Nomadic Matt’s Panama Travel Tips
Since the creation of the world famous Panama Canal in 1914, this country has been at the heart of International shipping, connecting the Pacific with the Caribbean. Its position of lying between South and North America is quite representative of the different cultures that coexist within this small country. The skyscrapers and busy shopping districts of Panama City sit just miles away from sun-soaked beaches and wildlife-rich jungles. For the budget traveler looking to experience a diverse range of cultures and sights, Panama is the ideal addition to your travel itinerary.
Typical Costs in Panama
- Accommodation: Accommodation is extremely cheap in Panama with a night in a hostel between $8-15USD. There are plenty of budget hotels costing between $20-50USD per night.
- Food: A meal in a casual dining restaurant will cost around $12USD, with a more upmarket place coming in at around $20USD
- Transportation: Taxis are not metered in Panama, fares are determined based on which “zone” of the city your trip begins and ends. To travel from one side of Panama City to the other is around $4USD. There is also an efficient bus service which costs just $0.25 for a ticket.
- Activities: The natural and historical sights of Panama are relatively inexpensive to take in, for example, it is free to see Panama Viejo on a Sunday or just $2USD at other times. However, organized excursions can be pricey with the Panama Canal Railway trip costing $44USD and the Embera Indian Village excursion coming in at $98USD.
Money Saving Tips for Panama
- Carry small change. Taxi drivers and shop assistants will not accept $20 dollar bills to pay for inexpensive items. Be sure to break notes before going shopping or getting a taxi in case you are left with no other option but to pay with a 20!
- Go shopping. Panama is the second largest free trade zone in the world. If you have souvenirs to bring from your travels or need to stock up on anything, do it in Panama as what you buy will be much cheaper here than in most other places!
Top Things to See in Panama
- The Panama Canal. First opened in 1914, the Panama Canal is 80km long and raises ships up from the Pacific, through Panama and then lowers them back down again to the Caribbean, and vice versa. The canal uses three sets of locks: Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks on the Pacific side and Gatun Locks on the Caribbean side. For the best view of the ships, head to Miraflores Locks at night, the sights and the restaurants here are brilliant.
- Amadour Causeway. This 4 mile long causeway was made from the excavated rocks when the Canal was built and links 3 islands. It is perfect to ride a bike along as the view across the canal on one side and the cityscape on the other is fantastic. There are plenty of restaurants and other touristy shops to stop at along the way.
- Casco Viejo. Just outside Panama City is Casco Viejo, the oldest city in the Americas. These days the city’s red bricked streets are lined with clubs, bars, restaurants and cafes, though the Spanish style architecture still gives the entire area an historical feeling. In 1998 the city’s cultural and historical significance was recognized by UNESCO and it was declared a World Heritage Site.
- Panama Viejo. Panama was the Pacific coast’s most important Spanish trading town until it was destroyed by Henry Morgan in 1671. The remaining ruins cover quite a large area, encompassing streets, squares, a cathedral, churches, convents, a hospital, walls and bridges, all made of stone.
- Bocas del Toro. Bocas is Panama’s most popular tourist destination, combining a laid back Caribbean attitude with the beautiful natural setting of jungles, forests and mangroves. Surfing is extremely popular here and there are always water taxis around to take you to a secluded cove or to the best snorkelling spots.
- Embera Indian Village. To get to the village you’ll travel up the Chagres river in a dugout canoe then walk through a rainforest, giving you the chance to come face to face with local wildlife and amazing plantlife. When you finally meet the Embera tribe you’ll notice that they live pretty much as they did hundreds of years ago. There is traditional food, music and dancing followed by the chance to buy the tribe’s handicrafts or go for a swim under a waterfall.
- Boquete. Voted as the world’s second best place to retire, Boquete is a charming little village located in the mountainous region of the Chiriquí Highlands. Most of the area’s scenery is built up of coffee plantations, but aside from this, the mountainside is covered in unique flowers and home to ‘Mi Jardin es Su Jardin’ one of the top 3 private gardens in the world. For a more adventurous way to view the area, go white water rafting down the Chiriqui Grande.
- Panama Canal Railway. The Panama Canal Railway connects Panama City with Colón and runs transcontinentally, reaching from the Pacific to Atlantic Ocean. The train is an old-fashioned locomotive complete with a great observation car which offers views of the canal, Gutan Lake and passing rainforests. At $44 for a 3 hour round trip, it is a little expensive, though.
- Volcan Baru. Volcan Baru is the only volcano in Panama and at 3,500 meters, is the highest point in the country. The lower slopes are home to dozens of coffee plantations, with the higher ground being part of the Volcan Baru National Park. Bring your camera as the rainforest here is a good place to spot the Resplendent Quetzal which is one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
- Portobelo. This sleepy little town was first given the name “Puerto Bello” (Beautiful Port) by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and over time, the name was shortened to Portobelo. The town’s 18th-century fortifications were built by the Spanish to protect their gold from pirates and along with Fort San Lorenzo, have achieved UNESCO World Heritage Site status.