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Panama is unfortunately often overlooked as a holiday destination. If there wasn’t the option of sailing there from Colombia via the San Blas Islands, I wonder how many of those embarking on a stint of Panama backpacking would skip it altogether, in favour of flying straight to Costa Rica. Not everyone has infinite time to wander the world, so I’ve put together this 2 weeks Panama itinerary to give travellers with a shorter time frame the chance to see the best bits of the country without wearing themselves out too much.
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Like all my 2-week itineraries, it’ll be a bit of a whirlwind if you’re used to the 14-day all-inclusive-hotel-style holidays, but luckily Panama backpacking allows plenty of time to relax on the beaches of some tropical islands in the Caribbean Sea.
I’ve written this Panama itinerary to assume that you’re flying into and out from Panama City, which is the only major airport in the country, but if you’re instead going to Costa Rica afterwards, then you can afford to spend an extra day in Bocas del Toro before getting the bus over the border Puerto Viejo (this takes roughly half a day).
If you’re starting your Panama backpacking from Costa Rica, you can obviously just do this 2 weeks Panama itinerary in reverse, and consider extending your time in the San Blas to include the full 5-day sailing trip to Colombia via the San Blas Islands. It’s the most incredible way to travel down to South America. In fact, Panama and Colombia are joined by the Darien Gap, one of the most dense rainforests in the world, so unless you fancy picking up the Narco guerrilla route, flying and sailing are the only ways to get down to South America from Panama.
The ideal 2 weeks Panama backpacking itinerary:
Here’s a quick run-down of my suggested 2 weeks backpacking in Panama itinerary with recommended places to stay; below I’ll tell you more about what to do in each of these destinations.
What not to miss in your 2 weeks Panama backpacking itinerary:
Days 1-2 & 4: Panama City
The first leg of your 2 weeks of Panama backpacking is the city that’s famous for money laundering and a canal but unfortunately not much else. But actually, the city has a lot of interesting history, from its indigenous roots to colonialism and piracy. A visit to the museum at the ruins of Panamá Viejo (below) is a must to find out what’s been going on since the prehistoric days.
And yes, the Panama Canal is pretty cool. I somehow managed to spend 3 weeks in Panama City without visiting the canal (I’m a terrible tourist), but I’ve heard from everyone I’ve met backpacking in Panama that that was a mistake. Miraflores is said to be the most picturesque of all the locks along the canal, and has lots of educational exhibitions in the visitor centre.
Finish off your time in Panama City with a nice meal and a night out in the gorgeous barrio of Casco Viejo, or go for more upmarket drinks with views of the whole city at Hard Rock Café or Trump Tower (not actually run by Trump anymore).
Day 3: San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are PARADISE. 365 islands run by the Kuna people, which is still safe from the global threat of overdevelopment – or barely any development, really. The islands are still inhabited by small families who harvest coconuts and fish, and governed by the elders who are allowed a certain amount of freedom outside national Panamanian law.
Now, with a 2 weeks backpacking in Panama itinerary you won’t have enough time to do a full San Blas sailing trip that lasts for 4-5 days and can end in either Colombia or back in Panama City, but you certainly have time to go get a taste of this most gorgeous part of Latin America. The tour I recommend is this one, as it gives you 2 days to enjoy San Blas, with one night spent in an island hut. I don’t see single-day trips as being too worth it, but they do exist.
Days 5-8: Boquete
It’s adventure o-clock! Boquete is a foresty town up in the hills which is popular with people who chose to go Panama backpacking for its adrenaline-pumping activities and lush landscapes. It’s known as the Valley of Flowers, and is surrounded by traditional Panamanian coffee farms, which you can visit to find out about how coffee is processed from bud to cup.
While here, try your hand at waterfall chasing, rappelling, white water rafting, and hiking through the cloud forest. Whatever you fancy doing, expect your time in Boquete to be the most jam-packed section of your 2 weeks Panama itinerary.
Days 9-13: Bocas del Toro
Annnnnd now you’re going to want to chill out! Luckily, you have plenty of time in your Panama itinerary to soak up the islands and beaches around Bocas del Toro. Staying in the town, it’s easy to buy a boat ticket from the small, rickety terminal (or get a much better quality boat tour) and head out to the stunning beaches of Red Frog, Starfish or Zapatillas, to name just a few. Some are day-trips, and for others (such as Red Frog) you can stay the night in one of the beach hostels.
If you find yourself in Bocas del Toro at the end of the week, Filthy Fridays are a staple of the Panama backpacking experience. This is a raucous bar crawl (more like a bar sail) that takes you to around 2 small islands, ending in a pool bar before taking you back to the mainland. It’s unique, it’s loud, it’s tacky as all hell, and I bloody loved it. Also, free t-shirt. I mean, how can you ever prove you’ve gone Panama backpacking without the free t-shirt?!
Got more than 2 weeks for Panama backpacking?
If you have longer than 2 weeks for backpacking in Panama, there are a few other destinations in the country that you can consider adding to your Panama itinerary. Las Lajas is one of the best Central American beaches on the Pacific coast, and Playa Venao is also on this side, known for its black beaches and waves perfect for surfing. Alternatively, you could embark on a longer, 4-day San Blas tour to explore more of paradise.
Not quite convinced on a Panama backpacking itinerary?
If you’re not yet sold on a 2 weeks in Panama backpacking itinerary, and want to hone in on where in Latin America to spend your 2 weeks’ holiday, you might also want to check these out before booking those flights!