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Panama is one of my favorite countries to go backpacking in Central America. It’s a paradise for adventure travel, with plenty of natural beauty to explore including lush jungle, exotic wildlife, and remote islands. For those looking for nightlife and shopping, Panama City is an amazing city you’ll actually want to stick around – which is different than most other Central American capitals!
Panama also serves as an excellent link between Central and South America, for those traveling between the two continents. If you’re looking for the perfect Panama Itinerary, I’ve got you covered. This post lists the best places to visit while backpacking Panama, as well as Panama backpacking routes and itinerary ideas for one to two weeks in Panama!
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Arrival in Panama
Flying into Panama: If you’re flying internationally into Panama, you’ll likely be landing in Panama Tocumen International Airport (PTY), in Panama City. This is one of the largest airports in Central America, and you can find great flight deals to Panama City from many destinations in the world. Panama City is a great place to start your adventure backpacking Panama, as it has a large bus terminal where you can find a bus going just about anywhere in the country.
By land, from Costa Rica: The most popular Costa-Rica Panama border crossing is on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica, about an hour away from Puerto Viejo. There are also two other places you can cross between the two countries on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica.
Travel tip: Often flights to San Jose, Costa Rica are significantly cheaper then Panama City. If you want to visit Panama and save money on flights, consider flying to San Jose and crossing the border. It’s not that difficult, and Bocas Del Toro is just on the other side!
From Colombia: If you’re traveling from Panama to Colombia the best way to go is via the amazing San Blas Islands. You can either join a 5-day sailing tour or a 4-day speed boat trip with San Blas Adventures. It’s not possible to travel overland between the two countries, so if you don’t want to fly this is the best option.
Best Places to Visit in Panama
Backpacking Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is the definition of a backpacker island. If you’re coming overland from Costa Rica via the Caribbean Coast, this is an ideal place to start your Panama itinerary as the island is only a short bus/boat ride away from the Costa Rica-Panama border.
I spent a week backpacking Bocas Del Toro, enjoying the many water-based activities that the island has to offer. It’s an incredible place to see marine life, has tons of water sports including snorkeling, diving, and surf, as well as pristine beaches to relax on. Most of the island is jungle, so one of the best things to do there is rent an ATV and go exploring. There’s even an island there you can visit named Sloth Island, which of course is home to adorable smiling sloths.
Where to stay: If you want to be close to nightlife and restaurants, then the best place to stay is right in Bocas Town. Selina is one of the most popular hostels there, located right on the pier. Another great hostel to stay is Bambuda Lodge on Isla Solarte. It’s owned by the same guys that run Bambuda Castle in Boquete, which was one of my favorite hostels in all of Central America.
If you’re looking for a quieter option, then head over to Isla Bastimentos where most of the luxury hotels are. There are also affordable options here, such as the Selina on red frog beach.
Boquete is a gorgeous town set in the highlands of Panama. It’s the perfect place for outdoor adventure seekers, with opportunities for hiking, rafting, zip-lining, and hot springs.
The most popular hike is Volcan Baru, where you can see an incredible sunrise over both the Caribbean and Pacific ocean. This hike is no easy feat however, it involves leaving at midnight and hiking in the dark.
If you’re looking for an easier place to go hiking, check out the lost waterfalls. This gorgeous trail takes you through the lush jungle where you can see three beautiful waterfalls. There are also cloud forests around Boquete which you can go hiking in, as well as some hanging bridges to explore.
Boquete is also known for its coffee, as it produces some of the most high-end coffee in the world. One of the best things to do in Boquete is to join a coffee tour, where you can learn how coffee is produced in the region.
Where to stay in Boquete: Bambuda Castle is one of my all-time favorite hostels. It’s literally a castle, but with hostel prices. It’s a little out of town but has the most amazing views of Boquete.
Getting there: If you’re visiting Boquete you’ll have to get to David first, which you can either fly in or bus. I took the bus from Bocas Del Toro to David (about four hours), and then took the bus to Panama from there when I left (about eight hours). Boquete is about 25 minutes from David, you can either take a bus or hire a taxi. David is mainly used as a transit city. You can spend a night or two if you want here, but it’s not a popular spot on the backpacker trail.
If you’re looking for somewhere to visit between Bocas Del Toro and Boquete, then check out lost and found hostel. I didn’t get a chance to stay here but have heard so many amazing things from other travelers. It’s located in the cloud forests of Chiriquí Province.
I typically don’t spend a lot of time in the capital cities of Central American countries because they are usually so sketchy, but Panama city is an exception. This vibrant city has a ton of fun things to do and is well worth sticking around at least a few days for!
Of course Panama City is most famous for the Panama Canal, which you can take guided tours of. One of my favorite things to do in Panama City was renting bikes and cycling around the water. There are awesome biking and walking trails, where you can get views of both historic (Casco Viejo) and new areas of Panama City. The contrast of the skyscrapers over Casco Viejo is amazing to see!
If you’re into nightlife and clubs, Panama City has lots of it. After spending the last few months backpacking Central America, I felt oddly out of place here showing up in clubs in my Birkenstocks. If you want to get dolled up, there are also plenty of places to go shopping in Panama City.
