Panama Vacation Ideas for a Land-based Trip

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Are you looking for Panama vacation ideas? There’s always the tried and true cruise through the Panama Canal. But, in addition to the iconic 50-mile waterway, boomer travelers will discover lots more to do in Panama.

If you really want to get an idea of this beautiful area’s history and culture, MITF featured contributor Debi Lander from ByLanderSea, is here to tell us how to plan an amazing land-based exploration of Panama.

A land-based exploration of Panama

Mention Panama and thoughts of the famous canal come to mind. A glance at the world map underscores the country’s strategic location between North and South America. One can easily see why the Isthmus of Panama was chosen for construction of a 50-mile waterway. The marine shortcut saves tremendous transportation time, distance and costs, plus provides a safer route.

Boats in canal locks
Boats in the canal locks

The plan to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans faced one of the greatest environmental challenges: excavating through ponderous rock mountains and dense jungles. The French, who had successfully built the Suez Canal, began work in 1880, but financial problems and tropical diseases halted the project.

When Panama gained independence in 1903, the United States stepped in to help continue the endeavor. The engineering feat was not only costly from a financial point, but thousands lost their lives (22,000 French alone).

From its opening in 1914 until December 1999, the United States administered the Canal and then turned operations over to Panama. Work to double the capacity and space for larger vessels commenced from 2007-2016. The Panama Canal remains one of the most important international waterways in the world.

Many curious travelers take a cruise that includes passage through the locks of the Panama Canal. However interesting (and I do enjoy cruising), I suggest you instead consider a land-based Panama vacation. Non-stop flights make it easy to get here.

While the destination seems exotic, there’s no need to change American money or possibly time zones. Panama rests within the Eastern Time zone and accepts US dollars.

Panama vacation ideas: visit historic Casco Viejo

The spires of an old town church near a tree-shaded square in Panama City
Old Town Church

Arriving in Panama City, be sure to tour the historic district called Casco Viejo. It’s much like Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, complete with a fort resembling St. Augustine’s Castillo.

Statue next to a tree with pastel-colored buildings behind it.
Old Town Panama City.

The colonial architecture gives a taste of history spiced up by colorful shops, bygone monuments and squares. Visit some of the ornate old churches, see ruins of historic buildings, walk the walls of the fort or just stroll along the narrow cobblestone streets.

Tourists looking at building ruins in Panama.
Old Town ruins

You’ll find plenty of small restaurants and bistros for dining. Shoppers will find the Panama hats hard to resist.

A collection of Panama hats displayed on a table.
Panama Hats

Recent construction in the downtown city center displays an ultra-modern skyline. This area looks like downtown Miami or a smaller version of Dubai.

Modern skyline in Panama City, Panama.
Panama City Downtown

Panama’s economy depends on the highly successful management of the canal, and new wealth appears evident. High-rise office buildings and apartments border the coastline, parks with statues and fountains intermingle with business quadrants and like any big city, traffic becomes problematic.

Where to stay in Panama City

An swimming pool next to a golf club in Panama.
Santa Maria pool and golf.

Lodging options run from boutique hotels in the old town, to name brand hotel chains downtown. To experience an urban oasis, stay at the Santa Maria Hotel and Golf Club recently opened at the far end of the city.

Yes, it’s a luxury Panamanian hotel and golf course right in the city! Amenities include an opulent spa, gorgeous pools, and that 18-hole Championship Nicklaus golf course.

Hotel restaurants were excellent, but my most significant memory is tasting Geisha coffee in the hotel’s coffee shop. Panama’s Geisha is the world’s most expensive coffee, currently running around $80 per pound. (FYI: It wasn’t that good!)

Tour the Panama Canal Visitor Center at Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks building sitting next to locks in the Panama Canal.
Canal Locks

Of course, a tour of the Miraflores Locks Center is mandatory. If you’re not going on a Panama Canal transit, you need to understand the importance of this waterway.

A stop here will provide a close-up view of the many large and small ships entering and exiting the locks. You’ll get to see how they work.

A video highlights footage from the complex canal construction and a small museum displays fascinating artifacts. Did you know that a railroad was built at the bottom of the canal during construction and eventually flooded.

