This section is divided by activity, with listings of the prime destinations in Panama for doing each as well as the tour operators and outfitters who tailor trips to the specific activities. Tour operators have local knowledge and, more importantly, 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 dangers before participating in any tour. The operators mentioned in this section 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 they use? Dugout canoe 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.
Mountain biking is relatively new in Panama. There are few places suitable for riding other than well-established paved and dirt roads, but many of these roads can be dangerous if there is a lot of vehicle traffic. 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 (£5) a day. There are no tour companies (yet) that offer multiday packages that focus entirely on biking; however, the operators listed 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 offers two bike day trips around Panama City. Their 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, they offer 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 company Bike Hike Adventures combines biking on the Amador Causeway and near Fort San Lorenzo as part of their 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. Isla Coiba was the site of a notorious penitentiary until 2005, which kept visitors away, and therefore the surrounding waters are untouched. The snorkeling here is outstanding, too, but diving puts you close to pelagics such as white-tipped sharks, sailfish, manta rays, and dolphins. Coiba is also surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. 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 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, for the abundance of marine life found here. 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 offer diving trips around Panama, including multi-destination trips. 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 Divers (tel. 314-0817 or 6613-4405; www.panamadivers.com) is the premiere dive operation in Panama, based in Panama City and Portobelo. They also offer dives around Las Perlas and Kuna Yala. Panama Divers, which is fully insured, has decades of experience and a PADI instruction facility.
Exploration Panama (tel. 720-2470; www.explorationpanama.net) has multiday scuba-diving excursions around the Chiriquí Gulf and Isla Coiba, with a chartered live-aboard ship for six passengers. It's run by a friendly American who has lived in this area intermittently for more than 25 years, and he knows the area well.
Scuba Panama (tel. 261-3841; www.scubapanama.com) 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. They also have a unique (and spooky) dive in the Panama Canal, and dives around Portobelo and Isla Grande.
Panama provides golfers with a variety of championship courses, some of which are open for public day use, others as part of an all-inclusive resort. Close to Panama City, Summit Golf & Resort (tel. 232-4653; www.summitgolfpanama.com) is the ideal venue for those staying in the capital; it's located on the east bank of the Panama Canal on the Gaillard Highway, and is accessible by taxi from the city for about $15 (£7.50) one-way. There is no hotel here, but there are swimming pools, a restaurant, and a pro shop. Designed by noted architect Jeffery Myers, the course is spread across rolling hills, with sweeping views of the Gaillard Cut of the Panama Canal. It's very classy, and there is a traditional 18-hole course as well as a 6-hole course for juniors and beginners. Rates Monday through Friday are $90 (£45) per person; Saturday and Sunday $100 (£50) per person, which includes a golf cart; and clubs are available for an additional $15 (£7.50). The course is open every day from 6am to 6pm; call ahead to book a tee time.
The Coronado Golf & Beach Resort (tel. 240-4444; www.coronadoresort.com) is a long-standing, premiere golf resort located on the Pacific Coast, about an hour from Panama City. Designed by Tom Fazio, this is the only seaside 18-hole course in the country; players can come for the day from Panama City, but the resort specializes in packages with lodging included.
Costa Blanca Golf & Villas (tel. 986-1915; www.costablanca.com.pa) is located next to the Decameron Resort on the Pacific Coast, about 1 1/2 hours from Panama City. It has an 18-hole course that, because of its lights, you can play both day and night. The cost is closer to a bargain than other resorts: Monday through Friday it's $30 (£15) per person, with an additional $22 (£11) for a cart; weekends cost $72 (£36) per person (including cart). The course is within a residential development, and there are a clubhouse and restaurant.
Horseback-riding outfits are sparsely distributed throughout the country, and the only lodge that focuses solely on riding is Hacienda del Toro (tel. 757-9158; www.haciendadeltoro.com), which offers short rides only, not full-day excursions. Still, it's a solid operation with high-quality horses. One of the best places to ride is in El Valle with Mitzila (tel. 6646-5813); she and her team charge $4 (£2) per hour and operate daily. Trails here wind through thick forest, offering some wide-open panoramas. They have guides, but speak limited English. In Boquete, horses can be rented from Eduardo Cano (tel. 270-1750) for $5 (£2.50) 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.
Kayaking & White-Water 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 is 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 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; an option is to book with a tour operator that can put together multiday, multi-destination, 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, there is rafting on the Class II and Class III Chagres River with Aventuras Panama, 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 for in the San Blas Archipelago (Kuna Yala), and even here it is a nascent industry considering that each company that operates here must be granted permission by Kuna Indian chiefs.
