8 Reasons Why Slow Travelers Should Visit Panama in 2023
If you keep up with my social media, you know I've made it no secret that my and my partner's time in Panama - at no fault of the country or Panama City - wasn't... amazing. We decided to head to Panama at the last minute after Peru and, once we arrived, my partner and I were recovering from altitude sickness, got sick again (twice!)... and just generally felt sluggish from the heat and humidity. On top of that, we really had to pull back on activities since everything was pretty expensive, but we expected this and probably could not have done more considering how sick we were. Yuck!
Now, with all of that said, what we did get to experience was amazing! We loved Panama City and were so lucky to have some friends in the city who were able to show us around areas we wouldn't have seen otherwise.
Despite our lack of adventure in Panama on this trip, let me say that this is the exact reason why we LOVE Slow Travel. Imagine if we had only two weeks in the country! We would have spent the entire time sick as dogs and kicking ourselves for spending so much time inside self-quarantining. By taking our time there and prioritizing what was most important to us (and our budget), we got to see more than we would have had we not been slow traveling.
In this list, I'll include some must-see's/do's from our experience there but since we didn't actually go around too much 😅 I'll include some points which I think Slow Travelers would enjoy but that I didn't get the chance to see for myself.
So here are 8 reasons Slow Travelers should consider visiting Panama in 2023!
1. Experience Panama’s incredible nature
For obvious reasons, this has to be the number one thing to do in Panama. With Costa Rica to its northern border and Colombia to the south, it’s no wonder Panama has some similarities to the incredibly beautiful rainforests and wildlife you find in its neighboring countries. Plus, there are dozens of remote islands to explore and I’ve read that the snorkeling and scuba diving in Panama is top-notch.
However, the mainland landscapes alone are enough reason to visit Panama. There are gorgeous mountain ranges and rainforests with countless species of plants and animals. Slow Travelers can enjoy learning about the local flora and fauna from trained tour guides – and see everything from rare species of orchids to colorful frogs and curious monkeys!
For the best experience, our local Panamanian friends recommend heading to Boquete and visiting Volcan, possibly one of the only places in the world where you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans from its summit!! Head there just before sunrise on a clear morning (either by foot or car) to get the best views possible.
Also, if you stay in Panama City as your home base, you can pretty much reach any part of the country in a 5 to 8-hour drive or take a short plane ride from the Tocumen International Airport.
2. Learn about Panamanian culture
But it's not just about nature in Panama—its rich culture is another big draw and something I found super interesting. Since Panama is so small, I sort of assumed the area would be pretty homogenous. However, there are very regionalized indigenous cultures and groups of people! The country is home to several indigenous communities, such as the Kuna people who have made their homes in the northeastern San Blas Islands for hundreds of years. If you travel here, you can learn about centuries-old customs, observe traditional crafts and practices, and sample local cuisine such as sancocho—a hearty stew made with fish or chicken and potatoes, which is a popular dish throughout Latin America. This was a life-saver while we were ill!
If you want to learn more about the inland communities, you can even visit some traditional villages. For these types of tours though, it was unclear to us whether these were real villages or if they were staged as an educational experience for foreigners. So, do your research. While I do believe it’s still a net positive for local communities and travelers, only you can decide if this would be a valuable learning and travel experience for you
If you spend some time in Panama City, head to the Panama Viejo Museum (not to be confused with Casco Viejo!) and take a couple hours to walk around this beautifully maintained area. You can take refuge from the heat and humidity inside the museum and read all about the history of Panama – from its indigenous origins to how the Spanish first conquered it.
3. Try Panamanian coffee and visit coffee farms
At this point, I wonder if I’m cursed never to visit a coffee farm! For one reason or another, we haven’t been able to visit a coffee farm on our trips to Costa Rica, Peru, or Panama, all regions relatively well-known for their coffee-growing and consuming culture. But, hey, that’s life! This is something that I will have to put down as #1 for our next adventure to Central or South America.
