If you want more adventure and culture without spending fat dollar bills everywhere you go, you’ll love Guatemala. But if it’s more R&R and sun-worshipping experiences you’re after with a prolific amount of wildlife, Panama is your city.
Needless to say, both are worth visiting and are considered hotspot destinations in Central America. While Guatemala offers that “local feel” everywhere you go, Panama feels like living life in the slow lane. In other words, it’s pretty chill in Panama, overall.
Still can’t make up your mind on which is better to spend a vacation in? Here’s a guide to help you pick a winner.
Staying in Panama feels like an endless summer vacation. But not simply because of its beaches. There’s much biodiversity to be discovered around Panama. From rainforests and mangrove wetlands to lush mountain forests.
That’s not all.
Beyond its lush landscape sits hundreds of islands just begging sunseekers to explore each one. The San Blas Archipelago is one of the most beautiful in the world, home to 100 different islands. And in Bocas del Toro, you’ll find another hundred small islets.
But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Geographically, Panama sits at a crossroads between two continents and oceans. What that means is, you can explore the Pacific in the morning and the Caribbean in the afternoon. It’s easy to hop from one experience to the other.
And did you know? The coffee grown in Panama is often referred to as the champagne of coffee. Tasting a single cup of joe in Panama is a worthwhile experience.
Beaches. Hundreds of islands. A biodiversity hub of wildlife. And excellent coffee. Panama combines dreamy R&R with adventure, offering a rich gallery of experiences for any traveler.
What Makes Panama Unique?
A Mix of Land and Water Adventures
Panama is a country blessed with landscapes and oceans offering activities in abundance. To start, you can go scuba diving with whale sharks, followed by snorkeling rainbow reefs in Bocas del Toro.
From there, set sail to Guna Yala – a virgin isles ideal for a peaceful, spellbinding retreat. Surfers are also welcome to catch a ton of world-class breaks in Panama’s waters. And for the ultimate beach life affair, go island-hopping. Because after all, you have hundreds to choose from.
Meanwhile, Panama’s rainforests and jungles are nothing short of what its seas have to offer. Wildlife is incidental. Whether it’s howler monkeys screeching just outside your cabin. Or a quetzal encounter during your hike through the highland trail.
Then, make your way to Panama’s canopies, where zip line adventure awaits. For the more active traveler, trek through any of its jungle trails. Or along a volcano crater where you’ll meet a beautiful sunset at a summit’s end. To end a day’s march, soak in the towering waterfalls located near highland Santa Fe.
From wildlife encounters and zip lines to jungle treks and waterfall baths, Panama is a wild destination. Rather, it’s as wild as you want it to be. Whether you’re soaking in sun and sand or traversing through rainforests and mountains.
Active travelers, beach worshippers, and serenity seekers will love Panama, without a doubt.
It Has the Most Diverse Wildlife in Central America
If you thought Costa Rica’s wildlife lineup was impressive, wait till you see Panama’s. The country has 255 mammal species, 972 bird species, and 10,400+ types of plants. Because of its geographical location, Costa Rica is the bridge that connects North and South America.
So, as you can imagine, one might almost believe that Panama is a jungle…literally. But really, the country is more than just lush greenery and mountainous landscapes. A more accurate term would be tropical paradise or biodiversity hub.
And if it’s wildlife experiences you’re truly after, you don’t need to go any further than Panama. Want the complete field guide?
Mentioning each and every single species in Panama would take at least 50 pages. But a few worth mentioning include the Northern Tamandua, Margay, Spectacled Bear, Kinkajou, Gray fox, and Bush dog.
Without a doubt, Parque Nacional Soberania is the most popular rainforest in the country. Think of it as the holy grail of seeing wildlife. Not to mention, there are several hiking trails in the area. And if you still need more options, visit Panama’s cloud forest and Darien rainforest for an unforgettable experience.
San Blas and Bocas del Toro
San Blas and Bocas del Toro are in world-class leagues of their own. And yet, both are vastly different.
San Blas ranks as one of the most beautiful places in the world and offers a very simplistic kind of living. Think beach huts, absolute remoteness, and fresh catches of the day as the main source of food.
One of the best reasons to stay in San Blas? Island-hopping. On that note, there are approximately 348 islands within San Blas.
