Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama

Post originally Published December 4, 2023 || Last Updated December 6, 2023

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Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Wind Through the Mountains on the Pan-American Highway

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama

As one of the world's longest roads, the Pan-American Highway stretches nearly 30,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. While sections vary from modern highways to gravel roads, some of the most scenic driving is found along the winding mountain roads of Panama.

Stretching across the country from Costa Rica to Colombia, the Pan-American Highway crosses the rugged mountains and rainforests of western Panama. Leaving the coast, the road begins its ascent into the Cordillera Central range. Cloud forests give way to misty mountain views as you climb higher, with steep cliffs and valleys dropping away on either side.

The highest point along the highway reaches a lung-busting 11,400 feet at the pass near Cerro Punta. Be prepared for dizzying drops and tight switchbacks as you navigate this high-altitude route. On a clear day, stops at scenic overlooks provide views of the surrounding peaks marching off into the distance.

As you descend, the landscape changes yet again to reveal rolling green hills dotted with farms and cattle ranches. Pass through sleepy mountain villages where life moves at a relaxed pace. Local restaurants serve up hearty plates of rice, beans, and freshly grilled beef.

While the journey may be slow due to the twists and turns, embrace this chance to soak in rural Panamanian life. Chat with vendors at roadside fruit stands or stop to photograph a farmer herding his flock across the road.

Just be sure to keep your eyes peeled for passing trucks barreling around blind curves. Sections of the road boast little to no shoulder, with guardrails few and far between. Pay attention to road signs indicating dangerous curves, steep grades, and rockfalls.

Still, the rewards are abundant for those willing to take it slow and savor the sights. As you descend from the mountains, stop to admire imposing volcano peaks in the distance. Give thanks for your trusty rental car as you pass bicyclists straining up the long inclines.

What else is in this post?

  1. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Wind Through the Mountains on the Pan-American Highway
  2. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Marvel at the Miraflores Locks Along the Panama Canal
  3. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Discover Wildlife in Soberania National Par
  4. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Off-Road Adventure to Boca Brava Island
  5. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Journey to the San Blas Islands Archipelago
  6. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Take the Coastal Route to Punta Chame
  7. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Pass Through the Cloud Forest in Chiriqui Highlands
  8. Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Explore the Fortress Ruins in Portobelo

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Marvel at the Miraflores Locks Along the Panama Canal

As part of any road trip through Panama, a visit to the Miraflores Locks offers a front-row view into the mechanics of the Panama Canal. Situated on the Pacific side near Panama City, the Miraflores Visitor Center provides an up-close look at ships transiting the locks. Gaze in awe as massive container vessels and cruise liners navigate this engineering marvel linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Arrive in time to watch one of the daily lockages, an intricate ballet of tugs and line handlers guiding ships through the watery staircase. Marvel as the locks raise or lower vessels 85 feet between sea level and Gatun Lake. Learn how a series of three chambers function as water elevators, using gravity and hydraulic gates rather than pumps.

Standing on the observation deck places you practically underneath the passing ships. Feel the rumble as powerful locomotives pull them through the tight chambers. Watch the swift coordination of helm orders and ropes as vessels align perfectly within just a few feet of space. The magnitude of the locks becomes clear when standing beside the sheer concrete walls rising four stories high.
Before or after a lockage, explore the five-story Miraflores Visitor Center. Interactive exhibits detail how the 77 kilometer canal was constructed through dense jungle over 10 years by American engineers and West Indian laborers. Gaze at relics like lanterns, dynamite crates, and original blueprints. Marvel at just how much hand-digging went into carving this massive trench across an isthmus.

Kids and adults alike will enjoy the scale model highlighting canal features and the film showcasing vintage clips and photos. The wraparound balconies offer more glimpses of ship traffic and the surrounding rainforest. Stop for a bite at the cafeteria featuring local fare like ceviche, sancocho stew, and tropical fruits. Don’t miss the gift shop for Panama Canal souvenirs.
Beyond the locks, you can walkalong a 1.5 mile nature trail granting a view across Gamboa Ridge. This provides a contrasting perspective to see the waterway slicing through lush jungle. Keep eyes peeled for monkeys, sloths, toucans and other wildlife.

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Discover Wildlife in Soberania National Par

Nestled in the lush lowlands along the Panama Canal, Soberania National Park protects some of the most critical habitat in the entire country. Its 195 square kilometers safeguard a vital linkage in the biological corridor connecting North and South America. This diversity makes Soberania a top destination to discover Panama’s incredible wildlife.

