A Travel Guide with Tips on how to explore Panama

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Photo by Thom Mattsson

Panama Travel Guide

As I enjoy sharing my travel experiences for those who need inspiration or even motivation I now created my first travel guide. Today, we’re going to have a look at traveling through Panama! I spend 2 weeks in Panama alone in the spring of 2014 and another 4 weeks with my boyfriend in the spring of 2016.

Accommodation

As most accommodations in Panama offer an air-conditioning or a fan and they are all well maintained you will find the price-quality quite alright. Most hostels charge about $12 USD for a dorm bed and include breakfast, but if you’re looking for a private room the price can easily go up to $30 USD with breakfast included. Simple hotels charge about $30 to $40 USD per night and they also offer private bathrooms.

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The inside of a private hut at Cabanas Miro (San Blas)

Transport

Flights/buses

While the local bus will get you almost anywhere in Panama, make sure not to forget the airlines. E.g. a 45 minutes flight from Bocas to Panama City will costs you less than $100 USD, while a cheaper bus-ride will take you half a day.

Taxi

Taxis in Panama City make their own prices, so make sure to ask your ho(s)tel what the price would be for a certain destination before you get on board. Some taxis are shared and they are known as ‘collectivos’. You might step into a taxi where somebody else is already sitting in, which will lower your taxi fare and is normal in Panama. Haggling for your taxi price should be part of your expectations.

Bicycles

On most coastal destination like Bocas del Toro and Santa Catalina it’s normal to go around by bike. The prices vary from $5 to $12 USD for a bicycle to rent per day.

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Cycling at Bocas del Toro

Food

Panama has great international food at plenty of restaurants, but the local food just didn’t make me very enthusiastic. I find it a bit boring and lacking flavors compared to the food of Panama’s neighboring countries.

You might want to save some money by eating at local stands – who, by the way, do offer great food. Furthermore, stick to drinking beer to save money as it is cheaper to order a local Balboa beer than ordering a Coca Cola!

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A food stand at Bocas del Toro

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The local Balboa beer

Activities

Panama offers a broad variety of activities from adventurous to relaxed. Most tours can be found along the nature areas of Panama, but in the city you will not be bored either.

Have a look at the following list of things to see or do in Panama.

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Panama City

Things you must see or do in Panama

  • Visit San Blas and meet the Kunas

    San Blas has a famous name, yet almost no one knows there this pearl is hidden. The San Blas islands are definitely part of Panama, but due to the native Kuna people it’s as if you’re voyaging to a completely different country. Think private palm beaches with coconuts for lunch, snorkeling, natives as your neighbor and simply a piece of paradise in the Atlantic.

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A Kuna child playing in a canoe

  • Visit Casco Viejo in Panama City

    Panama City might be the great hub of Central America, but it also has ruins from back in the days. The highlight of Panama City of course is the Panama Canal but the true heart of Panama City lays in Casco Viejo. There the old Spanish colonial part of the country is still visible in ruins. You can take a taxi from the center of town to Casco Viejo, but make sure you don’t get overcharged for the ride!

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Casco Viejo ruins

  • Go surfing at Santa Catalina

    Santa Catalina has the typical surfer vibe combined with the professionalism of diver. It’s a sleepy town on the Pacific side of Panama. With no ATM machines in town and just enough water and electricity to keep its tourism steady, by sure to prepare for basic life standards with a lot of reggae.

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Santa Catalina surf area

  • Lay on the many beaches of Bocas del Toro

    The island of Bocas has become a backpackers haven and offers an international vibe with comfort for those who need it and good prices for all the rest. With many lovely sandy beaches you will find a week of sun soaking very easy to do at Bocas. The local transport exists of bikes and collective taxis. Diving here is lovely and, oh, there are only 2 ATM’s on the island!

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Playa Bluff

  • Go scuba diving (or snorkeling) with sharks and rays at Isla Coiba

    It might have a scary sound to it, but it was one of the coolest experience I’ve had traveling as a diver. I never had the chance to dive with sharks and here, at Isla Coiba you could get close to them!

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White Tip Reef Sharks

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A school of Cownose Rays

  • Spend a night at Mamallena Eco Lodge in El Valle de Anton

    If you’re in need of getting back in touch with nature, well, then here’s where you should go. The Mamallena Eco Lodge serves home-made organic food while lodging you in a river cabin. They are not the cheapest place to go to if you’re backpacking, but it’s surely worth a night or two. Something I found really cool is that yoga classes are given for free when they have traveling yoga teachers around!

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Mamallena Eco Lodge

Costs

Besides the occasional dives and fancy diners, Panama should have been cheaper than the trip turned out to be. The tourism focus in Panama is on Americans and the dollar sign has become an often seen symbol for travelers.

My personal goal in Panama budget-wise was spending a maximum of $50 USD a day. Based on my daily expenses in Bocas del Toro ($133 USD), Santa Catalina ($90 USD) and San Blas ($79 USD) I reached the following expenses in Panama: $101 USD per day! So I failed. However, it is possible to spend less.

Keep in mind that I was traveling with my boyfriend and we had a couple of fancy diners and simply needed a bit more privacy. You can get lower costs by sleeping in dorm rooms and eating more street food. Organizing dives and our lack of taking the local bus a few times got us a higher cost.

Lesson learned:

It’s always better to over-budget and spend less instead of under budgeting”

Where have you been in Panama? What did you like best? Anything still on your wish list?

 

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Playa de San Blas 🙂

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Ever since I left my home country I felt at home at any other place I went to. I enjoy getting to know more cultures by talking to strangers and hearing their philosophy about life. Speaking with gestures when you can not find a shared language, finding places only the locals go to and learn about their customs and values. Hanging out with local people makes me happy. The experience of every new place is a step out of your comfort zone where I like to wander around until it feels like a second home.

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