Published on May 17th, 2016 | by Mark Chesnut
5 Things I Learned About Panama Travel While Writing for Fodor’s
I was very excited to receive a printed copy of the 2016 edition of Fodor’s In Focus Panama. After all, I worked on two chapters of this Panama travel guide (Panama City and Panama Canal/central Panama), which gave me yet another excuse to visit one of my favorite destinations in Central America. It also reminded me of several lessons and insider travel tips that I learned during my extensive research trip last year to work on the book. I’ve been back to Panama since then, of course, but these lessons still hold true.
So if you’re planning a Panama vacation or business trip (it’s big on business, as you may have guessed from the release of the so-called “Panama papers”), take note.
- Don’t be afraid to drive in Panama. I’d always avoided renting a car in Panama City, since the notorious traffic scared me away from getting behind the wheel. But on this research trip, I actually rented a car, and did fine. There is a lot of traffic, yes, and it can be tricky figuring out where to go in the city (I missed plenty of turns). But the drivers are, for the most part, more courteous than some big cities in the United States, and they don’t honk as much or swear at fellow motorists as much, either. In addition, you can rent a car in Panama for as little as $8 or $10 a day (definitely a good idea to use a credit card that provides additional insurance, just in case). Check out my roundup of 5 great rental car road trips in Panama for more ideas.
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2. Explore the Islands. Panama’s Pacific coast is dotted with islands that make for beautiful getaways from the mainland. Taboga is the closest and cheapest to visit from Panama City, and can easily be done on a day trip by ferry — but avoid going on weekends, when the beaches can be overly crowded (check out my insider travel tips about visiting Taboga island). Even more beautiful — albeit further away and more expensive to reach — is Isla Contadora, which has multiple unspoiled beaches (including what may be Panama’s only nude beach), tiny hotels and lovely restaurants (check out my travel tips on Contador Island, complete with lots of photos). You can book an Air Panama flight from Panama City’s Albrook airport, or take a ferry, which takes about 90 minutes — but you’ll want to stay at least one night to really appreciate all the island has to offer.
3. Give Uber a try. Panama City’s taxi drivers are notorious price gougers, especially with foreigners — even if you speak Spanish, they will double, triple or quadruple the price they’d normally charge locals (taxis have no meters). You can try to control the pricing a bit more by using Uber in the city; I recently published a travel guide to using Uber in Latin America.
PANAMA TRAVEL TIPS: 5 Great Rental Car Road Trips in Panama
4. Don’t forget Colon. The Central Caribbean coast makes for a beautiful day trip or overnight trip from Panama City. Be sure to stop at Portobelo, a 16th-century town that was once an important Spanish port (for more info, check out my report on 5 ways to experience Portobelo). Today, it’s a quiet place with centuries-old landmarks, a lovely bay, nearby beaches and its own creative style, visible in the Congo artwork on exhibit at local galleries like Casa Congo, which is also a hotel. One of my favorite places in the world is just a quick plane ride away too: Kuna Yala, the semiautonomous indigenous territory where you can sleep in thatch-roofed huts over the warm Caribbean waters and explore perfect beaches and fascinating Guna culture. (You an also check out my photo collection of the city of Colon: a glorious past with historic architecture.)
5. Consider the big resorts on the Pacific coast. If you’re hankering for a more standard beach vacation at a large resort with lots of amenities, the best region in Panama is the central Pacific coast. Just across the Panama Canal from Panama City is the Westin Playa Bonita, a luxury hotel on the water; next door is Secrets Playa Bonita, an adults-only, all-inclusive property. A bit further away are option like the recently renamed BlueBay Coronado Golf & Beach Resort (less than two hours away), which is good for golfers, the Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort, which offers all-inclusive vacations, and the beautiful-and-pricey JW Marriott Panama Golf & Beach Resort.