Country Number 7 on our Overland Central America expedition. Check out our entire route here
We lost a bit of steam in Panama so our review is probably not the same as someone who just flew into the country. As soon as you cross the border from Costa Rica, we instantly noticed a change in scenery (as it's mountainous in the Chiriqui area) and it went back to a Spanish speaking country. Many locals have basic English though. There's an obvious issue with waste disposal here too, with trash piled high and thrown into gutters in the street, again a contrast from clean cut Costa Rica.
Besides the above, we enjoyed Panama, with a definite highlight being the San Blas islands and Panama City. We spent 9 days on Panama mainland and then 5 days island hopping to Colombia, which is probably a decent enough time to spend here (although we could have enjoyed island life for months). Panama reminds us of an extension of Costa Rica, with more culture. It has the same activities (but not as many in quantity) and similar sights on offer, but it isn't as well structured for tourists as Costa Rica. Because we'd already done a lot of things on offer in other Central America countries, Panama never 'wowed' us, but it has world class surfing, diving and white-water rafting, plus probably the coolest city we have been to in the whole of Central America.
We'd still recommend it as a country to visit, but if we had our time again, we'd have spent it differently eg Isla de Coiba and surfing in Santa Catalina instead of Playa Las Lajas and El Valle, but it all depends on what you're after personally. I don't doubt that Panama has lots of hidden gems not yet explored. If we had longer, we'd have probably gone venturing around the Darien Gap, but that has issues all of its own. We think a 14 day trip, including the San Blas is a decent enough time here to see the highlights the country has to offer.
San Blas - one of the highlights of our whole trip. Absolutely beautiful and a must-do in this area. Shame the boat/crew we had were absolute d***ks.
Deep boarding around the Caye Zapatilla in the Bocas.
Boquete coffee tour.
Malena turtle conservation work.
Panama City - our first cosmopolitan city for 4 months and we loved it. Loads to do around the city too.
The beaches - there's some gorgeous beaches along the Pacific coast, where it's fairly easy to find miles of white pristine sand all to yourself.
Cheap for electronics.
Bocas island town - we'd recommend to stay on another island.
Tourist stuff is really inflated.
El Valle - wish we had gone somewhere else to spend our time. It's not worth the 2 hour round trip from the highway.
The slums and sketchy areas of Panama City eg around the historical district.