Panama destination guide for backpackers
From cosmopolitan Panama City to tropical beaches and indigenous rainforests: Panama has it all. Panama was my first country to visit in Central America. Due to its fast growing economy the country (together with Costa Rica) is relatively developed and safe compared to other countries in the region, which makes it an attractive country for first time visitors and backpackers. Moreover Tocumen Airport in Panama City is well connected globally, being one of the few Central American airports that has various scheduled direct flights to Europe.
What to do in Panama?
Panama offers a wide variety of outdoor activities, such as hiking, horse riding, rafting and tubing. Panama is popular for bird-nerds too, having up to almost 1000 species of birds.
In fact there are many wild animals in Panama in general: during my three weeks in Panama I saw sloths, toucans, a cayman and monkeys all in the wild.
If you are into water sports, Panama offers excellent diving and surf spots in both the Pacific and Caribbean. Want something more chill? Relax at the one of Panama’s bounty beaches, or just enjoy sitting in a natural hot spring.
Coffee lovers can enjoy visiting a coffee plantation. If you are more into cities Panama City is a cosmopolitan mix of old and new: skyscrapers and malls in its new part in contrast with ancient Spanish buildings (with rooftop bars!) in its old town.
Where to go in Panama?
Panama City will be your first stop if you are arriving Panama by flight. Stroll along the Costa Cintera and admire Panama City’s impressive skyline. Go shopping in Albrook, largest mall of the Americas. Visit Panama Viejo’s ruins or stroll around in the old renovated colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo. Don’t miss out a drink in one of the cities countless rooftop bars, party in Calle Uruguay or Casco Viejo. Make sure to read my Panama City Travel guide to find out what to do in Panama City.
Over 350 unspoiled bounty islands: San Blas. Get away from modern civilization, don’t expect any mass tourism or wifi here. Instead, enjoy staying in one of the basic wooden shacks directly located on the beach. Snorkel and relax at the beach in daytime. Eat fresh lobster and have “coco locos” around the bonfire with the local Kuna Indians at night. Click here to read more about my experience in San Blas Islands.
Boquete offers countless hiking trails and outdoor activities. Go hiking by yourself in one of easy-moderate trails close to town or hire a guide for more advanced trails. Climb the Baru Volcano, go horse riding, rafting, enjoy a dip in the natural hot spring, or visit a coffee plantation. Read more in my Boquete travel guide.
Bocas Del Toro is Caribbean archipelago popular for backpackers close to the Cosa Rican border. Rent a quad to go around Isla Colon, go island hopping, spot dolphins, sloths, and countless starfish. Bocas del Toro has various diving and surf schools. Read more in my Bocas del Toro travel guide.
Santa Catalina is a surfers’ paradise on the Pacific coast. Supposed to have the most amazing diving in Panama with tons of sharks around Isla Coiba. Disclaimer: I did not visit Santa Catalina myself, but it is definitely on my list for a future visit to explore the underwater world Coiba has to offer.
Santa Fe is much like Boquete, but with almost no tourists. Small village in the highlands above Santiago, beautiful hikes and waterfalls. Go tubing on the Rio Santa Maria, it’s fun! Read more in my Santa Fe de Veraguas Travel Guide.
Lago Bayano is a peaceful lake with lots of wildlife only two hours from Panama City. Amazing river tracing through caves with thousands of bats. Natural pools waiting for you to swim in at the end! Surprisingly undiscovered by tourists. Read here about my Lago Bayano Cave adventure.
Portobelo is a small ancient fisherman’s village on the Caribbean Northeast. Often combined with a visit to Isla Grande, though I combined it with a visit to the Panama Canal’s new Gatun Locks in Colon.
Tha Panama Canal is perhaps Panama’s most famous attraction. Visit the Miraflores Locks close to Panama City, or take the Panama Canal Railway along the canal from Panama City to Colon and visit the new (larger) Gatun Locks that were opened in summer 2016. Read here how to [not] visit the Panama Canal Gatun Locks in Colon.
My backpack itinerary in Panama;
- Panama City – and right off to;
- San Blas Islands – then back to;
- Panama City – made day trips Panama City here to;
- Bocas del Toro
- Isla Colon
- Isla Bastimento
- Santa Fe de Veraguas
- Panama City
Note: it would have made sense to make a stop in Santa Catalina before going to Boquete, but I only heard about Santa Catalina later during the trip and at that point I found it too far to go from Bocas del Toro to Santa Catalina in one day. Because I did not want to go all the way from Bocas del Toro to Panama city in one leg, I decided to go to Santa Fe instead.
