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Explorer’s Journal: Travel through Panama with Destination Expert Julia

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Travel with Destination Expert, Julia Steck on a virtual adventure to Panama City and Bocas del Toro in the Caribbean. Follow along this Explorer’s Journal as she explores the ins and outs of Panama, tasting the authentic Panamanian cuisine, embracing ancient healing rituals from all around the world, and swimming with starfish!

Hola from Panama! I’m Julia, a Destination Expert with SA Expeditions, and I recently visited Panama for the first time. Join me for the next few days as I explore Panama City and Bocas del Toro in the Caribbean.

Off to Panama!

Boarding flight to Panama
Taking off to Panama City (Photo: Julia Steck)

There are direct flights into Panama City from most major airports in North and South America, making it an easy place to extend a layover or add-on a visit to an existing expedition. In Panama City I stayed at the American Trade Hotel, located in the heart of Casco Viejo. The hotel is a restored 1917 building, formerly the American Trade Developing Company, and its décor and art reflect the cultural crossroads of the Americas.

Fondo Lo Que Hay restaurant in Panama City and flan
Popular Latin American restaurant, Fondo Lo Que Hay (Photo: Julia Steck)

On my first night I met up with a mutual friend and food journalist for dinner at a popular restaurant in Casco Viejo, Fondo Lo Que Hay, recently on the World’s 50 Best list for Latin America. The food was delicious and atmosphere lively — a must for anyone visiting Panama City’s Old Town.

The heart of Panama City

Ship passing through the Panama Canal
A ship passing through the Panama Canal (Photo: Julia Steck)

Today we went to the Agua Clara Locks to see the Panama Canal. Here you have panoramic views of the Canal, starting from Gatun Lake and through all three chambers of the Agua Clara Locks. We were lucky enough to see a ship pass through the locks, and at the visitor center there is a running commentary with fun facts about the canal and the locks. These locks use gravity-fed water to raise and lower ships as they traverse between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, allowing vessels to cross from one side of the continent to the other. Each lock chamber is massive, and it's fascinating to see them in action, especially when large ships pass through. This truly demonstrates the incredible feat of human ingenuity and construction!

Panama City Chinatown and Amarla Boutique Hotel
Panama City’s Chinatown and Amarla Boutique Hotel (Photo: Julia Steck)

In the afternoon we took a food tour, visiting a bakery in Panama City’s vibrant Chinatown, a Mediterranean café, and a speakeasy tucked behind a barber shop. We even got to see live music from a well-known Panamanian musician, Carlos Mendez, when popping into the Amarla boutique hotel for a drink.

A relaxing day in the Caribbean

Coralina Island House balcony at sunset and room in Panama City
The Coralina Island House was gorgeous! (Photo: Julia Steck)

And we’re off to Bocas del Toro! It’s a short flight one-hour from the Panama City domestic airport to this Caribbean beach destination. We checked in to the Coralina Island House, a brand-new, oceanfront, boutique hotel located on a premier surf break. The sprawling property features lush landscaping and Bali-inspired architecture, along with impressive wellness offerings and spa area that includes a yoga deck, pool, jacuzzi, and sauna.

Large paella lunch at Paunch Beach in Bocas del Toro, Panama
A magnificent paella lunch by Chef Rodrigo at Paunch Beach! (Photo: Julia Steck)

After checking in to our ocean view villas, we headed to the hotel’s beach club at Paunch Beach for a paella lunch prepared by Chef Rodrigo. The beach club is open to the public and a perfect place to watch the surfers. Afterwards, we headed out on an afternoon ATV ride to Bluff beach. We ended the day at the spa area, where we joined a sound bath and guided meditation at La Coralina Island Spa, which embraces ancient healing rituals from all around the world.

Sunset cruise and swimming with starfish

I highly recommend the sunset cruise to Starfish Beach. (Photo: Julia Steck)

There’s so much to explore in Bocas del Toro, especially on the water. After a morning yoga class and breakfast, we took a boat trip to Zapatilla Cay & Isla Pajaros for some snorkeling. We were even escorted by a playful pod of dolphins!

Coralina Island House provides access to two separate boats: a Boston Whaler and 116-foot sailboat, which we took out that afternoon for a visit to Starfish Beach and sunset cruise. Starfish Beach really lived up to its name with an endless stretch of beach dotted with starfish of all sizes. You can hop off the boat to swim with the starfish in shallow water and grab a drink at one of the rustic beach bars. Guests of the Coralina Island House can book both boats for either a shared or private excursion.

After a final morning yoga class, we headed back to the Bocas del Toro airport, stopping at a few boutique shops in town on the way.

Paunch Beach at Bocas del Toro, Panama
Paunch Beach (Photo: Julia Steck)

Inspired to take a trip to Panama? Julia and our other Destination Experts would love to help you embark on this adventure! Take on a Panama Expedition like this one, or take a look at other ways you can experience Central America. Whichever Panama tour you take, it’ll surely be a memorable one.

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