Panama is perfect for a quick Central American vacation. Andrea and I only spent 10 days here as we had to be in Colombia by a certain date, but we loved every minute of it. Panama has a great mix of things to do and they’re all within easy reach of Panama City by bus, or plane. Personally, we soaked up the sun in Bocas del Toro, a super popular backpacker destination, got in some great hikes in Boquete, and settled into the buzzing metropolis of Panama City for a few days.
If you’re looking for a taste of Latin America, Panama will definitely whet your appetite. It’s pretty convenient to travel in as well. They use the US dollar, the Panama City airport is very easy to get to from abroad, and English is widely understood in tourist areas. We loved how vibrant and urban Panama City is and felt quite at home surrounded by skyscrapers, but were also pleasantly surprised to see how remote some of the mountains around Boquete are. With more time, we would have loved to get a little further into the mountains or do some more snorkeling in the Pacific, but you always have to save something for the next trip!
- Economy: In comparison to the rest of Central America, Panama is well developed, has a larger portion of the population living in urban areas, and has had a high growth rate over the last several years. In large part due to the famous Panama Canal, the country relies heavily on services, including tourism. Since the construction of the canal, Panama City has also become an international financial center. Unfortunately, the relative prosperity is not very well-distributed and the poverty rate is over 20%, which we definitely noticed in certain neighborhoods of Bocas and Panama City.
- Money: Panama uses the US Dollar in daily life, although they do have their own Balboa coins, including a $1 coin not found in the US. The Panamanian coins are not used outside of Panama.
- Roughly 25% of the grocery stores we went to accepted credit card. Most of the hostels and restaurants we visited accepted credit card, although they do charge a fee.
- People:There are about 4 million Panamanians, about 1.5 million of whom live in Panama City. More than half of the country’s population lives in between Panama City and Colon, meaning Panama is the most urban country in Central America.
- Language: Spanish is the main language, although English is widely spoken, especially anywhere tourists go.
Places to Visit
- Bocas del Toro: The perfect beach spot. Seriously, I can’t recommend this place enough. Bocas can be as expensive as you want it to be. We stayed at under $30 USD/person/day overall, but we did do $30/person boat tour that included a national park, scuba diving, and a dolphin encounter that I highly recommend. We also rented bikes and found some beautiful secluded beaches. We stayed at Spanish by the Sea, which is a great hostel that doubles as a Spanish language school.
- San Blas: Another Caribbean island paradise. You can do a several day boat ride from Panama City to Cartagena through these islands, but be careful as to the boat you choose. We’ve heard lots of great stories, and a couple of horror stories.
- Boquete: A beautiful, mountainous town with lots of good hikes, including Volcan Baru. The weather was bad while we were there, but they say you can see the Atlantic and the Pacific at the same time from the top.
- Panama City: A bustling metropolis complete with Central American heat and humidity. We thought parts of the city felt like Manhattan, while other parts like Caso Viejo could easily fit in Havana. We spent several days in the city exploring older sections, seeing the Canal, and enjoying being in an urban city after so long away.
- Portobelo: A pretty town on the Pacific coast that was originally founded by Christopher Colombus in 1502. The 18th century fortifications are gorgeous.
Tourist Friendliness: We were extremely welcome in Panama and were constantly with other foreigners. Panama City is an international city and we didn’t stand out too much. Boquete and Bocas are two big tourist destinations and we found things easy. Lots of people speak English, there are many online resources, and we had no problems getting around.
Planning a Visit
On average, we spent about $34.10/person/day and had a wonderful time. We stayed in hostels, took cheaper buses, and cooked almost all of our own meals. We paid an average of $11.60/night/person in hostels and $2.95/person/meal at restaurants. Our average daily food cost (groceries mostly) was $8.20/person.
We spent more money per day in Panama than we did in Nicaragua or Costa Rica, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. We were only there for 10 days, so we traveled a bit more quickly than we would have liked. As always, your mileage will vary.
Panama, like the rest of Central America, is best by bus. We traveled all over the country by bus with no problems, although we did take a water taxi to get to Bocas del Toro. We highly recommend you use the Rome2Rio app to figure out your route and also ask around to double check ALL THE TIME.
Our average long distance bus cost was $7.10 USD/person and the buses were fine. Our average Uber/taxi within cities was $4.20 USD.
Get ready for lots of rice, beans, and meat if you’re sticking to a tight budget, although Panama does have quite a bit of good seafood. We were feeling a bit tired of the same budget meal over and over, so we cooked all but 3 of our meals in Panama. You can check out some of our recipes here. For the 3 meals we ate out, our average cost per person was $2.95.
If you have a slightly higher budget, Panama City has a wide variety of food. As an international financial center, there are plenty of foreigners and you should have no trouble finding Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other cuisines.
We stayed exclusively in hostels and had lots of options. We paid an average of $11.60 USD/person/night and were very satisfied. All the hostels we stayed in had clean dorm beds with WiFi, good common areas, and a kitchen. All the showers were cold, which we enjoyed due to the heat. As always, I’d recommend booking something for your first night in the country, and then playing it by ear as there are so many options.
We’re certainly not experts, but the CDC recommends you get vaccinations for:
- Hepatitis A and B
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
- Yellow Fever and Malaria if you’re visiting certain areas.
Crossing from Costa Rica, no one checked our vaccination records.
Get Out There!
Our time in Panama was short, but very sweet. It’s definitely worth a visit for a vacation, or as part of a Central America trip. It’s an especially good destination if you’ve not traveled in Latin America before as it’s well developed, English is widely spoken, and easy to get around. We only got to spend 10 short days getting to know it, but look forward to going back!