After 16 days in the small country of Panama, I am so excited to share with you everything I learned while there and help you be as prepared as possible for a trip of your own. Panama is an exciting destination that offers so much from sea to jungle, culture to nightlife and very varied experiences. This is a very comprehensive Panama travel guide broken into standard things to know before your trip like getting a SIM and budget tips as well as what to do while you’re there. I have added a map of the top towns to visit, tour options, the top experiences to have in Panama, and much more.
While 16 days isn’t a lifetime, it’s quite a while for such a small country and I have covered a lot of ground in that time which this blog post in mind so I kept notes throughout and want to make sure you’re prepared budget-wise and also have all the best experiences Panama can offer on your first visit.
Panama Travel Guide
Panama travel guide: things to know before you visit Panama
When to visit Panama
The peak travel time in Panama is December to April with the rest of the time being the rainy season, but there is never really a time that it is guaranteed not to rain. The country is mostly rainforests and gets rain all year round. If you travel in the off-season like I did, it will rain but it’s quick showers that pass by and you still get tons of sunny days.
Festivals in Panama
If you want to plan your stay around some popular festivals, you can check out this calendar which lists them out.
How long to stay in Panama
I stayed for 16 days. This was more than enough to see the top “tourist” places and beyond. I think two weeks is the ideal time but even with one week, you can see quite a bit.
Here is my two-week travel itinerary for Panama.
International flights in and out of Panama vs. entering overland
Panama City is connected between Colombia and Costa Rica. You can enter Panama from Costa Rica, which many backpackers do. You can also come on a sailing trip from Colombia through the shared San Blas Islands but you cannot enter overland from Colombia unless you want to take a huge risk. You can read here about this area of the world ‘The Darien Gap’, which is barely traveled, and a bit dangerous. The main way to enter Panama is through the Tocumen International airport in Panama City. I came from Mexico with Aeromexico but most major airlines fly here and Panama City is a good place to start and finish your trip.
Transportation around Panama: taxis, Uber, budget shuttles, domestic flights, cheap local buses
There are taxis everywhere and they use the meter or will tell you the price ahead of time. Ours always said $3 or $5 and didn’t hassle us at all. Uber was about the same price and we found Uber reliable and safe when we used it in Panama City, however, I don’t think it’s available outside of there.
Between cities, many travelers choose to use the tourist shuttle buses which are around $30 for most routes and are economically a good option. Budget travelers tend to go for local buses which are just a few bucks but take much much longer as they stop often. You can hire drivers/taxis between cities for usually around $100-$200 depending on the distance and if you are splitting with friends this can be a great way to get around.
You could rent a car yourself which is a very easy way to get around and most likely the cheapest. The roads are very safe, paved, and wide and you won’t have a problem driving yourself.
Lastly, you can fly between the bigger destinations into hubs like David and Bocas Del Toro from the small Albrook Airport in Panama City with Air Panama. I did this a few times and it was wonderful. Flights anywhere are only an hour and they are around $100. More detailed information is in the itinerary later.
Visas For Panama
Most nationalities like all of the EU, USA, Aus, Canada, and a huge list do not require visas to enter Panama. You can see the list here. When you enter Panama, you can stay for 180 days as a tourist. I was put through the fast-tracked line at the airport and got a piece of paper NOT a stamp in my passport but Silvia, who flew separate, went through the normal line and got a stamp. I’m not sure how they choose this, but they pulled me out of line. Either way is fine but if you are like me, then you need to keep that piece of paper for when you leave or when you fly domestically.
How to get a SIM card in Panama
It’s very easy and cheap to get a SIM card in Panama. When you get to Panama City, go to Avenida Central and go into any phone shop. Buy a Digicel SIM which is $1. Then get two weeks of credit which is unlimited for $10. This is super easy and for us worked like a charm. Digicel has the most coverage and I even got signal out in the San Blas Islands.
Health, Safety, Solo Travel, Culture, and Language in Panama
Panama is a very clean, safe country overall. While there are some regions that are less safe, like Colon (which apparently has pirates), our only real concern here would be a small scam or pickpocketing like anywhere in the world.
The people speak Spanish here and many will know English. But, in more rural areas it is helpful to know some basic Spanish. You can dress how you’d like – it’s not conservative or anything like that. Traveling solo here might be a bit boring in my opinion as it’s not a big backpackers country overall, but it’s safe to do.
Packing for Panama
I have written a post dedicated to packing in Panama and tips on what to wear in Panama which you can read here.
Currency and budget tips for Panama
In Panama when you go to the ATM, you will get US Dollars. While the “Balboa” is the Panamanian currency, the USD is equal to it and used more often than the Balboa. When you get change at a shop, it might be coins from Panama. It’s okay to intermix it.
Panama is fairly expensive and comparable to the rest of Central America, widely recognized as the most expensive country. But, keep in mind it’s still much cheaper than the USA or UK for example and you can easily travel on a budget here staying at $15 hostels, $100 nice hotels, and $200-300 luxury hotels. Transportation is also tiered very cheap ($5 for a long local bus ride or $200 for a taxi for 5 hours). You can make your own budget here and definitely stay under $30/day if you wanted or even less if you didn’t do tours and ate street food.