Luckily while in Panama, we were able to try about five different national coffee brands bought from the grocery store and all of them were pretty great! Our Panamanian friends were equally saddened that I did not get my coffee farm time but they had some great recommendations regardless. If you go to Boquete (as suggested earlier in this listicle), you will find tons of fantastic coffee farms but the one most commonly recommended to us was Janson Coffee Farm located near Volcan. The entire Chiriquí region is actually considered to be prime coffee real estate! So you pretty much can’t go wrong there.
Insider tip: while in Boquete, head to Cerro Bruja Restaurante for fantastic food made with local ingredients. I’m told it’s a bit more expensive, but the host/chef is an incredible woman who will explain all the different dishes and share a bit of authentic Panamanian food culture with you.
4. Visit the modern engineering marvel and historic sites
There are plenty of fascinating historical sites throughout Panama that provide insight into its rich history. One of the most popular attractions is the iconic Panama Canal—the 48-mile waterway connecting two oceans which took over 20 years to construct! Today, the canal is a modern engineering marvel that you can’t grasp until you see it up close and personal as we did. Watching the enormous shipping containers be lifted or dropped down across each lock was fascinating. Getting to see the massive doors open and close gives you some idea of the incredible ingenuity that went into building this structure. There are definitely some major negative impacts from the canal’s existence – namely the environmental impact of having hundreds of ships passing through the canal each day – but it has also brought some level of prosperity to the country, making it one of the most developed in Central America.
If you’re not into modern history, I still suggest you visit the canal but there are plenty of other older historical places you can visit around Panama, too. In Panama City, you will find Panama Viejo – as mentioned previously – and Casco Viejo with its amazing nightlife! On the other side of the country, near Colon, there is Fort San Lorenzo. It’s undergoing renovation now (as of writing in early 2023) but it’s a really beautiful and well-maintained site. From here you can drive around this national forest area and hike or drive down one of the many dirt roads that lead to small inlets with little beach areas. Just make sure your car has a 4-wheel drive!
5. Discover why people love Panama City
Panama City is truly incredible and a great home base for doing some slow travel to other parts of the country. We found a great place smack in the center of the city so we were never far from all the best things to do. Luckily, getting around is inexpensive, especially in comparison to how expensive everything else is! On average, we paid between $3 to $5 USD for taxi rides and it never took us more than 10 to 15 minutes to get anywhere unless it was rush hour.
The city is probably the most modern and “Americanized” we’ve seen in Central America. It might be a turn-off for others expecting something a bit more tropical jungle rather than concrete jungle but – as a city person – I loved it! Everything you could want is within arm’s reach and if you want to escape to somewhere a bit more quaint, Casco Viejo is right there.
We also found no shortage of great food spots in Panama City and got front-row seats to one of the best holiday celebrations I’ve seen in our travels – their Independence Day parade! We got to see some really neat drumming, dancing, and singing from locals dressed in their best attire.
6. Try all the amazing food Panama has to offer
Panama is home to an exciting and diverse range of cuisine that reflects the country’s rich cultural heritage. Because Panama is a melting pot of cultures, you will see a huge variety of cuisine. From traditional Panamanian dishes like sancocho, ropa vieja, and ceviche to more diverse flavors from Spain, Africa, and China.
For the most part, the country’s culinary scene is heavily influenced by both Caribbean and Latin American flavors, with a variety of spices that add depth and complexity to each dish. In most of the dishes you will find traditional ingredients such as plantains, maize, and yuca root and then other common staples like beans, rice, and tropical fruits as well as endless seafood options. This is truly a country of comfort foods though, so whether you're looking for something to keep you warm on a rainy day or something more exotic - Panama's unique blend of flavors will leave your taste buds wanting more!
