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Self-drive Panama: Discover the Pacific Coast

13 days from £2,702pp

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Self-drive Panama: Discover the Pacific Coast:
Trip Dossier

With its laid-back, peaceful ambience, sunny weather and genial people, Panama is an increasingly popular destination for visitors who want to widen their horizons beyond the capital city and the Canal.  It’s easy to see why - there’s a string of natural and cultural delights studding the mostly flawless Pacific coastline and its hinterland of cloud forest-clad mountains.

But what’s the best way to explore them? The charm of these highlights is enhanced by their feeling of remoteness, but they are in fact easily accessed by an expanding network of blissfully smooth highways and virtually vehicle-free paved rural roads. So we are excited by our new self-drive holiday, devised to guide you to discover our best-loved spots in Panama and rest up at a few of our favourite hotels and lodges. 

Driving is utterly pleasurable and mostly easy-going as you cruise along an innovative route we’ve devised from first-hand experience.  Armed with Wifi, your map and plenty of advice and tips exclusive to Journey Latin America, you will progress at a leisurely pace with plenty of opportunities to stop and discover hidden corners of this amiable country.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Transfer to your hotel in the historic centre of Panama City, Casco Viejo.

Day 2

Guided tour of the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo

Day 3

Collect your hire car and drive to El Valle de Anton.

Day 4

Drive from El Valle to Chitre on the Azuero Peninsula.

Day 5

Drive from Chitre to Playa Venao via Pese and Pedasi

Day 6

At leisure in Playa Venao.

Day 7

Drive from Playa Venao to Boca Chica via Sona and Puerto Vidal.

Day 8

At leisure on Boca Brava Island.

Day 9

Further opportunities to explore Boca Brava.

Day 10

Drive from Boca Chica to Boquete via Cerro Punta.

Day 11

At leisure in the Boquete area.

Day 12

Drive from Boquete to David, drop off car. Fly back to Panama City.

Day 13

Guided boat tour on Gatún lake; transfer to the airport for your international flight.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Transfer to your hotel in the historic centre of Panama City, Casco Viejo.
 
cinta costera PTY Ancon

The cliche ‘city of contrasts’ might have been coined for Panama City. Situated at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, it was founded in 1519 to transport Peruvian gold to Imperial Spain. These days its prosperity derives from shipping, banking and revenues from the Canal.  Soaring skyscrapers, glittering banks and smart modern offices lie across the water from a colonial centre featuring forts, convents and sumptuous French-inspired mansions, while its population is composed of a mélange of cultures from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia.  

You will be staying right on the main square, the centre of cultural activity  - music and dance events are frequent – and dominated by the baroque façade of the  huge white cathedral. You are within easy reach of a grid of narrow streets lined with traditional Spanish colonial houses and mansions converted into trendy restaurants and bars.  From your hotel you can easily stroll to the Cinta Costera, a 4km palm-fringed promenade tracing the shores of the Gulf of Panama to the modern business sector, a popular haunt of Panamanians at sunset or on the weekend.

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cinta costera PTY Ancon

Day 2

Guided tour of the Panama Canal and Casco Viejo
 
casco viejo PTY

Your guided city tour starts with a visit to the Panama Canal Visitors' Centre at Miraflores Locks, where from a splendid vantage point you can watch ships passing through the narrow waterway. Just beyond is the new, larger canal extension which accommodates massive vessels which pay up to $500,000 for a single transit. Stroll through the exhibition halls which narrate the history of the canal’s construction. Continue with a drive through the former Panama Canal Zone, and along the Causeway, a pleasant ocean-side boulevard where you stop at the striking Biodiversity Museum to learn how Panama has been a land bridge for wildlife between Central and South America.

Continue to the historic centre of Panama City for a walking tour of Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Presidential Palace and many magnificent civic buildings reflecting the city’s piratical history and rich heritage. From the top of the old city walls you can gaze over the Pacific Ocean, speckled with small fishing boats. There's a magnificent vista of the sky-scraper-pocked skyline of the modern business zone.   

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casco viejo PTY

Day 3

Collect your hire car and drive to El Valle de Anton.
 
el valle panama

You will be collected from your hotel and escorted to the agency to collect your car. Drive away  on the Panamerican Highway, which runs north to south from  Alaska across Latin America  to end on the southernmost tip of Argentina. The Panamerican here is intially a US-style  highway with billboards, fast food restaurants and shopping malls. But as you drive on away from the urban area there is less traffic  and you enter cattle country, with pastures framed by dry tropical forest. At a point 100km out of Panama City turn north to the highland town El Valle.

This is a scenic road – winding as it climbs through the hills, the landscape is greener, mango trees flourish,  there are stalls selling craftwork and wooden painted houses with neat colourful gardens overwhelmed with bouganvillea.  The road climbs 600m (the vegetation changes to pine trees in the cooler air) to the pleasant  little resort which is well set up to receive visitors with restaurants and hotels. There’s a covered market bursting with fruit, a church and a pleasant high street.

