The Canal and Central Panama

We’ve compiled the best of the best in The Canal and Central Panama - browse our top choices for the top things to see or do during your stay.

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  • 1. Refugio Ecológico del Chorro Macho

    Nature Preserve/Wildlife Refuge

    El Valle's most user-friendly forest experience is available at the small, private Refugio Ecológico del Chorro Macho, west of Cerro Gaital. The reserve has well-kept trails, walking sticks, and the option of hiring a guide at the gate. It belongs to Raúl Arias, who also owns the adjacent Canopy Lodge, and it contains one of El Valle's major landmarks, El Chorro Macho, a 115-foot cascade surrounded by lush foliage. You're not allowed to swim beneath the waterfall, but there is a lovely swimming pool fed by river water to the left upon entering the reserve, so bring your bathing suit and a towel. Enter the gate to the left of the main entrance to reach the pool. The refuge has a tour called Canopy Adventure, which can take you flying through the treetops and over the waterfall on zip lines strung between platforms high in trees. Most visitors are happy simply to explore the trails that loop through the lush forest past the waterfall and over a small suspension bridge that spans a rocky stream.

    , 0211, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $5, guided hike $65, Daily 8–5
  • 2. The Panama Canal

    Nautical Site/Lighthouse

    The most interesting spot for viewing the Panama Canal is the visitor center at the Miraflores Locks.North of Miraflores the road to Gamboa heads inland but still passes a couple of spots with canal vistas, namely the Pedro Miguel Locks and the one-way bridge over the Chagres River. The bridge (and Gamboa in general) offers front-row views of the big ships as they pass though the canal. The Panama Canal Railway train to Colón continues north from Gamboa past other vantage points, which is much of that trip's draw. Two other spots with impressive views are the monument erected by the country's Chinese community on the Bridge of the Americas' western side, and the Esclusas de Gatún (Gatún Locks), 10 km (6 miles) south of Colón. Near Colón, the Panama Canal Expansion Visitor Center offers views of construction on the expanded canal (as long as that work continues) and will likely remain open after the new section is finished. But nothing matches the experience of getting out onto the water, which can be done on a canal transit tour or on a nature tour or fishing trip on Gatún Lake.

    , Panama
  • 3. Agua Clara Visitor Center

    Not far from the Gatún locks, this visitor center offers the best view of the newly completed Panama Canal expansion, which allows a new generation of larger, so-called post-Panamax ships to traverse the canal. A video presentation provides an introduction to the canal's history and expansion, but the open-air observation area is the most interesting part, since it offers hilltop views of the project. The facility has a playground and gift shop, as well as a pleasant open-air restaurant operated by Panama City's El Panamá hotel. The restaurant, which is open for lunch daily noon–4 (call 507/215–9927 for reservations) offers great views of Gatún Lake.


    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $10


    Orchid enthusiasts will want to check out this small botanical garden run by a local organization dedicated to orchids. They have more than 100 native species, as well as ornamental and medicinal plants. The best time to visit is January to May, when most of the orchids are in bloom.

    , Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $2.75
  • 5. Colón 2000

    Two blocks from the Zona Libre is the city's cruise-ship port, Colón 2000, which is basically a two-story strip mall next to the dock where ships tie up and passengers load onto buses for day trips. It has a supermarket, restaurants, two rental-car offices, and English-speaking taxi drivers who can take you on sightseeing excursions ($70–$100 for a full day). A second terminal opened in 2008 and briefly served as the home port for Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas; the Panamanian government is aggressively courting other cruise companies to set up shop here.

    Calle El Paseo Gorgas, Colón, Colón, 0302, Panama
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  • 6. Deir Anba Baramus

    This is thought to be the oldest monastic settlement in the wadi. Its Arabic name is derived from the Coptic word Romeos (meaning Roman), used in honor of Maximus and Domitius, sons of Emperor Valentinus who lived as monks in this area. It is impossible to access except by car and, despite its age, it is probably the least interesting of the three monasteries, because many of the buildings are of quite recent construction. The oldest church on the grounds is the restored 9th-century Church of al-'Adhra' (the Virgin). Work on the church in 1987 uncovered frescoes, in rather poor condition, long hidden by plaster. The coffins in the haykal (sanctuary) are of Saint Isadore and Saint Moses the Black (a convert from Nubia). Adjacent to the coffins is a photograph of a T-shirt supposedly scrawled in blood during an exorcism. In the back corner of the church is a column, easily missed next to a wall, that is from the 4th century. It is the oldest part of the monastery, marking the spot where Saint Arsenius, the one-time tutor to the sons of Roman emperor Theodosius the Great, is said to have sat regularly in prayer.

