From city jungles to steamy rainforests, thundering waterfalls to mist-covered cloud forests, in Panama you’re never far from a wild hiking adventure and the chance to get up close to some fascinating flora and fauna.
Whether you want an easy day hike or an epic jungle expedition, you'll find a trail to suit your fitness level. Wear sturdy boots and pack light, but remember to take plenty of water – you’ll often be hiking in high temperatures and even higher humidity. Use a local guide for the more challenging hikes, especially during the rainy season.
Here’s our guide to the best hikes in Panama.
For city hiking, head to Parque Natural Metropolitano, Panama City
5km (3 miles), around 4 hours, easy to moderate, entry fee USD$5
There are manicured city parks, and then there’s the Metropolitan Natural Park in Panama City. For a jungle escape without leaving the urban jungle, this sprawling 265-hectare (573 acres) protected space is home to an astonishing 45 mammal species, 250 bird, reptile, and amphibian species and 280 types of trees.
There are five well-marked trails (the visitor’s center has maps) ranging from easy to moderate. Along the way, you might spot sloths, raccoon-like coatis, and chattering titi monkeys, as well as a host of smaller critters among the tropical foliage.
For stellar views over the city skyscrapers, head up to the Cerro Cedro viewpoint – the park's highest point at 150m (500ft), reached via the Camino del Mono Titi or the Sendero La Cienaguita.
Embark on a multi-day adventure at El Camino Real
45km (28 miles), 4 days/3 nights, difficult
Long before the canal, the colonial-era Royal Road provided a shortcut across the isthmus, from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Piles of gold, silver and precious gems plundered from the Incas were transported by mule train along the narrow, cobblestone road and shipped to Spain.
It was a favorite stomping ground for swashbuckling pirates, but by the late 1700s, it lay abandoned and was soon swallowed up by the jungle.
This hardcore three-day hike will take you from coast to coast, from Panamà Viejo to Portobelo via dense rainforest that throbs with life. Expect to get wet, as you crisscross fast-flowing rivers, scramble over mossy rocks, slog through mud and clamber up vertiginous slopes. Then sleep in a hammock among the rustle and hum of the jungle.
Rick Morales, a highly experienced naturalist guide and founder of Jungle Treks, developed the Camino Real trail and leads top-notch expeditions with a minimum of four travelers; book well in advance.
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See the sunrise at La India Dormida, El Valle de Antón
3.6km (2.2 miles), around 2 hours, moderate, entry $3
The trail up La India Dormida – the peak resembles the outline of a sleeping woman – starts at La Piedra Pintada, a boulder adorned with ancient petroglyphs, a 15-minute walk from the center of El Valle.
The trail to the summit is steep, but easy enough to follow, even at night. It takes around 45 minutes to get to the top, but give yourself extra time to enjoy the light show. And pack a thin jacket – it can get breezy up there.
After taking in the showstopping sunrise, hike along the vertigo-inducing, crater-edge path for views over the valley and, on a clear day, the sparkling Pacific.
If you do the trail as a loop, descend the ridgeline to arrive at the main road that will take you back into town. Or do it as an out-and-back, and cool off in the glorious waterfalls that you missed on the way up.
A two-hour drive from Panama City, El Valle is a popular weekend destination for city dwellers, so go during the week to avoid the crowds.
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Hike through the clouds at Sendero El Pianista, Boquete
8km (5 miles), around 4 hours, moderate, entry $3
This out-and-back trail to the clouds starts just 4km (2.5 miles) from the mountain town of Boquete, a favorite with outdoor enthusiasts and coffee lovers. The often muddy trail starts at Il Pianista restaurant; it’s unmarked, so download a map before you go.
After crossing open pasture, the trail winds steadily upwards for 3km (2 miles) through the otherworldly cloud forest, where mist weaves between lofty trees, branches are festooned with vines and luxuriant ferns threaten to overtake the trail. If the summit is cloud-free, you’ll get spectacular views over Boquete.
The trail came to global attention in 2014 when two Dutch students disappeared during a hike – a memorial to Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon marks the top.
Don’t be tempted to go off the trail or undertake it alone, the terrain here can be treacherous, especially after it’s rained; use a guide.
For birdwatching at any fitness level, head to Pipeline Road, Parque Nacional Soberanía
7km (4.3 miles), about 2 hours, easy, $5 entry
More than 400 species of birds have been spotted along Pipeline Road in Soberanía National Park. Beloved by birdwatchers – especially at daybreak – the trail offers the possibility of seeing everything from bashful trogons to noisy toucans.
And it’s not just about birds, with howler monkeys, agoutis and sloths among the mammals roaming the forest. Around 45 minutes west of Panama City, this out-and-back trail is fairly flat and undemanding – especially the first 7km (4.3 miles) – making it perfect for children.
For a bird’s-eye view of the canopy, head to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center (Tue-Sun, $30), 2km (1.2 miles) from the trail entrance, and climb the 32m/105ft-high observation tower.
Both the pipeline (which was never used) and the dirt track were built by US soldiers during WWII to transport oil across the isthmus in case the canal stopped operating.
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For a challenging day hike, try Sendero Los Quetzales, Parque Nacional Volcán Barú
8km (4.3 miles), about 4-6 hours, moderate to difficult, $5 entry
Named after the elusive national bird of Guatemala, one of the country’s most beautiful day hikes runs between Boquete and Cerro Punta, crisscrossing the Caldera River and winding through an enchanted cloud forest, reaching the lofty heights of 2,500m (8,200ft) above sea level.
There are several ways to tackle it. If you start from Cerro Punta, the trail is mostly downhill, while setting off from Boquete involves a Stairmaster-style workout. Another option from Boquete is to hike to the halfway point just beyond the stairs, pick a perch at Mirador Las Rocas for a picnic with a view, then head back the way you came.
The aptly named resplendent quetzal, with its striking green and red plumage, prefers higher altitudes and hangs out at the top of the tree canopy, so don’t forget to look up. And go early for the best chance of spotting them.
You can make the journey to and from the trailheads by taxi or colectivo (mini-bus); hiking it on foot will add on another couple of hours and make the trail around 23km (14 miles) in total.
Chase waterfalls at The Lost Waterfalls Trail, Boquete
3.4km (2.1 miles), about 1.5 hours, moderate to difficult, entry $7
Searching for the not-so-lost waterfalls is one of Boquete’s most popular hikes. This well-signposted out-and-back trail can be steep and slippery, but you’ll be immersed in the evergreen jungle, with its lofty trees, outsized leaves and dripping vines scattered with brightly colored tropical blooms.
Also known as Las Tres Cascadas, the first of three waterfalls is the highest and endlessly photogenic – some hikers leave this until last. There’s no swimming allowed, but you can take it all in from a precarious viewing platform.
There’s more climbing to reach the second waterfall, a simple but powerful cascade that pours off the edge of the cliff into a small, rock-strewn pool. Waterfall three is the most difficult to reach, but arguably the most stunning, and there are ropes to help you.