7. Go Island-Hopping
Panama is home to some of the world's most beautiful islands, each with its own unique charm. From the secluded beaches and vibrant culture of San Blas to the clear blue waters and stunning landscapes of Bocas Del Toro, there are plenty of incredible island experiences waiting to be discovered in Panama. Each of these makes for great Slow Travel destinations as they can make for great cultural learning experiences
Bocas Del Toro provides an unforgettable adventure for those looking for a truly tropical getaway. This is the location of the famous Playa Estrella or Starfish Beach (Bocas Town) where hundreds of colorful starfish hang out to make more little starfish ;) With its lush jungles, white-sand beaches, exotic wildlife, and delicious seafood - it's no wonder why these islands have become so popular among travelers from all over the globe!
Las Perlas are lesser-known (though it was the location for Season 7 of Survivor) but is very popular among locals and Spanish-speaking visitors. This group of islands is only about an hour and a half away from Panama City by ferry and has amazing resorts and soft sandy beaches, and there are plenty of things to do there. This was the one group of islands we made time to visit but don’t make the same mistake we did! We had a really unfortunate experience on Saboga Island when we should have just headed to the more developed Contadora Island instead. You live and learn!
San Blas is usually the number one thing people recommend to do while in Panama and it’s no wonder why. San Blas or, as it’s called by the local inhabitants, Guna Yala is made up of 49 islands and hundreds more islets and cays that you can explore. With the more rustic lodgings, San Blas seems like the perfect place to disconnect from reality for a while and experience true “island time”. This is also the best place to make genuine connections and learn from indigenous island communities where “women make the rules”.
8. Relax in some of the world’s best eco hotels
If you’re looking for a beautiful and comfortable place to stay in Panama that won’t have as much environmental impact as the giant hotel chains in the city, you might want to consider staying in an eco-hotel or eco-lodge. These are becoming increasingly popular in Panama and offer slow and eco-conscious travelers a unique way to experience the country's stunning natural environment.
You can find secluded jungle cabins tucked away amongst towering trees to luxury beachfront villas surrounded by lush vegetation. There is something for everyone! Many eco-lodges provide guests with an array of activities such as birdwatching or guided hikes through national parks where they can observe exotic wildlife in its natural habitat. With comfortable accommodations and exquisite cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients, these eco-hotels offer an unforgettable opportunity to relax and reconnect with nature while exploring one of the world’s most beautiful countries.
Here are a few options I’ve sourced in my google search and would have loved to visit had I been healthier or had more time:
La Loma Jungle Lodge: Located in Bocas del Toro, this lodge is only accessible by boat! Experience the feeling of sleeping among the tree canopy in comfortable cabins with all the modern amenities you might need but without making as much of an environmental impact. La Loma is also home to a permaculture jungle farm that supplies most of the food for the lodge. You will really be missing out if you don’t spend a few days here!
Finca Lerida: This eco-hotel is a little ways from Boquete but is only 2.5 miles away from Baru Volcano National Park. This place is a fantastic location for those wanting to escape into the hills a bit and be surrounded by forests and wildlife. Finca Lerida is also a coffee plantation so if you want to get an up close and personal experience with the coffee production process without having to go too far from your lodgings, this is the place to go!
Canopy Tower: This is one of the most unique places I’ve found in Panama. Canopy Tower is located smack in the middle of the country in Soberania National Park just 35 miles north of Panama City. For birdwatching or wildlife enthusiasts, you’ve just found heaven. This is the best location to spot all of Panama’s most incredible birds as well as sloths, kinkajous, and monkeys!
Casa Cayuco: This is one of the best locations for those interested in a remote, eco-friendly, but comfortable stay. Casa Cayuco is located on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro and utilizes solar energy and rainwater catchment as part of its eco-saving initiatives. They also primarily offer plant-based options with fish caught by local fishermen. Finally, each stay at Casa Cayuco goes towards community projects in the local villages. For your stay, you can choose from treetop cabins and beachside bungalows, and their lodges and suites provide spectacular views of the surrounding forests.