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands were the highlight of my time backpacking Panama. If you are traveling between Colombia and Panama, I can’t recommend going via the San Blas islands enough! Even if you’re not traveling onwards to Colombia, you can visit them for a couple of days from Panama City which is well worth it.
You know those cartoons with a palm tree in the middle of a deserted beach? That’s legit what the San Blas islands look like. I couldn’t believe it when we pulled up to the first island!
To travel from Panama to Colombia via the San Blas Islands you can either take a speed boat with San Blas Adventures (4 days) or a sailing boat (5 days). I did the speed boat tour and highly recommend it because you spend way more time on the islands, and less at sea.
Days on the islands are spent snorkeling (we saw huge manta rays), relaxing on the beach, playing games, eating amazing sea food, and drinking. The locals sell beer on the islands and you can also bring your own alcohol.
I didn’t get a chance to visit Playa Venao, so I’ve asked my friend Nic from See Nic Wander to share her insights!
Tucked away in the jungle on the western coast of Panama is a tiny surf town called Playa Venao. This sandy, crescent-shaped stretch of beach with just one street of shops and restaurants the perfect place to slow down and spend time reconnecting with nature.
Because of the shape of the bay, waves break with different intensity depending on where you are on the beach. Total beginners can practice catching gentle waves on one end of the cove while veteran surfers ride powerful waves just a few hundred meters away.
In addition to surfing, you can take beach-front yoga classes, go deep-sea fishing, hike to a scenic lookout point, or take a day trip to nearby Iguana Island.
For as small as Playa Venao is, there are some great dining options all within a few steps of the beach. Kick-off your morning with empanadas at Cafe y Pasteleria Argentino and stop by El Sitio in the evening for dinner with a sea view.
Because of its remote location, getting to Playa Venao from Panama City takes the better part of the day. Give yourself at least 3-4 days here to justify the journey. Most of the people we met planned to come to Playa Venao for just a few days but ended up extending their stay to over a week.
Where to stay: Selina Playa Venao has budget-friendly dorms, glamping tents, and comfortable suites. All guests have access to the pool, shared kitchen, bar, coworking space, and organized activities like volleyball tournaments, movie nights, and guided hikes. We visited Playa Venao for almost a month and would have stayed longer if we could.
Playa Venao is a dream destination for surfers of all levels and for people who want to go far off the beaten path in Panama.
Backpacking Panama Itineraries
Panama Itinerary 7 Days
If you only have one week in Panama, I recommend sticking to one side of the country. For example, you could fly into Panama city, spend a few days there, and then go island hopping around the San Blas Islands or surfing in Playa Venao. For example:
- Day 1: Fly into Panama City
- Day 2: Panama City
- Day 3: Travel to San Blas Island
- Day 4-6: San Blas Islands or Playa Venao
- Day 7: Return to Panama City to fly home
Alternatively, if you found cheaper flights to Costa Rica (as there often are), you could fly into San Jose, then take the bus down to the border and visit Bocas Del Toro. This is what I did before, and a week was plenty of time to transit back and forth to Costa Rica while still having time to relax on the island.
Panama Itinerary 10 days
With 10 days you could see a lot of Panama, even if you’re flying into San Jose in Costa Rica. For example:
- Day 1: Fly into San Jose, take bus to Bocas Del toro (stay overnight in Puerto Viejo if it is too late to cross the border)
- Day 2-4: Bocas Del Toro
- Day 5: Transfer to David/Boquete
- Day 6-8: Boquete
- Day 9: Return back to Costa Rica
Panama 2 Week Itinerary
With a 2 week Panama Itinerary, you can visit most of these places. Here’s an idea of what that might look like:
- Day 1: Fly into Panama City
- Day 2-3: Panama City
- Day 4: Travel to San Blas Islands
- Day 5-6: San Blas Islands
- Day 7: Return to Panama City, transfer to David (fly or Bus)
- Day 8-9: Boquete
- Day 10: Travel to Bocas Del Toro
- Day 11-12: Bocas Del Toro
- Day 13: Return to Panama City to catch flight home
Getting Around Panama
If you’re backpacking Panama, you’ll be happy to know there is a huge network of busses that will take you around the country. I had no issues traveling by bus between any of the places listed in this post. If you are short on time, you can also fly between many places in Panama, but this will be more costly.
Safety and Solo Travel in Panama
Overall, I felt safe while backpacking Panama as a solo female traveler. The locals were all very friendly and helpful. While I was taking a local bus in Panama City I didn’t have the right bus card to get on, so a local swiped theirs for me, then called the hostel I was staying in to make sure I got off at the right stop. So nice!
Like most of Central America, one of the most common forms of crime you’ll run into here is petty theft and pickpocketing. To avoid this, use pick-pocket proof clothing. I love Clever Travel Companion, they make awesome pick-pocket proof clothing for both men and women! It’s also important to protect yourself (and your belongings) by having adequate travel insurance! I use and love World Nomads.
I hope this post could give you some inspiration and ideas on where to go while backpacking Panama! Have you visited Panama before? Let me know your favorite place in the comments below!
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