As part of my desire to give you the best budget travel tips I can, I’m continuing my series on country costs. This time, we’re going to look at Panama. I’ve spent the last month in Panama with a goal of spending $35 USD per day.
How did I do? I failed. Miserably. I spent $1,674.81 USD in 28 days, which is an average of $59.81 per day.
Why Did I Fail?
I ate good food. Lots of good, expensive food. I found many good restaurants in Boquete and Panama City and couldn’t resist. Plus, for a while, I was traveling with a girl, and sometimes I was paying for two. And sometimes, I treated said girl to nice dinners. Additionally, I didn’t always stay in hostel dorms. There were a few nights I wanted privacy to catch up on work and so got a hotel room, drastically increasing my daily average.
How I Spent My Money
So, Can You Do It For $35 USD?
Definitely. There’s no doubt in my mind you can do Panama for my original estimate. If you take out the costs of my non-dorm accommodation ($250 USD) and my upscale eating ($300 USD), my daily average becomes $40.17 USD, which is a lot closer to my original goal. Take away a few Western meals, some nights out, and the taxis I poorly negotiated in Panama City, and you’re right around $35 USD.
At $35 USD a day, you’ll be staying in hostel dorms ($11–13 USD per night); eating at small, local restaurants and food stalls ($4 USD per meal); taking only local buses; doing a few tours; drinking little (beer is $1.50 USD); and maybe having a nice meal once in a while ($10+ USD per meal).
If you really wanted to be frugal, you could do it on $30 USD per day, but that would leave no room for any activities, nights out, shopping, or appeasing sudden desires for pizza.
I would say that $40 USD per day is a better budget. This way, you’ll have extra room for the accidental costs that always come up on the road and any last-minute changes or activities you decide to do. I always say it’s better to overbudget than underbudget.
How to Save Money in Panama
Eat at the local stands. Meals at local food stalls cost $3–4 USD. You’ll get rice, chicken, beans, and maybe another side plus a drink. I didn’t love the food in Panama, but the prices made eating very cheap.
Avoid taxis. I found taxis here to be a complete ripoff. As my friend JP says, “You get gringoed.” They were also far more unwilling to negotiate than in places like Asia. I’d try to avoid them if at all possible.
Car-share. If you do take taxis, share your ride. Most taxis are usually shared anyways. Drivers will pick up people even if someone else is in the car. This reduces your price, since if he’s already going your way, he’ll be more inclined to give you a better price.
Refill your water. In most of the country, you can drink the tap water. It won’t kill you or make you sick. There’s no need to always buy new water bottles. Save yourself a few dollars a day, and fill up from the tap.
Stick to beer. Beer is usually $0.50 to $1 during hostel happy hours. Otherwise, a local Panama or Balboa is $1.50. Mixed drinks are usually $2. So stick to beer, spend less, and save more without cutting into your good time.
Avoid hot water. Get rooms with cold-water showers. Hot water always costs a lot more. It’s so hot here anyway, you’ll hardly ever want hot water. Even I got used to cold-water showers, and usually I get cranky without hot water!
For more help planning your trip to Panama, including activities and money-saving tips, check out my Panama travel guide.