Panama road trip – 2 weeks Pacific coast and highlands

Lush Panama is a great destination for nature lovers. Less visited, and less expensive, than its neighbour Costa Rica, Panama nevertheless has a lot of pristine nature and rich wildlife. In 12 days you can go animal spotting in cloud forests, hiking in the highlands, and diving around a protected uninhabited island, all on a road trip between Panama City and David.

Highlights

  • Panama City and Canal
  • Animal spotting in Parque Soberania’s tropical rainforest
  • Waterfalls and mountains around El Valle
  • Diving in pristine Coiba National Park
  • Highland hiking and wildlife in Boquete and Volcan

Day 1: Panama City

Stay in the historic neighborhood of Casco Viejo, at the American Trade Hotel. Casco Viejo is charming but tiny, after an hour you’ll feel like you know the place. Admire the pelicans and other water birds, and the skyline of Panama City’s business district, maybe while enjoying lunch, dinner or simply drinks on the great terrace at Capital Bistro Panama.

Consider visiting the Frank Gehry designed Biomuseo, venture into modern Panama City or take a look at the nearby fish market, where you can also have a lunch of freshly caught fish and seafood. Don’t forget to check out what’s on at Danilo’s Jazz Club in the American Trade Hotel.

Day 2: Miraflores locks & Parque Soberania

Pick up your rental car and drive to Miraflores locks. Early morning (between 9:00 and 11:00) is usually best to see the ships pass through. The hefty admission fee includes access to a museum. Personally, I think watching the ships should be free, and if you’re no ship or engineering fanatic you could skip the whole thing. However, there is only one Panama Canal, and this is the best spot to see it!

Drive on to Gamboa, where you can stay in one of the atmospheric 1930s Canal Zone houses built for the U.S. dredging division of the canal and now mainly occupied by scientists.

There are some great, easy hikes in nearby Parque Soberania, good for animal spotting. Go for a late afternoon walk along part of the Pipeline Road. Follow indications for the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, the Pipeline Road trail starts just after passing the entrance to the center. Parque Soberania is home to different kinds of monkeys, sloths, anteaters, agoutis and many other mammals, not forgetting over 400 species of birds. Although so easily accessible and close to Panama City, it’s usually very calm. We didn’t cross any other person on our walk!

Day 3: more wildlife watching…

Return to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. It opens at 6:00, get up early for the best chances of spotting animals. There are several short and well-maintained trails, a great observation tower above the canopy for bird- and monkey watching, and a lookout over little Lake Calamito. The visitor center is surrounded with hummingbird feeders, I just love these tiny birds and can watch them for hours! If you want to try distinguishing all the different species of hummingbird, this list of birds of Panama can help out.

In the afternoon, drive to El Valle de Anton. Make a slight detour to have lunch at the beach at Pipa’s Beach Bar & Restaurant in Farallon, just a few km off the Interamericana. In El Valle there is an abundance of Airbnbs and B&Bs, we stayed at comfortable Villa Bosque Lindo on the outskirts of town.

Day 4-5: exploring El Valle

El Valle is scenically situated in the caldera of a spent volcano, surrounded by mountains and cloud forest. Because it is about 600 m above sea level, it has a slightly cooler climate. The town itself is small and offers little to see, but there are some gorgeous hikes  in the surrounding area. For more about El Valle click here.

In town, Aprovaca Orquideas, an orchid garden, is worth a visit, here you can see all the typical orchid species from Panama and more. The staff are very keen to show you around. Stop at El Valle Gourmet & Coffee Shop for coffee or lunch. It might be just along the main road, but we spotted plenty of humming birds, motmots and other birds while sipping coffee in their garden! Here you can also pick up some sandwiches for a picnic.

Skip El Macho waterfall, it’s not worth the entrance fee. The pool is a joke as is the fact they give you walking poles for the “trail”, a 5 minute loop of no considerable difficulty. There is a zipline canopy tour here that we didn’t try, but considering the rest I’m not sure I can recommend it. Instead, go to the Chorro de las Mozas, a smaller (series of) waterfall(s) just on the other side of town. From the parking space, walk downstream along the riverbed. Just keep going, you will find a few pretty waterfalls which you will probably have for yourself, at least during the week. Waterproof shoes are a plus. You can find some nice picnic spots here.

Another great hike around El Valle is up La India Dormida (read the myth here). However, it is not very clearly marked, so organise a guide or ask a local for advice. It is quite a strenuous hike, to the top and back should take 2 to 3 hours. During the rainy season it can get slippery!

The best place for dinner is romantic Casa de Lourdes. The food is not exceptional (it is hard to find a good restaurant outside Panama City), but the location in the courtyard of an old villa is enchanting. I didn’t see the rooms but this seems a good place to stay as well!

From El Valle it’s a 4 hour drive to Santa Catalina, a bohemian place catering mostly to surfers and backpackers, and divers preparing to visit Coiba. Here we stayed at Hotel Sol y Mar, the rooms are small but the views make up for that. There are a few basic restaurants in Santa Catalina, the place has a laid back atmosphere but the beach is tiny and there is not much to do.