  • 7. El Nispero


    El Nispero (named after a native fruit tree) is a private zoo and plant nursery hidden at the end of a rough dirt road. It covers nearly seven acres at the foot of Cerro Gaital, and its forested grounds are attractive, but most of the animals are in small cages. This is one of the only places you can see the extremely rare golden toad, which has been wiped out in the wild by a fungal disease. Those little yellow-and-black anurans—often mistakenly called frogs—are on display at the El Valle Amphibian Research Center, funded by several U.S. zoos. Biologists at the center are studying the fungus that is killing the species (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis), while facilitating the toad's reproduction in a fungus-free environment. The zoo has many other Panamanian species that you are unlikely to see in the wild, such as jaguars, tapirs, collared peccaries (wild pigs), white-faced capuchin monkeys, and various macaw species. Exotic species such as Asian golden pheasants and white peacocks run the grounds. Most of the animals at El Nispero are former pets that were donated, or confiscated from their owners by government authorities. The tapirs, for example, belonged to former dictator Manuel Noriega.

    Calle Carlos Arosemena, , 0211, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $5, kids $2 (ages 1–12), Daily 7–5
  • 8. Esclusas de Gatún

    Twelve kilometers (7 miles) south of Colón are the Esclusas de Gatún, a triple-lock complex that's nearly a mile long and raises and lowers ships the 85 feet between sea level and Gatún Lake. There's a small visitor center with a viewing platform and information about the boats passing through is broadcast over speakers. The visitor center doesn't compare to the one at the Miraflores locks close to Panama City, but given the sheer magnitude of the Gatún locks (three sets of locks, as opposed to two at Miraflores) it is an impressive sight, especially when packed with ships. You have to cross the locks on a swinging bridge to get to San Lorenzo and the Represa de Gatún (Gatún Dam), which holds the water in Gatún Lake. At 2½ km (1½ miles) long, it was the largest dam in the world when it was built, a title it held for several decades. Get there by taking the first left after crossing the locks.


    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $5
  • 9. Fuerte San Lorenzo


    Perched on a cliff overlooking the mouth of the Chagres River are the ruins of the ancient Spanish Fuerte San Lorenzo, destroyed by pirate Henry Morgan in 1671 and rebuilt shortly after, then bombarded a century later. The Spaniards built Fort San Lorenzo in 1595 in an effort to protect the South American gold they were shipping down the Chagres River, which was first carried along the Camino de Cruces from Panamá Viejo. The gold was then shipped up the coast to the fortified city of Portobelo, where it was stored until the Spanish armada arrived to carry it to Spain. The fortress's commanding position and abundant cannons weren't enough of a deterrent for Morgan, whose men managed to shoot flaming arrows into the fort, causing a fire that set off stored gunpowder and forced the Spanish troops to surrender. Morgan then led his men up the river and across the isthmus to sack Panamá Viejo.In the 1980s UNESCO restored the fort to its current condition, which is pretty sparse—it hardly compares to the extensive colonial ruins of Portobelo. Nevertheless, the setting is gorgeous, and the view from that promontory of the blue-green Caribbean, the coast, and the vast jungle behind it is breathtaking. Be careful walking around the edge outside the fort; there are some treacherous precipices, and guardrails are almost nonexistent. One visitor did have a fatal fall several years ago.

    23 km (14 miles) northwest of Gatún Locks, , 0308, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Daily 8–4
  • 10. Iglesia de San Felipe

    One block east of Real Aduana is the Iglesia de San Felipe, a large white church dating from 1814 that's home to the country's most venerated religious figure: the Cristo Negro (Black Christ). According to legend, that statue of a dark-skinned Jesus carrying a cross arrived in Portobelo in the 17th century on a Spanish ship bound for Cartagena, Colombia. Each time the ship tried to leave, it encountered storms and had to return to port, convincing the captain to leave the statue in Portobelo. Another legend has it that in the midst of a cholera epidemic in 1821 parishioners prayed to the Cristo Negro, and the community was spared. The statue spends most of the year to the left of the church's altar, but once a year it's paraded through town in the Festival del Cristo Negro. Each year the Cristo Negro is clothed in a new purple robe, donated by somebody who's earned the honor. Behind San Felipe are the ruins of the Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, which date from 1589.

    Calle Principal, Portobelo, Colón, Panama
  • 11. Iglesia de San José

    Religious Building/Site/Shrine

    Ell Valle's town center is basically the area west of the market, where you will find the library and the town church, Iglesia de San José, which is more a reference point than a sight to see.

