The Cost of Traveling Panama

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 21st, 2011

panama cityAs 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 got a hotel room, drastically increasing my daily average.

How I Spent My Money
Food: $748.20
Drinks: $142
Accommodation: $608.20
Activities: $45
Transportation: $131.41

So, Can You Do It For $35 USD?

sunset in panamaDefinitely. 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 over budget than under budget.

How to Save Money in Panama

the church tower in panama viejoEat 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 rip-off. As my friend JP says, “You get Gringoed.” They were also far more unwilling to negotiate than I found 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.

comments 43 Comments

I spent a week in Panama last summer and like you, found it way more expensive than I originally planned. I think part of this is because the local currency is the US Dollar. I would have been happy to eat street food from stalls but saw almost NONE where we were in Panama City. The one thing which was cheap was the local beer; Panama Beer was our favorite.

NomadicMatt

I liked Panama Beer. It was a lot better than the Balboa!

Im always wondering how can you know so exactly what you spend and on what! When I travel, I am trying to not to spend much but on the other hand it is still holidays for me so I do what I feel like doing, no matter the price!
Hm looking at your tips I would definitely save on the beer (dont like it), tap water (I always drink tap water and never had any problems) and taxis (always walk). What about cooking something yourself? (if you have a chance)

PS really enjoy the first shot!

NomadicMatt

Cooking for yourself is a way to save money but that’s not specific to Panama so I didn’t include it but it does help.

PS- I write down everything I spend money on so I can I write posts like this!!!

Ah, food. That’s what always catches us up, too.

And your “costs” posts have been inspiring us to keep track of EVERYTHING we spend (which we’re usually really bad at), as the little things do add up!

I’ll echo the same sentiment. For the past few months, now, I’ve been keeping track of all my costs on a spreadsheet as I travel. Its a great way to figure out where the excess is going when you start spending more money than you had planned!

Rodolfo

Liked your article, thanks for sharing.

Dan

Good to know that it can be relatively cheap. I’m planning a Central/South America trip either in 2012 or 2013 (Cozumel to Patagaonia).

Taxis are not a rip off at all. Costs $1.25 around the city and a little more if you go longer distances. For cheap food just eat at places you see only locals. For a great hostel stay at – http://www.hospedajecascoviejo.com/hotel.html

NomadicMatt

In my experience, it was always haggling, especially when you did not speak spanish.

I like that hostel too. I stayed there a few nights.

Thanks for the tips Matt, I’m heading to Panama this summer.
How different are the prices compared to other Central American countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua? The price for rooms and drinks seems to be quiete the same.

NomadicMatt

I’ve heavn’t been there so I don’t know.

I have been to Panama a few times, and I have been blown away by how affordable it can be if you do your research and live within your means.

NomadicMatt

Yeah, it can be affordable. Even my overbudgeting is still cheaper than places in Europe or Australia.

Australia is definitely affordable, especially if you avoid expensive cities such as Sydney and Melbourne!

Sounds high, even the low daily average. You could always try India, it is easy to live on $15 a day, and the visa is friendly for 6 months a shot.

NomadicMatt

There are many more countries in the world cheaper than Panama!

Stick to drinking beer = save money in Panama…..no problem !!

I think you also paid far more because you don’t speak Spanish and were in two of the most expensive regions of the country—ones filled with lots of wealthy foreigners. I often paid 75 cents for a beer outside of the capital and a bottle of local rum was $6.

I found lots of street food around, but not in that central core area of Panama City. A meal of the day at a cheapo restaurant is $2.50 to $3 and a big bowl of sancocho soup, the national dish is often $1.50. An hour of internet access in a cafe is typically 75 cents in the capital, so it’s easy to get work done on the cheap too!

But still, not as cheap as many other Central American countries, partly because the population there is better off and partly because there’s so much money in that city coming in from elsewhere. Legit and otherwise…

debra

girl = time * money

There’s your problem. :-)

Nice Matt, practical info and good to hear your honest analysis. I usually underestimate these costs too, the opportunities one finds to spend cash in new places are amazing!

NomadicMatt

I try to over budget but the problem is I travel two different ways: There’s the budget traveler who travels like a backpacker to figure out how to save money and then there is guy who has a job who likes to spend money on good food. I’m frenetic traveler!

No way! I thought I found Panama ridiculously cheap.
I roughly spent $25/day with accomodation, food and transportation…and this is with being frugal
Not sure about your taxi advice as I found the taxi drivers I’ve been with were honest. “Three dollars, that’s all you pay and that is the law!” It may sound expensive but split between 3 or more people that gets cheap.

