A FIRST APPROACH
Which Panama Is Right for You?
Here's a snapshot of Panama's defining experiences: a modern capital on the canal, near-deserted islands, and trails for spotting wildlife and waterfalls. Get a sense of which ones fit your travel style and your budget.
GO IN SEARCH OF BIRDS AND WATERFALLS
Starting east of Panama City and extending all the way to the Colombian border is the Darién, one of the world's last great wildernesses. It should top any adventurer's list. The most pristine spots are accessible only by chartered plane or guided trek, but there are cheaper options. Burbayar Lodge, for instance, is in the middle of a forest on the western edge of the Darién—and about 50 miles from Panama City. It has some of the best birding in eastern Panama, with more than 300 species identified near the lodge. (Panama has nearly 1,000 species, more than the United States and Canada combined.) Round-trip transfers from Panama City, accommodation, all meals, and a daily guided hike along the continental divide is $190 per person for the first night, $155 for subsequent nights at Burbayar.
The mountains of western Panama offer considerably cheaper but equally pleasant lodging for hikers, wildlife watchers, and waterfall seekers. These include the charming Hostal La Qhia in the little-known mountain town of Santa Fé and the Lost and Found Lodge Eco Resort and Finca la Suiza, both of which are just off the Fortuna Road, a famous bird-watching destination. Prices top out at $55 for a double room at Finca la Suiza, which has extensive private, well-maintained mountain trails crisscrossed with hidden waterfalls. It can get surprisingly cool up here—57 degrees Fahrenheit at the highest points along the Fortuna Road—and it's a delight to step out of protected forest to see panoramic views of the lowlands and ocean. More than 1,000 plant species have been identified in the Fortuna Forest Reserve alone.
All of these spots are near the Continental Divide, which appeals to nature lovers because they have access to both Pacific and Caribbean flora and fauna. Western Panama is the most mountainous part, but it's not a land of towering peaks—by far the biggest is the 11,400-foot Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano. There are plenty of accessible hiking trails, and non-hikers can have a Blue Lagoon moment just off the Fortuna Road by getting off the bus or parking the car at kilometer marker 67. At the bottom of a short path is El Suspiro, a rarely visited 100-foot-tall waterfall at the end of a narrow box canyon.
In the western highlands, the town of Boquete is known for its mild weather and gourmet coffee. Bird watchers, hikers, and the high-adrenaline set visit to search for the resplendent quetzal bird or climb Volcán Barú, from the top of which it's possible to see the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea at once. Other attractions around Boquete include world-class white-water rafting, the longest zip line ride in Panama, and rock climbing on a column-like basalt formation called Los Ladrillos, just outside of town.
1. Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its paper currency, known locally as either dolares or balboas. Panamanian coins are nearly identical to and are used interchangeably with U.S. ones. However, some U.S. credit and debit cards have begun charging a foreign transaction fee of 3 percent or more for purchases and ATM withdrawals made in Panama. Check your card's fine print and apply for a new card without these fees if necessary. Travelers' checks are not easy to cash in Panama.
2. Panama has lots of microclimates, so peak season may not be the best time to visit your destination. For instance, in Bocas del Toro it's usually drier in the rainy season month of September than during Panama's official dry season, but prices are still lower, the islands are less crowded, and there's a chance of seeing nesting sea turtles.
3. Tourist taxis, identifiable by license plates that begin with SET, lurk outside Panama City's tourist spots and upscale hotels. They're more comfortable than regular taxis, but they're authorized to charge several times the normal fare. For a cheaper ride, walk down the block and hail a street cab, of which there are thousands. Taxi drivers in Panama are generally reliable characters, though many drive like maniacs—the norm for Panama motorists unfortunately.
4. Panama is a rather formal country, so reserve the shorts and flip-flops for the beach. Some establishments will turn you away, and others will assume you're a disrespectful, clueless foreigner and treat you accordingly.