This page contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
We only spent 2.5 weeks in Panama and due to illness, travel fatigue and the relatively high travel costs we didn’t explore very much. We even missed the Panama Canal! We do have a few highlights to share though.
We were both struck with bad colds during our five days in Panama City and did nothing much other than struggle out of bed for food now and again. It felt like an overwhelming city with busy highways, high rises and many American chains, and it was a difficult place to warm to. We did make one trip though, to the old part of the city Casco Viejo. We were too ill to walk around for long but it felt like a completely different city. We instantly liked the mix of crumbling but beautiful colonial buildings, vibrant street life and cool cafés.
If we had been able to stay in this area we would have liked Panama City a lot more. It’s very pedestrian friendly unlike the rest of the city (that we saw anyway) and an atmospheric place to wander. There aren’t many places to stay though and the few we found were already booked up. It’s worth making reservations if you’d like to stay in this part of town.
Hibiscus Garden, near Santa Catalina
We needed a quiet beach break and decided on the Hibiscus Garden Hotel 10km outside of Santa Catalina, a small surf town on the Pacific Coast. The hotel had rave reviews on Trip Advisor, but we were a little disappointed at first. The $50 rooms were pleasant but seemed a little simple for the price, the black sand beach was not as attractive as we’d hoped and as we were in such an isolated location we realised we’d be racking up quite a bill in the restaurant.
It took a while for the charm of Hibiscus Garden to work on us but it soon did. It was blissfully quiet, we didn’t have to worry about where we’d eat our next meal, the beach was wild and deserted with not a soul in sight and the sea was bath water warm. We decided not to fill our days with surfing and diving in nearby Santa Catalina, but instead lazed in hammocks and took long walks along the beach. A highlight was renting horses without a guide (a bargain at $15 for three hours) and galloping along the beach, stopping for a swim in the sea. Getting away from it all was just what we needed.
Red Frog Beach, Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a series of islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast, near to the border with Costa Rica. The thing we didn’t like about Bocas is that most of the affordable accommodation is in Bocas Town and you have to take day trips by bus or taxi boat to get to the beaches.
We are glad we made the effort (and spent $10 each on the return boat ride) to get to Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos. It’s one of the most popular day trips but the long wide stretch of golden sand makes it easy to find your own space. The sea is rather rough but Simon rented a boogie board ($5 an hour) and enjoyed the waves.
Catamaran Trip, Bocas del Toro
One of the best ways to explore Bocas is to take a boat trip to various snorkelling spots. We opted for a catamaran trip which was a bit more expensive than the others. Although we had a few issues with the trip, mainly the price ($44) and the fact we only had two snorkelling stops, one good, one not great, we are glad we went. A catamaran is a quiet, smooth ride so I had no sea sickness and we had plenty of space to spread out and chat with Dani and Jess from the Globetrotter Girls and Jaime from Breakaway Backpacker. It was a relaxing day and it felt great to be back by the water again after a year mostly inland in South America.
Hostal Hansi, Bocas del Toro
Sometimes it feels like the last six weeks have been a never ending hunt for decent, affordable accommodation. Maybe it’s because we’ve hit peak season so many places have been booked up or it’s that prices are higher in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, but it hasn’t been easy.
The one exception was Hostal Hansi (thanks to the Globetrotter Girls for finding it for us!) . Even during Carnival we were able to get a room as they don’t take reservations. This turned out to be ideal for us as we never know how long we’ll be staying and they let us stay as long as we wanted without asking questions.
We have different requirements to the average backpacker. We need reliable WiFi, quiet, and a desk to work at. Hansi has all of this and more. The rooms are super clean with lots of hooks, shelves and hangers, a comfortable bed, cable TV and private bathroom with hot water. We even had our own balcony with table and chairs, so we could alternate between here and the tables in the quiet common area (both upstairs and downstairs).
Best of all, and unusual for hostels, the kitchen was very clean, well-equipped and had an allocated fridge space for each room. It never got too crowded so I actually managed to cook every meal for a week – rare for me as I hate cooking in hostels. Hansi is run by a friendly German woman and it shows – we were thankful for that German efficiency. There are very cute kittens too!
With all our accommodation traumas we were grateful to find a quiet place where we could feel at home. We stayed nine nights and were sad to leave. Our room cost $30 – it’s hard to get a private double for much cheaper in Panama and compared to other places in town it’s great value.
Red Frog Beach was my absolute favourite in Bocas del Toro. Love this post, feeling so nostalgia reading your words and looking at your photos!
Thanks for sharing.
