Panama

Panama

In march 2019 we spent 26 days in Panama. This was our first journey to the american continent and we really liked the country from the beginning.

1. General Information

Panama is situated in Middle America between Costa Rica and Columbia. With its pacifc and caribbean coast the country offers lots of heavenly beaches. Besides, it can also score with wild, nearly untouched rainforests, diverse wildlife and a bustling, exciting capital.

  • population: 4’098’000 
  • area: 75417 km²
  • time zone: UTC -5
  • famous native animals: sloath, armadillo, tapir, ocelot, loudmouth, quetzal, strawberry frog, dolphin, sea turtle

2. Language

The official language in Panama is spanish. When visiting Panama it is a big advantage to have at least basic knowledge of the language. We experienced the panamanians to speak quiet less english, except surprisingly on Isla Bastimentos where everybody spoke english fluently. But don’t worry if you don’t know any spanish! The locals are nevertheless very helpfull and most will try to understand your signs or ask someone else who speaks little english to help you. Nevertheless you should learn some basic words before your trip because the locals are very pleased hearing you talking their language.

Here are some basics everyone can use:

Hola – Hello

Gracias – Thank You

Por Favor – Please

Disculpe – Excuse Me

Cuanto cuesta? – How much does it cost?

3. Money Issues

The official currency of Panama is the Balboa but they almost only use US-Dollar (1 Balboa=1 US-Dollar). Paying by credit card is not very common.  Because of that you should always have enough cash with you. There are ATM’s in nearly every town except (on our route) Santa Catalina and Isla Bastimentos. In Santa Catalina you can pay by creditcard in some restaurants unless the internet doesn’t work (which happens quiet often). On Isla Bastimentos you have to pay everything with cash, the small restaurants there don’t accept credit cards. At the ATM’s you will always have to pay a fee of 4-5$ but you can reclaim the fee at your bank afterwards.

4. Safety

We always felt very safe during our stay. The people we met were very friendly and helpful and furthermore there were policemen in every street and even on the beaches. So with common sense you won’t have any problems.

5. Transportation

The transport system in Panama is quiet easy. There are connections between all bigger cities and you can even get out in between. But as streets are not in best condition and the speed limit at the highway is just 80 km/h bus rides can take much longer as usual. Between tourist places like Santa Catalina, Boquete and Bocas del Toro there are special shuttles that bring you there directly. The price of the shuttles is around 30$ which is much more than the tickets for public transports but it’s faster. In Panama City you can also get around easily with buses and metrolines.  

Read more about transportation in Panama City in the articles “Public Transport Panama City”

Further information about buses between the cities are included at 6. Itinerary.

6. Itinerary

Panama City - 3 days

How to get to Panama City

  • from Tocumen Airport: see here
  • direct buses from all big cities

Things to do in Panama City

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Panama Canal
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Parque Natural Metropolitano

  • reachable by bus, uber and on foot
  • 5 different trails
  • total walking time 2,5h
  • 2 view points where you see the whole city
  • entrance: 4$

Panama Canal

  • visit at Miraflores Locks
  • reachable by public bus, uber (~5$) 
  • museum with film about the canal and observation deck
  • see arriving ships e.g. here: https://www.marinetraffic.com/
  • entrance museum: 20$
  •  boattrip through canal: >100$
  • entrance restaurant: free
  • read more about the free possibility here: https://way2paradise.com/how-to-visit-panama-canal-for-free/

Casco Viejo

  • contains restaurants, bars, hotels, churches, squares
  • ~half a day to walk through
  • stony beach at the end -> not for swimming but with nice view of the skyline and Calzada de Amador
  • at night: light strings and other lightenings everywhere
  • restaurants and shops are quiet expensive
  • entrance: free
Cerro Ancun - Panama City
Panama la Vieja - Panama City
Soberania National Parc
by Geoff Gallice

Ancon Hill / Cerro Ancon

  • get there by uber (till end of public road, ~3$) or bus (till foot of the hill)
  • takes ~1h to walk up the hill on an asphalted street
  • 3 view points at the top -> see Miraflores Locks, different national parcs, skyline of the city, Puente de los Americas
  • entrance: free

Panama la Vieja

  • ruins outside of the citycenter
  • easily reachable by metro bus
  • includes museum, view point and archeological parc
  • entrance: 15$ (students: 5$)

Soberania National Parc

  • 30 minutes drive from city center
  • reachable by public buses and uber (~8$)
  • contains 3 trails
  • official entrance: 5$ (normally free)

