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The quintessential three-day Panama itinerary is perfect for a long weekend. It takes in the country's capital and its famous canal, as well as gives you a taste of the adventure that waits in the interior. It requires some judicious planning, but it's entirely possible to get a sampling of the best of Panama's urban and wilderness offerings in such a short time, thanks to short distances and the number of attractions easily reached from Panama City.
Base yourself in the capital for one, two, or three days of your trip. Use taxis while in the city because they are much cheaper and less of a hassle than renting a car, even for taking short trips to the outskirts of town.
On your first day, get an early start to avoid the midday heat. Head to the Casco Viejo, the capital's restored colonial quarter, for a morning of old-world exploration. The pastel colors and latticework gates evoke old New Orleans, sans Bourbon Street of course. In the afternoon, head to Miraflores, just outside the city, for a ringside seat to the spectacle of huge ships passing through the locks. Narration in English and Spanish describes the fascinating process, and an adjoining museum documents the history of the canal. If you want to be on the waterway rather than alongside it, start Day 2 with a partial canal transit; billed as half-day tours, it frequently takes up three-quarters of a day. Less-frequently offered full canal transits take you end to end and do take up a full day with a return to Panama City in the evening. A visit to the Biomuseo or an afternoon of shopping in an air-conditioned mall rounds out any Panama City day. The port facility at Calzada de Amador is a great place for sunset cocktails or dinner.
Get up early on your third day to take the Panama Canal Railway to Colón. Here, you can spend the day exploring the country's Caribbean coast, fortresses, rain forest, or the beaches of Portobelo or San Lorenzo. You'll leave Panama City at 7:15 am and return at 5:15 pm, but that allows plenty of time to see the coast. Another option keeps you closer to the capital: Spend one or two days at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which is less than an hour north of Panama City by taxi. This option is rather expensive but provides several choices for activities, including the popular rain-forest aerial tram and trips onto Lago Gatún. No matter what you choose, you'll be sure to marvel at how close wilderness is to a major urban area.
Schedule carefully: Partial canal transit tours operate one or two days a week; full canal transits operate one or two days a month.
In Colón, arrange a pick-up in advance through a tour company or take a shuttle to Colón 2000 cruise port (these shuttles always meet the Panama Railway trains), and hire a taxi there, not at the train station.
With some serious picking and choosing you can put together an almost perfect dream itinerary. Panama's decent highway system makes travel quite easy, and its good domestic air network puts even the farthest-flung places an hour or less from the capital.
The capital, canal, and Central Panama are a good introduction to the country for most visitors. Added time gives you more flexibility to include other Central Panama destinations. Active travelers may prefer to head to El Valle de Antón for bird-watching, hiking, biking, or horseback riding. Several excellent lodging choices will make sure you sleep in comfort and eat in style. You could also combine a night at Sierra Llorona or Burbayar lodge (both in the highlands northeast of Panama City) with a visit to an indigenous Emberá village.
If flying domestically, opt for morning flights during the rainy season. Skies are usually clearer, and you'll appreciate the smoother conditions on Air Panama's smallish planes.
Do not schedule international-to-domestic flight connections (or vice-versa) the same day. Invariably, there will be a delay.
The small airstrips in the Darién and Guna Yala receive one early-morning flight from Panama City. David and Bocas del Toro offer morning and afternoon flight options.
The trip from David to Almirante, the ferry port for Bocas del Toro, is three hours overland, making it easy to combine Boquete and Bocas without backtracking to Panama City.
Elevation makes all the difference at these latitudes. Lowland Panama swelters year-round, but you'll appreciate long sleeves at highland elevations such as Boquete and El Valle de Antón.
An early-morning flight from Panama City puts you in Bocas del Toro in less than an hour, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you slow down to island time. Check into your hotel in Bocas town, where most visitors stay. If you're staying at one of the outer islands, arrange to have a hotel representative meet you at the airport and transfer you by boat. The farther-flung lodgings lie 45–60 minutes away. Nearby botanical and butterfly gardens on the main island can occupy your first day. Your second day should be spent on Isla Bastimentos, about 15 minutes away by boat. Traditionally, visitors come here to visit the indigenous Ngöbe communities, the islands' original inhabitants. These days, more Bastimentos visitors head for the popular zip-line canopy tour at Red Frog Beach. Don't worry, time allows to do both. Bocas means underwater activities, too. If you've always wanted to try scuba diving, the several dive shops here offer a one-day intro course. You won't get certified, but you'll see if you want to pursue the activity. Of course, a full diving course will take up several days here. And for much less muss and fuss, anyone who can swim can snorkel.
Fly to the western city of David, a business hub where travelers rarely linger. Rent a car or take a taxi for the 45-minute drive over a new four-lane highway to highland Boquete. The elevation change makes temperatures noticeably cooler. Get your bearings that first day exploring the town. Early European settlers created a community that could have been transported from the Swiss Alps. Any number of expert guides can take you bird-watching—this is one of Panama's premier destinations and is the haunt of the beautiful resplendent quetzal. An early-morning horseback tour can kick off your third day. The highlands are Panama's coffee country, and a few processors offer tours that acquaint you with the life and times of the dark beverage. If you're a rafter, you've likely come to Chiriquí for white-water sports. The Estí, Dolega, and one sector of the Chiriquí Viejo rivers are apt for beginners and take up full- or half-day excursions.