I may be going to Panama in late Feb… I’m wondering about the safety aspects…. Things you have to be careful of while there.. including the wildlife and the creepy crawlers etc.. Were they everywhere?… Did you need any special immunizations? I REALLY don’t mean to sound lame, I’m just a city girl from New York..I have never been out of the country before.. My cousin really wants to go and I want to be supportive and present for him!!! MOSTLY, I want to be physically and mentally prepared.. I’m trying to broaden my horizons!!! I’m cool, as long as there are no surprises!! Thank you for any insight you can give me… ToniMarie
Our highlights of Panama include: Boquete, El Valle de Anton (World`s only inhabited volcano crater), Casco Viejo (old city Panama) & Isla Caranero (Bocas)
What a shame you were sick! The Panama Canal was definitely my highlight – absolutely amazing. Boquete was also a really cute little town. And how gorgeous is Casco Viejo! We couldn’t get a room there and we were so disappointed.
We loved Casco Viejo. It is a shame we missed the canal. We regretted it afterwards but at the time we had lost all our energy and enthusiasm due to the illness.
I also enjoyed Casco Viejo. My husband and I found an official tour guide who took us around and explained all the history, including a secret trap door for pirates. I wish I had spent more time there.
Another fun thing in Panama City is the Amador Causeway. You can rent bikes and ride out to three islands in the Pacific connected by road. We met friends for lunch at a restaurant at the farthest point, overlooking the water and the city itself. It was under construction at the time I visited, but the Biodiversity Museum on the Causeway should be open now.
It’s too bad you missed the Canal! That was amazing. :)
Thanks for the tips – hopefully next time!
Wondering about going to Panama – and if it’s a worthwhile trip from Vancouver. It doesn’t sound like you got into the interior but wondering if you picked up tips on must visit places. We’re looking into a few birdwatching spots too. We loved Costa Rica a few years ago so hope you can try all the great things it has to offer.
Bummer being sick for so long on the road. That’s when traveling isn’t much fun.
I’m sure you’ll have a great trip. We really didn’t give it much of a chance, partly because it was a bit over our budget. If you have a bit more to spend then there seem to be loads of great lodges and plenty of bird watching opportunities. My parent’s friends visited Panama and loved it – they said it was much better than Costa Rica for bird and wildlife spotting. I’m not sure exactly where they went though.
Oh what a shame that you encountered some disappointments in Panama! Maybe one day you can return and you’ll have the time of your life. :)
I really, really want to visit the islands off of Panama, I’ve heard nothing but awesome things.
The San Blas islands look incredible – we’d love to visit them when we have a bit more money.
I agree with everything the GTGs said. After being inspired by yall for what seems like ages ago it was so nice to finally meet yall. I loved Casco Viejo too and Hostel Hansi is the best hostel I have stayed at so far. Im glad we were able to spend time together on the catamaran. Hope I bump into y’all on the road again as I make my way north.
It was great to meet you too Jaime. I’m sure our paths will cross again at some point.
That sucks to hear you guys were sick the majority of your trip! I went to Colorado and got altitude sickness the second day of our 5 day trip. It was 10x worse than any flu I’ve ever had and I was sick even until 2 days after we got back home! That was miserable, especially whenever everyone else around you is having so much fun!
Altitude sickness is nasty – so to hear that you suffered from it. Luckily we were only ill for our first 5 days and we had a comfy hotel to recover in.
If you could recommend anywhere in the world to just relax, and take the time to write a novel, where would it be?
Random, I know, but I figure if anyone knows the perfect spot its you guys!
That’s a difficult one, as it depends on what type of landscape you like, budget and whether you need good internet. Some quiet, beautiful places that come to mind are the Keralan Backwaters in India, Hampi in India (staying across the other side of the river with views of the paddy fields), or a beach in southern Sri Lanka (Mirissa is quieter, Hikkaduwa a bit more going on). So many places…
Everything leads me towards India. How strange nay? Thank you :)
It’s so nice that the catamaran snorkeling trip one of your Panama highlights is :) We were glad to spend that whole day with you and get to know you two finally! And we’re also happy that you liked Hansi (it’s on our hotel tip list!) We totally agree with Casco Viejo – what a beautiful place. I am glad we stayed there and not in the newer part of town. One of our highlights was Taboga Island – laying on the beach while watching the huge container ships line up for the Canal.. and the Canal itself, stunning! Could’ve spent hours just watching the ships go in and out, we even went to two different locks :)
It’s a shame we were too ill in Panama City to do anything! The canal and Taboga Island sound cool. Glad you got to stay in Casco Viejo as it is so different from the rest of the city.
It’s too bad that you didn’t stay that long in Panama :( And I feel sorry for you guys bout the disappointments you encountered. Oh well, not all is good with traveling. There’s always the bad and the nasties. Happy to hear that you had a few good moments though :) At least not everything was a waste.
Don’t worry about us – we didn’t have a bad time. I think we just need a bit of a break at the moment, so we are trying to take things slowly and spend longer at fewer places.