Lodging styles in Panama: where to book, where I stayed, unique stays
There are 5-star and chain hotels in Panama City but the rest of Panama is mostly B&Bs, boutique hotels, lodges, and other independent style hotels. I loved this and it added to the charm. There are also hostels in all the places tourists would go in Panama, so there are going to be budget options.
Airbnb is a great option in Panama as there are cute apartments in Casco Viejo (the trendy part of Panama City), tree houses in Bocas Del Toro, and sailboats in San Blas. If you book through them, this link will give you $40 off. Browse Airbnb’s in Panama here.
We stayed in some amazing hotels in Panama. Here are a few of my favorites which I’ll link to through booking.com since that is the main booking site in Panama (so more places will be listed there than other sites). These are the most popular and beautiful hotels in Panama. There are more which I mention in posts about each destination, but these are my favorite ones.
- Panamonte Hotel, Boquete
- Casa Azul, Boquete
- Casa Cayuco, Bocas Del Toro
- La Loma Jungle Lodge and Choco Farm, Bocas Del Toro
- Finca Vela Lodge, Bocas Del Toro
- American Trade Hotel, Panama City
- Clementinas, Panama City
- Isla Palenque, Boca Chica (island)
Local Panamanian food
Panama has delicious food! Panamanian food is great (and has a Caribbean twist with a focus on seafood) but you’ll also find Italian, Mexican, and more here. A simple dish here would be beans, rice, some chicken with spice on it, and some plantain chips or the famous Panama chicken stew (which is yummy!). Everything is very fresh and locally made – that was the vibe we got in all the areas we traveled. If you don’t like seafood you might struggle in the San Blas islands where they don’t have meat. There is no electricity to keep it cold). You will need to pack snacks if you don’t eat meat or seafood.
Top towns to visit in Panama with a map
The top towns in Panama to visit are Panama City (and the surrounding Gamboa Rainforest), San Blas Islands (now called Guna Yala), Boquete (in the mountains where the Baru Volcano is), the Gulf of Chiriqui (to see the whales and forest), and Bocas Del Toro. If you’re into surfing and yoga, then you will want to check out Santa Catalina.
David a hub to get from Panama City to Chiriqui by flight. David will get you just an hour from both Boca Chica (to get down to the whales) or Boquete (to go to the mountains. As you can see the small country has very cool landscapes from the Caribbean to the Pacific and the city to the jungle. There is a lot to see which is why I say you’ll want at least a week.
Two-week itinerary for Panama
I spent 16 days in Panama, however, 14 would have sufficed. I have written up a detailed itinerary of my time there for 14 days (taking out what I felt I would change if I did it again) and also added in a one-week itinerary. You can read this here and have a good idea of how your trip will go and how to get from point A to point B.
Tour companies to consider in Panama
Once you reach Panama, you’ll see travel agencies on every street where you can book day tours. If you want a tour planned for the whole country, I recommend booking with G Adventures who do a “Best of Panama” tour for $799 for 8 days. That includes internal transport (which is two flights), your Panama canal tickets, your hotels, day-tours, and activities. You can check out all the details here. The tour ends in Panama City and covers the top places except for San Blas, so you could extend and go to San Blas on your own if you wanted.
Top experiences and things to do in Panama
You will see sloths, eat good food, see starfish, meet tribal Indians, shop til you drop, stay at amazing B&B, have jungle adventures, and more. I made a list of the top 37 experiences to have in Panama so that you don’t leave with FOMO (fear of missing out). You can read it here.
Yoga retreats in Panama
Most yoga retreats in Panama are in Santa Catalina. This is kind of on its own in comparison of the rest of Panama and not something I could fit on my itinerary. Most people who go here for retreats fly into Panama City and have transportation arranged. It’s kind of dead center in the South of the country.
The most trusted site for yoga retreats is bookyoagretreats.com which has reviews set up like TripAdvisor. The top-ranked retreat is this one which is $1200 for 7 days. It includes all your meals, lodging, airport transfer, 5 surf lessons, 5 yoga lessons, and some local tours. it looks beautiful!
What to buy in Panama and tips on negotiating
I’m a shopper but let me tell you – there was not an awful lot I wanted to buy in Panama. I got two famous Panama hats (which range from $15-300); one was plain for $15 and one had stripes for $30. I bought some traditional Panamanian shoes for $10. I bought all this from one woman and originally it was $15 for the shoes but she gave me $5/off since I got three things. So, negotiating here is necessary but it’s not going to make a huge difference.
In Boquete, I got some net bags. One shop told me $15 and I thought that can’t be right but couldn’t be bothered to negotiate. Later, someone told me $6. I told her I’ll take 4 of them if they are $5 and she agreed. I didn’t buy anything other than this. The rest of the items were colorful backpacker things. I didn’t see any homewares that weren’t tacky. You can get some small souvenirs and chocolate or coffee to take home to friends. A bottle of rum is also a nice idea.