Panama is the untouched luxury destination that gives you the best vacation and a few bonus “Insta-bragging” points for going off the grid.
There’s no doubt that when Americans look to Central America for vacation, they gravitate toward comfortable Costa Rica. But for U.S. travelers looking for the most authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences—Panama is where you want to go in 2019. Panama has adventure and luxury in equal parts from the Caribbean Sea to the highlands and jungles, and across to the Pacific. When you share your geotag on social media, there’s a huge chance no one will have heard of the places you are, giving you the “explorer points” you’re after while also getting a genuine luxe vacation. Here are 12 luxury experiences you didn’t know you could have in Panama.
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Take a Private Jet to a Chartered Catamaran in the Guna Yala
The Guna Yala (previously called San Blas) is an island chain but it’s also the name of the tribe who live there. The indigenous people offer hammocks on their islands for around $200 a night which tends to keep the backpackers away from the area. But, this isn’t the only way to stay overnight in the tribal zone. Hire a private catamaran for a few nights and island-hop to desolate islands that will without a doubt be the most stunning you’ve ever seen. You’ll read about the long journey by bus through the bumpy jungle roads, the tolls as you pass onto tribal land, and the tiny boats out to the islands…but skip all that. Just hire a private jet to take you out to the boat. The views of the snaking rivers through the rainforest below from the plane alone are worth it. Most boats in the area can arrange it for you inclusive of your stay.
INSIDER TIPThe catamarans are small and you can only take a small bag with you on the planes (which are 4 or 6-seaters). Leave your luggage at the hotel in Panama City when you check-out. They’re used to it! Just a warning: the runway on the “airport” island is tinier than tiny and you will freak when you land and take off, in the best way possible.
Hike to Top of the Baru Volcano the VIP Way
Boquete is a town in Panama known for being a retiree hub, thanks to a huge feature by the AARP years ago. Lazy and quiet, you can go out for jazz nights and mingle with fellow Americans. But for the adventurers passing through, Baru Volcano is the main attraction. Most tours pack you into a school bus early in the morning and take you to the rangers station where you’ll start your six-to-eight-hour hike to the top, and then all the way back down. Instead, book a tour to go in a 4-by-4 the majority of the way up and then hike just two hours to the top. Pack a little bite and have breakfast with an epic view.
Swim in a Sea of Starfish
San Blas is quite possibly the prettiest place in the world and since so few people actually make the effort to go, you’ll find yourself swimming or paddle boarding over a sea of starfish. This isn’t an exaggeration. You can island hop and as you paddle in from your boat, you will swim over a scattering of starfish. The water is clear turquoise, the sand is white, and their orange color stands out so beautifully.
INSIDER TIPLet’s talk about getting a pic that PETA would approve of. Well, they would say, “don’t touch these at all,” but according to boat captains and scuba specialists, you can lightly touch them if they are already floating. Do not remove them from a rock or anything they might be touching, as it could harm them, and don’t take them out of the water for more than a few seconds if you want to snap a photo.
Stay in a Luxury Villa on a Secluded Island
The ultimate mix of local authentic experience and true luxury is met at Isla Palenque in the Gulf of Chiriquí, an island off of Boca Chica. Just hours from the Caribbean vibes of San Blas, you’ll now be deep in the jungles on the Pacific Ocean. Chefs from the region make dishes passed down from generations before, and a butler is at your beck and call. Enjoy your personal concierge while in the bohemian A-frame villa, but also take advantage of the free tours included in your stay. This is your chance at a true Robinson Crusoe adventure.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to avoid the boas because this is the jungle to the max! You’ll hear monkeys and be right in the thick of it. If you’re lucky enough for a storm to pass through, you’ll feel the real power of the island. It also has its secrets. Ask to go on a “secrets of the island” tour to see burial sites and more. Be sure to pack real hiking gear.
Avoid the Backpacker Scene of Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is the epitome of the “backpacker” scene, and if you’re after luxury, you aren’t going to love it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit. The luxury stays hide in islands off the main center, and the Finca Vela bohemian treehouse hideaway is where you’ll find your peace complete with a huge infinity pool overlooking the Caribbean. You can jump from the rope swing on your private balcony straight into the sea.
