10 Best Day Trips From Panama City, Panama

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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.

2 people pose at Gatun locks sign on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. A favorite day trip from Panama City.

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:

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.

Sony a7rii and a bottle of cold water

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.

The Miraflores locks on the pacific side of the panama canal

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.

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.

titleist golf ball next to the hole golfing in panama

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.

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).

shopping in zona libre free trade zone colon panama
Jeans clothes hanging in the store. Bali island shop.

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.

San lorenzo at the entrance of the panama canal

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.

TIP: Soberania National Park is open every day from 6 am to 4 pm. For the best wildlife viewing opportunities, rent a car and arrive at dawn.

Beautiful blue colored bird at Soberania National Park in Panama

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.

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.

Isla Grande is one of the best day trips from Panama City. Here, our son stands on a rock in the foreground, ready to photograph the turquoise Caribbean water and hill outcrop in the distance.

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.

fort san lorenze day trip has spectacular views of the caribbean sea

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.

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.

Linda with Embera girls in traditional dress.

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.

Exploring the camino real trail with local tour guide

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.

TIP: You can also take a catamaran there with Panama Sailing Tours, which includes an open bar, snacks, and lunch.

flock of pelicans circling the island

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.

TIP: If you’d like to see all available day trips and excursions from Panama City, Panama, click here.

swimming at a waterfall in el valle

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boats on a secluded beach in panama. The text overlay says the 10 best day trips from panama city panama

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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2 thoughts on “10 Best Day Trips From Panama City, Panama”

    • Thanks for your comment, Renuka. It’s good to hear from you again.

      That bird is pretty, isn’t it? We saw a lot of fantastic wildlife while we were living in Panama. My favorites were the sloths and coatimundis. Wish I knew more of the bird names, though. 🙂

      Reply

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