NomadicMatt

Where were you and when were you this? It’s easy to say “I did it cheaper” but how do the numbers break down? Also, if you take out drinking and tours, then my daily average is about $25 USD. As for the taxis, I pretty sure my friends and I got ripped off. We also clearly looked like gringoes who had no clue as to what was going on and there were a lot of us in our group.

Good read…I would like to add my thoughts if its ok…
Beers can be bought for less than $0.50 at the tienda and only cost a $1 in http://www.mamallena.com, but they let you bring in your own if you want to. You can eat very cheap in Panama but its not great food and your much better off cooking your own.
Taxis are getting worse all the time, but are a bargain when you compare it to the new bus prices at $1.20 a ride. Most fares in the city should be $1.50-$3, although I think they just had a price increase. Best method is not to ask price, just know the price before hand, there is a tariff system and your hostel should know it. Just hand over the money and get out, nearly always works.

I almost thought it was impossible to live on a daily budget of $40 in Panama! Having someone with you and having to spend for that person is really going to take it’s toll on the budget. I really enjoyed your cost saving tips for a Panama trip! Very, very useful.

Ann

My husband and I are planning on going to Panama next June for a late honeymoon. I’m trying to figure out a reasonable budget for us. We are going for 2 weeks and want to travel around a bit. Obviously with this being our honeymoon we don’t want to spend the whole time in hostels, or really share a room with other people. How were the hostels? Did they offer private rooms? How much would you figure per day if we stay in moderate hotels instead? Any information would be helpful.

Thanks!

NomadicMatt

Most of the hostels offer private rooms for around $25-30 USD per night. They were nice and comfortable. I had no problems with them.

As a panamanian, I think you can do Panama more cheaper than $20 per day. Hell, you can every survive with $15 per day hehehe, although if you like to eat good food, that’s another add to your expenses.

good post by the way.

Sevananda Jose Padilla

I don´t have a comment but rather a couple of questions regarding Panamá City.

My buddy and I will be doing a tour of Central America from Gautemala to Costa Rica. On the way to Guate we have a 6 hour lay-over at Tocuman Airport, Panamá. On the way back to NYC we have a 12 hour lay-over.

For our 1st stop, I inquired about possibilities of a 4 hour city tour and the replies have been insane: $108 per person. Another tour operator was generous enough to offer us a 2 hour tour for $104 per person (generous with our money, I meant). Can you Matt or anyone else give us suggestions on what to do for 3 to 4 hours before catching our next flight? Our Copa flight arrives PTY at 2:34 pm and our departing flight leaves PTY at 8:54 pm.

On our 2nd stop we arrive PTY at 7:58 pm and depart the following morning at 7:48 am. We would like to be able to find an inexpensive clean room(around $30 or less) with 2 beds in an area of the city where we can do a little exploring, have a meal and some more exploring before we go to sleep. Not into bars or nightlife. Just want to get a feel for the city.

Any suggestions, ideas, advice, and positive and encouraging comments are gratefully welcomed.

SJPadilla

evadiva

Any sugestions on budget friendly outtings? $400 for 2 ppl to see the whales seems high, even if it is an all day trip. Hate to wait till im there to book our excursions, but prices from websites seem so high!

NomadicMatt

What whales? Can you tell me more about the tour?

evadiva

The migration of the humpback whales. Panama is the only place where they pass by twice in one year, and so I was wanting to see these marvelous creatures. I hear they love to put on a show. But unfortunatley all of the sites I find for tours to see the whales are an all day event and range in price from $200 and up. (the more people that go the less, but that doesnt help if your not with a big group.) I wouldnt mind giving up a day, but the price is steep when theres 2 people.

NomadicMatt

It might be cheaper if you wait until you get into the country and book then.

Daichovo

I’m going to be spending 2 weeks volunteering in the rainforest outside of Bocas del Toro in April, and decided to attach a week at the end of my trip to do some sightseeing. If Panama isn’t the cheapest place, what countries in Central America might be? I certainly wouldn’t mind checking out another country or two if it made sense and wasn’t overly expensive. Columbia seems like it might be sort of a pain to get to; Costa Rica is an option but since I see cheap flights from my city, LAX, there all the time, I’m sure I could do it another time if it made more sense to get somewhere else cheaply. What do y’all think?

Holly

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama and think your estimate is pretty accurate. But beer and taxis are cheeper than you mentioned. Best suggestion is to ask at the hostel front desk if you dont speak Spanish.Taxis in Panama City are a ffixed rate between $1.50-3.
Have the amount ready and hand it to the driver when you leave.-Thetre is no haggling in Panama City. Also it is really easy to break the budget in Bocas .spe

I apologize for the mispellings. The Nook keyboard is not positioned well for writing comments.

