Tour operators have local knowledge and, more important, they provide guides and, in most cases, equipment. If you are planning to focus your trip to Panama around one sport or activity, these tour operators and outfitters are your best bet.
Adventure travel carries risks, and travelers should be well aware of the dangers before participating in any tour. The operators mentioned in this chapter have been chosen for their safety records and reputations, but ask questions on your own. For example, if your adventure involves boating, what kind of vessel will be used? Dugout canoes known as pangas are common and a colorful way to get around, but for long journeys they’re uncomfortable, wet, and dangerous in choppy water; also, few local boat drivers carry radios or safety equipment. Check individual chapters for smaller regional tour operators.
Mountain biking is relatively new in Panama. Few places are suitable for riding, other than well-established paved and dirt roads, but many of these roads can be dangerous if vehicular traffic is heavy. Roads in Panama are curvy, often with hairpin turns, and do not have bike lanes or a proper road shoulder, so keep alert for speeding vehicles coming around a bend. If you just feel like getting out and pedaling around town, you’ll find bicycle rentals in more touristy areas that rent for an average of $10 to $20 a day, and bicycle rental shops are listed in regional chapters in this book. No tour companies offer multiday packages that focus entirely on biking entirely in Panama (yet); however, the operators listed below can custom-build a trip for you.
In Panama City, the most popular and safest bike-riding area is the Amador Causeway, which is flat and has bike lanes—and a pretty spectacular view to boot. Outside the city, the Gamboa Resort rents bicycles for touring around; from here, it’s a couple of kilometers to the Pipeline Road Trail, a dirt-and- mud road that is flanked by tropical jungle. El Valle de Anton was made for bike riding: Vehicle traffic is light, roads are flat and paved, and a few steep, technical dirt roads offer a good workout. Boquete, too, has picturesque, winding roads that provide moderate terrain and pastoral views. Note that rental bicycles around Panama are not top-of-the-line models and usually lack shocks and other deluxe features.
Adventures in Panama (tel. 315/849-5144 in the U.S., or 260-0044) offers two bike day trips around Panama City. Its day excursion to the Pipeline Road Trail gives cyclists a chance to get (a little) dirty and ride through jungle at one of the best bird-watching sites in Panama. Across the isthmus, Adventures in Panama offers a day tour that begins with a bike ride across the Gatún Locks, connecting with a 6.4km (4-mile) dirt road to Fort San Lorenzo, a road known for birds and wildlife. The Toronto-based company Bike Hike Adventures (tel. 888/805-0061) combines biking on the Amador Causeway and near Fort San Lorenzo as part of its multisport package trips.
Diving & Snorkeling
Isla Coiba, in the Chiriquí Gulf of the Pacific Ocean, is simply the best diving site in Panama, often described as a cross between the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica and the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. Until 2005, Isla Coiba was the site of a notorious penitentiary that kept visitors away, and therefore the surrounding waters are untouched. The snorkeling here is outstanding, too—Coiba is surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific Coast of the Americas—but diving puts you close to pelagics such as white-tipped sharks, sailfish, manta rays, and dolphins. Other islands such as Islas Secas and the islands within the National Marine Park in the Chiriquí Gulf also provide outstanding diving.
On the Caribbean Coast, Bocas del Toro is where you’ll want to go to view some of the best and most colorful hard and soft coral in the world. In the Caribbean, visibility is best from March to May and during September and October. The reef at Baja Escribano, between the San Blas and Colón, is the new talked-about dive site for its clear waters and colorful sponges.
Some of the best snorkeling in all of Panama is in the waters surrounding the Pearl Islands, due to the abundance of marine life found there. Expect multitudinous schools of tropical fish and large pelagics such as white-tipped sharks. Bocas is billed as a top snorkeling site, but you’ll need to get away from the standard tours to find the good stuff. Isla Iguanas, off the coast of Pedasí in the Pacific Ocean, is excellent for snorkeling, too.
The outfitters listed below offer diving trips around Panama, including multidestination trips. For local dive operations, check the listings in regional chapters. The resort Islas Secas in the Chiriquí Gulf and the Coral Lodge in the Caribbean are two lodges with on-site dive shops and personalized tours for guests only.
Panama Dive Center (tel. 6665-7879) is based in Santa Catalina on the Azuero Peninsula, focusing on Isla Coiba, though it also offers specialized trips around the region. PADI certification is available as well.
Scuba Panama (tel. 261-3841) has a bicoastal dive that starts in the Caribbean Sea—visiting a sunken B-45 plane—and then goes to the Pacific Ocean for a dive there. It also offers a unique (and spooky) dive in the Panama Canal, as well as dives around Portobelo and Isla Grande.
Bocas Dive Center (tel. 757-9737) is a five-star PADI dive center with beginning through expert training and dives around Bocas del Toro.
Horseback-riding outfits are sparsely distributed throughout the country. On Bocas del Toro, Panama Horseback (tel. 6905- 9659) offers half- and full-day tours for $50 to $75 per rider. In Boquete, horses can be rented from Eduardo Cano (tel. 720-1750 or 6628-0814) for $10 an hour for tours around the surrounding countryside. Horseback riding here takes place along mountain paths that provide riders with sweeping vistas of the Boquete valley. Eduardo speaks Spanish only, so depending on your own facility with el español, have your hotel make arrangements. Many higher-end hotels on the Pacific and the interior also rent horses.
