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Backpacking Panama: A Two-Week Itinerary

My first opportunity for backpacking Panama came tantalizingly close in 2005 when I traveled to Costa Rica and made my way south along the Caribbean coast. 

In Puerto Viejo, I encountered many backpackers traveling overland, having either come north from Panama or heading that way next. 

Panama Metropolitan Cathedral
Panama Metropolitan Cathedral

I considered my options but stuck to my original plan to spend my entire 18-day vacation exploring Costa Rica.

It would be another eight years before I returned to the region, this time dedicating two weeks to backpacking Panama. 

What follows is my itinerary, which served me well as an introduction to the country.

Where to Go in Panama

Panama City

Panama City is unique among capital cities in Central America as it's located on the coast. Specifically, it faces Panama Bay on the Pacific side.

A modern skyline full of high-rise buildings occupies the Punta Paitilla district. I had little interest in spending time in that part of the city, though. 

San Felipe, Panama City
Restored buildings in the old town

San Felipe (Casco Viejo)

Instead, I based myself in the historic San Felipe neighborhood, better known as Casco Viejo (“Old Town” in Spanish).

This coastal area was settled in 1673 and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. 

The walkable old town reminded me of Cartagena, though smaller and with fewer buildings having been renovated.

Street art
Street art

Some of the buildings, like the one pictured above, even lacked a roof.

It was just a few walls that had been re-painted, the interior used for a craft market. 

There were positive signs it was very much a work in progress, though, and I made a mental note to consider coming back in ten years to see how Casco Viejo has evolved. 

Several landmarks include: 

  • La Catedral Metropolitana, the city's main Catholic church
  • El Palacio de las Garzas, home to Panama's president
  • Ruins of Church and Convent of Santo Domingo (Arco Chato)
  • Plaza de Francia, the original town square

I view the capital city as a transportation hub for backpacking Panama.

I entered and departed the country via the city and used it as a jumping-off point for trips to the coffee region to the west and San Blas Islands to the northeast.

Of course, I didn't miss an opportunity to visit the Panama Canal while there. 

See also: 10 Incredible Things to Do in Panama

Miraflores Locks at Panama Canal
Dave at Miraflores Locks

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is, without a doubt, a miracle of human engineering.

However, it's about as thrilling as the Hoover Dam, which is impressive in terms of sheer size, but hard to get all that excited about. 

On my first full day in Panama, I took a taxi from Casco Viejo to the Miraflores Locks, the last lock before ships reached Panama Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Shipping container in Panama Canal
A container exits the Miraflores Locks.

Three locks control the height of ships, allowing them to move from Gatun Lake (which empties into the Caribbean) to Panama Bay (and vice versa). 

The canal features two lanes and modern cargo ships explicitly built to use every inch of space they afford. 

I spent less than one hour at the Miraflores Locks, watching ships pass through and walking through the small indoor exhibition.

David, Panama
Landing in David, Panama

Boquete (Coffee Region)

To reach Boquete, a small town in the heart of Panama's western coffee region, I hopped an Air Panama prop plane for the 45-minute flight from Panama City to David.

From David, it was a one-hour drive north to Boquete, a small town on the eastern side of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama (3,475 meters). 

Boquete, Panama
The town of Boquete

There's not much to see in Boquete, just the usual assortment of hotels, hostels, restaurants, and tour agencies. 

Where to Stay

I stayed at Hostal Refugio del Rio, which was nice because there was some outdoor garden seating by the small Caldera River, which runs through town. It's more akin to a stream or brook. 

I can't seem to find the exact spot now, but it may be Hostal Garden by Refugio del Rio. Check Booking.com for more hostels in Boquete.

Coffee tour at Finca Dos Jefes
Coffee tour at Finca Dos Jefes

Things to Do

Boquete offers plenty of things to do, whether you want to spend a day or a week. 

Adventure sports and activities include:

  • Climbing Baru Volcano, which is a full-day experience that involves altitudes over 3,000 meters
  • Whitewater rafting the Chiriqui Viejo River (Class III rapids)
  • Hanging bridges in the jungle canopy and ziplining
  • ATV and horseback riding
  • Coffee tour

I was most interested in taking a coffee tour, an activity that underwhelmed me in Costa Rica, but I thoroughly enjoyed in Boquete. 

I spent several hours learning about coffee production, roasting, and tasting from an American retiree who bought the Finca Dos Jefes organic coffee farm.

He had no prior coffee-growing experience and learned on the job.

Getting to Bocas del Toro

It's easy to book onward travel from Boquete to Bocas del Toro. Check if your accommodation can book it or stop at any tour agency.

The overland trip takes about five hours via a private minivan and boat. 

Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro from the air

Bocas del Toro

Midway through backpacking Panama, I arrived in Bocas del Toro, a popular spot for backpackers traveling through Central America. 