Accomodations in Panama City

El Valle de Anton - 2 days

How to get to El Valle de Anton

  • from Panama City:
    • there are several direct buses leaving from Albrook Terminal
    • first bus around 6am, last around 9pm
    • buy tickets at the ticket counters inside Albrook Terminal
    • you need to pay a fee of 0,1$ at a turnstile to get to the buses -> locals will help you as you need a card to pass threw
    • duration: 2,5-3h 
    • ticket price: 4,5$
  • from Santiago:
    • catch one of the buses leading to Panama City and tell the driver that you want to get to El Valle
    • the bus will drop you at a bus stop on the motorway
    • cross the road and wait on the bus stop for the bus leading to El Valle
    • duration: 3h
    • ticket price: 5$

Things to do in El Valle de Anton

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Cerro Cara Iguana

La India Dormida

  • view over the whole volcano crater from the top
  • walking time: ~4h
  • 2 possible ways:
  • way 1: 
    • official way
    • long leisure increase along the waterfalls
    • entrance: 3$
  • way 2:
    • inofficial
    • steep increase at beginning
    • entrance: free

Chorro las Mozas Waterfalls

  • ~1h walking distance from city center
  • 30 min. walk from entrance till waterfall
  • easy, leisure trail
  • swimming is possible
  • entrance: 1$

Cerro Cara Iguana

  • great sunset hike with fantastic view over el Valle
  • accessable from town on foot
  • best time: on clear evenings
  • start hike 1,5-2h before sunset
  • entrance: free

Accomodations in Valle de Anton

La Villa de los Santos - 2 days

How to get to La Villa de los Santos/Chitré

  • from Panama City:
    • there are direct buses to “Chitré” several times a day (ticket price: ~9$)
    • take the bus from Chitré leading to “Los Santos” (ticket price: 0,4$)
    • total duration: 5,5h
    • total price: 9,5$
  • from Santiago:
    • there are direct buses to Chitré every hour
    • duration: 1,5h
    • ticket price: 3$
    • (to get to los Santos see above)

Things to do in La Villa de los Santos

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Sarigua National Parc

  • desert-like landscape because of high salt concentration in the ground
  • driest region of Panama
  • reachable by public bus from Chitré till bus stop on the main road or by bus and taxi
  • no defined trails, view tower
  • walking time ~2h
  • entrance: 5$

Accomodations in La Villa de los Santos / Chitré

Santa Catalina - 2 days

How to get to Santa Catalina

  • from Panama City:
    • there are direct buses leading to Santiago several times a day (ticket price: ~9$) and take from there a bus to Sona (ticket price: 2$)
    • you can also catch a direct bus to Sona several times a day (ticket price: ~9$)
    • in Sona you need to catch one of the 5 daily buses to Santa Catalinalast bus at 4:30pm, on sundays already at 3pm!!! (ticket price: 4,6$)
    • total duration: 8-10h
    • total ticket price: 13,6$
    • plan enough time so you won’t miss the last bus to Santa Catalina
  • from Boquete:
    • first take the bus to David (ticket price: 1,75$)
    • from David take the bus to Santiago (ticket price:~6$)
    • from Santiago on see above
    • total duration: 8h
    • total price: 14,4$

Things to do in Santa Catalina

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Isla Coiba and snorkeling tour

  • bookable everywhere in town (agencies, hostels)
  • includes 3 snorkel stops, lunch break at Isla Coiba
  • short hikes on Isla Coiba possible
  • snorkeling equipment can be rented
  • underwater world: sea turtles, reef sharks, moraines…
  • price: 80$

Accomodations in Santa Catalina

Boquete - 4 days

How to get to Boquete

  • from Panama City:
    • you can catch direct buses to David several times a day (ticket price: ~13$) or via Santiagoto David more frequently
    • from David take the bus leading to Boquete (ticket price: 1,75$)
    • total duration: 8,5h
    • total ticket price: 15$
  • from Isla Colon
    • first take the watertaxi to Almirante (same place where you arrived, ticket price: 5$)
    • afterwards take the bus to David (ticket price: 9,5$,)
    • in Almirante you need to walk from the ferry terminal to the bus stop (~10 min.)
    • from David take the bus to Boquete (ticket price: 1,75$)
    • total duration: 5-6h
    • total ticket price: 16,25$

