Since the creation of the world famous Panama Canal in 1914, this country has been at the heart of international shipping, serving as a connection point between the Pacific and the Caribbean. Panama has become a major tourist destination in recent years as flights from the US have become increasing cheap and more Americans begin to retire here. 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.
Destination Guides for Panama
Accommodation – Accommodation is extremely cheap in Panama with a night in a hostel dorm costing between 11-15 PAB. Private rooms in hostels average around 40 PAB per night in a double room. Budget hotels with a private bath, A/C, and (sometimes) breakfast cost between 40-60 PAB per night.
Food – Local food stalls meals will cost around 2-5 PAB and will get you chicken, rice, and beans. Westernized restaurants will cost between 7-10 PAB per meal. For a nice meal with wine, expect to pay around 30-40 PAB.
Transportation – Buses around the country cost between 10-20 PAB. Overnight buses cost around 25 PAB. To travel from one side of Panama City to the other is around 4 PAB. Intra-country flights are really expensive – never take them.
Activities – Coffee tours are 25 PAB, a two-tank dive is around 60 PAB, most day hikes are around 50 PAB. A visit to the Panama Canal is 15 PAB. The popular San Blas island cruise is about 400 PAB for 4 or 5 days.
Money Saving Tips
Carry small change – Taxi drivers and shop assistants will not accept 20 PAB 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 PAB. 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 0.50-1 PAB during hostel happy hours. Otherwise, a local Panama or Balboa was 1.50 PAB. Mix drinks are usually 2 PAB. 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 it anyways. 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 50 miles long and raises ships up from the Pacific and through Panama, before lowering 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
Bike Along Amadour Causeway – This four mile long causeway was made from the excavated rocks when the canal was built and links three islands. It is perfect to ride a bike along as the view is fantastic. Look across the canal on one side and the check out the cityscape on the other. There are plenty of restaurants and other touristy shops to stop at along the way.
Explore 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.
Check out the Ruins at Panama Viejo – Panama was the Pacific coast’s most important Spanish trading town until it was destroyed by Captain 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.
Hang out in 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.
Canoe to 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 plant-life. When you finally meet the Embera tribe you’ll notice that they live pretty much as they did hundreds of years ago. They offer guests traditional food, music and dancing followed by the chance to buy the tribe’s handicrafts or go for a swim under a waterfall.
Relax in 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 three private gardens in the world. There are great hiking opportunities around and this area is a great place in which to relax for a few days.
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. However, at $50 USD for a three-hour round trip, it is a little expensive.
Spot Wildlife at Volcan Baru – Volcan Baru is the only volcano in Panama, and at 11,500 feet, it is the highest point in the country. The lower slopes are home to dozens of coffee plantations, while the higher ground is 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.
Visit 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. Along with Fort San Lorenzo, the fortifications 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 for 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.
Hit the Beach in Pedasi – Located on the Pacific side, this town is about five hours from Panama City and is famous for its 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 bathtub warm and you can do some great tuna fishing here.
Hike in the Rainforest Parks – Parque Soberania, Parque Metropolitano, and Parque Chagres are three areas of rainforest park that lie just outside of Panama City. If you need a break from the urban atmosphere, these parks are a great place to get in some hiking, birdwatching, and wildlife spotting. Keep an eye out for sloths, monkeys, and anteaters.
Tour a Coffee Plantation – Panama is up in the ranks with Colombia, Peru, and Costa Rica when it comes to quality coffee. Consider visiting a plantation in Boquete, such as Café Ruiz or Finca Lerida, both of which have good reputations. (Although there are many others to choose from). Prices for tours range from 10-25 PAB, and include a coffee tasting.
Surf in Santa Catalina – This is a hot spot with the surfing community, but it’s pretty bare-minimum when it comes to amenities. Only 300 people live in this town on the Pacific coast, so don’t come here expecting glitz and glamour. This is the place to be if you want to catch some fantastic waves, and relax on some beautiful beaches.