Kayaking & Whitewater Rafting
Panama has some of the most thrilling white-water rafting and kayaking in the Americas. The translucent rivers that pour down the Talamanca mountain range in the Chiriquí Highlands provide wild Class III and IV kayaking and rafting, principally on the Chiriquí River east of Volcán Barú, and the Chiriquí Viejo River west of the volcano, near the border with Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the Chiriquí Viejo is being threatened by a series of dams for a hydroelectric project, but for now it’s a pristine river and a lot of fun to ride. There are tamer floats, too, such as the Esti River, a Class II, that are perfect for younger rafters, families, and beginners. What’s special about the Chiriquí area is that relatively few paddlers have discovered it, so rafters and kayakers have the river and enveloping lush mountain scenery full of birds and wildlife all to themselves. There are two local rafting companies in Boquete with years of experience and expert knowledge of the region (see contact details below); an option is to book with a tour operator that can put together multiday, multidestination, or instructional trips.
On the other side of the Talamanca, the Guarumo River has family-friendly Class I and II rapids that descend into the Caribbean Sea at Bocas del Toro; only two lodges offer this excursion: Tranquilo Bay and Casa Cayuco.
Closer to Panama City, you can go rafting on the Class II and Class III Chagres River with Aventuras Panama (see below), a 5-hour float through rainforest and past Emberá Indian villages.
You’ll find kayaks at many hotels and resorts that are located near the ocean, but multiday sea kayak trips have yet to take off in Panama except in the San Blas Archipelago (Kuna Yala), and even there it is a nascent industry, considering that any company that operates here must be granted permission by Kuna Indian chiefs.
Chiriquí River Rafting (tel. 6879-4382) is owned and operated by Hector Sánchez, who has been rafting this region for more than 3 decades. Hector and his professional crew offer year-round half- and full-day rafting excursions around the Chiriquí, both for die-hards and families seeking an easy, fun float. Packages include lodging at the El Bajareque coffee plantation.
Boquete Outdoor Adventures (tel. 720-2284) is a young, American-owned company offering rafting and kaya- king on the many rivers in the Chiriquí Islands, as well as excursions to Isla Coiba and Boca Brava. The crew is professional and enthusiastic, and many day trips are family- and kid-friendly.
Aventuras Panama (tel. 6679-4404 or 800/ 614-7214 in the U.S.) is one of Panama’s top rafting and kayaking tour companies, offering rafting trips close to Panama City on the Chagres River and the Mamoni River (Class II–Class IV), as well as multiday trips to the Chiriquí Highlands and 5-day sea kayaking trips in the San Blas.
Yachting & Sailing
Panama Yacht Adventures (tel. 263-2673) specializes in luxury yacht charters. The company has more than a dozen boats of different sizes and also offers other activities such as parasailing, diving, sports fishing, and canal transits.
San Blas Sailing (tel. 314-1800), a French company, has a fleet of sailboats based in the San Blas Archipelago, offering 4-to 14-night all-inclusive adventures sailing around the islands, snorkeling, kayaking, and visiting Kuna villages.
Panama Sailing Tours (tel. 831-1626) offers guests a variety of multiple-day sailing classes, plus day trips to the Pearl Islands or Taboga. The company operates from the Amador Causeway in Panama City and also charters yachts for those who’d rather let someone else do the steering.
Colombia Panama Sailing (tel. 310/ 521-8709) organizes passengers on sailboats and catamarans sailing between San Blas, Panama, and Cartagena, Colombia.
Panama Canal Trips
Visiting the Panama Canal doesn’t mean you are limited to the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks. Dozens of tour operators offer a variety of activities centered on the canal, from full and partial transits to fishing on Gatún Lake and wildlife-watching in the surrounding jungle:
Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9415): Ancon offers full and partial transits of the canal from the Port of Balboa, where it has a passenger ferry. Ancon also offers rainforest boat trips on Gatún Lake, Embera village visits, and hikes and bird-watching trips along Pipeline Road.
Canal & Bay Tours (tel. 209-2009 or 209- 2010): One of the original canal boat operators, Canal & Bay have two boats, the refurbished wooden Isla Morada, with a capacity for 100, or the steel Fantasía del Mar, with room for 500 passengers.
Jungle Land Explorers (tel. 209-5657): Offering a motorboat tour of Gatún Lake and a stop at their anchored, double-decker floating lodge, this tour group also leads kayaking trips across the canal and even Survivor-style corporate retreats.
Panama Canal Fishing (tel. 315-1905): Run by Panamanian–American Richard Cahill, Panama Canal Fishing has a 5.5m (18-ft.) boat with a 115-horsepower motor for trips to Gatún Lake as well as the Bayano River to fish for peacock bass.
The Panama Canal Railway (tel. 317-6070): The railway runs between Panama City and Colón, flanking the canal. It’s a good alternative to driving between the two cities, giving you a chance to view the canal from a different angle.
Panama Marine Adventures (tel. 226-8917): For those looking to spend some time on the water, Panama Marine Adventures offers a partial canal transit with a shuttle leaving from the Flamenco Resort and Marina on the Amador Causeway at 10am and going to its boat, Pacific Queen, docked at Gamboa.
Panama Pete Adventures (tel. 941/447-8045): This long-running, reliable operator offers standard Panama Canal and nature tours, including combination boat and bus tours along the canal, as well as bird-watching, hiking, and Emberá village day tours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.