Serving as the transportation hub and economic centre of the entire country, most people visiting Panama spend at least some time in the capital, Panama City. While there are plenty of things worth seeing in town such as the historic quarter Casco Viejo and the colourful BioMuseo, those with extra time on their hands will want to head outside the city to get a true taste of what Panama has to offer. Here are some of the best day trips from Panama City.
The Panama Canal
As the most iconic landmark in the entire country, no trip is complete without seeing the Panama Canal. Stretching 80 kilometres through the centre of the country, the shipping thoroughfare operates around the clock and sees about one million transits per year.
There are a few ways visitors can experience it: by passing through the locks on a vessel such as a cruise ship, taking a boat ride along the Chagres River, or heading to the Miraflores Visitors Centre for a birds-eye view of the ingenious locks system which are essentially water elevators. Those who head to the visitors centre can learn more about this engineering marvel by watching a 10-minute video about the Panama Canal which plays hourly, then head into the museum which has exhibitions about its construction and operation.
Tucked into the Soberania National Park, Gamboa is adjacent to the canal, which makes it a popular spot for those wanting to experience the canal by water. Starting from the beautiful Gamboa Rainforest Resort, visitors on the Gatun Lake Expedition hop on a motorboat that navigates the Chagres River towards Gatun Lake, which is one of the world’s largest manmade lakes. Surrounded by lush jungle that’s home to critters like capuchin, howler and tamarind monkeys as well as crocodiles and iguanas, there’s no shortage of sights and sounds to take in.
Another popular tour from Gamboa is the Rainforest Aerial Tram, which ascends 600 metres from the shadowy rainforest floor through dense, tropical vegetation. Interestingly enough, staff have to head out first thing every morning to clear away sloths and snakes to ensure they’re not caught in the cables once the tram gets up and running.
From the top of the tram line it’s a quick walk to the 30-metre high observation tower which offers an unobstructed view of the Chagres River, sun-drenched rainforest canopy, and the Gaillard Cut which is an artificial valley that forms part of the Panama Canal. There’s plenty of wildlife spotting to be had, including tiny spotted frogs which look adorable but are actually poisonous—don’t worry, your guide will point them out to ensure you avoid harm.
The last stop on the tour is the gorgeous orchid garden which overflows with blooms, a frog farm, and the butterfly sanctuary where visitors can get an up-close look at the shy, colourful creatures.
Just down the road from Gamboa is Embera Quera, an indigenous tribe that lives completely off the grid in the heart of the Panamanian jungle. The group owns 11 hectares of land, nine of which are which are used for conservation, and they earn a living by selling handicrafts and touring visitors around their community.
To get to the community, guests enjoy a boat ride down the Gatun River where they can spot the likes of turtles and spider monkeys—and those who bring a banana along might even get to enjoy a close-up! The entire tribe is waiting at the dock to greet their visitors, all clad in their traditional clothing which consists of loin cloths, brightly coloured skirts and jagua body paint…and yes, it’s what they wear all the time.
Tours include a walk around the community to see their huts, a nature walk and a delicious lunch of tilapia wrapped in a plantain leaf, before being waved off with a traditional song and dance.
San Blas Islands
Thanks to its perch between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, there is no shortage of sparkling, white-sand beaches. A handful of them are just a short drive from Panama City, but the real treasures are found about three-hours away in San Blas. Made up of more than 300 postcard-perfect islands, they have been likened to a Robinson Crusoe hideaway. Inhabited by the Kuna people and accessed by speedboat or water taxi, visitors to the islands can fill their day by snorkeling in the clear, warm water, surfing, or simply relaxing under a swaying palm tree.
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