Chiriquí River Rafting (tel. 720-1505; www.panama-rafting.com) is owned and operated by Hector Sánchez, who has been rafting this region for more than 25 years. 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 their rustic bunkhouse or at the owner's private home and B&B.
Panama Rafters (tel. 720-2712; www.panamarafters.com) is a young, American-owned company offering rafting and kayaking on the many rivers in the Chiriquí Highlands. They also teach beginning and intermediate kayaking. This company is especially good for rafters and kayakers seeking a wilder ride on the river.
Nantahala Outdoor Center (tel. 888/905-7238; www.noc.com) is a highly esteemed, North Carolina-based paddling school that offers a weeklong course for intermediate and advanced kayakers around Volcán Barú, tackling just about every rapid in the area including the Chiriquí Viejo, the Caison, and the Macho de Monte rivers. The course takes place in late October/early November for advanced paddlers (when the rivers are at their fullest); and early November for intermediates.
Xtrop (tel. 317-1279; www.xtrop.com), or "Expediciones Tropicales," is a well-respected company staffed by conservationists who use local, indigenous guides for their kayak adventures, focusing on multiday kayak trips to the San Blas Archipelago (camping or upscale lodging), as well as a sunset kayak trip around the mouth of the Panama Canal near the city.
Aventuras Panama (tel. 260-0044; www.aventuraspanama.com), is one of Panama's top rafting and kayaking tour companies, offering rafting trips close to Panama City at 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.
Seakunga Adventures (tel. 800/781-2269 in the U.S. and Canada; www.seakunga.com) is a Canadian company with years of experience in Central America. They specialize in sea kayaking in the San Blas Archipelago, often working in conjunction with Aventuras for their 8-day tour, including 3 nights in the San Blas and an overnight in an Emberá Indian village, with rafting on the Chagres.
Motorcyclists with their own bikes should know that the lion's share of Panama roads are twisty-curvy, with the exception of the Pan-American Highway. Also, most roads off this highway are peppered with potholes, and it is common to see farm animals blocking or sharing the road. The company ACS Motorcycle Tours (tel. 727/787-6278 in the U.S., or 236-7232 in Panama; www.acs-panama.com) offers 10-, 14-, and 21-day Panama-Costa Rica motorcycle tours with a support vehicle, and can include other Central American countries. Tours are offered September to January, and cost $2,850 (£1,425) (rider) and $1,550 (£775) (passenger), which includes everything except the flight to Panama.
There are no "destination" spas in Panama, but most resorts and a couple of upscale hotels have a top-of-the-line spa, or at the very least provide services such as massage, a gym, a sauna, and sometimes a steam room. I don't foresee a huge boom in this market, in spite of its rapid growth worldwide, but a few hotel owners are slowly catching on to this hot trend.
The recently opened Inter-Continental Playa Bonita Resort & Spa (tel. 211-8600; www.ichotelsgroup.com) is located on the Pacific, just a 30-minute drive from Panama City. The plush beach resort has a sybaritic spa facility with all the trimmings; services are booked individually, or as part of a package that combines fruit- and chocolate-infused skin treatments, massage, aromatherapy, and body wraps.
Decapolis Radisson (tel. 215-5000; www.radisson.com), a sleek, trendy hotel, has the Aqua Spa, the top spa in Panama City in terms of service and hip decor, and you don't have to be a guest to book an appointment. They offer a full range of treatments and a stylish beauty parlor for one-stop makeovers.
Veneto Hotel & Casino (tel. 340-8888; www.venetocasino.com) has a building facade that screams Las Vegas, but inside it's as elegant as can be, and their Bamboo Sea Spa & Gym is a calm oasis that opens out onto a rooftop swimming pool. This is the spa with the widest range of treatments (Vichy-style), including hot stone massage, mud baths, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy and facials, and more.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort (tel. 314-9000; www.gamboaresort.com) is the best-known spa in Panama. The top-notch service, along with the recently renovated premises, make this one of the best spas in Panama. Expect traditional massages, body scrubs, and facials. If you're not staying at the resort, you can visit the spa anyway, and combine it with a bike ride and lunch.
Panamonte Inn & Spa (tel. 720-1324; www.panamonteinnandspa.com) is the place to go in Boquete to be pampered. It's a country-cozy-style spa and is very complete, with shiatsu, Swedish, and sports massage; a sauna and steam room; skin and spa treatments using Natura Bisse products; body scrubs; and mud treatments. Their facials are especially noteworthy.
Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa (tel. 771-2291; www.losquetzales.com) is a slight misnomer -- there is a "spa" building here but it is small and services are not up to snuff. Massage rooms are shared, for example, unless you throw down extra cash for a private room. There is a sauna, and the spa center is backed by forest and a rushing river, but the center is more a lodge amenity than a spa destination.
