You’d need months to see all Panama has to offer. The country is richly blessed with colorful native peoples, a tropical rainforest teeming with wildlife, and beautiful Caribbean islands that invite relaxation.
But what if you have limited time with a cruise ship excursion or you’ve already seen the Panama City attractions and want to explore the country further? Just by taking day trips from Panama City, you’ll be shocked at how much you can see!
Having lived in Panama for years, we’ve done our share of day tripping. We’ve whittled down all the places we’ve been to our (and our guests’) favorites, with unique trips that suit different interests.
So here is our list of the best day trips from Panama City, Panama. We’re sure you’ll find something that’s perfect for you.
Panama day trip gear you’ll need
But first, let’s discuss the country’s hot, humid, tropical weather. The tropoical sun can take a lot out of you, so it’s important to prepare ahead.
Here’s a checklist of the essential things to bring on a Panama day trip:
- Loose, comfortable clothes
- A hat with a brim
- Rain jacket or travel umbrella
- Camera – we carry the Sony RX100 (point-and-shoot) and the Sony a7Rii (full-frame mirrorless)
- Bottle of water
We also suggest you carry cash in small bills, as most local vendors won’t accept credit cards.
ⓘ TIP: If you’re prone to motion sickness, take some sort of medication before you begin your tour. Speaking from personal experience, we keep Bonine motion sickness tablets on hand. Not only does Bonine cause less drowsiness than Dramamine, it lasts for 24 hours so we don’t have to worry about being queasy on the return trip.
1. See the Panama Canal
Whether sailing through or exploring it on foot, the Panama Canal one of the best places to visit in Panama. It may be the world’s best example of engineering brilliance, as well.
Up until it was completed in 1914, ships had to navigate all around the tip of South America to get between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The canal cut shipping time in half and now contributes about 40% to the country’s economy.
Miraflores Locks Visitor Center has a viewing platform designed to help you watch the ships from shore (read our Panama Canal guide here). Or, you can travel through the locks yourself by booking a partial or full transit.
ⓘ TIP: The Visitor Center closes at 5 p.m., but the on-site restaurant is open until 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It’s a great option for visitors who’d like to experience the canal at night without any crowds, while enjoying a great meal.
2. Go golfing in Panama
Thanks to 100 years of American presence, golf has become a popular year-round activity in Panama. There are quite a few new courses and remodeled older courses, making some of the best greens in Central America.
If you fancy a golf day trip in lush tropical scenery, you have your choice of golf courses near Panama City. Both Tucan Resort Community and Summit Golf Club are only 30 minutes from downtown Panama City.
- Recommended tour: Golf Tour at the Summit Golf Club
ⓘ TIP: From April thru December, golf in the morning because it often rains in the afternoon. Ask your hotel to arrange a taxi to take you back and forth.
3. Day trip to Zona Libre, for shopping
Colón is a decadent colonial city that was forgotten after Panama regained control of the Canal. Since then, it’s become a bit of a “wild west,” earning a well-deserved reputation as a place you don’t go without a reason.
For most people, the best reason to visit is Panama’s tax-free zone, Zona Libre. The Colon Free Zone has a range of duty-free merchandise you can buy: appliances, jewelry, sporting goods, cell phones, cameras, computers, and more.
- Recommended tour: Shopping in Zona Libre de Colon (Duty Free) and Transoceanic Train
ⓘ TIP: Bring your passport and shop to your heart’s content: Purchases for foreigners are possible up to $2000.00 (you can buy more than that amount if you have it shipped home).
4. Historic ocean-to-ocean train ride
The historic Panama Canal Railway dates from 1855, built for the California 49ers heading to California during the Gold Rush. The 90-minute ride takes you across the Isthmus from Panama City on the Pacific, to Colon on the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, you’ll enjoy views of the Panama Canal and lush rainforest surroundings from a luxury observation car.
Note that the train departs in the morning and returns in the late afternoon, so you will need to find activities during the day. Shopping in the Free Zone is the most popular tour (see the link above), but you can also combine this with other destinations on the Caribbean coast, such as Portobelo, Fort San Lorenzo or the locks.
- Recommended tour: Panama City: Panama Canal Railway Ride and Agua Clara Locks
5. Soberania National Park, for wildlife
It takes only 45 minutes to transport yourself from the concrete jungle to the actual jungle. In
Soberania, trails lead through the luscious green rainforest, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot a variety of Central American wildlife. We’ve seen everything from howler monkeys and sloths to leaf-cutter ants, colorful blue morpho butterflies and tropical birds. Check out our photo gallery here.
Soberania National Park is a favorite Panama City day trip, thanks to Pipeline Road and the Rainforest Discovery Center. The centerpiece is a 40m Observation Tower, which offers incredible views of the forest canopy. There are also some wonderful hiking trails.
- RECOMMENDED TOUR: Panama Canal Eco-Cruise and Rainforest Discovery Center
5. Portobelo and Isla Grande, for Caribbean ambiance
The port city of Portobelo is is a great Caribbean day trip from Panama City, with beautiful beaches, islands and historical landmarks.