    Av. Prinicpal, , 0211, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Sun. 10–2
  • 12. Isla Mogo Mogo


    Isla Mogo Mogo, 6 km (4 miles) south of Contadora, on the other side of Isla Chapera, has a sugar-sand beach in a deep cove where snorkelers may find sea stars. Tiny Isla Boyarena, just to the south, has a pale sandbar that becomes a beach at low tide.

    , Panama
  • 13. Isla Pacheca


    Isla Pacheca, 5 km (3 miles) north of Contadora, has a lovely white-sand beach and a brown pelican rookery where about 8,000 birds nest, whereas the nearby islets of Pachequilla and Bartolomé have good scuba-diving and snorkeling spots.

    , Panama
  • 14. Lago Gatún (Gatún Lake)

    Nature Preserve/Wildlife Refuge

    Gatún Lake was created when the U.S. government dammed the Chagres River, between 1907 and 1910, so that boats could cross the isthmus at 85 feet above sea level. By creating the lake, the United States saved decades of digging that a sea-level canal would have required. It took several years for the rain to fill the convoluted valleys, turning hilltops into islands and killing much forest (some trunks still tower over the water nearly a century later). When it was completed, Gatún Lake was the largest man-made lake in the world. The canal route winds through its northern half, past several forest-covered islands (the largest is Barro Colorado, one of the world's first biological reserves). To the north of Barro Colorado are the Islas Brujas and Islas Tigres, which together hold a primate refuge—visitors aren't allowed. The lake itself is home to crocodiles—forgo swimming here—manatees, and peacock bass, a species introduced from South America and popular with fishermen. Fishing charters for bass, snook, and tarpon are out of Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

    , Panama
  • 15. Mercado


    One traditional tourist attraction worth checking out is the Mercado, an open–air bazaar under a high red roof on the left side of Avenida Principal, two blocks before the church. The market is most interesting on weekends, especially Sunday morning, when vendors and shoppers arrive from far and wide. Locals go to the market to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, baked goods, and plants. Handicrafts sold here include the sombrero pintao (a traditional straw hat), handmade jewelry, soapstone sculptures, and knickknacks such as the various renditions of El Valle's emblematic golden toad. Even if you don't want to buy anything, it's a colorful, festive affair. Some Panama City tour operators offer a day trip—a long day trip—to the market on Sunday.

    Av. Prinicpal, , 0211, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Daily 8–6
  • 16. Monumento Natural Cerro Gaital

    Nature Preserve/Wildlife Refuge

    El Valle's northern edge is protected within the 827-acre (335-hectare) nature reserve Monumento Natural Cerro Gaital, which covers the hills of Cerro Gaital, Cerro Pajita, and Cerro Caracoral. Cerro Gaital is a steep, forest-draped hill that towers over the valley's northern edge, rising to a summit of more than 3,500 feet above sea level. The lush wilderness that covers it is home to more than 300 bird species, including such spectacular creatures as the red-legged honeycreeper, bay-headed tanager, and blue-crowned motmot. It also protects the habitat of the rare golden toad (Atelopus zeteki). The bird-watching is best along the edges of that protected area, since its lush foliage provides too many hiding places for those feathered creatures, and the terrain is dangerously steep. The areas around El Nispero, Los Mandarinos hotel, and the old Hotel Campestre are also excellent for bird-watching. There is a trail into the forest by the ranger post on the right, above the Refugio Ecológico Chorro Macho, approximately 10 km (6 miles) from the church. It requires good shoes and decent physical condition and is best done with a guide.

    , 0211, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $5, Weekdays 8:30–3:30, weekends 8:30–2
  • 17. Panama Canal Railway

    Transportation Site (Airport, Bus, Ferry, Train)

    The one-hour trip on the Panama Canal Railway from Corozal, just north of Albrook, to the Caribbean city of Colón, offers an interesting perspective of the rain forests of Soberanía National Park and the wetlands along Gatún Lake. The railway primarily moves freight, but it has a commuter service on weekdays that departs from Panama City at 7:15 am (returning from Colón at 5:15 pm), and costs $25 each way. Tourists ride in one of six air-conditioned cars with curved windows on the roof that let you see the foliage overhead. The best views are from the left side of the train, and though the train moves too fast to see much wildlife, you may spot toucans, herons, and black snail kites flying over the lake. The downside: the trip passes a garbage dump and industrial zone near the end, and leaves you just outside the slums of Colón at 8:15 am, which is why you may want to take the trip as part of a tour that picks you up in Colón and takes you to either San Lorenzo or Portobelo. It is possible to do the trip on your own, in which case you should board one of the shuttle vans that await the train in Colón and have them take you to the Colón 2000 (pronounced coh-loan dose-mill) cruise-ship port, where you can pick up a rental car and drive to Portobelo, or hire a taxi for the day ($80–$100). The trains leave promptly, and it is complicated to pre-purchase tickets, so get to the station by 6:45 am to buy your tickets.

