Many of our guests stay at Cala Mia Island Resort during their entire vacations. With so many activities, it’s easy to do so. Panama Nautical Club is our on-site facility, which organizes fishing trips in the Gulf of Chiriquí. The resort also has an NAUI certified dive center.
If you are looking to combine your trip with other destinations, then we have a list of our 10 top places to visit in Panama.
With 365 islands in San Blas, you can visit one every day of the year. Most of the islands are uninhabited, although they usually belong to families. This ‘comarca’ of Guna Yala is part of Panama, but is managed under the jurisdiction of the indigenous Guna. Some islands such as Carti, Achutupo or Ustupu have local communities. Many others, where tourists stay, have hostels with huts on the sand built with rustic materials. All accommodations are basic with all-inclusive meal plans. More remote islands such as those in the ‘Dutch Keys’ require camping.
To get to San Blas, you must take a car ride from Panama City that takes two and a half hours. It is necessary to go in a 4×4 vehicle and have cash to pay the comarca entrance fee. It is also possible to fly with Air Panama to some of the more remote destinations, such as Playon Chico. Those that prefer more luxurious accommodations should go island cruising on a sailboat. Day trips are also available, and they leave the city quite early. Those that go to San Blas during the week will encounter fewer people than on the weekends. After being featured on the ‘Casa del Papel’ series, this Caribbean paradise in Panama will surely become a favorite Panama tourist destination.
When you think of Central America, Panama City is surely not what comes to mind. This skyscraper city is located on a bay which borders the Panama Canal on the west. Most tourists go to the Miraflores Visitor Center to marvel at one of the world’s greatest engineering feats of human history. Panama City turned 500-years-old in 2019, making it the oldest colonial settlement on the Pacific Ocean. There is no better place to witness history than in the ruins of Panama Viejo, which are to the city’s east. They share a designation of UNESCO World Heritage Site with Casco Viejo, the second city of Panama. This new location was picked for security reasons after the city burned on fire while trying to prevent pirate Henry Morgan from taking the powder room. Nowadays, Casco Viejo is full of locals and tourists having drinks at rooftop bars and eating at the best restaurants.
Despite all the concrete, Panama City is quite a green city and has much to offer to nature lovers. At 199 meters above sea level, Ancon Hill is the city’s highest point. Hike on a cement street through the jungle to reach Panama’s biggest flag in the whole country. Nearby is the Metropolitan Park which is a national park with 654 acres (265 hectares) that can be explored in three trails. The park also has a butterfly house. Birdwatchers will love the Soberania National Park especially Pipeline Road which has 525 species of birds.
Gulf of Chiriquí
Chiriquí is better known for its mountains than for its beaches, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still one of the best Panama tourist destinations. Las Lajas is a golden sand beach that is quite long with few hotels and lots of palm trees. If you are looking for white-sand beaches, you’ll have to go to Boca Chica and hop on a boat which will take you to one of the many islands in the Gulf of Chiriquí. 25 of the islands are part of the Gulf of Chiriquí Marine Park which was created in 1994 to protect 58 square miles (150 square kilometers).
Cala Mia Island Resort is located on the island of Boca Brava in the Gulf of Chiriquí. Guests can go snorkeling or diving in one of the 19 coral reefs within the park. Kayaks or stand-up paddleboards are available to take you around the hotel into channels within the mangroves where you will find many bird species. This area is great for birdwatchers, since there are sea and land species. It is also one of the best places to go fishing in Panama, both in and offshore where you can find the big game such as marlins, wahoo, tuna, and dorado. Panama Sport Fishing is the hotel’s nautical club and it also has an NAUI certified dive center, making it a top place to visit in Panama for divers and fisherman alike.
Highlands of Chiriquí
When thinking about the Highlands of Chiriquí, the first thing that comes to mind is coffee. Panama’s coffee is more about quality than quantity. It keeps on breaking its own record for the most expensive coffee in the world. Recently, a kilogram sold over $10,000 in Dubai! Visitors can learn about the coffee growing process when visiting one of the farms in the area. The best time to go is during the summer months (from January through the end of March) when it is the harvest season.
This area is paradise for nature lovers, since some of the best trails of Panama are here. Hike up the Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest point, or cross from Boquete to Volcan using the Quetzales Trail. Not that adventurous? There are plenty of easier trails, like pipeline, where you can see the quetzal bird. You can also go river rafting, horseback riding, soar through the cloud forest on a canopy zipline, or bathe in thermal springs. Boquete, Volcan, and Cerro Punta are the main places to stay. If you are looking for the best places to visit in Panama, look no further than Chiriquí provinces’ highlands.
On the southeast tip of the Azuero Peninsula you will find the picturesque town of Pedasi. It is known for being the birthplace of Panama’s first female president. A main road divides the town in two: calle arriba (up-street) and calle abajo (down-street). Both streets compete with their own queen and floats during the famous Carnivals. Houses are colonial-style with red mud roof tiles and colorful walls, many with murals done by local artists. A plaza with a church is the center of life in the town.