I will be traveling Panama for 2.5 weeks in late July early August. I know, rainy season and not the best time, but that’s when I got vacation. From my own experience in other Latin American countries (Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica) I would say three things are important:

1. Keep low profile, no flashy gadgets, fancy clothes, and even if you are Gringo, you still can get better treatment if you try to blend with locals. Learn and speak some Spanish! Huge help and in many cases the way people start treating you.

2. Taxi drivers are mostly scumbags (there are of course exceptions) in every country and Panama is definitely not exception. Try to avoid taxis as much as you can. If you can’t, ask first locals how much they pay, share ride. As well, I always carry cheaper GPS (you can get decent one for that purpose for $120-150) which I load with waypoints of all locations (hostels, attractions,…) I want to visit so many times I rely just on my GPS and don’t bother take taxi if I know where to go and it’s only 1-2km. Great thing, it already paid for itself by saving me money on taxis.

3. Never pay full price for hotel/hostel in front. I got duped once or twice to pay big bucks for dump hole not worth it. I usually pay 10% down through hostelworld website or if not possible, find place to stay when I get there.

As well, in my opinion (and this is not that I don’t have money to spent!), to pay for hotel $50-150/night is total waste of money. I need place that is save, clean and has running water. Most hostel meet that and you pay $10-25/night depending if you stay in dorm or private room. Personally, I spend all day outside and come back just to take shower and sleep so is this 7-9h really worth $100? I rather redirect this money to all sorts of activities – horse riding, snorkeling, rafting, jungle tours,… Moreover, hostels are great places to meet all sorts of travelers from around the world. You don’t exactly have the same opportunity in hotel where everybody stays closed in their rooms.

Panama city is a beautiful place to visit,to spend a vacation.It inst that costly to visit Panama .I have been living here since 2010 and have great experience here,some restaurants have quite reasonable priced cuisines.I agree one should avoid the taxis..And yes the beer is quite cheap so one can sure stick to it..

Hi Matt !

We are going to panamá next week for 15 days, thanks for the advices. We will write about in our blog.

Pura vida

Norn

Hi Matt, what do you know about the bus system to get to the Pacific beaches and Bocas? We are going to Panama in Feb and the shuttle costs from the airport to Playa Blanca is rediclous …. $380 return for 2 people. I know the bus is way cheaper but don’t know how easy it is to catch it on the highway. Is there set stops and times along the highway?

Laura

Hi Matt! We’re hesitating whether to go to Panama-Costa Rica in January 2014 or to Colombia for 21-30 days. We have a low budget! You have been to both destinations: Is Colombia cheaper (the Caribbean spots -not San Andres) than Costa Rica? or is it the same cost? We include Panama because the air fare is cheaper to Panama from Argentina!

THANKSSSSSS!
Laura

Scott

Matt,

I was looking for a new home and was looking at panama. Everything you see on enter net about those really cheap rents like in borquete turn out to be much more expensive than what you see in some of these pitches for Panama. I like the area but I am very worried that with the devaluation of the dollar that it will catch up to Panama quickly. We have seen cost of things in the states ski rocket in the past 3 years. So for a visit I am sure it’s great but to live might be a very different story. One thing that I could not believe about Panama is that with all those high rise buildings everywhere they have all been sold by phones and flyers. Many agents are unlicensed. There is no MLS system and you cant search for properties there, and Never know who the hell to believe because you always get different stories as to what to buy. It is the Wild West! And a jungle all in one. I think for my money I’ll stay on the plane a little longer and get off in south east Asia. For the 1600 you spent for 28 days there, could be 56 in Davao City Philippians. But staying on the plane longer does cost money to…. Happy travels!

Hi Matt,

Great article, thanks.

I’m living in Panama City since 5 weeks. The first 4 weeks i overspent… a lot. This is what i learned from that:

– Avoid the large supermarkets such as “El Rey” or “Super99″, due to strong ties with the government and inefficient logistics very very expensive. A good alternative is the Dollar$ store with a lot of branches in the city
– Go to the fish market: delicious fresh fish for a good price
– Go to the vegetable market next to the “Electoral” building, bags full of fruits and veggies for close to nothing!
– Niko’s is everywhere and offers good food, they’re open 24/7 (plate of rice with chicken and beans $4.50). Just don’t get scared by the “cafetaria” style, the place is actually very hygienic and clean
– Taxi’s are cheap but for tourists they’re double. If they charge more than $3- $4 for anywhere in the centre, you’re being screwed and better off waiting for the next taxi…. This is the hardest part since almost everyone that doesn’t look Panamanian will be charged double initially. Btw.: the bus is 0.25$ ;)

Thanks again for your posts. Awesome trips and style of writing!

Best
Paul

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