We tried to stop along the way at the Refugio de Vida Silvestre Cenegon del Mangle, which was a big disaster. It seems the park doesn’t really receive visitors, the access road was blocked with barbed wire and when we finally managed to find a park ranger he seemed incapable of giving us any useful information. However, it does seem like a very interesting natural area, so do some research before going to see if anything has changed for the better!

Day 6-8: diving in Parque Nacional Coiba

Coiba National Park is a marine reserve comprised of 38 islands and the waters surrounding them. Isla Coiba, the size of Ibiza and by far the largest of the islands, served as a notorious penal colony. Because access was restricted, nature flourished. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. You can read more about Coiba’s unique ecosystem here. The island is surrounded by great dive sites, teeming with marine life from frog fish to sharks, and lots of moray eels.

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We had decided on a 3 day diving trip to Coiba with Panama Dive Center. Try to book this diving trip ahead as they don’t always go. If possible check in immediately upon arrival in Santa Catalina for the latest news and to get your gear sorted.

Meet at the dive shop early in the morning to leave for Coiba, about an hour and a half by boat. The ranger station on Isla Coiba where you will be staying is very basic, but this is the only way of spending more time inside the actual national park and access remote dive sites. It is worth spending a little more to get a “private” room instead of bunking up with the other divers, check with your dive master or the rangers upon arrival.

The ranger station is located on an idyllic beach which gets frequent visits of capuchin monkeys, agoutis, iguanas and vultures. There is even a resident crocodile, Tito, although we didn’t get to see him during our stay. You can hike a trail through the dense jungle leading up to a viewpoint, but it is apparently very easy to get lost: don’t stray too far from camp!

Upon return from your diving trip, spend another night in Santa Catalina (we decided to stay at the same hotel as on arrival, so we could leave our excess luggage there during our diving excursion). It is of course also possible to organise a one day diving trip from Santa Catalina, but to properly see Coiba and its amazing underwater life I highly recommend a multiday trip.

Day 9-10: coffee and quetzals in Boquete

Relax this morning after all that time spent in the water before heading towards the highlands. It’s a bit over 4 hours to drive to Boquete and unfortunately, there is nothing really worth stopping for on the way… In Boquete, stay at Los Establos on the outskirts of town. This luxury hotel is scenically situated on a coffee plantation with sweeping views. Go for a walk around the extensive grounds, coffee plantations are great for birdwatching (here the bird list can come in handy again). Have dinner at the hotel restaurant, which serves pretty good food.

The next day it’s time to search for the famous resplendent quetzal. Get a guide (preferably with a telescope) if you want to be sure to catch sight of the brightly colored birds, they seem to favor spots very high up the trees. I can highly recommend our guide, Jason (jasonlaratours@gmail.com or +507 6718-6279). Ask your guide about recent sightings, but usually the best place to see quetzals is not the Sendero Los Quetzales (although this is a beautiful trail), but the Pipeline Trail. I would recommend doing at least part of both trails. We did see some quetzals, but too far away to take a decent picture. However, we did get a good look at woodpeckers and nesting hummingbirds and even spotted a rare crested eagle. And if birds are not your thing, the forest is simply stunning.

Boquete itself is a pretty ugly town, it’s all about the surrounding nature. Have lunch or dinner at The Rock, not far from Los Establos, or drive to Jardin Encantado (reservations are recommended) just on the other side of town.

Day 11-12: Volcan and La Amistad cloud forest

Drive to Volcan along scenic route 103, with views of Volcan Baru. Stop for lunch at Cerro Brujo (reservation necessary). The Area Sylvestre Protegida Lagunas de Volcan, just west of the village, is a great place for an afternoon stroll. There is not much of a trail here, but the scenery is very different and worth a look. From Volcan, turn west onto Calle El Valle, and continue past an old airplane runway and a coffee plantation. The protected area is not very well indicated and at least part of the it seems to be private property, but we just parked our car alongside the road and went for a little walk.

Stay at one of the B&Bs near Cerro Punta, like Cielito Sur B&B, a stone’s throw away from the entrance to Parque Internacional La Amistad. As the name suggests, La Amistad is split between Panama and Costa Rica. It is the largest nature reserve in Central America and has a great bio-diversity of flora and fauna, with many endemic species.

Early the next morning, go and discover La Amistad. Drive up to Las Nubes ranger station, just after Cerro Punta, pay your access fee here and ask for latest info. There are several short trails of varying difficulty. It rains a lot here, so bring a rain coat and good shoes as paths can get very slippery. We hiked both the very short Sendero Panama Verde, which is doable for just about anybody, and the Sendero La Cascada, which is longer and slightly more intense. We were not very lucky with the weather but we still managed to see a good amount of birds and an incredibly cute two-toed sloth.

After this you deserve a delicious batido de fresas (strawberry milkshake) at one of the shops lining the road to Volcan.

At the end of your trip, fly back to Panama City from David. And from there, you can continue your travels anywhere you want, a few weeks in Cuba for example!

 

 

2 thoughts on “Panama road trip – 2 weeks Pacific coast and highlands

  1. Very glad I’ve found your blog! Great advice and inspiring photos for a country I’ll be visiting next year. I’m really excited about the scuba diving I’ll get to do in the area and will definitely check out the trips from Santa Catalina. 🙂

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