The country of Panama, located in the heart of Central America, is more than the home of one of the greatest engineering achievements known to man, the Panama Canal. While I would encourage anyone visiting Panama to check out the canal, there are other places that you should check out while you are in the country. In addition to that, there are several events and activities that you can take part in while you are visiting.
Below are a couple of places, events, and activities that I think you will enjoy if you are planning a trip to the Isthmus of Panama.
1. Visit The Pearl Islands
One of the coolest things about Panama is you can literally travel go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in about an hour. It is common to hear Panamanian refer to different areas of the country as the "Pacific side" or "Atlantic side".
Furthermore, there are island paradises on both the Atlantic side and the Pacific Side. On the Pacific side of Panama there are a group of islands known as The Pearl Islands or Islas de las Perlas (Spanish). The Pearl Islands were actually featured in three seasons of the hit reality TV show Survivor.
The most popular island in the group among tourists is Contadora. Other islands that are frequented by tourists are the islands of Saboga, Viveros, and Isla Del Rey. You are able to get to the main islands like Contadora via ferry boat or by airplane. It will take about 45 minutes by plane and a hour and a half by boat.
There are several charter boat services that you can use in Panama City that will take you to the island. The cost to take a ferry boat to the island will be anywhere from $50 to $100 for a round trip. If you want to go by air then you will have to fly out of the regional airport using Panama's regional airline service, Air Panama. Major airlines like United, Delta, or American do not fly to these islands. The prices for flights will depend on the season but I have seen fares as low as $70 for a round trip.
While most people prefer day trips, you can stay on one of the main islands for a couple of nights. There are a couple of hotels and B&B's available if you are planning an extended stay in "The Pearls". In addition to relaxing on the beach soaking up the tropical sun, there are several other things you can do on the islands like scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing and jet sking.
2. Visit Isla Grande
On the Atlantic side of Panama sits a beautiful island that goes by the name of Isla Grande. This island serves as a getaway for most locals who want to take a break from the busy city. But tourists frequent this island paradise as well.
In order to get to Isla Grande you will have to pass through Portobello which is site in itself. It features ruins of an old Spanish fort and the area is an important historical landmark. It was considered to be center of Spanish trade in the Americas in the late 1600's. Most likely you will want stop and take pictures passing through.
After you pass Portobello you will reach a town by the name of La Guaira. At La Guaira you will be able to take a boat to the island. It will take about a hour and forty-five minutes to get to Isla Grande from Panama City. As far as transportation is concerned, you will need to inquire with your hotel service desk or contact a tour company in the city.
Once you are on the island you will immediately notice how calm the water is compared to the rough waters off the Pacific coast. In addition to that, you are able to walk far out into the ocean with the water only coming up a little over your waist. It is an amazing experience in my opinion.
Like The Pearl Islands, people usually take a day trip to Isla Grande and then come back to the city. However, there are accommodations available if you want to enjoy an extended stay. The most popular accommodation on the island is the Bananas Village Resort.
3. Enjoy The Thermal Springs Of El Valle De Anton
El Valle De Anton, which translated into English means The Anton Valley, is located inside ancient volcanic crater. It is located in the Cocle province of Panama. Locals who live in this area do not need any water heaters because they are blessed with ability to tap directly into thermal waters underground. Throughout the valley are natural hot springs.
There is a public area that is open to visitors so that they can enjoy natural hot springs called Pozos Termales. The thermal springs also contain minerals that are considered to have health benefits. The thermal water contains high levels of sodium and bicarbonates which are minerals that are considered healthy for the skin.
Girls Receiving A Full Body Clay Application
Visitors can also receive a free application of a clay mask. If you want to receive a full body application you can purchase a cup a clay for $2. The clay or mud application is suppose to eliminate dead skin and revitalize the skin. Between certain times of the day visitors can also enjoy complimentary massages. There is an entrance fee of $2.25 charged to visitors to get access to the bathing pools.
El Valle De Anton is located about 2 and half hours outside of Panama City. The major modes of transport to the valley are bus and car. If you are staying at an hotel in Panama City, then you should inquire about a shuttle or tour to the area.
4. Festival De Tortuga (Sea Turtle Festival)
The Sea Turtle Festival or Festival De Tortuga (Spanish) takes place every year in the middle of May on a beach near the town of Armila in Guna Yala. The festival is held every year to showcase sea turtles laying their eggs and little hatchlings emerging from under the sand to scurry into the sea.
Adult sea turtles will begin laying their eggs late in February until the end of May. The adult female sea turtles will make their way up from sea unto the shore, usually at night, lay their eggs in the sand, cover the eggs, and then make there way back to the water. It will take about 60 days before the eggs will begin to hatch. Since the festival is held in the middle of May visitors will be able to witness both female sea turtles laying their eggs and the babies coming to life.
The festival is a four day, three night event. The cost of the event, excluding transportation, is $117. In addition to watching the sea turtles, there are other cultural and ecological activities that you can participate in. You will also receive three meals a day. All attendees are expected to make donation of $10 which goes to protecting endangered sea turtle species like the leatherback, hawksbill, and channel turtles.
Transportation to the festival is limited to airplane. If you are interested in participating in the event you will need to book a flight on Air Panama. You will be flying to a small airport in Puerto Obaldia and then transported by boat to the festival site.
