8 best day trips from Panama City, Panama

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From sun-blessed tropical islands to an engineering wonder of the world, these are the best day trips from Panama City

Situated on a small peninsula on the Pacific Coast, Panama City is Central America’s most attractive and cosmopolitan capital. The city has an impressive skyline replete with sleek skyscrapers and glitzy shopping malls as well a charming old town in the UNESCO-listed Casco Viejo. Best of all, it’s a superb gateway to Panama’s top attractions.

Panama is compact enough that it’s possible to sample jungles, mountains and oceans on day trips from its eponymous capital. As such, we did exactly that and based ourselves in the city for the final leg of our month-long jaunt through Central America.

Best day trips from Panama City

From lazing on the beaches of the San Blas Islands to the UNESCO-listed San Lorenzo Fort, these are the best day trips from Panama City.

1. San Blas Islands

Distance from Panama City: 115km
Tour duration: 15 hours
Price: $100 USD
Book the tour: San Blas Frontera

Sprinkled across nearly 400km of turquoise water along Panama’s Caribbean coast are the islands of the Guna Yala Archipelago, the autonomous comarca (territory) of the indigenous Guna people. More commonly known as the San Blas Islands, they are blindingly beautiful and contend with the world’s most luxurious beach destinations.

A day trip to the archipelago makes for a long day but it’s totally worth the early start (5am), late finish (8pm) and three to four-hour journey time each way. You will usually visit two or three islands or sites depending on your itinerary. Most of the day is spent splashing around in gin-clear water or lazing on palm tree-lined white-sand beaches with a piña colada.

For more information, read our guide on how to visit the San Blas Islands from Panama City.

2. Panama Canal

Distance from Panama City: 10km
Tour duration: 3-8 hours
Price: from $30 USD
Book the tour: viator.com

No visit to Panama would be complete without taking a day trip to the country’s – perhaps the world’s – most famous feat of engineering. Stretching 82km from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colón on the Atlantic coast, the canal sees over 14,000 ships pass through its three sets of double locks every year.

Ships at Miraflores Locks in Panama
Solarisys/Shutterstock Miraflores Locks

The quickest and easiest way to see the canal ‘in action’ is to head to the Miraflores Visitor’s Center ($20 USD) which features a museum and elevated viewing platform overlooking the locks. Further north are the Pedro Miguel Locks which can be viewed from a parking strip on the highway for free.

However, the canal is more than just locks. There is the huge artificial reservoir, Lago Gatún, created by the Gatún Dam across the Río Chagres, and the Culebra Cut, a 12.7km artificial valley and waterway carving through the mountains. The rainforest that carpets the surrounding landscape is also one of the best places in Central America for wildlife watching.

There is a variety of day trips available including boat rides and jungle walks as well as full and partial transits.

3. Taboga Island

Distance from Panama City: 20km
Tour duration: 4-8 hours
Price: from $24 USD
Book the tour: tabogaexpress.com

Just a 30-minute boat ride from the Amador Causeway is Taboga, the most accessible island from Panama City. Nicknamed the “Island of Flowers,” Taboga is known for its white-washed houses, the laid-back Playa Restinga with its spit of sand that appears at low tide and the colourful bougainvillaea flowers that adorn the island.

Taboga Island showing its village, beach and flowers
Marek Poplawski/Shutterstock Taboga Island

Taboga is popular with locals, particularly at the weekend. Most visitors spend their day sunbathing, swimming and generally lounging on the beach, usually with a cool drink in hand. If you tire of sitting on the beach, you can hike up to Taboga’s highest point for eye-catching views across the waves to Panama City’s skyline and the canal entrance.

4. Soberanía National Park

Distance from Panama City: 30km
Tour duration: 5-6 hours
Price: $50-$100 USD
Book the tour: viator.com

The rainforests of Soberanía are Panama’s best birdwatching destination. The national park is home to over 400 bird species, several of them among the world’s most eye-catching and/or rare. It’s possible to see flycatchers, hawks, motmots, trogons, woodpeckers, tanagers and, of course, the ever-arresting toucan.

A toucan on a branch in Soberanía near Panama City
Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock Toucans can be seen in Soberanía

There are several hiking trails, but the most spectacular by far is the 17km-long Pipeline Road where colourful bird sightings are guaranteed. There is also a section of the old Camino de Cruces (Way of the Crosses), a 500-year-old trail built to link Old Panama City to the port of Venta de Cruce. Besides birds, there are over 100 species of mammal, 55 amphibian species and 79 reptile species in the park.


Distance from Panama City: 50km
Tour duration: 9-10 hours
Price: $110.50 USD
Book the tour: aeroalbrook.com

Lying off the Pacific coast of Panama is a clutch of around 200 tropical islands and inlets, named by conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa for the abundance of pearls he found there. The islands would later become a safe haven for pirates before eventually evolving into a playground for the likes of Christian Dior and Elizabeth Taylor (who incidentally, also owned one of the world’s most famous pearls from the islands – the La Peregrina).

