Casco Viejo, Panama City
Panamá’s old town has that enticing mix of colonial architecture, Latin cool and just enough gentrification that it’s safe but still exciting. Now is definitely the time to be there.
After the original settlement was raided and razed by English pirate Henry Morgan, Panamá City “started again” on the site of what is now the Casco Viejo. Shopping in the markets at Plaza de La Independencia, drinking that famous Panamanian coffee at Plaza Bolivar and then watching the sun go down from the viewing spot above Plaza de Francia is perfect preparation for the vibrant nightlife that spills out onto the streets late into the evening.
Adventures in Boquete and the rainforest
Boquete is an eco-adventurers’ paradise. Around an hour’s flight, or 6 hours by bus, from Panamá City, this is the place to raft, ride, zipline, climb, hike, mountain bike, and much more. The small town is the perfect launchpad for your adventures.
What makes Boquete so attractive for adrenaline junkies is the chance to get out there into pristine rainforest while getting your thrills. Whether rafting on the Chiriquí Viejo River or climbing up the Barú Volcano (where you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific on a clear day), seeing the charismatic local wildlife on the Quetzal Trail or hiking through the cloud forests of La Amistad International Park, your options are endless.
Coincidentally, all of these high-energy sports are available in one of the world’s finest coffee-growing regions. The local Esmeralda coffee plantation produces legendary beans.
And if you want to really relax, the hot springs in Chiriquí are four gorgeous pools of mineral water ranging from 38°C to 46°C. Perfect after a visit to the nearby pre-Hispanic ruins or a morning of rafting.
Find out more about a Spanish course in Boquete
Bocas del Toro: Surf Paradise
This archipelago of nine tropical islands is a world-class surf destination, with waves for all abilities and the kind of mellow vibe that comes with warm-water surfing. As well as attracting some of the world’s top surfers, there are easy breaks for beginners. There’s a strong West Indian influence in the music, food and nightlife.
And then there are the beaches: Zapatillas, Starfish Beach, Red Frog Beach, Bluff, Wizard, Polo… the list goes on. Sloths and monkeys hang around in the trees. Bring your snorkel or hire scuba gear locally and you can dive among the reefs with sea turtles and the astounding variety of fish that call the Caribbean home.
Panama’s Pacific coast is also excellent for surfing and destinations like Morro Negrito and Santa Catalina are icons for a good reason.
Find out more about a Spanish course in Bocas del Toro
The Canal & Miraflores locks
When out searching for gold one day in newly discovered Panama, Vasco Núñez de Balboa spotted the Pacific Ocean. It didn’t take long for discussions to start about making a canal through the country.
Balboa, and many others, were disappointed by the lack of precious metals on the isthmus, but he had discovered something much more valuable – a link between the world’s two great oceans.
The Panama Canal remains one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements and an essential visit during a stay in Panama. At the Miraflores locks, you can watch as boats are lowered and raised by 15m to adjust for the differing heights of the oceans.
In Panamá City itself, you can check out the impressive Museo del Canal Interoceánico, in the restored headquarters of the original French canal company.
The Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseo is striking museum, opened in 2014, that celebrates this natural diversity. Panama is home to a bewildering range of flora and fauna, which you will undoubtedly see during a visit.
The permanent exhibition is called Panamá: Puente de Vida (Panama: Bridge of Life) and celebrates the natural wonders of a country where two continents and two oceans meet.
An hour’s drive from Panamá City, in the heart of the country, El Valle has something mystical about it. Foreigners love the mountains, cascades of vibrant flowers and natural hot springs. Panamanians, meanwhile, love the elevation from sea. City-dwellers religiously seek out cooler air where they can find it: Panamá City gets really hot and sweaty while El Valle remains fresh.
El Valle is the perfect place to pick up handicrafts made by the natives; not only can you support the indigenous people, but you can bring back an authentic and original memento.