Travel itinerary Panama: the ideal combination of beaches, mountains, jungle & wildlife

(This article is also available in Dutch)

When I had to choose our next “outside Europe” destination, I had many requirements. White beaches with palm trees, mountains for hiking, real culture and not too touristy. Panama turned out to be the perfect destination!

In this blog, I will take you through our itinerary in Panama. First I name the individual destinations, how many days are best to stay there, how to get from A to B (both the cheapest and more expensive option), and any alternative places to visit.

At the end, you will find these destinations in an itinerary divided into three itineraries, depending on the length of your trip.

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#1 Panama City

Why Panama City?

Panama City is also called the most beautiful city in Central America. You will probably arrive here by plane.

The city is a nice start to your trip, where you can acclimate. Strolling through the old town, sipping cocktails at a rooftop bar…, you are treated to beautiful views everywhere. Panama City is a very nice city but also a good base for (day) excursions.

 

How many days in Panama City?

We recommend staying here for at least 3 nights.

We stayed there twice, 6 nights in total, and certainly could have stayed even longer. But the rest of Panama is so beautiful, you really shouldn’t stay too long in the city!

Panama City
Panama City

Panama City accommodation tip

From this skyscraper you have a beautiful view of Casco Viejo on one side, and the skyline of Panama City on the other.

The trendy Casco Viejo is just a 15-minute walk or $3 with an Uber. Here you will enjoy your own little apartment with a lovely view. Inside the building you will find 2 more restaurants, a rooftop bar, pool, zip line and game room.

👉 View the apartment on Booking.com

#2 Bocas del Toro

Why Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is an archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Here the rainforest melts together with beautiful beaches.

Each island has its own charm. From party island to complete tranquility, there is something for everyone.

 

How many days in Bocas del Toro?

We recommend staying at least 4, but if possible, 7 nights on Bocas del Toro. Try to spread your stay over at least 2 islands. 

Bocas del Toro has a microclimate that allows more frequent rainfall. Staying a little longer gives you a better chance of good weather. And besides, there is so much to do and see, that a week still leaves you far too little time!

 

Route: Panama City – Bocas del Toro

There are two ways to get from Panama City to Bocas, by domestic flight or night bus.

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Fastest option: by plane

By plane from Panama City to Bocas del Toro

Three times a day there is a flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro. You will fly with the airline Panama Air and depart from the small Albrook Airport in Panama City.

The normal price is around €95 per person, this includes 33 kg of checked baggage.

Since October 2023, a new airline has also been flying from Panama City to Bocas del Toro: FlyTrip. At the time of writing, FlyTrip is more expensive than Panama Air. Check flight times and prices here.

Cheapest option: by night bus + boat

By night bus from Panama City to Bocas del Toro

The overnight bus to Almirante departs from the Albrook Bus Terminal bus station in Panama City. It departs at 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Be sure to check the bus schedules again when in Panama, they may be different by now. The bus takes about 11 to 12 hours.

Arriving in Almirante, take a cab for about $1 to the docks and board the boat to Bocas del Toro, to the main island of Isla Colon.

The bus costs about $30 and the boat $5.

We have NOT taken the night bus ourselves, but have heard many stories about it. Be aware that this is a very long trip with little leg room. If your budget allows, air travel is a lot more pleasant.

Nowhere in Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro accommodation tip

Nowhere is a super nice accommodation in the jungle of the main island of Colon. Away from the crowds, but everything is easily and quickly accessible.

Here you sleep in a hobbit-like cottage with three see-through hatches. You wake up with jungle sounds and, while showering, look out on trees where howler monkeys clamber through. What. Is. This. Awesome.

We have had many cool accommodations in Panama, but this one is really the winner as far as we are concerned!

👉 View accommodation on Booking.com

#3 Boquete

Why Boquete?

Boquete is a mountain village, especially loved by adventurers, nature lovers and bird watchers. In Boquete, climb the Baru volcano, go river rafting, ziplining, or hike one of the many trails, often surrounded by beautiful waterfalls.

 

How many days in Boquete?

We recommend staying at least 3 nights in Boquete. Are you an active hiker or true nature lover? Then consider like 5 nights!

We did not find the village itself very cozy or nice, but the surroundings are beautiful. If you don’t mind taking the occasional cab, we recommend accommodation outside the city center.