Los Mandarinos Boutique Spa and Hotel (tel. 983-6645; www.losmandarinos.com) offers one of the newest spas in Panama. Though the spa area is small, it offers a range of facials, massages, and body treatments, in addition to a thermal circuit including a sauna, Turkish bath, bio-thermal shower, and Jacuzzi. The spa is open to non-guests by appointment.
The powerful swells and hollow reef breaks off the Pacific and Caribbean coasts make Panama the destination for a surfin' safari. The water's warm, the waves are uncrowded, and surfing here is consistent year-round, with the largest swells between April and October in the Pacific, and December to March in the Caribbean. If you're a beginner or need tips on technique, a couple of camps specialize in surfing instruction.
Bocas del Toro is often compared to Tahiti or Hawaii for its huge swells -- from December to March, and June and July -- and monster waves such as Dumpers and Silverbacks, the latter a right-hand, reef-bottom point break comparable to Backdoor Pipeline in Oahu. Waves in Bocas range between 1.2 to 7.6m (4-25 ft.), and can be powerful beach breaks, big waves, reef point breaks, and spitting tubes. Isla Grande has powerful reef breaks and is a good bet if you want to surf the Caribbean but don't want to go as far as Bocas.
In the Chiriquí Gulf, the surf meccas are at Morro Negrito, and Santa Catalina, internationally renowned among surfers and located straight across the bay from Isla Coiba, in the Pacific. Santa Catalina is a scruffy town, but the surfing is epic, with a consistent easy-to-line-up, rock-bottom point break that averages 1.5 to 6.1m (5-20 ft.). Farther east on the Azuero Peninsula is Cambutal, Punta Negra, Dinosaurios, and Horcones, other reliable spots for consistent breaks, including beach, point, and reef-bottom breaks that are sometimes even better than at Santa Catalina, and less crowded. The up-and-coming Playa Venado, near Pedasí, is a long beach break with lefts and rights and swells that can be as little as 1.5m (5 ft.) or as high as 4.6m (15 ft.). The Pacific beaches that lie between 1 and 2 hours from Panama City are beach breaks and point breaks.
If you just don't want to waste time planning your surf trip, or if you want a local's insider information on the best breaks, check Panama Surf Tours (tel. 6671-7777; www.panamasurftours.com), a respected company with flexible 5- to 8-day tours that run from economical to luxury. There's also Panama Surf Expeditions (tel. 6582-0402; www.panamasurfexpeditions.com), run by a group of Santa Catalina locals who build custom surf tours for travelers.
Morro Negrito Surf Camp (tel. 760/632-8014 in the U.S.; www.surferparadise.com) is located in an out-of-the-way region of the Chiriquí Gulf, about halfway between Santiago and David, on an island 3.2km (2 miles) off the coast. Guests are limited to 25, and with 10 different breaks (averaging 1.2-2.4m/4-8 ft.), you've pretty much got the whole wave to yourself here. Accommodations are one step above camping -- the focus here is on waves, not luxury lodging. The camp has surf guides and lessons.
Río Mar Surf Camp (tel. 240-9128; www.riomarsurf.com) is just 1 1/2 hours from Panama City, near San Carlos on the Pacific Coast. The camp has simple rooms (two have air-conditioning) that can accommodate three guests, and surf lessons can be booked on an hourly basis. It's a good spot at which to brush up on your technique when you don't have much time in Panama.
Casablanca Surf Resort (tel. 226-3786; no website) is one of the oldest surf camps in Panama, founded by a Panamanian surf pioneer who has been riding Central American waves since the 1960s. The camp is on a bluff overlooking the ocean, with basic rooms in lovely surroundings, and they have classes and can arrange surf excursions. Unfortunately, their lack of website and e-mail address makes them difficult to contact.
Yachting & Sailing
Panama Yacht Tours (tel. 263-5044; www.panamayachttours.com) is a Panama City-based operation with multiple-day charters to Coiba Island, Bocas del Toro, the Pearl Islands, and the San Blas Islands, as well as private charter rental for partial transit of the Panama Canal.
The Panama Yacht Club (tel. 6616-2408; www.panamayachtclub.com), based out of Fort Amador Marina in Panama City, specializes in private excursions to the Pearl Islands, with a day excursion for $800 (£200), and a 4-night, 5-day journey for six passengers for $5,000 (£2,500), aboard their luxury catamaran. The price is for the boat only; contact them for additional prices such as food and beverages.
San Blas Sailing (tel. 232-7598; www.sanblassailing.com), 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.
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.