With elevations ranging from sea level to nearly 1,000 feet, the park contains no less than 9 different habitats. Visitors can explore mangrove swamps, evergreen forests, marshlands, scrub, and both primary and secondary rainforest. This variety supports over 500 species of birds, 105 mammals, 55 amphibians and reptiles, and countless insects. Even spending just a few hours hiking the trails provides opportunities to spot sloths, howler monkeys, anteaters, river otters, and over 100 types of butterflies.
One of the best places to begin your wildlife watching is along Pipeline Road. Originally cut as an access route during canal construction, this wide gravel track provides easy walking and excellent visibility. Scan the upper story of the forest for flashes of color indicating toucans, trogons, tanagers, and parrots. Listen for the hoots of crested owls and the chattering of geoffroy’s tamarin families. With some luck and a good eye, you may even catch sight of an elusive jaguarundi stalking prey.

Venture down side trails leading off Pipeline Road to escape the handful of cars and find more secluded wildlife viewing. Many hikers recommend the Camino de Oleoducto (Oil Pipeline Road) trail. Only wide enough for foot traffic, it leads through dense secondary growth forest. Spider monkeys swing through the upper branches while agoutis rustle in the leaves below. Pause at wooden bird blinds offering stationary vantage points.
Heading deeper into the rainforest interior, pay attention for wildlife clues like tracks, scratch marks, and scat. Listen for the shrill warning cries of monkeys or the piercing call of the keel-billed toucan. Tread softly and move slowly to increase your chances of spotting reclusive mammals like the endangered Central American tapir or the adorable pygmy sloth. With some stealth and luck, you may even catch a strolling jaguar or ornately patterned ocelot.
Don’t forget to glance down occasionally - colorful poison dart frogs and tiny red-eyed tree frogs abound. Scan sunny patches and fallen logs for lounging iguanas, basilisk lizards, and snakes. Soberania’s variety of habitats mean new surprises await around every bend. As one avid birder put it, “I can spend 6 hours hiking here without repeating the same trail twice.”

While independent exploration is rewarding, many visitors recommend hiring one of the park’s certified naturalist guides. Their expert eyes help locate and identify more elusive residents. Passionate about conservation, they happily share stories spotlighting the value of protecting places like Soberania. Your entrance fee helps safeguard this pocket of precious biodiversity.

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Off-Road Adventure to Boca Brava Island

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama

Just a short drive from Panama City, Boca Brava Island offers the perfect off-road adventure. Accessible only by boat or rugged dirt trails, this wild retreat transports you far from the mainstream tourist track. Spend a day bumping along backroads through tiny fishing villages, crossing river fords, and enjoying empty beaches.

Boca Brava sits just offshore in the Gulf of Panama, part of the Pearl Island chain. Unlike contiki-style Contadora Island next door, Boca Brava has resisted major development. The population remains under 100 residents. They live in simple homes without running water or electricity.

Visitors can experience this untouched slice of island life via a DIY road trip. Don’t expect smooth pavement though. The journey traverses 40 miles of muddy, rocky roads better suited for ATVs or 4x4s. Be prepared to grind through axle-deep potholes and gullies gouged by seasonal floods. Thankfully the scenic rewards outweigh the bumpy ride.

Begin by crossing the Puente de las Americas bridge from Panama City to the mainland town of La Chorrera. Stop to inflate tires for increased traction before continuing towards Capira along the InterAmericana highway. Just past the San Juan river bridge, turn onto gravel roads heading northwest through cattle pastures. Get a feel for your vehicle bouncing through the many dips and washed out sections.

Pass through tiny villages where residents stare curiously or wave in welcome. Ask locals for directions at Y-intersections to stay on track towards Boca Brava. The landscape gradually changes from farmland to mangrove swamps. Catch glimpses of egrets and other shorebirds stalking the shallows.

After about an hour, you’ll reach the ramshackle village of El Palmar. Chat with fishermen prepping their boats or vendors selling fresh catch. This is your last chance to air up tires and engage 4 wheel drive before things get tougher.

North of town, the road transitions to a slim sandy track weaving between the mangroves. Sections flood at high tide, leaving just one narrow lane on higher ground. Hug the vegetation to avoid getting stuck. The maze of trails requires stopping periodically to study your route. Luckily you can’t get too lost out here.
Just when it seems the ruts can’t possibly get any deeper, you emerge at Saboga island. A handwritten ferry sign marks the launch point across the channel to Boca Brava. Negotiate a ride with one of the waiting boats. The10 minute crossing may share space with supplies, livestock, and locals.

Landing on Boca Brava’s rocky shore, you’ll pinpoint just how remote it feels. The only vehicles in sight are a few ATVs and decaying trucks. Walk the island’s perimeter and marvel at having the stunning beaches entirely to yourself. Wave back to local children skipping stones in the surf.

