With the creation of the famous Panama Canal in the 20th century, Panama has become the heart of international shipping and a connection point between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. Additionally, in the last few decades, Panama has become a major tourist destination and a frequent stop for budget travelers that go backpacking in Central America. Flights from the US and Canada are cheaper than ever and a lot of people choose this country as their retirement destination. And the growth of tourism in Panama is no accident; from the deserted, idyllic islands through densely forested areas to active volcanos, there are some fascinating, unique things to do in Panama.
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Experience one of the largest whale migrations on our planet
If you decide to visit around August, you can experience one of the most unique things to do in Panama; seeing a group of whales migrating to the Gulf of Chiriqui from the Pacific. Now, you might be wondering what makes this experience so special? And you’re right, there are a lot of better whale-watching destinations in the world. But did you know that Panama and Costa Rica are the only two places on Earth where you can see humpback whales from both hemispheres? Some whales even travel non-stop for up to five months only to give birth in the warm waters of Panama. Fascinating…
However, this isn’t the only interesting thing Panama has to offer. Venture further south the Pacific Coast of Panama and you’ll discover…
Panama’s not-so-famous version of Galapagos
The Coiba National Park stretches over an area of 503 square kilometers and covers 38 small islands. These islands were geographically separated from the mainland around 15,000 years ago and have been uninhabited ever since, except for a few prisoners throughout the years. This allowed the wildlife to live and progress without “human interruptions”, resulting in the divergent evolution of many species, similarly like the Galapagos Islands. In fact, Coiba and Galapagos are linked by the massive underwater Coco Ridge mountain chain. This means the two islands were (most likely) connected at one point in time. Today, Coiba Island isn’t very easy to reach and not a lot of tour operators are licensed to organize tours, as Panama is doing its best to preserve this fascinating island.
Talking about Panama’s stunning nature, this country is also one of the rare places where you can…
See the world’s only rainforest surrounded by an urban jungle
Ancon Hill is one of the most unusual and contrasting yet beautiful sights you’ll ever see. This tiny stretch of rainforest is surrounded by Panama City from all sides and there’s an interesting story behind it. The rainforest was in formal possession of the United States until 1977 and they kept refusing to develop the land while the city of Panama City grew so much that it completely surrounded the forest. This resulted in a huge rainforest in the midst of a city with more than one million residents. Inside this forest, you’ll find coati, tamarins, sloths, and armadillos, making this one of the most interesting sights in Panama. Needless to say, a visit to Ancon Hill is one of the most unique things to do in Panama. However, the next sight is even more impressive!
Get a view of both, the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean
If you’re into adventure travel, then the Baru Volcano is one place you absolutely can’t miss! Standing at 11398 feet, Baru Volcano is the 14th-highest peak in Central America and the highest mountaintop in Panama. It’s also one of only a few places on our planet where you can get an amazing view of both, the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. If seeing two oceans meet is on your travel bucket list, this is the place to do it. If you want to make your experience even more special, you can start trekking around midnight and reach the summit on time to see the sun rising above the clouds, giving the already stunning landscape a beautiful shade of gold. Be careful though; the trek is quite strenuous and the summit is the only place in Panama where the temperature gets below 0.
Another amazing volcano sight in Panama is…
A unique species of square-trunked trees
Standing at around 600 meters above sea level, the Square Trees Valley is one of the world’s most dangerous settlements. The reason for this is the proximity to the active Volcano el Valle. Nevertheless, people have been living here for centuries and in recent years, the valley is even turning into a popular tourist attraction. What makes this place unique though, is the trees in the valley whose “rings” grow in a square shape rather than the usual circle. So far, this phenomenon has only been discovered in this valley. Scientists have tried to grow these trees in different environments and came to a conclusion that the trees’ square shape is a result of the unique local conditions.
And there’s simply something special about the local conditions in Panama. Just ask Dave Teichmann, the founder of…
Tigre Salvaje- a reminder that one individual can indeed make a difference
Even though this might not be as fascinating as some of the other unique things to do in Panama mentioned in this list, Tigre Salvaje deserves a mention because it’s simply inspiring and serves as a reminder that everyone’s individual effort can achieve a lot. Tigre Salvaje is a small wildlife sanctuary near the border with Costa Rica that’s trying to save several endangered species, most notably turtles. Dave patrols the beach every night to make sure that turtles nestling on the beach are not disturbed by anyone. He has no formal training nor government support for his project but dedicates all of his resources into this noble cause. The reserve is open for visitors and as mentioned on his website; “Everyone is welcome, we will find space for you”.
Another interesting place that welcomes all visitors is…
The villages of the indigenous Embera people
The Embera-Wounaan are a nomadic indigenous group that lives near the Chucunaque Coast. They stay in small villages that consist of 15-20 traditional wooden cabins, where an old traditional way of doing things is still preserved. Around every village, you’ll find a lot of banana and plantain plantations; these are commercial crops and the main source of income for the Embera people. If you’re planning to visit one of these villages and take a peek in the daily life of this tribe, be careful; a lot of operators organize tours which are fake and have very little to do with the actual Embera people.