Compare Bocas del Toro to San Blas, and you get a more developed and “comforts of home” experience. In other words, you’ll find a wider variety of accommodations in Bocas del Toro. And in contrast to San Blas, the island is home to 6 smaller islands, which are nevertheless beautiful.
So, what makes San Blas and Bocas del Toro worth visiting?
For one, San Blas is a picture-perfect island that offers a true sand-in-your-toes kind of vacation. Staying at any of the beach huts gives you immediate access to the beach. Plus, since the island is quite remote, it almost feels as if you have the entire island to yourself.
Now, if you prefer an island that offers more comfort, Bocas del Toro offers more than just island life. Jungle meets beach is a popular slogan that defines the atmosphere of Bocas del Toro.
That also means apart from dipping your toes in the sand and pristine waters, you can do other activities here too. Some of these include…
- Visiting Bird Island
- Touring organic cacao farms
- Horseback riding jungle explorations
Compared to San Blas, Bocas del Toro has more hotels, eco-lodges, Airbnbs, and hostels in Bocas del Toro. It’s also famous for its underwater national park, which is worth visiting while you’re here. Not to mention, Bocas del Toro also hosts island-hopping parties that draw a lot of locals and tourists. So, if it’s a nightlife experience you’re looking for, you’ll definitely enjoy what Bocas del Toro has in store.
It’s Easy to Fly To
Did you know it only takes 2.5 hours to fly from Miami to Panama? Every major airline offers direct flights to Panama, and from most US cities, it only takes four to five hours.
Isn’t that perfect? If you wanted a quick vacation that doesn’t leave you feeling bored, Panama is an easy pick. Because Panama serves as a connecting point for several routes that fly to Central and South America, you won’t have trouble booking a flight.
In fact, you can even take a boat to Panama, but the travel time is much longer, no doubt. That said, it doesn’t change the fact it’s an easily accessible destination. Plus, this doesn’t just apply to US cities, but even if you were flying from Europe, you’d have no trouble too.
Guatemala is a place for adventurists, backpackers, and outdoor junkies. It’s a vacation befitting active travelers. From its Mayan ruins to its active volcanoes and beautiful lakes, you’re spoiled for outdoor fun.
What’s more, Guatemala is one of the most affordable destinations in Central America. And its why so many backpackers and budget-conscious travelers make their way here.
As the creative capital of Central America, you’ll hardly run out of activities to do around the city. Even foodies will enjoy its vast local selection of dishes, especially in the town of Antigua, a place most famous for its appetizing food.
Vacationers looking for culture will also find it in Guatemala. The colonial architecture is a sight to behold, and you’ll find it in none other than Guatemala’s foodie town: Antigua. Around this quaint town, there are dozens of bustling markets. So, whether you’re here to chow down on delicious food, buy artisanal goods, or shop till you drop, it’s all here.
Lastly, Guatemala holds true to its nickname: land of eternal spring. The temperatures here aren’t scorching hot or humid, which only gives partial rise to its nickname. Its other two defining qualities are its tropical rainforests and the spirit of the Mayan civilization.
Altogether, Guatemala is a vast and vibrant country, full of places to explore to your heart’s content. For more inside information on what Central America’s capital has to offer, the next sections offer a lot of insight.
What Makes Guatemala Unique?
It Has 37 Volcanoes for Exploring and Hiking
Of Guatemala’s 37 volcanoes, three are active. And those three are the highlight activity of volcano hiking in Guatemala. What does that mean exactly? Well, consider this —
Not only can you hike and explore the volcanic landscape of these active volcanoes. You can even watch it explode lava.
One of the most popular active volcanoes, Fuego, takes about a day’s hike. This includes driving to the area, camping, and the hike itself, which takes about four to six hours. Once you reach the volcanic site, you’ll see a beautiful lava show. In fact, Fuego erupts every 30 minutes so you don’t have to visit at a specific time during the day.
For an even more unique volcano hike experience, the Volcano Pacaya hike is a bucket list experience worth doing. And it’s even suitable for kids too!
The hike only lasts for three hours. And upon reaching the summit, you can roast marshmallows using the lava (theoretically)! If you don’t fancy a hike, you can also opt for a horseback riding excursion and explore the terrain. After you’ve had your fill of lava-roasted marshmallows, the entire trip includes a hot spring bath at Kawilal Hot Springs.
Still looking for more adventure? There are still 35 more volcanoes around Guatemala to explore. Some of the best include Volcan Tacana, Volcan de Agua, Volcan Atitlan, Santa Maria Volcano, and Volcan Toliman.