An Overview Of The Sea Turtle Festival (En Espanol)
5. Take A City Tour Of Panama
You have a couple of options when it comes to touring Panama City. You can take a tour on a "Hop on, Hop off" bus, which is similar to the double decker buses that you would see in London. You can also take a tour on a "Tram" styled bus similar to the cable cars of San Francisco. Lastly, you can tour the city on land and water in a Aquabus, an amphibious vehicle.
The "Hop on, Hop off" bus tour basically operates like a regular bus line, but specifically for tourists. You can buy a 24 hour or 48 hour pass and ride to different locations through the city like the Panama Canel, The Biomuseum, Multiplaza Mall, and Flamenco Island in the Amador Causeway. You basically ride to whatever destination you want to visit, spend up a couple of hours there, and then wait for the next bus. The price for passes are $29 (24 hours) and $39 (48 hours).
If you are not with hopping on and off of buses, then you can schedule a private tour with a Panama Sin Fronteras. They can provide you and your party of up to 16 with two different types of tours on their "tram" style operated vehicles. They offer two and three hour tours through tourist hotspots like Ancon Hill and Old Panama better known as Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo. Another service that they offer is transportation to and from the airport.
Take A Land And Water Tour In The AquaBus
If you want to take a tour on the wild side, then you need to take city tour on a Aquabus. On this tour you get to experience the city on land and in water. The Aquabus, like the other services, will take you to the most popular tourist spots. The price for a tour is $39 for adults and $29 for kids. The video below explains how the Aquabus works.
The AquaBus Tour In Panama
6. Panama Jazz Festival
If you are a huge jazz fan and love to hear jazz music live, then plan on visiting Panama in the middle of January which is when the Panama Jazz Fest takes place. Unlike most places in the world, Panama enjoys a warm and pleasant climate during the month of January. So if you decide to come to Panama to watch an outdoor jazz festival, rest assured knowing that you will not be subject to severe winter conditions. Believe it or not, there are a huge group of foreigners, known as "Snowbirds", who escape their ruthless winters to be in a tropical climate.
In addition to the outdoor concerts, you can take part in jam sessions, jazz clinics, and music therapy. While most of the outdoor events will take place in the City of Knowledge, which is about 15 minutes outside of the city, other festivities will take place at the convention center, theaters or concert halls, and jazz clubs in different throughout Panama City.
In case you are wondering well known jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, and Susana Baca perform at the event. In 2013 Panama showcased one their own, Ruben Blades, Panamanian born singer and actor, who appeared as a special guest artist.
Check out Ruben Blades performing at the Panama Jazz Fest in the video below.
Ruben Blades Performing At The Jazz Festival
7. Panama International Film Festival
If you are visiting Panama during the month of April, then a cool activity that you can take part in is the Panama International Film Festival. In 2013 the festival presented over 69 films that were viewed in different venues throughout the city. Aside from showcasing projects from Latin American countries, the event features films from places like Israel, France, Germany, and India.
In addition to viewing the feature films, you will also be able to participate in workshops, industry panels, and red carpet presentations. You can also asks questions and critique films with the producers, director, and cast members after each viewing.
8. Take A Spanish Class
If your visiting a Spanish speaking country why not learn some Spanish, at least the basics. The good thing about these classes is that you may actually learn Spanish because you being taught by Spanish speakers unlike your high school foreign language class. If you became fluent from your high school Spanish class, then you are one of the few.
There are many language schools throughout the country. I took a 4-week course from a school, located in the El Cangrejo area of the city, called SpanishPanama. I recommend this school if you are staying in the city. They offer several different packages and they will even customize a course for you. Some of their packages even provide you with a place to stay.
9. Take A Salsa Class
This is a pic of a salsa class session in Panama City that I was in.
If you like to dance, then while you are in Panama you can learn one of the country's most popular dances, the salsa. Part of my package with SpanishPanama included 4 weeks of Salsa classes. The photo above is an actual picture from my class. The perspiration that you see on some of the people is real too. These classes go on for, literrally, hours. My class started at 7pm and did not end until a little after 10pm. The salsa teachers in this class were great. They make the class fun and are very helpful. In case you are wondering if they speak English, they do. But you need to let them know in advanced or you will be lost.
The classes that I participated in were in the El Cangrejo area on Via Espana in a place called Paradise Banquet Hall. The classes are usually held every Tuesday and Thursday and cost only $5 per session. There are other salsa classes that are held in certain hotels as well.
10. Enjoy An Outdoor Adventure
If you are into the outdoors or nature, there are several places in Panama that offer different types of outdoor activities like ziplining, river tubing, kayaking, and even horseback riding. Of course you are most likely going to have to travel outside the city to take part in these types of activities.
Panama Outdoor Adventures, which is located near Portobelo on the Caribbean coast, offers several outdoor activities including an jungle camping experience. If you just want to explore the jungle they have 3 nature trails that are on the site. In addition to that, they offer you a chance to interact with native villagers of the Embera Tribe who actually live in the jungle.
If you want to experience the outdoors and be able to retreat to five star accommodations, then you need visit the Gamboa Resort, which is located in the Panama Canal Zone. The Gamboa Resort offers a host of outdoor and nature activities including guided fishing tours, jungle safaris, bird watching, and a aerial tram tour. The resort is very popular with tourists and Panamanians, alike.
Canopy Zipline Tour at Panama Outdoor Adventures
Map of Panama
Get An Idea Of Where These Places Are Located In Panama
Stay tuned for even more things that you can do in Panama.
If you have any questions about Panama leave them in the comments section below. Also if you have visited Panama before tell us about your experience.