Things to do in Boquete

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Lost Waterfalls Trail

  • nice hike with 3 big waterfalls to see
  • 30 min. walk up till entrance + 3h hike
  • muddy slippery ground -> wear good shoes
  • get there by bus (2,5$ per ride, direction “bajo mono”)
  • entrance: 7$

Quetzal Trail

  •  6km hike till view point
  • start in Boquete or Cerra Punta
  • either go back at view point or go on to exit in Cerra Punta
  • walking time to mirador and back from Boquete: 5-6h
  •  easy trail through the jungle (possible to see the Quetzal) with steep step increase at the end
  • get there by bus (3$, direction “bajo mono”)
  • last bus leaves ranger station in Boquete at 5pm!
  • entrance: free

Pipeline Trail

  • easy hike through the jungle along the river
  • high waterfall at the end
  • muddy ground
  • get there by bus (2,5$, direction “bajo mono”)
  • entrance: 3$

Accomodations in Boquete

Isla Colon - 5 days

How to get to Isla Colon

  • from Panama City:
    • you can book direkt buses to Isla Colon, including bus ticket and ferry transfer 
    • walk from ferry terminal in Almirante to the bus stop
    • duration: 10-11h
    • ticket price: 34$
  • from Boquete:
    • first catch the bus to David (ticket price: 1,75$)
    • in David there are many people trying to sell you tickets to Bocas del Toro
    • they will bring you to the right bus
    • the ticket you buy mostly includes as well bus and watertaxi ticket 
    • walk to the ferry terminal from the bus stop in Almirante (~10 min.)
    • duration: 6h
    • total ticket price: 11,25$

Things to do on Isla Colon

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Starfish Beach

  • long beach with many snack stands
  • you can see lots of star fish in the shallow water without snorkel equipment
  • you can get pina colada in a pineapple fo 3$ here (last snack stand)
  • get there by bus to Boca del Drago and then walk 15 min. along the beach and on a jungle path

Playa Boca del Drago

  • small beach in the north of the island
  • get there by bus (2,5$, final bus stop)
  • 2 restaurants at the beach
  • entrance: free

Accomodations on Isla Colon

Isla Bastimentos - 2 days

How to get to Isla Bastimentos

  • from Isla Colon
    • take the watertaxi going directly to Isla Bstimentos
    • the boats don’t leave at the big ferry terminal (where you probably arrived)
    • there are several ticket providers, look around and compare prices
    • duration: 20 minutes
    • ticket price: 3-6$

Things to do on Isla Bastimentos

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Wizard Beach

  • reachable through a jungle track from town 
  • walking time ~1h
  • great long beach with good waves to jump into
  • also suitable for surfing 

Red Frog Beach

  • called after small red frogs that you can find there
  • get there by boat from Bastimentos Town or walk to wizard beach and then along the beach until there’s a way through the jungle
  • boat ticket: 5$
  • entrance: 5$ (free if you walk there)

Accomodations on Isla Bastimentos

7. Costs

From our experiences Panama is not a really expensive backpacking country but you also can’t compare prices to backpacking in Asia.

We always slept in private rooms or Airbnb’s and ate outside (snacks for lunch and restaurants for dinner). Furthermore we avoided organized tours  and tried to do all trips on our own. We used public transport and uber instead of tourist shuttles and taxis too.  All in all we have never waived anything and allowed us a lot. This way of travelling we spent 42,5$ (37,8€) on average. Our time in Los Santos, Boquete and Isla Colon was more expensive than at the other places because they were very touristy.

Certain prices

ride with metro bus: 0,15$

30 min. uber ride: 5$

10h bus ride (Isla Colon – Panama City): 30$

dinner in restaurant: 10-15$

1l bottle water: 0,9$

beer in restaurant: 1-2$

Money saving tips

  1. use public transport instead of shuttle services: they are much cheaper and take about the same amount of time
  2. buy fruits on local markets instead of the supermarket: fruits are much cheaper atmarkets and the choice is bigger
  3. Avoid “chino-markets”: the small shops by mostly chinese people resell all the products which is why they are mostly more expensive than in the supermarket
  4. Avoid tourist restaurants – eat local: this tip is hard to follow as local restaurants are hard to find at some places but you can save a lot of money by eating there

Statement of our costs for 26 days

In the following graphic we registered our total costs for 26 days backpacking in Panama. The graphic shows the costs for one person and includes really all expenses, from accomodation over supermarket purchases to souvenirs and farmacy stuff.

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