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5 Activities You Must Do if You Visit Panama

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I spent a lot of time researching what there is to do in Panama if you only have eight full days. Our group of four didn’t want the hassle of an internal flight which limited options. If you have five – eight days to visit Panama I’d recommend doing the following 5 activities. If you have more time, take a trip to the San Blas Islands for kayaking and/or fly north to visit the coffee plantations and beaches.

1. Dine by the Panama Canal

Don’t just visit the Panama Canal. Plan to dine by the locks so you can enjoy watching the boats make their way through the canal over a couple of hours. The food is okay – nothing amazing – but I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the experience. It was actually one of the top things I did in Panama. You can take a taxi from Panama City to the Miraflores Locks but reserve the restaurant in advance. Ask for an outside table.

5 Things You Must Do if you Visit Panama

Dine by the Panama Canal

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

It’s actually a thrill to sit and watch the boats go through the Panama Canal

2. Visit Monkey Island

You can visit Monkey Island as part of a day tour from Panama City. Explore Lake Gatun by boat, see up to four different types of monkeys in addition to many types of birds – some exotic. It’s also fun to see the ships in the Panama Canal at water level. They are an imposing sight!

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Hold on tight to everything you own; these monkeys are super-fast and agile

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Geoffroy’s tamarin monkey

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

You’ll see lots of birds on the trip around Monkey Island including this mangrove swallow

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Juvenile snail kite

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

You’ll get up close to boats in the Panama Canal on a trip to Monkey Island

3. Go Birdwatching

Reportedly there are 987 types of birds that have been seen in Panama including five species that are endemic. You can expect phenomenal bird watching across the country. One of the best and most accessible places to go is the world-famous Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park (easily accessed from Panama City). If you stay at Canopy Tower they will include a tour here. One very keen birder we spoke with exclaimed that “the birding on the Pipeline Road was the best he’d ever encountered.”

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Collared aricari

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Blue-headed parrot

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Mrs. Green honeycreeper

4. Visit Fort San Lorenzo 

The now abandoned Fort San Lorenzo is one of the oldest Spanish fortresses in America. In 1980 it received UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Wander the grounds, check out the rooms that at one time held prisoners and admire the views of the Caribbean and the Chagres River.

The fort has a violent history. It was repeatedly attacked between 1668 and 1671, destroyed three times and rebuilt three times. Its importance with a location high above the mouth of the Chagres River prevented boats from gaining access to the river, and ultimately Panama City.

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Fort San Lorenzo guarded the wealth coming up from the south

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

The fort has excellent views of the Chagres River

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

The fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980

5. Visit Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo is the historic centre of Panama City and best explored on foot. Wander along narrow streets, surrounded by a mixture of old buildings being restored, those that already are and many that need to be. Check out French Park for a view of the Amador Causeway, the Bridge of the Americas and the skyscrapers of downtown Panama City. Visit museums. Support the local shops. Stay in one of the many excellent hotels in the area. (We stayed in Tanatalo (very arty rooms, loud, amazing outdoor deck at night) and the American Trade Hotel with its lovely outdoor pool). Absorb the culture.

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

The colourful streets of Casco Viejo

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Door detail – Casco Viejo

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Ongoing restoration projects throughout Casco Viejo

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Life on the streets in Casco Viejo

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

No fear of colour in this part of the world

5 Things You Must Do if You Visit Panama

Feeling like an intruder as I have quite a view of the flower bedecked apartment across from my hotel

The roads are generally good in Panama though traffic in Panama City can be nuts. We didn’t rent a car. Instead in Panama City we explored on foot and used a taxi once. Outside of the city, we used the cars and drivers provided by the hotels we stayed in – the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge.

Any travel plans to Panama in your future?

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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