Backpacking in Panama on a Gap Year

Countries  »  Panama

Learn to Party Like a Panamanian
Read about music, culture and party life in Panama
Weather in Panama
Climate advice for gap year travellers
How to Travel Around Panama
Bus, train or car: The best methods of getting around explained
Food and Drink in Panama
Panamanian meal options and costs broken down

Representing the final stretch of Central America, many travellers use Panama as little more than a jumping off point for an epic adventure in South America, staying a day or two in sprawling Panama City and seeing little else.

Yet backpacking in Panama can be a surprisingly diverse, exciting, and rewarding experience. Bordered by Costa Rica, Colombia, the Pacific Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea, and the famous canal providing decades-long global importance, Panama blends the best of the region and beyond: from island beaches to teeming rainforest canopies, cosmopolitan cities to centuries-old ruins, there’s more to see than you might ever expect.

Cities in Panama

There’s one city in Panama so essential that they just named it after the country – Panama City is a Central American metropolis, ruthlessly modern while maintaining prominent vestiges of history and culture, a hub of international trade with a truly cosmopolitan character.

This means *cliché alert* Panama City has something to offer anybody travelling in Panama. If you’re looking to party, the Casco Viejo sector is home to bars, pubs, clubs, casinos, and more. The ruins of Panamá Viejo, the first European settlement on the Pacific coast, speak to the country’s long, turbulent history, and museums throughout the history give you the chance to explore it in greater detail. There are also plenty of opportunities to celebrate Panama’s incredible biodiversity – Centro Natural Punta Culebra is home to sloths. Everybody loves sloths.

If you want to escape the capital’s sprawl, you can visit colourful Colón on the Caribbean coast, colonial David, Chiriquí, or Santiago de Veraguas on the Pan American Highway.

Countryside in Panama

If you’re wise, you won’t be distracted by Panama City for too long. Neighbouring Costa Rica takes all the plaudits, but Panama is similarly as biodiverse, making it an ideal destination for adventure travel.

You can trek into dense rainforest (or zip line through the canopy), keeping an eye out for monkeys and exotic birds, go diving in the Caribbean Sea in search of sea turtles, or explore the ruins of Spanish forts along the coast for a taste of when the continent was all but unknown to the wider world.

Rainforest, beaches, islands, waterfalls, reefs, and more – there’s really no need to hurry through Panama.

Top Experiences in Panama

Panamá Viejo

Dating back to 1519, when Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias de Ávila founded the first European settlement on the Pacific coast, most of these ruins are hidden under more modern developments. Those that are visible offer a fascinating glance into Panama’s history.

Panama Canal

A man-made canal that bisects an entire continent is a marvel that has to be seen. It’s 80km long, and has three sets of double locks separated by a gargantuan artificial lake, Lago Gatún.

Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

If you’re a budding birdwatcher and general nature enthusiast, this is the perfect introduction to Panama’s abundance of wildlife. An observation tower and over a kilometre of forest trails give you the chance to see the resident hummingbirds, monkeys, crocodiles, and more.

Casco Viejo, Panama City

While you’re in Panama City you might as well make the most of it, and this sector of the city is home to some of the best nightlife on the continent. Take your pick from bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants, casinos, and more to see where the night takes you.

Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro

If you just want to sit on the beach with a cocktail in your hand, this is the place to do it. Home to gobsmackingly pretty Caribbean beaches, the archipelago is also a top spot for snorkelling and scuba diving.