I gave myself three days and two nights in Bocas Town, which is the province's capital and home to the airport. 

Bocas Town
Bocas Town

If you're interested in partying and meeting other backpackers, stay here.

There are many agencies to book tours and scuba diving, plus restaurants and bars looking out over the water.

If I were in my twenties, the vibe would've appealed to me.

But, I was in my thirties and more interested in spending time on quiet beaches and enjoying nature.

This is not the atmosphere you'll get in Bocas Town.

Beach in Bocas del Toro
Red Frog Beach

On my first full day in Bocas del Toro, it was overcast and rainy, but I didn't have time to waste, so I took a boat tour. 

We visited a beautiful undeveloped beach, but the weather detracted from the experience. 

The next day, the sun was out, and I booked a boat to Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos Island. 

Walking onto this beach was when it hit me that spending my nights in Bocas Town had been a mistake. 

A little advanced planning would've made all the difference in how I experienced Bocas del Toro. 

Bottom line: there are beautiful spots to base yourself in Bocas del Toro. Plan ahead. 

Getting to Panama City

Domestic air travel in Panama is inexpensive, so I hopped another Air Panama prop plane for the 45-minute flight from Bocas del Toro to Panama City.

Traveling overland takes about 30 minutes by boat and another 10 to 11 hours by bus.

See also: The Best Time to Visit Panama and Costa Rica

Dave in San Blas Islands, Panama
Dave in San Blas Islands

San Blas Islands

Living in Medellin, I'd met many travelers who'd done the three to five-day sailing trip between Panama and Colombia. 

The highlight was always their time in the San Blas Islands in Panama.

The one to two days of sailing in the open sea was a wildcard, depending on the weather, captain, and boat they used. Some had smooth sailing. Others got seasick.

I'd already been to Cartagena several times, so I wasn't interested in sailing there from Panama.

I was, however, thrilled to find out that it's possible to make trips to the San Blas Islands from Panama City.

So that's just what I did, booking a 3-day, 2-night trip to Kuanidup island. 

Kuanidup island, San Blas
Kuanidup island

Kuanidup is a true tropical paradise. The island is only 100-meters long and not much more than 50 to 75-meters wide.

It's about the same size as an American football field.

Guests sleep in thatched-roof bungalows with sand floors. There are about a dozen on the island, and it wasn't even full the nights I was there. 

They have sit-down toilets, but no electricity. At night, they run a generator for a few hours to coincide with dinner and drinks. 

Meals are locally sourced, including fish and seafood. 

Days are spent hanging out on the beautiful beach, swimming, and the occasional excursion by boat to visit other islands. 

When backpacking Panama, I recommend leaving the San Blas Islands for last or not visiting them before Bocas del Toro.

While day trips from Panama City are available and less costly, I recommend spending at least two nights on your chosen island so you can fully relax. 

***

Two-week Panama itinerary

  • 3 days / 2 nights – Arrive in Panama City (Panama Canal, Casco Viejo)
  • 2 days / 2 nights – Boquete (coffee tour, adventure sports)
  • 3 days / 2 nights – Bocas del Toro (beaches, scuba diving)
  • 1 day / 1 night – Panama City
  • 3 days / 2 nights – San Blas Islands (beaches, relax)
  • 3 days / 2 nights – Depart Panama City

Overall, I found backpacking Panama to be easy and worthwhile.

Two weeks was just the right amount of time to get a taste of the country, culture, and islands.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Tushar Sisodiya

Thursday 4th of June 2020

Hi Dave,

I have got your email and believe me while trying to reply to it, I was getting the same error as to message couldn't send as message inbox is full. Is there any other way I can contact you please? Or you can send me an alternate email where I can contact you? I have a deal for you. Also, you don;t have to publish this comment as the other one is published in this post. Would really appreciate your response.

Thanks,

Stella Wilson

Wednesday 3rd of June 2020

Hi, I really enjoyed reading this blog. Especially photos. Every one of them is very beautiful. I am now looking to visit Panama soon. Thank you so much for sharing this two-week itinerary.

Tushar Sisodiya

Saturday 30th of May 2020

Dave, I'm sorry I'm messaging you over here but could you please fix your email account as I can't email you as it says your email inbox is full. I have tried all ways possible but can't find a way to connect you. Would really appreciate your response.

Thanks, Tushar

Philip

Tuesday 19th of May 2020

Ah, memories. I loved the San Blas Islands. Best delay that ever happened was the weather turned to crap and we had to stay there another three nights before sailing on to Colombia in our little overpacked sailing boat with our amazing Colombian captain. So many stories from that time. That was in 2011 and I still keep in FB contact with several of the buddies I made on that trip from various countries..

Dave

Tuesday 19th of May 2020

There are worse places to be stuck than San Blas, that's for sure. Kudos for making the trip by boat!

I flew from Panama City to Medellin, which took less than an hour and cost as much as if I'd gone by sea.

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