This afternoon and tomorrow morning you have time to explore. The surrounding scenery is delightful and there are marked trails and  a couple of pretty forest-shrouded waterfalls you can walk or drive to.

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el valle panama

Day 4

Drive from El Valle to Chitre on the Azuero Peninsula.
 
panama self drive

Drive back down to rejoin the highway to Chitre. You may be tempted to have a look at one or two of the beaches on the undeveloped coastline parallel to the road. One of the most attractive is Santa Clara, with soft white sand and a beach café. The coast here is low key, with thatched huts and the odd bar,  but then you come a cross a massive tower  block of condominiums,  just sitting on its own..then a few more dotted along the coast further down.

Turn off the Panamerican southeast to Chitre.  This is the cultural and historic capital of the region, with a small historic centre featuring a large whitewashed church and a few streets of painted one-storey, red-tiled colonial-style houses and shops. The small but very interesting Chitre Herrera Museum tells the history of the Azuero peninsula and its cultural traditions.

It’s worth a stop en route at Parita, a typical small, extrememly sleepy  Spanish-colonial town only 7km from Chitre featuring a white church in a huge grassy park.  There’s no bar or shop but it’s a pretty place to wander around for half an hour or so.

For those of you interested in local culture, in the afternoon you have a shared excursion to visit the workshop of a famous papier-mache devil’s mask artist. This would be a hit with children, and adults will marvel at the skill involves in the intricate creation of these masks. You can make your own mask, and take it home with you.

There are other side trips you may consider in the afternoon or following morning. Parque Nacional Sarigua is close to Parita – this is a desert of Man’s own making, following drastic deforestation.  The  rustic fishing village Playa Agallito on the mangrove-fringed coast has a very remote feel . It is of interest to bird watchers as large numbers of species such as egrets sometimes congregate in the lagoons on the land side of the beach.

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panama self drive

Day 5

Drive from Chitre to Playa Venao via Pese and Pedasi
 
playa venao

A detour east inland to Pese is recommended: it’s another pretty colonial town (there is an attractive church and a festival in mid March) which is famous for its rum distillery (tours available if you book in advance) and you will discover the scenery of the interior of the Azuero peninsula. This road passes through rolling hills and farmland, and is lined with stalls selling water melons. There are small villages of one storey houses with flowery gardens.

From Pese drive back towards Chitre and stop off in Los Santos which has a lovely refurbished main square, the Plaza Bolivar, and continue south to Pedasi through cattle country. Pedasi is a small town with restaurants a colonial square in the centre. The town is US ex-pat hangout, frequented by retired Americans whose life-focus is fishing.  Drive on to Playa Venao on a road fringed by sugar cane plantations.

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playa venao

Day 6

At leisure in Playa Venao.
 
playa venao

Playa Venao is a dark gold, cresent-shaped beach famed for its excellent surf. It’s pretty wild at either end, in the middle much of the shoreline  is occupied by surfer-style  guest houses and it is speckled with driftwood. The beach is visited by huge turtles who come to lay their eggs in foliage behind the sand. The hinterland is being built up with low key, low rise and quite attractive condominiums. These are still under construction, but the building work should not downgrade your experience. It’s is now a hybrid place, hosting a mixed bag of young backpackers, surfers and adventure seekers, and retired Americans. You’ll find a boutique,  Middle eastern restaurants, bars and cafés.

You could easily spend the day enjoying the hotel’s facilities, especially its lovely infinity pool and the flowery, well groomed  gardens. However, more active adventures day can be booked locally. There are tours to the nature reserve Isla Iguana, expeditions to Cana Reserve in the turtle watching season, whale watching tours, sports fishing tours, horse-riding, cycling, canopy zip-line, surf lessons, yoga and massages.

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playa venao

Day 7

Drive from Playa Venao to Boca Chica via Sona and Puerto Vidal.
 
boca chica

This is a long day of driving, but rewarding for its variety and photogenic views. The paved road follows the coast and climbs up through hills supporting tropical dry forest and cattle farms, lined by hamlets. Cowboys on horseback trot by. Tonosi is a pleasant little town with a couple of good cafés, pharmacies, petrol stations, general stores and stalls selling flowers and hammocks. Continue up back to the Panamerican highway via Macaracas and  Ocu to join the highway east of Santiago. The road is embellished with blossoming trees but no facilities – only cowboys, mango and banana trees.  Having rejoined the Panamerican turn off it again about 10km west of Santiago  in the direction of Pena and Sona.