Route: Bocas del Toro – Boquete

To travel from Bocas del Toro to Boquete, you have the choice of the slower public transportation, or the organized shuttle that runs directly to Boquete, with no detour.

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Cheapest option: water cab + bus

From Bocas del Toro to Boquete by water cab and bus

This is the cheapest option, but also the slowest.

  1. You take a water cab to Almirante
  2. Take the bus to Chiriqui
  3. Take the bus to David
  4. Finally, take the bus from David to Boquete

This entire trip takes about 6.5 hours and costs about $17.

Fastest option: shuttle

From Bocas del Toro to Boquete by water cab and shuttle

The fastest, but also the most expensive option is with an organized shuttle. This already includes the price for the water cab.

From the main island, first take the water cab to Almirante. A shuttle van will pick you up and drive you directly to Boquete.

This trip takes a total of 4 hours and includes a short break.

The shuttle costs $30. We personally booked this shuttle through Hello Travel Panama.

Bambuda Castle in Boquete

Boquete accommodation tip

Bambuda Castle is located 2 kilometers from the center of Boquete. You can stay here in the castle itself, in hobbit cottages or cabins. In peace and quiet, enjoy the view of the valley with its coffee plantations.


Please note that Bambuda Castle is currently under renovation which causes noise pollution. Choose a cabin to minimize inconvenience. By September 2024, the works should be finished, and the accommodation should be even more beautiful!

👉 Check out the ho(s)tel on Booking.com

Additional destination? Consider The Lost & Found!

Do you have more than 4 weeks to travel through Panama, or are you really looking for a very remote place? Then consider going to The Lost and Found Jungle Hostel for a few nights after Boquete. Then you spend the night in the cloud forest La Fortuna Nature Reserve. This is truly a place to disconnect and enjoy nature.

 

Prefer islands? Choose Isla Boca Brava!

Isla Boca Brava (Boca Chica, Pacific coast) was also high on our list, but unfortunately did not fit anymore into our schedule. This is a beautiful island where tourism is said to have failed, making it nice and quiet. There is an authentic village, and you literally come here for the tranquility and the beautiful underwater world.

#4 Santa Catalina

Why Santa Catalina?

In Santa Catalina you will still find a very authentic atmosphere. But it is also a surfer’s paradise and the gateway to Coiba.

The islands of Coiba National Park are also called the Galápagos of Central America. This is due to the islands’ unique wildlife and its idyllic underwater world.

 

How many days in Santa Catalina?

If you are not into diving, surfing or yoga, 3 nights at Santa Catalina will suffice.

But if you want to learn how to surf, do yoga or do multiple dives, you better stay longer.

Route: Boquete – Santa Catalina

Unless it really doesn’t fit your budget, we recommend taking a shuttle. In fact, the trip from Boquete to Santa Catalina by public transportation takes about 10 hours!

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Cheapest option: by bus

From Boquete to Santa Catalina by bus

Get ready for a long trip because you’re a whopping at least 10 hours and 4 buses away.

  1. Take the bus from Boquete to David
  2. Take the bus to Santiago
  3. Take the next bus to Sona
  4. The last bus to take is the one to Santa Catalina. If you miss the last bus leaving at 4 p.m., you will have to take a 40-minute cab. You guessed it, if you have to take that cab, you save little versus a shuttle.

The total price is about $18.

Fastest option: shuttle

From Boquete to Santa Catalina by shuttle

A shuttle from Boquete to Santa Catalina takes about 5 hours, including a break. This will cost you $35 per person.

We booked the shuttle online through Hello Travel Panama.

Hotel Iguanito in Santa Catalina

Hotel Iguanito

Hotel Iguanito is in a very central location in the city center. That means you’re quickly at both beaches, close to the organizations leaving for Coiba, and the few restaurants Santa Catalina has.

The room has air conditioning (Santa Catalina is hot!!) and a nice terrace where you can chill for hours in the hammock. A super good hotel at a low price!

👉 Check out the hotel on Booking.com

Additional or different destination?

Consider Playa Venao. Playa Venao is also a surfer’s paradise with a nice atmosphere. Besides a good nightlife and fine beach, you can also find waterfalls, hike through nature and spot whales here.