Breathtaking Scenery and Natural Beauty
Volcanoes are only one side of Guatemala’s natural beauty. And while insane breathtaking views are part of the volcanic hike experience, they’re only the teaser for what else Guatemala offers.
Say hello to Lake Atitlan. Hailed as the most beautiful lake in the world, it’s also the deepest lake in the entire Central America. Many even say that its beauty is far more stunning than Lake Como. However, Lake Atitlan isn’t only famous for its alluring and scenic ambiance.
At Lake Atitlan’s depths are Mayan ruins that make you wonder how it even came to be. Around the area of Lake Atitlan, there are several towns to explore each with its own unique experiences.
For instance, the town of San Pedro La Laguna offers a bustling nightlife scene. Santa Cruz is a remote and secluded town ideal if you’re looking for a quiet retreat. Panajachel is the largest town and home to a variety of local markets. And San Marcos La Laguna offers delicious cafés, restaurants, and meditation centers for yogis.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in all of Lake Atitlan’s natural beauty, another nature paradise awaits: Semuc Champey.
The geological formation you’ll see at Semuc Champey is only one of its many natural charms. Surrounded by abundant greenery and grand canyons, the turquoise pools here are a picturesque sight. But, of course, you don’t visit Semuc Champey just to take pictures.
Rather, you can start your Semuc Champey expedition by swimming in six of its turquoise pools. A few are deep enough that you can jump in and others are shallow but made purely for relaxing. After your bathing experience, you can go hiking, do river tubing, or explore the Ka’a Ba Water Cave.
Note that this cave is pretty dark, but it’s definitely a thrill-seeking cave adventure for experienced hikers.
Now, Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey would take about six days total if you want to get the full experience. So, if you’re staying in Guatemala for 2 weeks or more, there are still a vast number of sights to see and experience.
You can bathe in the natural pools and waterfalls in Zacapa, also known as Pasabien Pools. What’s unique about these pools? The icy water here comes from an underground source located in the Sierra de las Minas Mountains. Talk about a refreshing dip, right?
If you prefer a steamier experience, be sure to visit the Fuentes Georginas Hot Springs. As the legend goes, the waters here are said to be healing waters. The area was also once a sacred place for Mayans.
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning beautiful Antigua. This town offers an enriching cultural experience. Here, the cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and local markets all add to Antigua’s charm.
If you’re looking for the best place to experience Guatemala’s food, this town is where you’ll find it all. And for romantic travelers, make your way to Meson Panza Verde. From the atmosphere down to its cuisine, the entire setting of the area is truly a memorable experience.
Guatemala Has Over 1,500 Ancient Mayan Ruins
Guatemala’s Mayan ruins are perhaps its most treasured attraction. After all, these Mayan ruins are an authentic showcase of an ancient civilization that once dominated the land. As one of the earliest and greatest civilizations in the world, exploring the Mayan ruins in Guatemala are a must-do.
Now, you’ve probably heard about Tikal – the most popular ancient Mayan ruin site. And while Tikal is surely worth the visit, there are plenty more that are just as impressive.
Yaxha offers spectacular pyramids, and despite its smaller total area, there are 500+ structures in these ruins alone. The Zaculeu ruins was a Mayan fortress for Mam Mayans until the Spanish conquered it in 1525. Uaxactun was where Mayan ceremonies were once held. And Iximche is one of the few Mayan ruin sites that are still used to hold Mayan ceremonies to this day.
If you’re up for a mix of culture and adventure, El Mirador’s your best bet. The overland journey takes two or three days just to reach the ruins. Why? Mainly because El Mirador is currently overrun by the vast jungle.
That said, El Mirador is often regarded as the “lost city of Maya” that was home to nearly 250,000 people. Although the journey to El Mirador is arduous and long, being able to see one of the largest pyramids is worth the reward.
Overall, Guatemala’s Mayan ruins are the motherload of cultural experience in the country. For any traveler, you can’t miss out on these ancient sites. Visiting Guatemala and skipping the Mayan ruins is like going to Rome and missing the Colosseum.
The Best Cuisine in Central America
And just when you thought you’ve seen it all in Guatemala, there’s just one more thing to discover. Apart from its friendly locals and markets, Guatemala is a foodie hub that offers novel, creative, and saporous cuisine.
