Panama Travel Tips
Since the creation of the world famous Panama Canal in 1914, this country has been at the heart of international shipping, connecting the Pacific with the Caribbean. Panama has become a major tourist destination in recent years as flights from the US have become increasing cheap and more American begin to retire there. Most travelers stick to the well worn tourist trail of Bocas del Toro, Boquete, the San Blas islands, and Panama City but if you head to some of the lesser known places, you’ll be rewarded with better food, vistas, and cheaper prices.
- Accommodation: Accommodation is extremely cheap in Panama with a night in a hostel dorm costing between $10-13 USD. Private rooms in hostels begin at $25 per night. Budget hotels with a private bath, A/C, and (sometimes) breakfast cost between $40-60 per night.
- Food: Local food stalls meals will cost around $2-4 and will get you chicken, rice, and beans. Westernized restaurants will cost between $7-10 per meal. For a nice meal with wine, expect to pay around $30-40.
- Transportation: Buses around the country cost between $10-20. Overnight buses cost around $25. To travel from one side of Panama City to the other is around $4 USD. Intra-country flights are really expensive – never take them.
- Activities: Coffee tours are $25, a two tank dive is around $60, most day hikes are around $50 USD. A visit to the Panama Canal is $8. The popular San Blas island cruise is about $300 for 4 or 5 days.
Money Saving Tips
- Carry small change - Taxi drivers and shop assistants will not accept $20 dollar bills to pay for inexpensive items. Be sure to break notes before going shopping or getting a taxi in case you are left with no other option but to pay with a 20!
- Eat at the local stands – Meals at local food stalls cost between $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 at the price they had, it 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.
- 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 .50 cents to 1 dollar during hostel happy hours. Otherwise, a local Panama or Balboa was $1.50 USD. Mix drinks are usually $2 USD. 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 anyways, you’ll hardly ever want hot water. Even I got used to cold water showers and usually I get cranky without hot water!
Top Things to See and Do
- See the Panama Canal - First opened in 1914, the Panama Canal is 80km long and raises ships up from the Pacific, through Panama and then lowers them back down again to the Caribbean, and vice versa. The canal uses three sets of locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side. Most tourists visit the Miraflores Locks from Panama city. You can also take a boat trip
- Amadour Causeway – This 4 mile long causeway was made from the excavated rocks when the Canal was built and links 3 islands. It is perfect to ride a bike along as the view across the canal on one side and the cityscape on the other is fantastic. There are plenty of restaurants and other touristy shops to stop at along the way.
- Casco Viejo - Just outside Panama City is Casco Viejo, the oldest city in the Americas. These days the city’s red bricked streets are lined with clubs, bars, restaurants and cafes, though the Spanish style architecture still gives the entire area an historical feeling. In 1998 the city’s cultural and historical significance was recognized by UNESCO and it was declared a World Heritage Site.
- Panama Viejo – Panama was the Pacific coast’s most important Spanish trading town until it was destroyed by Henry Morgan in 1671. The remaining ruins cover quite a large area, encompassing streets, squares, a cathedral, churches, convents, a hospital, walls and bridges, all made of stone.
- Bocas del Toro – Bocas is Panama’s most popular tourist destination, combining a laid back Caribbean attitude with the beautiful natural setting of jungles, forests and mangroves. Surfing is extremely popular here and there are always water taxis around to take you to a secluded cove or to the best snorkelling spots. This is also one of the biggest destination for young travelers in Panama.
- Embera Indian Village - To get to the village you’ll travel up the Chagres river in a dugout canoe then walk through a rainforest, giving you the chance to come face to face with local wildlife and amazing plantlife. When you finally meet the Embera tribe you’ll notice that they live pretty much as they did hundreds of years ago. There is traditional food, music and dancing followed by the chance to buy the tribe’s handicrafts or go for a swim under a waterfall.
- Boquete – Voted as the world’s second best place to retire, Boquete is a charming little village located in the mountainous region of the Chiriquí Highlands. Most of the area’s scenery is built up of coffee plantations and this town is home to ‘Mi Jardin es Su Jardin’ one of the top 3 private gardens in the world. There are grea hiking opportunities around and this area is a great place to relax for a few days in.
- Take the Panama Canal Railway – The Panama Canal Railway connects Panama City with Colón and runs from the Pacific to Atlantic Ocean. The train is an old-fashioned locomotive complete with a great observation car which offers views of the canal, Gutan Lake and passing rainforests. At $44for a 3 hour round trip, it is a little expensive though.
- Volcan Baru – Volcan Baru is the only volcano in Panama and at 3,500 meters, is the highest point in the country. The lower slopes are home to dozens of coffee plantations, with the higher ground being part of the Volcan Baru National Park. Bring your camera as the rainforest here is a good place to spot the Resplendent Quetzal which is one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
- Portobelo - This sleepy little town was first given the name “Puerto Bello” (Beautiful Port) by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and over time, the name was shortened to Portobelo. The town’s 18th-century fortifications were built by the Spanish to protect their gold from pirates and along with Fort San Lorenzo, have achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
- Sail the San Blas islands - An island chain located on the Caribbean, this collection of islands is a popular spot for sailing and boat tours. The islands are very rustic and make for a great off the grid place to go. There are many great and beautiful spots, good sailing, diving, and snorkeling. These islands are hugely popular with backpackers and budget travelers but there are many resorts for high end travelers too.
- Surf in Pedasi - Located on the Pacific side, this town is about 5 hours from Panama City and famous for it’s great surfing. Though it has become a haven for expats in recent years, it is still a very much off the beaten path destination. Not a lot of people go here and you’ll have the beach mostly to yourself. The water is bath tub warm and you can do some great tuna fishing here.