    Av. Omar Torrijos, , 0843, Panama
  • 18. Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

    Nature Preserve/Wildlife Refuge

    Just beyond Gamboa, adjacent to the Parque Nacional Soberanía and near the start of Pipeline Road, lies the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center, operated by the local Eugene Eisenmann Avian Wildlife Foundation. Its centerpiece is a 32-meter (105-ft) steel observation tower giving ample opportunity for observation of life in the rain-forest canopy. Three other decks are positioned at about each of the quarter-way marks. A solar-powered visitors' center contains exhibits about avian life in the Panamanian rain forest. Leading from the visitors' center is 1.1 km (0.7 miles) of hiking trails. They open at 6 am, which is the best tme to see birds. Capacity is limited to 25 visitors at a time during the peak viewing hours, before 10 am, and to 50 people for the rest of the day, so you should make reservations at least a day ahead from December to April.

    3 km (2 miles) northwest of Gamboa, , Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $30 before 10 am; $20 after 10 am, Daily 6–4
  • 19. Parque Nacional Chagres

    Covering more than 320,000 acres, Parque Nacional Chagres is one of Panama's largest parks. It holds an array of ecosystems and expanses of inaccessible wilderness that are home to spider monkeys, harpy eagles, toucans, tapirs, and other endangered species. The park's northern border, defined by Sierra Llorona, and its southern extreme, in Cerro Azul, are the easiest areas to visit, thanks to paved roads. Most people visit the national park on day tours from Panama City to one of several Emberá villages, but you can see more of its forests on a white-water rafting trip down the Chagres River or by hiking on the trails of Cerro Azul. All the major tour operators in Panama City offer day trips to Emberá villages in the park. Visiting the villages—relocated here from Alto Bayano three decades ago, when their land was flooded by a hydroelectric project—is an interesting cultural experience, but most itineraries aren't great for seeing wildlife. The Emberá's traditional territory stretches from eastern Panama to northwest Colombia, but the relocated communities live much as their relatives to the east do, in thatched huts with elevated floors. They wear their traditional dress for tour groups—men wear loincloths and women wrap themselves in bright-color cloth skirts, with no tops, sometimes covering their breasts with large necklaces. Men and women paint their upper bodies with a dye made from mixing the sap of the jagua fruit with ashes. The tours are a bit of a show, but they provide an interesting introduction to Emberá culture. Tours usually include demonstrations of how the Emberá live, a traditional dance, handicraft sales, and optional painting of visitors' arms with jagua. (Note the jagua tattoos take more than a week to wash off.) Communities that receive visitors include Parara Puru and San Juan de Pequiní, but the best trip for nature lovers or adventurers is to Emberá Drua, since it entails a boat trip deep into the park and a tough hike.


    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: $5, Daily 7–5
  • 20. Parque Nacional San Lorenzo

    Park (National/State/Provincial)

    The wilderness just behind the Fuerte San Lorenzo is part of Parque Nacional San Lorenzo, a 23,843-acre (9,653-hectare) protected area that includes rain forest, wetlands, rivers, and coastline. For decades this was the U.S. Army's jungle training area, where tens of thousands of troops trained for warfare in the tropics. The army used parts of the park as a bombing range, and there may still be unexploded ordnance in its interior, though far from the roads and fortress. Today the park is the haunt of bird-watchers, who hope to focus their binoculars on some of the more than 400 bird species. Mammalian residents include spider monkey, armadillo, tamarin, and coatimundi. The lush forest here gets nearly twice as much rain as Panama City, and it doesn't lose as much of its foliage during the dry season. Most of that rain falls at night, so mornings are often sunny, even during the rainy season.The most famous bird-watching area in Parque Nacional San Lorenzo is Achiote Road (Camino a Achiote), which is about 25 km (15 miles) south of the fort. To reach it, turn left after crossing the locks and drive 15 km (9 miles) south. Members of the Panama Audubon Society once counted 340 bird species in one day on Achiote Road during their Christmas bird count. The community of Achiote, about 4 km (2½ miles) northwest of the park on Achiote Road, has trained birding guides and a visitor center, the Centro del Tucan, with rustic shared, dormitory-style accommodations for $12 a night, as well as private cabins at prices that vary according to the season .

    15 km (9 miles) west of Gatún Locks, , 0308, Panama

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Daily 9–6:30

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