Then at El Maria take a left to join a beautiful paved road wedged between the highlands and a marshy coastal plain, passing through small rural communities. It’s a most attractive route on a good quality road with little traffic: there’s a remote feel and views over  rugged hills. The road descends towards the coast, the foliage becoming greener, at sea level passing over a wildly beautiful  swampy wetland with a series of bridges. There’s a pergola viewpoint with exquisite views over the bays and uninhabited beaches of the coast.

It’s unlikely you will see any other tourists on this part of the route. Rejoin the Panamerican Highway  Guabala and continue to the turn off at Horconcitos from where it is a short drive to Boca Chica, a rural village on the Pacific coast with a church and a couple of shops. There's a jetty where boats depart for the offshore islands and sport fishing trips.

You’ll park in a private space beside the church and walk down to the dock where the ferry should be waiting to carry you on the short crossing to the lodge on Boca Brava island.

It is possible to drive between Playa Venao and Boca Chica via the most direct route following the Panamerican Highway, though the scenery is less interesting and the roadside punctuated by billboards.

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boca chica

Day 8

At leisure on Boca Brava Island.
 
cala mia

The delightful resort Cala Mia is a wonderful place to spend a couple of days relaxing. It has its own sheltered beach, where you can swim, kayak, borrow a stand-up paddle or enjoy a cool beer or home-made pizza at the beach bar. You may recline beside the small pool, where there are ocean views from the loungers, or stroll through the flower-strewn gardens in search of exotic birds.  Other activities you can book include boat trips, fishing expeditions, snorkelling off sparkling  whitesand islands, guided countryside walks  across private farms on the island and horse-riding. Whale watching tours may be available in season (Jul-Oct).

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cala mia

Day 9

Further opportunities to explore Boca Brava.
 
cala mia

Another full day to enjoy the lodge's facilities or venture out onto the Ocean, its palm-fringed islands or venture inland on Boca Brava.  

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cala mia

Day 10

Drive from Boca Chica to Boquete via Cerro Punta.
 
cerro punta

You can drive straight from Boca Chica to Boquete, via David, in less than 2 hours if you want to maximise your time in Boquete. However if you are interested in exploring, the diversion round the west side of Barú volcano to the highest town (2,000m) in Panama, Cerro Punta, is well worth it for the scenery and cultural interest. Drive through the town Volcán, a tourist destination with many shops, crafts and restaurants. As the road climbs the scenerey becomes increasingly Alpine and lush, with uninterrupted views of the volcano Barú. Turn off to Cerro Punta in Volcán.

The vegetation at these cooler altitudes is dominated by pine trees with many stalls selling flowers. This is the fruit and vegetable cultivation capital of Panama, with strawberries the main crop. Cerro Punta is a market town with a few hotels and restaurants.

After lunch drive back down to the junction with Ruta 103, a gorgeous, newly paved, little used road following the contours of the southern skirts of the volcano. The vegetation is lush, the road undulating, crossing many streams, then flattening out and fringed by sugar cane plantations and cattle farms.  Rejoin the main road north to Boquete. The road has a few shops in one-horse villages featuring low alpine style houses with red roofs. 

You might have a look round Boquete, with its shops, restaurants, adventure tour companies,  money exchanges  and a flowery central square. The town is backed by high cloud-forested mountains: drive up into them for a further 12km to Finca Lérida.

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cerro punta

Day 11

At leisure in the Boquete area.
 
boquete flower feria

The setting of your accommodation, Finca Lérida, is exceptional, embracing coffee plantations and cloud forest and featuring several self-guided walking trails. The lodge is set up to receive both wildlife and activity lovers as well as families. To supplement your  shared excursion to the Hanging Bridges further up the cloud-forest cloaked mountainside, you might opt for the zipline adventure which takes you on a 12 stage whizz  even higher above the forest. If this is a bit too exciting for you, you may opt for a more sedate tour of the organic tea plantation – the only tea cultivation in Panama. These are both operated by the same company at the same location.

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boquete flower feria

Day 12

Drive from Boquete to David, drop off car. Fly back to Panama City.
 
panama self drive

In the morning you may consider a visit to a unique apiary and organic honey producing farm.  On your guided tour you are introduced  to the life cycle of the bees, visit their hives, stroll through the coffee plantation and finish your walk at a butterfly house. Finally you will be treated to a honey tasting. You can buy any of 20 varieties of honey, while artisan jewellery made by local indians is also on sale.

From Finca Lerida it’s a short drive to David, Panama’s second city. You could drive straight to the airport to drop off your car, or divert into the city centre. David is a modern city, without any outstanding tourist attractions which means your presence may well be a novelty among the friendly inhabitants.  You can park close to the main square, where local people shelter under trees  from the heat and feed the resident iguanas.

It is easy to find the National Car Hire Agency at the airport. Drop off the car and cross the road to the new airport terminal building for your flight back to Panama City. Upon arrival at Albrook airort you will be met by our representative and escorted to Gamboa Resort close to the rainforest of Soberania National Park.