When to go?
Panama has two main seasons: dry season from December till March, and wet season from March till December (December and March are so called “transition months”, where both seasons may overlap). The Caribbean coast (Bocas del Toro, San Blas Islands) has a different climate, and it can be visited all year round (a bit of rain can be expected no matter which season). The highlands of Boquete and Santa Fe can also experience short and heavy showers during dry season.
Personally I visited Panama in December, and the weather was mostly sunny. However nearly every day there would be some rainfall in the afternoon. After rain come sunshine definitely applies in Panama though, usually these afternoon showers were followed by sunshine quickly.
Panama Travel Budget
Accommodation: around $11-$15 a night for dorms, $25-35 a night for private twin or double rooms.
Meals: expect to pay $7-$13 for a meal including drink in a budget restaurant.
Transportation: see transportation below.
Tap water is potable in Panama City, Boquete, Santa Fe, and several other major cities. The tap water in Bocas del Toro is definitely not potable!
Transportation in Panama
How to get to Panama?
Panama City’s Tocumen Airport is well connected with flights all over the world. Read here how to get from Tocumen Airport to Panama City by bus or shared taxi (colectivo).
Transportation within Panama City
For transportation in Panama City you can either Metrobus (from $0.25, but you will need a Metrobus card though, no cash accepted), metro (from $0.35 so far there is only one line), or taxi (from <$2, though taxis are unmetered, so you will have to agree on a price) or Uber. Read more about transportation in Panama City in the Panama City destination guide.
Transportation around Panama
There are air-conditioned (bring warm clothes!) big buses between major cities. Nearly all buses leave from Panama City’s Albrook terminal. A ticket for the overnight express bus from Panama City to David (for Boquete) costs about $18, to Santiago (for Santa Fe) is about half the price. I was unable to buy the bus ticket from Panama City to David in advance, but there are many buses a day. For the bus from Panama City to Almirante (for Bocas del Toro) you should try to book ahead, as there are only two direct buses a day. From major cities it’s usually easy to catch a minibus to your final destination. Transportation in Bocas del Toro is common by taxi-boats.
San Blas Islands and Lago Bayano are harder to access by public transportation and most easily accessible by tour.
Air Panama has several domestic flights, however I did not makes use of these as they were very high priced for someone that’s used to travel on low cost airlines in Europe or Asia.
Transportation from Panama to Costa Rica
There are direct express buses between Panama City (Albrook) and San José, one of the bus companies that provides this service is called Tica Bus. Small buses run from Almirante (Bocas del Toro) to the border from where you can take another minibus to Puerto Viejo.
Transportation from Panama to Colombia
The notorious Darién Gap lies in between Panama and Colombia, the Pan-American Highway stops here for about 160km and it is not possible to cross the border through the Darién Gap. El Machico and several other hostels in Panama City offer sailings to Colombia (mostly Cartagena), via several San Blas Islands. Otherwise the easiest option is to fly. Low cost airline VivaColombia offers affordable flights between Panama City (Pacifico International Airport which is different from Tocumen Airport) and Colombia (Bogota and Medellin).
Where did I stay in Panama?
|Panama City||El Machico Hostel|
|Panama City||Lemon Inn|
|San Blas Islands||Cabañas Eneida (same island as Ina’s)|
|Bocas del Toro: Isla Colon||Hotel Las Brisas|
|Bocas del Toro: Isla Bastimentos||Beverly’s Hill|
|Santa Fe (de Veraguas)||La Qhia Eco Retreat (formerly Hostel La Qhia)|
Staying connected in Panama (prepaid data sim)
All three carriers offer prepaid plans (ask for prepago) including data. Digicel is the only network that has (partly) coverage on the San Blas Islands. I bought a Digicel sim in one of the official Digitel stores in Panama City (close to Via Argentina metro station), and paid $15USD for about 150mins of calls/texts + 2GB of data + 10GB of “social media data” (which only starts counting after the normal 2GB are used up), the sim was included for free with this plan. From my experience the Digicel sim often worked faster or at least more stable than most hostel/public WiFi networks. Make sure to bring your passport when you buy the sim. You can also use Airlo to buy a local e-sim, that way you will be connected as soon as you land!
Visited: December 2016.