INSIDER TIPBook all your tours and excursions directly through them. The fee is a tad higher but worth the personalized service, nicer boats for transfers, and privacy.
Jazz It Up
Dress your best to listen to jazz and have drinks from famous mixologists at a bar in Panama City. It’s by far the number one thing to do and while every bar you walk pass will say they have live jazz playing, Danilo’s Jazz Club in Casco Viejo (the Old Quarter) is where you want to go. Named after the famous musician Danilo Pérez (who is from Panama), places like this jazz bar are part of why Panama City is often called the jazz capital of Latin America.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re in the downtown area, rather than the Old Quarter and want a view, go to the W Hotel rooftop bar.
Check Into the American Trade Hotel
The famous Danilo’s Jazz Club is at the American Trade Hotel, the most famous hotel in the country. It’s part of Small Luxury Hotels Collection and known for its unique Bellavista architecture and Panamanian design. In 1917, the building was the American Trade Developing Building, but when life shifted to the downtown area it was left abandoned along with the whole Old Quarter (Casco Viejo). In 1997, the Casco Viejo neighborhood was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site, and gangs who had made it a home were driven out—in fact, they were smoked out of this very hotel.
INSIDER TIPThe bathroom amenities are Aesop. If you were ever going to be cheeky and put a hotel lotion in your purse, this is the place to do it.
Have Fresh Lobster in a Way That Even Your Fanciest Friends Have Not
While lounging on your catamaran in the Guna Yala, you might get a bit hungry. No worries! Jump onto a standup paddleboard and make your way over to the little fisherman you’ll pass by. For around $5 a lobster, you can take the ones they literally just caught. Paddle on over to the closest island (there are hundreds of tiny ones all over) and make a fire (okay, have your boat captain do this). Make sure to slather the lobster with butter, salt, and pepper. Never has a better meal been had!
INSIDER TIPMost catamarans will serve only seafood dishes because it’s too far in the middle of nowhere to get meat. If you don’t eat seafood, you should bring some snacks to keep you full.
Take a Luxury Tour Through Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is a highlight of any trip to Panama. While you’ll walk past crumbling buildings, you’ll also see some of the best boutique hotels in the world and taste amazing food and craft beer. Take a PTY Life morning tour to make sure you try the best of the best, starting with Boquete Coffee and chocolate at Tropical Chocolate Cafe (you can even make your own chocolate!), shopping for local Embera tribal artifacts, eating at places like Mahalo, Super Gourmet Deli, Tacos La Neta, Casa Bruja, and Nomade, and taking photos of the incredible colorful architecture all while learning about the incredible history of this neighborhood.
Go Deep Into the Gamboa
Panama has several tribes, and nearest to Panama City are the Embera Indians. They live in the Gamboa rainforest and you can hire a tour guide for a private excursion to see their culture in person. Seeing tribes and “village tours” can always lead to an ethical dilemma and you should do your research first. Avoid large group trips and keep in mind the further from town you go, often the more authentic the situation will be as some close to town are just set-up for tourists. Don’t take selfies with people the moment you arrive, try to appreciate, learn, and show respect.
Check Into a Yoga Retreat
Why make sand and sea to be the sole focus of your trip when you can also get a little zen and find yourself? Cambutal isn’t near most places tourists will go, and often people visit here as a trip on its own, checking into Sansara Resort for a surf and yoga retreat. They will collect you from the airport when you land so it’s stress-free from the get-go. There are 12 ocean-front cabanas desired to inspire serenity and they are as beautiful as they are peaceful.
INSIDER TIPGo big or go home; book yourself the Om Suite for the ultimate holiday because a private pool never hurt anyone.
Escape the Heat at El Valle de Anton
Panama City is classy and cool, but take a couple nights out of town in El Valle de Anton, a town in the crater of an extinct volcano! Enjoy fresh air, amazing view, and several national parks to hike. Book a stay at Los Mandarinos Boutique Spa and Hotel for Old World elegance who can arrange all your eco-adventures in their 5-star way. Panama is known for its coffee and chocolate and so are their signature spa treatments.
INSIDER TIPThis is a 5-star hotel, but the top tier room “the honeymoon suite” hovers around a low $150 so you might as well book the best.