Panama City is by far the most modern and developed city in Central America. It is a vibrant metropolis that should be a tourist attraction in itself. In Panama City, one can visit the unique Panama Canal, the ruins of Panama Viejo, the old town of Casco Antiguo and obviously enjoy the many day trips from Panama City.
Panama is a great place to stay for a while enjoying both the city life and tropical life. You can easily be in Panama City and have tropical escapes to islands, dense jungles, volcanos and much more. Here we decided to gather all the best Panama City day trips, explaining to you how to do them, why they are special and what you can expect from each.
Best day trips from Panama City
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands is an archipelago in the Caribbean sea formed by more than 300 small islands. These small islands are authentic paradises with warm turquoise water, palm trees, and soft sand.
In our opinion, they are the best destination in Panama, but they aren’t the best Panama City day trip. Why? It’s a long day trip… really long! Expect to leave Panama City at 5 a.m. travel for 4 hours, first by 4×4 then by boat. At about 3/4 p.m. you need to return, to arrive at Panama City around 7 p.m.
It is possible to go independently to the San Blas, but this is one of the rare occasions where we recommend to take an organized tour! It’s much easier, and you won’t have to deal with all the logistics of this trip. And they are a lot. Have a look at our complete guide on how to do a San Blas islands trip!
Important note: If you have time, we also strongly suggest having a longer trip to San Blas. In our opinion, 3 days is the perfect amount of time, to get to know (some of ) the islands. Yet, if you don’t have 3 days, it’s perfectly fine to do 2 days in San Blas or even a day trip from Panama City.
by Claudia Tavani of My Adventures Across the World
Portobelo is a lovely small town of no more than 5000 people on the Caribbean coast of Panama; and a nice place to spend a few days to enjoy the jungle and the beaches nearby. If you don’t have that much time in the area, you’ll be happy to know that Portobelo can be easily reached from Panama City, thus making it a perfect destination for a day trip.
It takes about one and a half hour to reach Portobelo by car from Panama City, and around 2 and a half if you go by bus – you’ll have to change in Colon, a less than interesting city with a bad reputation.
Once in Portobelo, you’ll have the opportunity of visiting the gorgeous fortifications scattered along the bay and explore the watchtowers and artillery sheds of the Fuerte San Jeronimo. This is one of the most interesting archeological sites in the region.
Other places to explore include the Iglesia San Felipe, a Catholic Church that was built in 1814 and where the statue of the Black Christ is located. If you happen to be in Panama in October, make sure to visit Portobelo on 21 October for the Festival of the Black Christ.
Portobelo is also a great place for diving and snorkeling, and various places in town offer expeditions to admire the marine life of the region.
Most of the beaches in the area of Portobelo require a bit of an effort to reach – either a walk in the jungle or a boat ride. But if you are up for the challenge or have time, make sure to go!
by Melissa Conn of the Family Voyage
One of the most fascinating day trips from Panama City is a visit to the Monkey Islands near Panama City, in the middle of Gatún Lake. The most practical way to get there is on a guided excursion. The trip involves a 40-minute drive out from the city to Gamboa, in the heart of the rainforest. You’ll then board a small boat that takes you to the middle of Gatún Lake to get to the Monkey Islands.
What’s so special about the Monkey Islands? On a trip with Panama Day Trips, you’ll have an opportunity to understand where ecology and development intersect. The various monkey species were relocated to these small islands as a result of the Panama Canal expansion project. Visitors learn about both the short- and long-term environmental impacts of the project.
Panama Day Trips offers two tour options. The first option is a half-day tour to see the Monkey Islands and costs $80 per person. The second option is a full-day trip that continues past Gatún Lake all the way to the Pacific Ocean. That tour visits Fort San Lorenzo, a 400-year-old Spanish stronghold, and the new Agua Clara Locks.
Panama Canal Railway
Sarah Fay of Travels of Sarah Fay
The Panama Canal Railway was established in 1885 and runs from Panama City to Colon. Bridging the gap between the Atlantic and the Pacific the canal and the railway were originally meant just for cargo and trade, both are now one of the biggest tourists draws of Panama.
A one-way ticket will only set you back $25 USD for a panoramic ride in the tourist cart on the train. The train leaves Panama City at 7:15 am sharp, so get there early if you want a great seat on the panoramic train cart. The return train to Panama City is at 5 pm. The train ride takes approximately 1 hour each way.
The train ride is spectacular with design and décor that harps back to the glory days of train travel and views of the canal cutting through jungle terrain. There is also an outside viewing platform if you want to try and capture some wildlife in action.
From Colon, you can either take a bus back to Panama if you don’t want to wait for the return train, or you can take a bus or taxi to Portobelo to go to one of the most beautiful beaches in Panama Playa Blanca.
Whether you want a half-day trip or a full-day trip from Panama City to see the Pacific side, the Panama Canal Railway ride will be a remarkable experience.
Laura of The Travelling Stomach
Taboga Island is a small slice of Central American life just 20km off off Panama City and only an hours sail by catamaran. Known as the ‘Island of Flowers’, the island was formed as a result of volcanic activity and was discovered by a Spanish explorer in the 16th century.
One of the best ways to visit the island is to join a Red Cat catamaran tour, where you board the sailboat in Panama City, and sail in style across to the island. With all drinks included during your tour, you will enjoy a laid back chilled vibe on the decking of the catamaran, stopping on the way for a refreshing dip in the water. Whilst you head across the water around the city, you will spy some of the ginormous cargo ships waiting to dock or head into the canal, in awe of their size relative to you!
Once on the island, you can wander around and explore some of the spots in the town, or chill out on the beach with a coolbox of beers and a game of volleyball. Despite its proximity to the large capital of Panama, the island itself is a stark contrast to it, with a quaint atmosphere, making for the perfect excursion for the day!
Chagres National Park
Chagres National Park, close to Gamboa is your best option to enjoy a tropical rainforest if you don’t have time, or opportunity to fully explore the rest of the country. You can reach Gamboa in about 1 hour, making it a perfect location for a day trip from Panama City.
The main attraction of the Gamboa region is the possibility of watching wildlife, particularly by the river banks, but you can also visit Emberá indigenous tribes, making this day trip a natural and cultural experience.
The easiest way to go to Chagres National Park, visit the Embera Tribes and Gamboa is through an organized tour. Book here a tour!
by Caroline Keyzor of CKtravels
Contadora Island is a stunning place to visit with eleven beautiful white sand beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters. Contadora is one of the Pearl Islands and is an easy day trip from Panama City – just two hours away by ferry (or a short 15-minute flight). Alternatively, Contadora is a perfect weekend break as the islands boast many luxurious hotel resorts and beachside villas.
Ferry prices are a bit expensive at around $100 for a round trip ticket return, so keep an eye out for discounts on Offerta Simple. Book your tickets online in advance as the ferries usually sell out.
Transportation on the island is limited to golf-carts, scooters, and bicycles – all of which can be rented for the day (we recommend doing this as the island is quite big). Diving and snorkeling are very popular activities on the island as there is an abundance of coral and tropical fish.
Other fun things to do include dolphin and whale watching, island hopping, kayaking, fishing, and hiking. You find plenty of beachside restaurants as well as serving fresh fish ceviche and ice cold local beers. Note: there are no ATMs on the island so make sure to bring enough cash with you.
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