After touring the Panama Canal Visitor center at the Miraflores Locks, take a rainforest boat excursion on Lake Gatun starting in the town of Gamboa, where the Charges River meets the Panama Canal. On my 2-hour outing, I felt tiny and humbled as we passed massive container ships transiting the waterway. We also were delighted by some rainforest wildlife including three different species of monkeys, a wide variety of tropical birds and lush jungle scenery.

Active Travel on a Panama vacation

Green hills and trees
Anton Valley

Another day my group left the city to explore the misty mountainous Anton Valley area where the highlight was a close encounter with a tree sloth in the wild. Unlike the fast moving monkeys, the tree sloth naturally poses for photos! They move extremely slowly and moss seems to grow on their fur.

Sloth in a tree on a Panama vacation.
Sloth in tree

The Canopy Lodge, a popular eco-lodge, rests within dense foliage and offers a terrific lunch and overnight accommodations. I didn’t stay, but I would return. Birdwatchers and photographers would love the place.

Tourists stand on a swinging bridge above the Panamanian jungle.
Hiking in the jungle canopy

Guided hikes within the rainforest range from a short 30-minute outing to half and full days. My brief hike included a sloshing waterfall and crossing a river on a rope bridge.

Waterfall in a jungle.
Waterfall streams down the mountainside

I also toured the Mariposario Butterfly Haven in the Anton Valley where I learned details about the lifecycle of these beautiful creatures as well as other flora and fauna of the tropics.

Orange and green butterfly next to a purple flower.
The butterflies are exotic looking.

More places to stay on a Panama trip

White chapel next to luxury hotel in the Panama jungle.
Buenaventura Chapel and Resort

If you’d like to truly experience Panamanian paradise, hire a driver to take you to Buenaventura Golf and Beach Resort, about 90-minutes out of the city. The prime location in Riviera Pacifica puts you in close proximity to world-class Pacific Ocean beaches of Playa Blanca and El Faro.

Tourist sits on a chaise under a thatched ramada on a Pacific Ocean beach in Panama.
Who can resist a relaxing beach?

The stunning colonial architecture of the resort blends with authentic local artisan displays and beachy decor. The centerpiece of the hotel is the legendary Corotu tree outside the main lobby.

Hotel lobby with tile floors, arched ceilings in mission-style architecture.
Buenaventura lobby

Now, I’ve visited hundreds of hotels, but must admit, I was overwhelmed at the beauty and calmness within this resort. My guest room featured an impressive king-size bed, hardwood floors, a posh bathroom and balcony overlooking a pool.

Four poster bed in hotel guest room
Guest room Buenaventura

Lush landscaping and water surround everything on the property—and it’s huge at almost 1,000 acres. I had my choice of lazing around five sparkling pools, a meandering lagoon or the black sand beaches. Private villas are available for families or those who wish a group getaway.

Pool by the beach on a vacation in Panama/
Buenaventura Beach club pool

The more energetic will find plenty of sports such as golf  (another 18-hole Nicklaus designed course) and tennis at the resort’s top tier sports club. In fact, the Buenaventura Golf Club was named ‘Panama’s Best Golf Course 2018’ among the golf elites in Central America. Boating and fishing excursions can easily be arranged.

Families will especially love the on-property Buenaventura Zoo. The zoo is a wildlife rescue center and a rehabilitation center for animals that, in turn, provides a learning experience about animals and their conservation for the whole family. Stroll around the monkey cages, parrots, cockatoos, deer, porcupines, peacocks, and crested caracaras.

A turquoise peacock spreads his tail.
Peacock at Buenaventura zoo

Dining was delightful; guests can choose between a variety of on-site restaurants from a swim-up pool bar to Japanese sushi and teppanyaki restaurant. One day I took breakfast under a palapa and lunch became a beachside barbecue.

Specialty cocktails incorporate the bounty of fresh tropical fruit available. The hotel’s mixologists offer classes including a lesson on making the most awesome tropical mojito and other specialty drinks. Beer enthusiasts will find 19 brands that are 100-percent Panamanian.

Bartender mixes a tropical drink at a hotel bar in Panama.
Mixologist at work

Bonus: The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort Panama doesn’t charge any hidden resort fees.

Thinking back, I was honestly surprised by all the fine options I saw in Panama, While I wasn’t expecting to give the country such high praise, I now feel it offers real value and a chance to explore beyond the ordinary. 

More things to do in Panama

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Panama vacation ideas for a land-based trip rather than a cruise through the canal.

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