From Panama City we flew to Guna Yala and stayed in the Yandup Resort. Guna Yala means «land of the Yala», one of the indigenous tribes of Panama. It consists of dozens of beautiful little caribbean Islands. It really looks like out of a holiday brochure. We mainly went snorkelling (diving is not allowed) and did also a guided tour through their main city.
We rented a car in Panama City and drove to Punta Chame. This laid-back peninsula has three hotels and more or less no other infrastructure. This would be the place where a would by a weekend house if I lived in Panama City. Casa Amarilla is a wonderful place to stay and highly recommended. We spent Christmas there and enjoyed it very much, especially the delicious food. Punta Chame is primarily a very good spot for kitesurfing (go to Machete Kites and avoid Nitrocity).
The next stop was Santa Catalina. The place itself is not worth a visit, but it’s the starting point for trips to the national park Coiba Island. We did a 3-day trip with Coiba Dive Center which included three dives per day and a 2-night stay on Coiba Island. Because it is heavily protected, the underwater world is still intact and there are not many divers.
We then decided to drive to Boquete. Bocas del Toro in the north would have been an alternative, but we’ve already seen quite a few islands and enjoyed the beaches, that’s why we chose the mountain village (1’200 above sea). Again, the city is nothing special but offers a very good infrastructure for travellers. Boquete is the base for various hikes, with Volcano Baru as best known. However, this would have been a 2-day trip or you must start at midnight to see the sunrise (plus we didn’t bring the proper equipment with us). So we did part of the Sendero Quetzal. In most guides, they recommend a guided tour because the paths are often in a bad condition and you can easily get lost in the rainforest. We did it on our own and found it pretty easy. I also recommend a tour through one of the coffee farms. Panama produces one of the best coffees and we treated ourselves to a cup of the most expensive coffee in the world. A bath in the hot springs of Caldera topped it off.
From Boquete, we went to David and flew back to Panama City where we stayed our last day before flying back home.
Flight & Transportation
We flew with Iberia from Munich via Madrid to Panama City. Iberia just added themselves to the list of airlines I will no longer consider in the future. The plane for the intercontinental flight was old, shabby and without any entertainment system. In the future, I’ll be happy to pay a few bucks more to fly with a better airline. Additionally, one of the engines ceased working and we had to turn around after two hours of flight, go back to Madrid and change the plane. So we finally arrived in Panama City with a delay of 7 hours...
It’s obviously easy to travel in Panama by bus and they are ubiquitous. We opted nevertheless for a rental car because this gave us more flexibility, especially when you go to remoter places like Punta Chame and Santa Catalina. Panama is quite small (double the size of Switzerland), so there are no really long distances. The roads between the cities are in a very good shape, but a 4x4 car is recommended for smaller streets. Hertz had no more GPS devices, so they gave us a wireless hotspot plus a SIM card with unlimited data and we used Google Maps as our GPS. The hotspot obviously proved very useful, not only for driving around.
We decided to return the car at David Airport and to fly back to Panama City. This would cost us $300 more (additional rental fee plus plane tickets) but saved us a whole day of driving from West to East.
I really recommend Panama as a travel destination, especially if you like kitesurfing, diving and/or hiking. The most striking thing is the diversity of the country, with Panama City as a business town, caribbean islands and mountain villages, all in a land the size of Austria. It is a well developed country with a good infrastructure. There are not (yet) that many tourists but still enough facilities. Electricity, network coverage etc. are no problem on the mainland, but are limited on the islands. Most hotels provide quite a fast internet connection. We always felt safe although we heard and read some stories about robberies. Although it can be difficult to find an ATM in smaller places, most hotels and restaurants nowadays accept credit cards (not AMEX). However, I would recommend to always have enough cash ($200-300 per person) with you. We tried to pay as much in advance as possible. Panama is not really cheap. Hotel rooms were between $80-120 per night (holiday season) and restaurant meals anywhere from $8-25.
A few things (for myself) to remember for further travelling:
- Learn (a bit more) Spanish. Speaking and understanding the local language or at least part of it makes travelling easier and is more fun. With countless years of French and Latin I understand quite a bit of (written) Spanish, so it would be easy to improve.
- Go to Volcano Baru. If I think back about our trip to Panama, I regret only that we haven’t been to the volcano. It must be great to see the sunrise up there and to experience the sight of two oceans at the same time.
- Buy mobile hotspot plus local SIM card. The experience with the mobile hotspot from Hertz was great and nowadays it’s just helpful to be able to go online while travelling. I’m not speaking about checking Facebook or work e-mails, but about making reservations, researching activities etc.
- Don’t always go for the cheapest airfare. It’s tempting to save money by taking the cheapest flight, but some airlines are just not worth it.