During the Spanish Colonial era, Portobelo played a key role as the end point on the Camino Real. All the treasure Spain looted from Inca Empire was stored in its customs house before being shipped to Spain. Knowing that, English pirates like Sir Francis Drake attacked the city repeatedly. Fun fact: Sir Francis met his end in nearby water, buried in an iron casket that has still not been found.
The old fortifications are still there, while postcard-perfect Isla Grande is just a stone’s throw away. At Isla Grande, you’ll find stunningly beautiful beaches and islands. Bring your swimwear so you can snorkel and relax on the beach.
- Recommended tour: Portobelo and Isla Grande – The great adventure on the Caribbean side
ⓘ TIP: Portobelo is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama.” The other part is Fort San Lorenzo, which lies further west, on the other side of the Panama Canal.
6. Fort San Lorenzo excursion, for old Spanish colonial ruins
Just north of the Canal, Fort San Lorenzo was another site of many battles between pirates and Spanish settlers. The ruins offer a window into Panama’s colonial history and fees like they could have been a Pirates of the Caribbean set.
We’ve been a number of times and its fascinating history, preserved walls and tropical surroundings make it a truly enjoyable destination. There’s also a secluded beach nearby, so we always bring swimwear and cool off before heading back to Panama City.
- Recommended tour: Panama Canal, Colón Rainforest and San Lorenzo Fort Tour
7. Embera Indian Village, for indigenous culture
The Embera are an indigenous tribe that live completely off the grid in the Panama jungle. They earn a living by selling hand-woven baskets and wood carvings, and by inviting tourists to visit their communities. We had the chance to visit an Embera community in the Darien, and it was a memorable and rewarding experience.
You can only visit the tribe by booking a tour. A day trip to the Embera Indian village begins with a (motorized) canoe ride down the Gatun River, looking for spider monkeys, turtles and caimans along the way. At the village, you’ll share a typical meal and learn about the Embera way of life, and have an opportunity to purchase their exquisite handicrafts.
- Recommended tour: Panama Canal Eco Cruise and Embera Village Tour
ⓘ TIP: The Embera women create exquisite hand-woven baskets, some so tightly woven that they can hold water. While you can purchase them in Panama City, you’ll help the tribe more and save money by buying your souvenir while on the tour.
8. Camino Real, for local life
The Camino Real (King’s Way) is an ancient pathway that runs between Panama City and Portobelo. It played a significant role in the time of pirates and conquistadors, connecting Panama City on the Pacific with Portobelo on the Caribbean.
You can still see cobblestone sections of the old path, deep within Chagres National Park. On this tour, you’ll enjoy a hike through the jungle and boat over the water, far from civilization. Then you’ll visit a campesino village where you’ll enjoy a Panamanian lunch, learn about their lifestyle, and see their traditional dances.
- Recommended tour: Camino Real – conquistadors, gold and pirates
9. Taboga Island, for island life
Only a 30-minute ferry ride away from the city, Taboga Island is one of the most popular day trips from Panama City. Taboga dates from Spanish colonial times and has the second oldest church on the continent (1550), making it a cultural and historical landmark.
People day trip to Taboga for its white sandy beaches, a small town with delicious restaurants and cafes, and good views from the top of San Cruce. Speaking of which, if you don’t fancy ordering fish, we recommend Panamanian ancocho. It’s Panama’s national dish.
Locals take the Taboga Express to Taboga Island. The 30-minute, 12-mile boat ride costs $20 round-trip. Along the way, you’ll enjoy ocean breezes, views of Panama City’s skyline, and seeing all the ships anchored outside the Panama Canal.
- Recommended tour: Full day Private Tour to Taboga Island departing from Panama City – If you prefer to skip the visit and focus your day on fishing, you can do that as well!
ⓘ TIP: You can also take a catamaran there with Panama Sailing Tours, which includes an open bar, snacks, and lunch.
10. El Valle de Anton, for waterfalls and mountains
Cheap and easy to get to, El Valle de Anton is a favorite getaway for Panamanians and visitors looking for mountain hikes and waterfalls.
Lying within the caldera of an extinct volcano, El Valle sits 1,968 feet above sea level. Its slopes are covered by humid tropical forests crisscrossed by rivers and stunning waterfalls, but it has more to offer than just that. It’s also a favorite day trip for the mountain views, a nice artisan market, thermal springs, an orchid sanctuary, and a small tropical zoo and botanical garden.
This is one Panama day trip that is well worth the 2-hour drive. At least we thought so – we probably went there more often than anywhere else while we lived in Panama. But I’ll confess that we liked to stay overnight and sleep in the cool mountain air. It’s such a nice place to relax.
- Recommended tour: From Panama City: Valle de Antón Day Trip
ⓘ TIP: If you’d like to see all available day trips and excursions from Panama City, Panama, click here.