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Journey to the San Blas Islands Archipelago

Comprising over 365 islands, the San Blas archipelago remains one of Panama’s most alluring bucket list adventures. This Caribbean paradise transports you into a world of swaying palms, tropical breezes, and waters every shade of blue. The indigenous Guna people have fiercely protected their autonomy here for centuries. Visiting their picture-perfect islands offers a chance to experience a proud, living culture and appreciate why safeguarding this slice of paradise matters.

Most visitors fly into El Porvenir and stay in one of the community’s simple hotels, like Sapibenega Kuna Lodge. Arranging transport by motorboat allows you to island hop at a relaxed pace. Dozens of coral reef-fringed islets beckon, providing endless opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing. Don’t expect lavish luxury though. Aside from a handful of eco-lodges, most accommodation means sleeping in hammocks or basic huts. True highlights come from interacting with locals and absorbing the untamed natural beauty.

Waking early lets you witness the stillness before village life begins. Paddle out in a dugout canoe at dawn to fish and watch the sun crest over the turquoise horizon. Return as mothers prepare breakfast fires and father launch their boats for the day. Smile and say “aponkatu” (good morning) while respecting requests not to take photos inside family compounds.

Once the day’s heat builds, trade stories with new friends while swaying in the shade. Share a plate of fried fish and coconut rice. Attempt to master a few Guna words with the laughing children. Promenade down the beach to admire traditional “molas”, exquisite textiles hand-stitched by Guna women. Explore the nuances woven into each design, from geometric patterns to jungle animals.

As one of the last self-governing indigenous tribes in Panama, the Guna openly welcome visitors to experience their homeland. But they make clear tourism will never reshape their cultural values. Do not expect margaritas at beach bars or 4G phone service. Island amenities remain simple - life follows the rhythms of fishing, farming, and family. Honor their conservation efforts by treading lightly and leaving no trace.

Venturing out by boat allows you to find uninhabited islands and lose yourself in solitude. Pack a picnic lunch and watch hermit crabs scuttle amid swaying palms. Dive into the translucent Caribbean to encounter sea turtles, parrotfish, and octopus. Rinse off under a palm frond shower on a secluded beach. Let the whisper of lapping waves relax every care from your mind.

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Take the Coastal Route to Punta Chame

Just a 90 minute drive from Panama City, Punta Chame offers a perfect coastal escape from the hustle of urban life. This laidback beach community traces the edge of the Pacific where jungle meets sea. Driving the scenic coastal road serves up sweeping ocean vistas, off-the-beaten path attractions, and a dose of rural Panamanian culture.

Wending your way along the coast reveals a more authentic side of Panama beyond the glitz of high-rises. Turning off the Pan-American highway near Bejuco, you’ll pass alternating stretches of cattle pasture, palm groves, and mangrove swamps. Roadside stands sell juicy pineapple and mango spears, ice cold coconutos frescos, and heaps of ruby red shrimp plucked straight from the sea.

Don’t be in a hurry - you’ll share the road with ambling cows, overburdened trucks, and the occasional horseman trotting between villages. Soak in the laid back charm of places like Chame where the week’s big event might be a traveling circus. Honk and wave to schoolkids wading in their crisp uniforms. They’ll flash back gleeful smiles and excited waves, happy to engage with passing gringos.
The real jewel is the final push into Punta Chame, where jungle and ocean collide in Technicolor glory. Stop regularly to admire the postcard coastal views. Watch pelicans dive-bombing for fish while frigate birds soar overhead. Breath deep the perfume of salt air swirling with fragrant blossoms. Gaze at the jagged volcanic peaks rising inland wreathed in misty clouds.
Don't miss the detour down to Playa La Garita, locally known as the “Whale’s Tail” for its perfect half-moon curve. Wade in the bathtub-warm waters protected from Pacific swells by an outcropping of rocks. Scan the sand for colorful shells and stranded starfish. Soak up the scene from a seaside restaurant sipping ice-cold Balboa beers and fresh ceviche.
Arriving in Punta Chame, you’ll discover a tranquil escape where days revolve around fishing, surfing, and hammock-swinging. Post up in one of the funky eco-lodges nestled on the forested hillside. Wake to howler monkeys and a fiery sunset sea. Spend mornings paddling a kayak between deserted palm-fringed islands. Let the afternoon drift away snorkeling amid coral gardens swirling with angelfish, puffers, and wrasses.

As the sun dips low, gather for a beach bonfire to toast marshmallows and share travel tales. Retire by candlelight content to forego outside connections. Here unplugging is easy - just focus on counting shooting stars instead of unread emails. Let the whoosh of waves and buzz of cicadas lull you into a restful sleep.

