BACKPACKING IN PANAMA
Panama is quite often omitted from backpacker's plans. Some say it's too expensive, others say there's nothing to see. Truth is, during our research we found very little recent information about travelling through Panama. So, we've put together this guide to give you all the information you need to get the best out of this Central American gem.
UK citizens do not require a visa to enter Panama, the only exception is if you are arriving by sea. As long as your passport is valid for the next 180 days you will be permitted to stay in the country for a period of 90 days. Most information out there suggests that you will need to prove that you have funds in excess of 500 USD available before you can enter, but we weren't asked to prove this, and neither was anybody else we spoke to.
One thing you will almost certainly be asked to provide is proof of onward travel. If you're anything like us, you probably won't know what you'll be doing tomorrow let alone when you'll be leaving the country. A good way around this is to go to an airport and book a flight out of Panama which you'll pay for later. Only some airlines will do this but the ones that do will give you a print out and hold your reservation for 48 hours. This should be enough to convince the border agent to let you through. If not, worst case scenario is you just book a cheap bus from a border town into somewhere in Costa Rica.
From Colombia - Colombia to Panama by land isn't really a viable option unless you're on parr with the likes of Bear Grylls or an elite SAS soldier. The vast area of jungle and swamp between the two countries is know as the 'Darian Gap' and, as well as being an extreme challenge to tackle the terrain, there's a good chance you'll encounter poisonous scorpions, kidnappers, drug-traffickers or outlawed guerrilla fighters. So, for now at least, lets call that 'Plan B'.
'Plan A' would be to chose between a boat or a plane. You can take a boat from one country to the other, most tours include a stop over at the beautiful San Blas Islands. These trips take 3-5 days and, aside from being quite costly (up to 500 USD) the rocky boat journey can be very unpleasant. All that in mind, we opted to take a flight from Cartagena to Panama City. One ticket cost us $125 (£96.15) with Wingo airlines.
From Costa Rica (Sixaola) - The border crossing between the Costa Rican town of Sixaola and Guabito in Panama once had a pretty shady reputation (like a lot of Central American border crossings). Stories of corruption and "official fees" being relentlessly enforced rang out all across the backpacking community. These days it's perfectly safe, with the exception of the standard, run-of-the-mill border town weirdos harassing tourists. From the bus station in Sixaola you take a right and climb up the little slope in front of you. Turn left and the immigration office is on your right. Cross over the bridge and to your right you will see the old bridge about which thousands of travellers have shared tales about people in "official" military uniforms collecting fees. Once over the bridge, turn left and pass through Panamanian immigration just around the corner.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
Bocas Del Toro -
A chain of islands off the Caribbean coast with a wide range of biodiversity. Popular with holiday-makers and backpackers alike, Boca Del Toro has a number of wonderful beaches, jungle, great nightlife and restaurants and feel-good Caribbean vibes. Our favourite beach is Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach) which, as you might imagine, is home to scores of starfish and other fish.
Bocas accommodation recommendation - If you want to treat yourself to a little luxury, have a look at M&M's residencias. Wonderful wood cabins right on the water. Open the balcony door and dive right in.
Go Diving -
If you want to go diving in Panama, there's only one choice. La Buga dive & surf on Bocas Del Toro is the best dive school in the whole country. Super friendly and knowledgable instructors, modern boats and equipment and there are plenty of interesting things to explore on the dive like a sunken boat. Also, the food is incredible. Be sure to try the Caribbean nachos.
Panama City -
The country's capital wouldn't be out of place in any major city in the west. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants, shops, clubs and bars. The city is so easy to navigate on the metro. Get a card for $2 (£1.55) and every ride is only $0.35 (£0.25), you'll be able to see all the major sights. The highlight for us is the UNESCO heritage site, Casco Viejo. Spend a few hours walking around the historic district and take in the sights.
Panama city hostel recommendation - ZEBULO hostel is centrally located and right next to the Via Argentina metro station. Dorm beds start at $10 (£7.70) but, due to the constant improvements the owner is making, she offers willing volunteers free accommodation.
This wonderfully scenic little village is set in the picturesque mountains of Western Panama. It's the perfect place to escape and shut yourself off from the outside world for a few days. Visit the coffee plantations, walk one of the many hikes or go birdwatching. Boquete is all about rest and relaxation.
Rainforest parks -
There are a number of wildlife reserves and national parks across Panama where you can bask in natural beauty to the sounds of birds and monkeys and be at one with nature. Amongst the most popular are Soberania, Chagres and Metropolitano.
Historical ruins, laid-back vibes, quiet beaches and beautiful lakes. Need we say more?
A small town of around 3,500 people a little way off the beaten path. There is a stunning beach where you can spend your days soaking up the sun, sipping rum and riding waves. It doesn't get much more chilled out than Pedasi.
BUDGET & MONEY
There's no way around it, Panama is pretty expensive. But, overall, from buses to accommodation, standards are pretty high and you get what you pay for. Although Panama does technically have its own currency, the Panamanian Balbo, they mostly use USD. The problem with this is that everything seems to cost $1. Bottle of water? $1. A banana? $1. Need the toilet? Yeah, you guessed it, $1.
An average double room in a hostel or basic hotel will run you around $30 (£23) and a the journey from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro will cost around $33 (£25.40). That's a pretty sizeable chunk of change if you're used to the price of buses in South America. Whether you opt for street food or groceries you'll be spending a minimum of $4-5 (£3.10-3.85) per person per meal.
Obviously, you can reduce costs by going for the cheapest 20 bed dorm and eating crackers but buses, which were our biggest expense in Panama, are just expensive across the board.
Bus transport in Panama is fairly comfortable and punctual. Road conditions are, for the most part, pretty decent and driving standards are among the best in Central America (if that counts for much). Unlike other countries in Central, Panama's bus stations are modern and well organised. There are frequent buses between the vast majority of all the major tourist destinations. The only complaint about bus travel in Panama is the cost. On average we were paying around $3 (£2.30) per hour of travel. This may not seem that much by western standards but, when comparing to other Central and South American countries, it's pretty steep.
- Panama City to David - 6 hours - $18 (£13.85)
- David to Almirante - 4 hours - $10 (£7.70)
- Almirante to Bocas Del Toro (boat) - 30 mins - $5 (£3.85)
- Almirante to Guabito - 2 hours - $7 (£5.40)
Overall, Panama is pretty easy to navigate and, so long as you exercise common sense and caution, you shouldn't encounter too many issues.
Neither we nor anybody we have spoken to has encountered any serious issues in Panama. As with any destination on the backpacker trail you need to keep a sharp eye on your belongings on buses and in and around stations, cities and major attractions as petty crime and bag theft is always a concern. The biggest annoyance in Panama, being a bit of a hotspot for the more wealthy tourists, is over-inflated tourist prices. Now we like all backpackers are well-accustomed to attempts to overcharge us for pretty much everything imaginable. Don't be afraid to haggle, just remember to be polite and respectful at all times.
Final thing; make sure to have these numbers saved in your phone -
- Police: 104
- Ambulance/Fire: 103
- Tourist Police: +507 527 9873
- Your Embassy (UK): +507 297 6550