There are two beaches next to Pedasi—which are El Toro and Playa Arenal—from where you take boats to Isla Iguana, which is a protected reserve. Isla Iguana is where people go diving or snorkeling right off its white sand beach. You will find plenty of iguanas and crabs roaming the island, as well as the largest frigate reserve in Panama. Fishing in Pedasi is superb, since this part of Panama is known as the tuna coast.
Santa Catalina and Coiba
It is possible to go to Coiba National Park from Cala Mia Island Resort or from Santa Catalina. This laid-back fishing village is famous for its waves. If you are just learning, then go to Playa El Estero, which has small-to-medium waves. Pro surfers prefer La Punta. The best time for surfing is between April and October. Another beach to visit is Playa Santa Catalina where you can kayak out to Isla Catalina, since it has a river that cuts the beach in half. Day trips to Coiba leave from this beach.
Coiba is the largest island in Panama and it is also a protected area because of its incredible biodiversity. In 2005 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Coiba used to be a penal colony, which helped keep the island intact. Within the park there are 40 islands with mangroves and coral reefs. These waters are considered the best for diving in Panama. Damas Bay at the east of the island has the largest coral reef in Central America and the second largest in the eastern Pacific. You can also explore the islands, which have plenty of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. There are trails within the island of Coiba which can be explored with a local guide.
Santa Fe in Veraguas
The small town of Santa Fe in Veraguas is located 36 miles (58 kilometers) north of Santiago. On the way, make sure to stop to see the church of San Francisco de la Montaña, which was built in 1727. Its nine altars are done in a baroque-style using cedar wood which has a mix of European images and indigenous references. The priest Hector Gallego, who was decapitated during the dictatorship, formed a farmer’s cooperative which still sells hats, coffee, and produce. You can take a coffee tour in Café El Tute. Santa Fe has some small restaurants, boutique hotels, and hostels.
Most who visit this mountainous area of Veraguas go hiking in Alto Piedra or Cerro Tute. Forests are quite dense with many species of birds and waterfalls. The town also has a river which can be floated on using tubes that can be rented for a few dollars. Once a year, in August, an orchid festival is done in Santa Fe. Don’t worry if you miss it—after all, it is possible to see orchids year-round. They breed local species that range from the smallest to the largest varieties.
A 30-minute ride on a ferry will take you to Taboga Island, also known as the island of the flowers. Some people like to go on a catamaran or rent a yacht and party off the coast. Most simply get off at the pier and explore the island. The ride over offers great views of Panama City and the Panama Canal, passing by all the boats waiting to cross the isthmus. Visiting during the week is better, since Playa Restinga is a small beach which gets crowded on Saturdays and Sundays. Snorkeling gear and umbrellas are rented on the beach. Locals will take you out fishing or to see the whales.
Taboga is a historical town with narrow streets lined with colorful houses with plenty of flowers in their front porches. It was founded in 1524 as Isla de San Pedro by a priest called Hernando de Luque, who established the church of San Pedro, the second oldest in the Western Hemisphere. The French painter Paul Gauguin lived on the island in 1887 when he came to Panama to work on the Panama Canal’s construction. Those who want to hike can go to Cerro Vigía and Cerro de la Cruz which has a giant cross on top. Both have great panoramic views and are a favorite place to visit in Panama.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro means mouth of the bull and it is where Christopher Columbus arrived. He named the islands in Spanish, including two after himself: Isla Cristobal and Isla Colon, which is the main island where you land if you take a flight to Bocas del Toro. This island is also where most of the hotels, restaurants, and bars are located. If you want to have an adult spring break, make sure to visit on a Friday. That means attending Filthy Friday, a three-island bar hopping time of debauchery. Isla Carenero, right in front of Isla Colon, is a good option to be close but far at the same time.
The mode of transportation is small boats called pangas which take you from island to island. If you want to have more contact with nature it’s best to stay in islands like Bastimentos, Popa, or Solarte. Cayo Zapatilla is a beautiful national park with two islands which is usually combined in a tour with Dolphin Bay and Coral Cay for snorkeling. Surfers visit Bocas del Toro between December through April and July through August when the waves are good. Scuba diving can be done year-round, including night dives with bioluminescence organisms.
Darien is Panama’s final frontier before Colombia. This part of Panama is famous because of the Darien Gap, a stretch of 66 miles (106 kilometers) between Yaviza in Panama and Turbo in Darien. It is the only part of the American continent that is not connected by the Pan-American highway. Environmentalists and local indigenous communities are against opening the gap. They are right, since the biodiversity of this area is unreal. It is one of the few renaming primary tropical rainforests in the world, although parts have suffered greatly from deforestation.
Those that visit Darien are adventurers, birdwatchers, or fishermen. The oldest settlements are among the rivers Tuira and Chucunaque including La Palma, its capital. Most people are indigenous, mulato, or black whose culture is represented in the food and music, including bullerengue and vallenato. Any attempt of hiking needs to be done with local guides. The Darien National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a World Biosphere Reserve. Cana is one of the best birdwatching destinations in the world and Piñas Bay is the fishing Mecca of Panama with over 300 world records, easily making it one of the best places to visit in Panama.