Playa Venao or Santa Catalina, we hesitated for a long time. What was the deciding factor for Santa Catalina? Santa Catalina is even more authentic and a tour to Coiba just sounded too amazing. Plus, the surf beach in Santa Catalina seemed a little nicer to us.

Don’t like diving, snorkeling or surfing? Then Santa Catalina might be a bit boring for you. Rather an active hiker? Then consider Santa Fe or El Valle de Anton.

 

#5 San Blas

Why San Blas?

If you like bounty islands without giant resorts, you’ll love San Blas. You’re thinking, “I’ll do that someday”? Think again. If sea levels rise even more fiercely, these will be among the first islands to disappear. They expect this as early as 2050. Convinced?

 

How many days in the San Blas Islands?

It depends on what you can handle. Can you stand a rather primitive stay on an island where you can do absolutely nothing? By “nothing” we mean kayaking, playing beach volleyball, hanging out on the beach, sip beers, and taking a 5-minute walk.

We stayed 2 nights on Yanis island and despite that we are not those “do-nothing” people, we could have easily stayed longer. 

Because of the long journey to get there, we do not recommend a day trip. You then travel like 6–7 hours for less than 6 hours of fun. And the San Blas experience is only truly special with an overnight stay.

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Can't I go to the San Blas Islands by myself?

Yes, you can definitely go to the San Blas Islands by yourself. It does take a lot more arranging, and the question is whether you are going to be that much cheaper.

You can often book the cottages on the islands through Booking, like this one. You then still have to arrange your own transportation, or drive your rental 4×4 to the port.

Route: Santa Catalina – Panama City – San Blas

Since all tours to San Blas leave around 5:30, you need to stay an extra night in Panama City.

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Cheapest option: the bus

From Santa Catalina to Panama City

Get ready for a long trip today, as the route from Santa Catalina to Panama City takes about 9 hours. The route is as follows:

  • Take the 7:00 bus to Sona (it stops at this intersection) which takes about 2 hours. You can also take the 8 a.m. one, but if it’s just a little late, you’ll miss your connection.
  • When you get off the bus, and you say you need to go to Panama City, they take you to the right bus. The bus leaves at 10:00, so you still have time to get breakfast at the store.
  • The bus will drive to Panama City in about 5.5 hours, making another restroom/snack stop along the way.

This trip costs $15 per person.

Although the trip was long, the buses were very comfortable. Just make sure you have earplugs so you don’t have to listen to accordion music for 7 hours 😉

Fastest option: the shuttle

From Santa Catalina to Panama City by shuttle

The shuttle takes about 6 hours and costs $60 per person. You can reserve it through Shuttle in Panama.

Please note that this shuttle does not go every day!

Good to know

If you go to San Blas, you are not allowed to bring large pieces of luggage. So that means that you need to store your suitcase or large backpack somewhere. Therefore, in most cases, it is not convenient to stay in an apartment just before you leave for San Blas.

In most cases, you can leave your luggage at your hotel. Having previously stayed close to Casco Viejo, we enjoyed exploring a different part of the city now. We can recommend Plaza Paitilla because of the beautiful view of the skyline! Prefer a budget option? Consider the hostel Bodhi.

San Blas over water bungalow

San Blas accommodation tip

We stayed on Yanis island in a private over water bungalow. It couldn’t be more idyllic! The island was beautiful, the toilets were clean, and the food was much better than expected!

👉 Book the same San Blas tour

Other islands?

If San Blas does not fit your budget (we get it) or primitive cottages are not on your bucket list (we also get that), consider going to the Pearl Islands. The Pearl Islands consist of more than 200 islets in the Pacific Ocean. You can get there by ferry within 2 hours from Panama City.

#6 Gamboa

Why Gamboa?

“I love the jungle!”, I said this many times during this trip. Fond of the jungle, fond of wildlife. We wanted to end our trip with a more luxurious stay, among the greenery of Panama.

Gamboa is a small village adjacent to the Soberanía National Park. This is one of the best places in Panama to spot wildlife. You will also find indigenous villages of the Emberra tribe here.

 

How many days in Gamboa?

We recommend staying at least 3 nights in Gamboa. If you are an active hiker, feel free to spend more time here.

The only downside to Gamboa is that there are very few places to eat in the village. The Gamboa Rainforest hotel does have several restaurants, but they are quite pricey. That’s why we kept this destination for the end, because it’s best to end your trip on a more luxurious note, right?