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Pass Through the Cloud Forest in Chiriqui Highlands

Tucked into Panama’s rugged western highlands, the misty cloud forests of the Chiriqui province offer one of Central America’s most enchanting drives. Ascending into the mountains transports you into an entirely different ecosystem that feels a world away from the steamy lowlands and beaches. Ancient oak and cypress trees draped in epiphytes tower overhead while delicate orchids and bromeliads thrive in the moist, thick foliage. The unique climate resulting from the elevation fosters astonishing biodiversity, making Chiriqui a rewarding destination for nature lovers seeking both scenic vistas and exotic wildlife.

One of the most popular places to begin a cloud forest adventure is the small town of Boquete. Just a 30 minute flight from Panama City, its cool climate offers respite from the heat and hustle of the capital. From town, the serpentine road climbs 8,000 feet towards the cliffs framing Volcan Baru National Park. Stop regularly to admire the staggering valley views unfolding below – patchworks of farm fields give way to expanses of untouched emerald jungle. The winding route passes coffee fincas and tiny villages where life still revolves around harvesting the steep hillsides.

Hikers have an abundance of trails to explore in Volcan Baru, from short nature walks to multi-day treks to the summit. The famous Sendero Los Quetzales trail traverses cloud forest brimming with avian life. Search the canopy for a flash of the resplendent quetzal, an endangered technicolor bird nearing extinction throughout its former range. Listen for the strange call of the three-wattled bellbird or the low hooting of the spectacled owl.

Venture deeper down side roads to access even more pristine primary forest. Thick carpets of feathery moss muffle your footsteps while mist swirls through the branches overhead. Inhale the rich scent of decaying leaves and dark loamy soil. Check ferns and stumps for tiny poison dart frogs or the brilliant blue morpho butterfly. Clearings filled with wildflowers provide one of the best chances to spot elusive jaguars.

Don’t miss side trips to the local coffee fincas like Finca Dos Jefes and Boquete Mountain Coffee. Learn firsthand how prized beans are cultivated, harvested, and processed by passionate growers. Sip samples of the nuanced brews and gain new appreciation for the labor involved. Don’t pass up the chance to purchase directly from the source – fresh roasted Panama coffee makes for the ultimate travel souvenir.

Cruise Through Paradise: The 6 Most Scenic Road Trips in Panama - Explore the Fortress Ruins in Portobelo

Tucked away on Panama’s Caribbean coast, the sleepy town of Portobelo provides a picturesque glimpse into the country’s history as treasured prize fought over by colonial powers. Founded in 1597, its deep natural harbor made Portobelo the Caribbean port of trade between Spain and their South American colonies. Gold, silver, and other loot arrived to await convoys bound for Europe. At its peak, the area boasted formidable forts and defenses critical for protecting this prosperity. While the era of conquistadors and pirates may have passed, Portobelo’s fortress ruins offer the chance to vividly imagine those tumultuous times.

Wandering the atmospheric ruins transports you back centuries to when Portobelo stood center stage in clashes between world powers. Just 9 miles from town, Fuerte San Lorenzo perches strategically at the mouth of the Chagres River. Constructed in 1601, these walls defended the trade route against pirates and foreign navies coveting the treasure flowing through this chokepoint. Climb to the upper battery for panoramic views of the jungle-clad hills and distant sea that made this such an ideal defensive location.

In town, you can’t miss the twin fortress of Fuerte Santiago, occupying a peninsula jutting into the bay. Originally built in the 1500s, it underwent later expansions as Spain funneled more riches through Portobelo. Walk the cannon-lined bastions and gaze across the harbor toward the Caribbean Sea. Visualize the banners of Spanish galleons arriving heavy with silver after the arduous voyage from faraway Acapulco.

Just beyond Santiago sprawls the smaller but equally impressive Castillo San Felipe. Constructed after British Admiral Henry Morgan sacked and burned the town in 1671, these star-shaped fortifications provided additional protection from sea. Climb the steep stairs to the upper platforms for panoramic views. Marvel at the sheer audacity and manpower required to construct such elaborate defenses in dense jungle during the colonial era.
While Portobelo’s prominence eventually faded, the ruins serve as poignant reminders of the sacrifice required to fuel imperial ambitions. The forts stand testament to the countless slaves and prisoners who succumbed to harsh conditions during construction. Their lives were mere footnotes in Spain’s quest for wealth and domination. Visitors today have the luxury to reflect on the lessons and follies of the past.

Aimless wandering through the ruins rewards those who take time to let their imagination wander. Visualize the parade of Spanish soldiers and colonists who passed this way seeking fortune in the Americas. Conjure up memories of pirates like Henry Morgan who dared attack and plunder Portobelo’s riches. Marvel at the determination required for Spain to continually rebuild defenses critical for maintaining their stronghold in the New World.

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