Once the Panama Canal opened in 1914, the focus of the world was fixed on Panama. It became the most important place in the world for tankers and massive ships to transport cargo all over the world. Over 100 years has passed, and the canal still shepherds ocean liners through the Isthmus of Panama, and it’s still an important place for maritime trade.
Tourism was once a small part of Panama’s economy, drawing less than a million tourists a year. Around 2007, however, the country began to see an increase in the number of tourists—it grew to over one million a year. In 2012, the New York Times Magazine named Panama the best place to visit in the world. After that, word began to spread, and in 2015 they had over two million tourists. A majority of the visitors come from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America, all eager to see the sights and discover all the fun things to do in Panama.
There is a healthy mix of rustic and modern experiences to have in Panama. The capital, Panama City, is just like any other modern city you can find in the world, and every modern convenience can be found among the skyscrapers. You’ll need to venture out of the city center to find a historic country with an amazing story to tell. There are miles of coast line with coral reefs to explore, lush tropical forest to hike through, and indigenous people to visit and learn about. There are a wealth of things to see and do, and a visit to Panama should be on everyone’s bucket list. Make sure you include one of these fun things to do in Panama when you plan your trip.
Deep Sea Fishing
Off one coast of Panama is the Caribbean Sea, and off the other is the Pacific Ocean. That’s a lot of water with a lot of fish in them. If you’ve never been deep sea fishing, Panama is the best spot in the world to learn. Under the water are a series of islands that create a jagged landscape on the ocean floor. Giant schools of feeder fish love this area, and they attract massive game fish. Giant blue marlin, yellowfin tuna, roosterfish, and others love these fertile hunting grounds, and they make Panama sport fishing among the best in the world.
Hike Volcán Barú
Volcán Barú is one of the few places in the world that you can view the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean at the same time. At the summit, this active volcano is 11,398 ft. high and is the highest elevation point in Panama. The most popular thing for hikers to do is start the trek around midnight, so they’ll reach the top in time to watch the sunrise—it’s a truly breathtaking experience. For an experienced hiker, it should take around six hours to make it to the top. There are guided tours available, as well. If you can’t make the hike and don’t mind a bumpy ride, there are 4×4 tours that will drive you to the top. Camping is allowed, so you can start your hike in the afternoon, spend the night, and then watch the sunrise the next morning.
Visit the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is over 100 years old, but it’s still an impressive site that should be seen. It’s a marvel of engineering and human ingenuity that allows massive tanker ships to pass through the Isthmus of Panama in just a few hours. There are tour companies that operate exclusively at and in the canal. You can board a cruise ship, and go through the locks to get an up-close view of how the canal works. There are a lot of interesting places to explore on the land around the canal and under the water, as well. When the Charges River was dammed, and Gatun Lake was formed, everything on land at the time was frozen in time and trapped at the bottom of the lake forever. There are pieces of old French excavating equipment, buildings, and entire villages to find beneath the water.
Scuba Diving in Exotic Reefs
The same waters that harbor the best game fish in the world are also the best places in the world to scuba dive. Panama is known for its miles and miles of coral reefs, sunken ships, and exotic marine life. Among the vibrant colors and abundant species of fish are many sunken ships and airplanes on the ocean floor to explore. Two of the best sites to dive are national parks and have been named World Heritage sites by UNESCO. As designated conservation areas, they’re protected and kept unspoiled by boat traffic—they’re kept in a natural state for all to enjoy. For scuba divers of all skill levels, there’s no better place than Panama to dive.
Visit Monkey Island
Panama is home to over 1,500 islands, and none are more fun than Monkey Island. The island is in Gatun Lake, near the Panama Canal, and it’s home to four species of monkey: the Mantled Howler monkey, the White-Faced capuchin, the Geoffroy’s tamarin, and the Lemurine Owl monkey. Gatun Lake is home to many other exotic animals that can be seen on the island and on the boat ride there. Crocodiles roam the lake, and sloths, iguanas, and dozens of exotic bird species also inhabit the island.
Hike the Lost Waterfalls Trail
There are a lot of beautiful and breathtaking waterfalls in Panama, none of which are easy to get to. For the adventurous hiker, this will be the trip of a lifetime. The highlands of Boquete is where you can find the three “lost” waterfalls deep in the jungle. There’s a marked trail—it’s essentially a giant loop—to follow, so you should have no fear of getting lost. The falls are fairly easy to see, but even if they weren’t, you can hear them from a distance. They’re loud enough they could be found in the dark. Bring rain gear and comfortable hiking boots, and be prepared for a muddy challenge slogging through the rain forest. The views of the falls, flora, and fauna along the way are well worth the journey, though.
Visit an Embera Village
The Embera are the indigenous peoples of Panama. Prior to the 1950s the Embera peoples lived in sparse family units, as they didn’t have central villages and preferred to live mostly alone along the rivers. They were encouraged by the Panamanian government to settle in villages, so they could benefit from government programs. Those that have chosen to settle together have opened their villages to tourists, and it’s their main source of income. There are villages you can visit all over the country, but if you want a more traditional experience, stay clear of the tourist traps that are the villages closer to the city.