 

Route: San Blas – Panama City – Gamboa

After the San Blas tour, you will be dropped off back in Panama City. Then it is only a short distance to Gamboa.

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By Uber to Gamboa

The easiest way to get from Panama City to Gamboa is to take an Uber or cab. We paid a total of $20 from the Plaza Paitilla hotel to Gamboa Rainforest Reserve.

Not using Uber yet? Use the code ‘xw5zccgw1dnx’ or this link to receive €50 off your first 5 rides (worldwide).

Panama - Gamboa Rainforest Reserve

Gamboa Hotel Tip

Gamboa Rainforest Reserve has beautiful views of the rainforest. From the hotel you can walk straight into the jungle, or take a boat along the shores in search of wild life.

Pricey it is, but the experience is worth every euro!

👉 Check out the hotel on Booking.com

The ideal itinerary in Panama

Below we show our ideal itinerary in Panama. Do you have 2, 3 or 4 weeks?

2 week Panama itinerary

If you have a total of 14 nights, we recommend the schedule below:

  1. Panama City: 2 nights
  2. Bocas del Toro: 5 nights (spread over 2 islands)
  3. Boquete: 3 nights
  4. Santa Catalina: 3 nights
  5. Panama City: 1 night

From Panama City, you can possibly take a day excursion to Gamboa.

3 weeks Panama itinerary

If you have a total of 21 nights, we recommend the schedule below:

 

  1. Panama City: 2 nights
  2. Bocas del Toro: 7 nights (spread over 2 islands)
  3. Boquete: 3 nights
  4. Santa Catalina: 3 nights
  5. Panama City: 1 night
  6. San Blas: 2 nights
  7. Gamboa: 3 nights

4 weeks Panama itinerary

If you have a total of 28 nights, we recommend the itinerary below. You could also put an additional destination in between, but we personally opt to get to know a place better.

 

  1. Panama City: 3 nights
  2. Bocas del Toro: 8 nights (spread over 2–3 islands)
  3. Boquete: 5 nights
  4. Santa Catalina: 3 nights
  5. Panama City: 2 nights
  6. San Blas: 3 nights
  7. Gamboa: 3 nights

Do you have more than 4 weeks, or are you looking for other destinations?

Then the following destinations may still be interesting to explore:

 

  1. Lost & Found hostel
  2. Santa Fe
  3. El Valle de Anton
  4. Playa Venao
  5. Pearl Islands
  6. Boca Chica
  7. Las Lajas

The route the other way?

You can also make the above route the other way around. We very deliberately did this sequence. So at the beginning we still had the beach on Bocas to relax, but also a lot to do and see. We kept San Blas for the end, and for these reasons:

  • We end the trip with the whitest and quietest beaches. If we did San Blas first, Santa Catalina and Bocas del Toro might disappoint!
  • 2 days of doing nothing and living primitively on a small bounty island? I can only do that toward the end of the vacations when I am completely ‘zen’. At the beginning of the trip, I want to see a lot 😉

If you don’t do San Blas, or 2 days of doing nothing at the beginning of the trip doesn’t put you off, it really doesn’t matter which side you start on.

About our 4-week Panama trip

We are real city people, so we stayed in Panama City twice for 3 nights. And although we enjoyed every minute of it, we decided that we found the nature too beautiful to stay in the city so long. Therefore, in the itinerary we recommended, we added a night to Bocas del Toro and took away from the city.

The place that surprised us the most was Gamboa. Originally we had booked El Valle de Anton, but last minute we exchanged it for Gamboa. We came to love the jungle so much, this was really the perfect end to our month of traveling. We saw toucans from our hotel room, a crocodile in the river and many other wildlife on the property – I’ll write a blog about that soon.

Our highlight? That was San Blas. I was afraid it would be very primitive and full of cockroaches and garbage. But it was super idyllic, and we were not bored for a second. Thanks in part to the cool people we met there!

But all the places were very special, we came to love every single one and regret nothing.

If we were to go back again, I would definitely go to Bocas del Toro even longer. Even though we stayed there for a week, we still have so much to explore! You really have the best of Panama there: miles of beach (where there is often not a person in sight) and jungle with lots of wildlife.

Panama still seems like such an undiscovered country, while it really has everything.

Hope you got something out of this article! If you have any questions, be sure to let us know in the comments!