Whether it’s stewed, fried, or grilled, Guatemala’s food selection stands out. Not to mention, they’re affordable. A typical meal will cost you about 47 Guatemalan Quetzal or GTQ (USD 6 at 7.87 GTQ a dollar). For a midrange restaurant, it’s still just as wallet-friendly: 118 GTQ (USD 15).
But what type of cuisine will you find in Guatemala? You’d be surprised as to how diverse the culinary scene here is. From taco joints and sushi bars to Texas barbecue and even vegan cafes, you won’t have a problem with food in the country.
That being said, don’t spend all your time on international treats. Be sure to try Guatemala’s Mesoamerican local dishes. For starters, tostadas and empanadas are quick snacks to munch on while exploring the city.
Other must-try local dishes include the following:
- Pepian de Indio
And, don’t forget: Guatemala is also renowned for its coffee and chocolate. You can visit a chocolate museum and even a coffee farm, which are both great experiences for all tourists.
Which Is Better – Panama or Guatemala?
At the end of the day, Panama and Guatemala are Central Americna gems worth visiting at least once in a lifetime.
However, the distinction is pretty clear between the two. Panama has better beaches, with San Blas and Bocas del Toro as the country’s beach jewels. Not to mention, a vast offering of water sports activities for families, couples, and solo travelers. Diving, surfing, sailing, kayaking, you name it.
Guatemala, on the other hand, has more inland activities. Exploring Mayan ruins and volcano hiking are just a few of the many activities that tourists can do around the country.
Both Guatemala and Panama are perfect for active travelers. But what differentiates one from the other is that Panama is more likely to appeal to beach lovers. In addition, it has more water activities than it does land activities. For instance, island-hopping and exploring San Blas or Bocas del Tore are vacation highlights.
Whereas the highlight of Guatemala is being able to immerse in Mayan culture and partake in exotic activities, one of which is volcano hiking. What’s more, Guatemala offers a lot of spots if you’re after breathtaking scenery. And it’s a foodie destination that truly stands out.
All in all, it depends on what you like on a vacation.
If you prefer beautiful scenery, more culture and history, and a wider array of land activities, Guatemala is the better option. For foodies and gourmands, you’ll also love Guatemala.
But if you’d rather set your sights on wildlife, rainforests, cloud forest vistas, and beaches, Panama is the more favorable choice.
Is Panama Close to Guatemala?
Panama isn’t close to Guatemala, but it’s not exactly too far either. Driving is possible between both destinations but takes at least 28 hours if you drive nonstop.
Panama to Guatemala Distance
The distance from Panama to Guatemala is about 810 miles (1,303 km). If you travel via road, from Guatemala city to Panama city, the distance is even longer – 1173.14 miles (1,888 km).
Guatemala to Panama
The best way to travel from Guatemala to Panama is via plane. Although driving is possible, it takes a lot longer. However, driving from Guatemala city to Panama city is a good option if you’re looking for a more scenic journey. Along the way, there are several stops that make the trip worthwhile.
Some of these stops include the El Nispero Zoo, Arenal Volcano National Park, and Dolphin Bay Hideaway.
Panama to Guatemala Flights
There are about 78 flights from Panama to Guatemala in a month. A few airlines that offer flights from Panama to Guatemala or vice versa include:
- Copa Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- United Airlines
- American Airlines
Among all, only Copa Airlines offers direct flights from Panama to Guatemala or vice versa. An average plane ticket also costs about USD 223. However, rates vary every month and mostly on the time you made the booking.
In some cases, flight rates from Panama to Guatemala can cost between USD 380 to 950.
Panama to Guatemala Flight Time
If you’re traveling directly from Panama to Guatemala, the average flight time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. In cases where flights include one or two stopovers, flight times can be as short as four hours or as long as 26 hours.
Fortunately, it’s not hard to find a direct flight from Panama to Guatemala. And even in the case of Panama-Guatemala flights that include a stopover, the average flight time is typically four to nine hours.
Can You Drive From Panama to Guatemala?
According to Google Maps, there is a route available from Guatemala city to Panama City via Interamericana. That being said, driving from one city to the other is an arduous and long journey.
On average, it takes about 28 to 30 hours if you drive nonstop. But if you take multiple stops along the way, which is most likely, this can easily take you at least 2 days. Overall, it’s better to fly from Panama to Guatemala.