If this experience sounds interesting, you’ll probably enjoy the next one too.
Visit the politically-autonomous reservations of the Kuna tribal people
Photo by Markus Leupold-Löwenthal CC by 4.0
The Kuna people are another indigenous ethnic group living in Panama. Unlike the Embera people, however, they live in autonomous regions, have different traditions and customs, and even have their own flag which looks a lot like a Spanish flag with a swastika in the middle but don’t let this scare you; the Kuna people have been using this symbol way before Nazi Germany and they are very warm and welcoming people. Most of the Kuna people live on the San Blas Islands; an area that’s turning into a haven for ecotourism and becoming a major stop for most cruises and boat trips from Colombia to Panama. It’s also an archipelago that’s famous as a destination that most travelers don’t want to leave.
As soon as you reach the islands, you’ll be awed by its pristine beauty and the Kuna people’s way of life. They are famous for their colorful molas; traditional ethnic wear made via ornamental needlework known as applique. The Kuna people are very protective of their customs. Another interesting thing about them is that they are one of the few matrilocal communities on Earth. In their community, the groom is the one moving in with the bride’s family and also takes her family name.
Try the world’s most expensive coffee for a normal price
Photo by Dick Culbert CC by 2.0
The Geisha Coffee became very famous after winning several different awards in 2018. This coffee is made from hand-picked coffee cherries from the tallest mountain of Panama (Volcan Baru). In recent years, the Geisha coffee is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world and the price per cup in some countries goes up to $70 USD, making it the most expensive coffee in the world. In Boquete, however, you can enjoy this delicious, silky tea-like coffee for only $9. It’s still a lot for a cup of coffee but it costs 9 times less than in some other places.
Stay in a hotel that used to be a gang stronghold
American Trade Hotel today is the only hotel in Panama to be a member of the elite group “Small luxury hotels of the world”. The building has been around since 1917. It was built in the (then) modern Bellavista architectural style and it was supposed to be a gathering place for the city elites. However, this idea didn’t work and eventually, gangs took over the neighborhood and the old building. Until recently, this now luxurious hotel was an old crumbling building that served as a gang stronghold. Nowadays, the neighborhood is being renovated in attempts to bring back its old charm.
Talking about unique architectural sights, one of the most unique things to do in Panama is…
Latin America’s first Baha’i Temple
The Bahá’í Faith is a religion that stands for universal peace and unity and Panama happens to be home to the first temple of this religion in Latin America. This peaceful temple that was inaugurated in 1972 provides a serene contrast to Panama City’s congested streets. It’s a peaceful place with a beautiful design with characteristic wave-shape lines, including a giant dome that protects the site from the scorching sun during the hot Panama summers. From afar, this white dome looks like a giant egg on the top of a hill, giving one of the most fascinating sights you’ll find in Panama City.
And since unique religious sites are the topic, another only-in-Panama experience is…
Seeing Black Jesus
Photo by Adam Jones CC by 2.0
No, I’m not referring to the popular American sitcom. The Iglesia de San Felipe is home to a statue that looks like a black Jesus Christ and the story behind it is rather fascinating. Supposedly, a black slave discovered this statue in the water while fishing and brought it back to the city. At the time, black plague was taking hundreds of lives every day but after the statue was brought to the city, the plague miraculously disappeared. Ever since this statue has been celebrated with a festival held each October for the last 200+ years.
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Visit the oldest European town on American mainland
Dating back to 1519, Panama Viejo was the first European settlement on the Pacific Ocean. Two years later this settlement of around 100 people got the status of a city. The name of this city was Castilla del Oro. Sadly, the city was sacked and burned by Captain Morgan (yes, the one who the rum is named after). At the time, more than 10,000 people were living in the city. Today, the only thing reminding as of this city are the ruins and the name Panama Viejo (The Old Panama).
Finally, this list of unique things to do in Panama, can’t be complete without…
The Panama Canal
Even though it’s much more touristy than all other places on this list, I simply can’t mention the Panama Canal; one of mankind’s most impressive achievements. More than 14,000 ships cross the 82-kilometers-long canal that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific. Big boats need up to 10 hours to cross the entire canal through the system of vessels that lowers and raises vessels with specially-trained captains taking control of the ships during the crossing. Would you like to experience the thrill of passing across one of the most magnificent accomplishments of engineering?
Helpful resources for visiting Panama
For cheap flights to Panama, check out the Discover the World at a low price program by Air France and save big on all flighs to Panama.
If you want to rent a car in Panama, this Sixt coupon will get you 15% off on all car rentals.
For the best travel insrance deals for Panama, I’m always using and personally recommending World Nomads!
How did you like this list? Would you like to experience some of these unique things to do in Panama? Which one was your favorite? Let me know in the comments!
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