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panama self drive

Day 13

Guided boat tour on Gatún lake; transfer to the airport for your international flight.
 
gamboa

Board an expedition boat at Gamboa Resort's marina for an adventure on Lake Gatún which, at the time of its creation in 1914, was the largest man-made lake in the world. A naturalist guide is on hand to help identify the wildlife - among which are three-toed sloths, crocodiles, ospreys, snail kites and keel-billed toucans. Getting up close to the foliage as it meets the waterline there is a good chance of seeing white faced capuchins, mantled howler monkeys and spider monkeys. A picnic lunch is taken on the boat. You'll be able to watch, almost within touching distance it seems, mighty Panamax freighters glide past, towering above the jungle canopy.

Transfer to the international airport for your flight.

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gamboa

Essential information

Transport

9 days car hire, Toyota Yaris Advance or similar. 1 domestic flight (1hr), 2 short motor launch transfers (20 mins each).

Accommodation

This trip combines friendly mid-range hotels with good facilities, amenities and well-equipped rooms; a coffee estate  and superior small beach hotels. Accommodation throughout Panama is of a high standard.

Meals

Breakfast daily.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 30 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included excursions

  • Panama Canal at Miraflores lock..
  • Guided walking tour of old Panama City.
  • Devils' mask workshop, Chitre.
  • Hanging bridges adventure in Boquete.
  • Gatun Lake rainforest boat adventure.

Summary of nights

13 days, 12 nights: Panama City 2, El Valle 1, Chitre 1, Playa Venao 2, Boca Brava island 3, Boquete area 2, Gamboa Rainforest Reserve 1.

Included in the journey price

  • Services of our team of experts in our London office.
  • Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
  • All land and air transport.
  • Self-drive hire car with full damage waiver insurance
  • Accommodation as specified.
  • Meals as specified.
  • Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

  • Tips and gratuities.
  • Meals other than specified.
  • Roadside assistance for car hire -can be purchased at rental agency desk.
  • Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket.
  • Optional excursions.

Currency

The unit of currency in Panama the US dollar known locally as the balboa.

Daily spend

It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$50 per day should cover the cost of meals not included in the holiday itinerary, drinks and the odd souvenir. Eat at the best restaurants and you will pay considerably more. Optional excursions may add another $50-$250 per person to the overall price.

How to take it

The national currency in Panama is at parity with the US dollar, and only US banknotes are used (there are some local coins equivalent to US cents. There are ATMs in most towns where you can use a UK credit or debit card. You may have to ask your bank to authorise withdrawals before you leave the UK and amounts may be limited, and vary from bank to bank. Notes can be obtained from exchange houses and also from banks which will supply and advance on credit or debit card. We also  recommend you take a supply of clean dollar bills.

Tipping

Tips are welcomed and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income.

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants.

Tipping guidelines can be found in our briefing dossier.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Details of our recommend policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page.
 
For the car, total Damage Waiver (LDW - zero excess) is included for your car rental. Roadside assistance charges are not covered but you can buy this insurance at the hire car agency desk for around $US3.00 per day. Please let us if you are wanting to increase the Liability Insurance cover.  

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

Generally this holiday is suitable for all able, reasonably fit visitors, including families with children.

Climate

The trip covers climates ranging from tropical lowland to more temperate zones in the highlands. Those travelling between May and October journeys should encounter high temperatures (around 35°C) and high humidity in the lowlands. The ‘official’ rainy (green) season is May to November. December to April visitors will still encounter high temperatures in lowland areas, but cool evenings around Boquete with temperatures falling to around 5°C. Rainfall and humidity will be much lower at this time.

Clothing and special equipment

Bring plenty of light cotton clothing and good, comfortable walking shoes.  A waterproof jacket and/or umbrella is also advisable. We suggest that you plan to ‘layer’ your clothing; it is easier and more efficient to put on a couple of light layers than one thick jumper, and sensible to have long sleeves for areas where mosquitos may be lurking. Sandals are a good informal option for evenings. Protection against the sun (sunblock, sun hat) and mosquito repellent are essential and you should bring swimwear. A daypack is useful for carrying around sunblock, guidebook, water and any extra layers.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following; typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. For specific requirements you must consult your GP. You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel health website.

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins.  Visitors with different nationality should refer to our Briefing Dossier and check with the Panamanian consulate.

Passports must also be digital e-passports with an embedded chip. Avoid locking suitcases if transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - if flying to, or via, the USA, you will need to fill in your application to ESTA online. This costs $14 per person, and must be applied for by you personally.
APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

Water-To-Go

We’ve partnered with Water To Go to offer Journey Latin America clients a 50% discount on 7cl filtered, reusable water bottles with every booking. The bottle can be refilled at any water outlet and has a filter that eliminates 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, allowing the water to be safe to drink.
Contact your Travel Consultant for more information and to include the purchase in your booking.
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