An island with a beach and forest seen from above
Emanuel PTY/Shutterstock A typical scene in the Pearl Islands

In 2003, the TV show Survivor was filmed on the coconut-scattered islands. Personally, I think there are far worse places to be marooned.

While most of the idyllic islands that make up the Archipiélago de las Perlas remain unnamed and uninhabited, there are several that are easily accessed from Panama City either by plane or boat.

Ideally, you would do as Christian and Liz did and make a holiday of it but it is possible to day trip to the islands of Contadora or Saboga. Ferries from Amador Causeway leave at 7.30am and return at 3.30pm, taking around 1.5 hours each way.

6. Monumento Isla Barro Colorado

Distance from Panama City: 36km (Gamboa)
Tour duration: 9-11 hours
Price: $150 USD
Book the tour: stri.si.edu

The jungle-glad Isla Barro Colorado is the result of the creation of Gatún Lake in 1913. When the Panama Canal was completed, the Río Chagres had been diverted by giant dams causing the geography of central Panama to be completely reshaped. As flood waters spread across the region, wildlife that wasn’t drowned fled to higher ground which became newly-formed islands. Today, these biomes-in-miniature teem with wildlife.

A red-eyed tree frog on Barro Colorado – one of the best day trips from Panama City
A red-eyed tree frog on Barro Colorado

The largest and most-visited island is Barro Colorado, now home to over 400 bird species, 500 species of butterflies and 500 species of trees as well as one of the world’s oldest tropical research stations, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

To visit the STRI, you must book in advance (often weeks) and then organise transport to Gamboa, around 40 minutes by car from Panama City. From there, ferries leave at 7am and return at 4pm (8am and 3pm at the weekends). Entrance is $100 USD per foreign adult and includes a hike led by a naturalist.

7. Portobelo

Distance from Panama City: 100km
Tour duration: 8-10 hours
Price: $85 USD
Book the tour: viator.com

While the fortifications at Portobelo are impressive, it’s the fishing village of the same name that is the real draw. The village was once the busiest city in the New World and the most significant Spanish port in Central America. Portobelo received shiploads of colonial merchandise and enslaved Africans who would later form self-governing settlements in the region after rebelling in the 16th century.

A group of locals dancing at the colonial fortress
SL-Photography/Shutterstock Portobelo is famous for its African history and colonial fortress

Today the vibrant UNESCO-inscribed Congo culture is maintained by the descendants with the town hosting the annual Festival del Cristo Negro (Festival of the Black Christ) as well as the riotous biannual Festival Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) which celebrates the emancipation of the enslaved.

8. San Lorenzo Fort

Distance from Panama City: 100km
Tour duration: 6-7 hours
Price: $85 USD
Book the tour: viator.com

The UNESCO-listed fortifications on the Caribbean coast of Panama include those at Portobelo as well as the far more impressive Fuerte San Lorenzo, perched at the mouth of the Río Chagres on a promontory west of the canal. Constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Spanish, the fort commands a glorious panoramic view of the sparkling river and surrounding rainforests.

San Lorenzo Fort with the sea in the background – one of the bets day trips from Panama City
Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock San Lorenzo Fort

Tours to San Lorenzo Fort will usually visit the city of Colón on the Caribbean coast as well as the Agua Clara Visitors Center ($10 USD) where the new lane and third set of locks were added during the Panama Canal expansion project completed in 2016.

Best day trips from Panama City: the essentials

What: Best day trips from Panama City.

Where: We stayed at Sortis Hotel, one of the Marriott’s Autograph Collection of independent hotels. Rooms in the ultramodern downtown hotel have floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of Panama City.

Atlas & Boots, Sortis Hotel
Sortis Hotel in Panama City

The contemporary hotel has an outside pool (also with skyline views), restaurant, coffee shop, bar and lounge. It is a 15-minute drive from Casco Viejo and 30 minutes from the Miraflores Visitor’s Center for the Panama Canal.

When: The best time to visit Panama is during the dry season from December to April. That said, the country is a year-round destination with a tropical monsoon climate which means temperatures rarely drop below 20°C.

The rainy season runs from May to November although the Caribbean coast remains relatively dry. Migrating humpback whales visit the Pacific coast from August to October.

How: We flew to Panama from San Salvador in El Salvador during our month-long trip through Central America. We based ourselves in Panama City and used our final 10 days in the region to take a few day trips and laze on the beach. We used Uber to take taxis around the city’s main sites.

Panama City skyline at night
jose_leonardo7/Shutterstock Panama City’s impressive skyline

You can take buses to just about anywhere in Panama. There are full-sized air-conditioned coaches that cruise the longer stretches of highway as well as smaller minibuses that tend to do the shorter runs. In Panama City, nearly all journeys depart from Albrook Bus Terminal.

The only railway in Panama is the historic Panama Railroad running from Panama City to Colón and is another excellent way to view the canal. At the time of our visit the Panama Canal Railway was suspended but will hopefully be up and running again soon. One-way prices begin at $40 USD and take around two hours.

All international flights arrive at the Tocumen International Airport (PTY), roughly 20 minutes east of Panama City by car. Book flights through skyscanner.net for the best prices.

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