Panama’s capital city is a vibrant blend of new and old. Crumbling buildings characterise Casco Viejo, the city’s colonial quarter, yet in the background, glitzy high-rises tower over the city. While there is plenty to do in the capital, some travellers may want to escape the hustle.
These day trips from Panama City offer an incredible opportunity to break from the chaos and see a different kind of Panama. No matter whether you are looking for an island paradise, hiking hotspot or natural haven, you’ll find something on this list to suit you!
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- Best Places to Stay in Panama City
- Budget-Friendly Things to Do in Panama City
- A Guide to Backpacking Through Panama
8 Best Day Trips from Panama City, Panama
1. Panama Canal
You may be surprised to hear that the Panama Canal actually sits around 10km from the city centre. For many travellers to the country, the canal might be the only attraction that they are already familiar with, making it a must-do on any Panama itinerary!
While I was dubious about how interesting I would find a visit to the canal, this feat of engineering is actually endlessly fascinating. It takes each boat between 8-10 hours to transit through the canal and over 900,000 have passed through the locks since its construction!
The canal can be visited either independently using public transport from the city centre or on a guided tour. The most popular of the locks (and the most visitor-friendly) is the Miraflores Locks. There is a museum here and a viewing platform. A rather enthusiastic commentator will explain everything that happens as the ship passes through the canal, making this an experience you won’t forget.
Panama Canal tours are available online in advance or from most hostels. They start at around $50USD but make sure you check whether entrance fees are included. The Miraflores Locks cost around $20USD per person.
2. Soberania National Park
Those looking to discover wildlife in Panama, need look no further than Soberania National Park. Located just shy of 25 km from Panama City, Soberania National Park is a great spot for those looking to get back into nature.
A premier bird-watching destination, lucky twitchers can see toucans, woodpeckers, hawks and motmots here – to name a few! As well as animal and bird spotting opportunities along the Chagres River, the national park is also home to a number of walking trails.
The best of these is commonly agreed to be the Plantation Trail which spans12.6 km. Make sure you are wearing decent hiking boots if you decide to tackle the route and watch where you step. Snakes are commonly reported en route.
For those looking to visit independently, Uber is the best choice for making the 30-minute journey from the centre, however, getting back can be more challenging. If you are unable to secure a rideshare on the way back, hitchhiking may be the only option. To avoid this stress, many travellers opt to take a guided tour to the park instead.
3. Taboga Island
Taboga Island is one of the easiest day trips from Panama City. Accessible via the Amador Causeway, the ‘Island of Flowers’ is just 20km from the capital and is serviced by daily ferries. This means that a visit doesn’t take too much advance planning and transport can be booked online the night before.
While this is a great destination for those looking to enjoy a beach day, there is also plenty for more active travellers to enjoy. Taboga town itself is a cute city with an interesting history – learn about its past and evolution by embarking on a walking tour with a knowledgeable local.
Aside from this, it is also possible to hike around the island, with a couple of viewpoints giving way to epic views. Visit from July to October to see the migrating humpback whales in the waters off the island.
Ferries for Isla Taboga depart from the Amador Causeway with the company Taboga Express Fast Ferry and cost approx. $24USD for a round-trip.
You can find the historic port of Portobelo on the north coast of Panama. Once used by the Spanish conquistadors as the final stop on the Camino Real, this was a popular route used for transporting goods from South and Central America back to Spain.
This colonial history still stands for all to see at San Jerónimo Fort (Fuerte San Jerónimo). Constructed in several stages between 1596 and 1779, the fort was used to protect the transatlantic trade from pirate attacks which were common at the time. These days, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
For an interesting cultural experience, time your visit to Portobelo with October 21st, when you can witness the ‘Festival of Black Christ’. Not only a religious celebration, the Festival of Black Christ also protests the country’s colonial past and, in particular, slavery.
It takes around two and a half hours to reach Portobelo by bus and travellers will be required to transfer in Colon. This city is known for being dangerous for travellers so don’t flaunt valuables and keep an eye on your luggage.
5. El Valle de Anton
If you’ve come to Panama to lace up your hiking boots, you’re in luck! El Valle de Anton, affectionately shortened to El Valle, is a trekker’s paradise. Home to some of the best hikes in Panama, such as La India Dormida trail, there are endless routes with astonishing views all around.
Surrounded by a volcanic caldera and famous for its comparatively cool (by Panamanian standards) micro-climate, it will appeal to those who have been struggling to cope with the humidity in Panama City.
El Valle has grown in popularity over recent years which has led to a burgeoning hippie scene. An increase in backpackers has led to a range of holistic therapies being offered around town. If you’re a yogi or free-thinker, El Valle may appeal for this reason!
Travellers wanting to head to El Valle on a day trip from Panama City will need to leave early to get the most out of the day. Minibuses leave Aldbrook bus station for El Valle from 6.30 am and the journey takes between two and three hours.
6. Monkey Island
If you’re staying in one of Panama City’s many hostels, this is likely the day trip that you have seen advertised the most. Monkey Island sits in Gatún Lake, surrounded by the Gamboa Rainforest.
This area is popularly visited by scientists and researchers wanting to learn more about the ecosystem and biodiversity. Lucky visitors can potentially see four different species of monkeys: howlers, tamarins, white-face capuchins and cariblancos. Don’t forget your camera!
A visit to Monkey Island provides a fascinating insight into the changing environment since the installation of the Panama Canal – many of these monkeys were relocated here after its construction.
Monkey Island is commonly reached via an organised tour. The journey there takes around 40 minutes from Panama City and tour prices start around $100USD per person. This includes a tour guide, round-trip transportation from your accommodation in Panama City, a guided hike and a boat tour up Lake Gatún to see Monkey Island.
7. San Blas Islands
The epic San Blas Islands (known locally as Guna Yala) are exactly what springs to mind when you picture a Caribbean paradise. Coconut-clad islands floating in the middle of nowhere offer a relaxing escape from the chaos of the city.
You won’t find much to do on San Blas but that is entirely the point! Sip on fresh coconut water, play a spot of volleyball, read a book or catch some rays – San Blas will force you to relax and clock onto island time.
It is very difficult to plan an independent trip to San Blas and will likely cost more than a tour anyway. While in my opinion, a day trip from Panama City is not the best way to visit these islands, if you are short on time, it is better than skipping the archipelago altogether.
Day trips can be booked from all of the hostels in Panama City and also arranged in advance. $80USD is the starting point for day trips, however, trips can get much more pricey than that depending on inclusions and group size.
8. Contadora Island (Pearl Islands)
Floating in the Pacific Ocean are the Pearl Islands, consisting of over 200 islands and islets. Easily accessible from Panama City, the islands are a haven for nature lovers who come to watch the migrating humpback whales from July to October.
Those in search of a traditional beach escape will not be disappointed either; these islands boast some stunning sands. Isla Contadora is particularly popular with beach lovers, who flock there to experience its 13 stunning beaches, complete with turquoise waters.
If you’re looking at photos of Contadora Island and it feels familiar, you may recognise it from the 2003 edition of the TV show Survivor.
Ferries leave Panama City for the Pearl Islands daily from either the Amador Causeway or Punta Pacifica. The journey takes around an hour and a half one way.
No trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to its capital, Panama City. However, just a stone’s throw from this cosmopolitan metropolis, lie tonnes of other destinations begging to be explored. All of these day trips from Panama City offer travellers a refreshing change from the hubbub of the capital, no matter whether they opt for wild rainforests or secluded beaches.
What is your favourite day trip from Panama City?