Panama Travel Tips from a Month Long Journey
Swathes of mangrove thickets teeming with life and lengths of volcanic beaches devoid of shade. Breathtakingly beautiful colonial architecture and island towns steeped in the colourful West Indian culture of their ancestors. You can see why Panama is one of the most popular countries in Central America.
We decided to take all of February off to explore Panama, the 25th country on my list! With surf, beautiful and exotic flora and fauna, islands, mountains and beaches to explore, Panama seemed like the perfect place to spend a month.
Although this meant an absolutely mental December and January fitting in an extra month’s worth of work for clients – it’s worth it. Travel is one of the main reasons I’ve always wanted to freelance!
In this blog, I’ll take you through the places we travelled as well as including a few tips on costs and travel in general at the bottom of the article.
Panama City – Casco Viejo
For most tourists, the jewel of Panama city is the older Casco Viejo. Although the new city is impressive with a skyline shimmering with glass and concrete towers, the real charm lies in the old town. This is where the romantic heart of the city resides.
Packed full of trendy restaurants and boutique hotels, Casco Viejo is the perfect place to start before heading out on the rest of your journey.
Things to do in Casco Viejo
Get lost! It’s not always a wise idea to get lost in a Central American city (or certain parts of any city). Especially if you need to get your map/phone out where you’re going… Nothing says “I’m a tourist – mug me” like unfolding your map or holding up your phone and squinting at it whilst looking confused/going round in circles. But in Casco Viejo, you’ll probably be just fine.
The further you walk back from the sea, the more of the “real” Casco Viejo you see. Music fills the streets, locals are out playing football, cricket and socialising on balconies and doorsteps. Away from the gentrification of the boutique hotels and trendy restaurants, you can get a glimpse about what this area is to those who live here.
Where to eat
There’s a huge amount of choice for foodies in Panama city on all kinds of budgets. It’s hard to go wrong here. Something I really like to do when I travel is to eat starters in one place, mains somewhere else later on followed by another location for pudding! Some of the places we loved were:
A casual but cool bar that serves its own award-winning craft beers with a simple menu of Tex-Mex, thin crust pizza and delicious ceviche and fresh fish. Portions are big so don’t over-order as we did (always do)!
Peru is known for its amazing ceviche and that’s definitely reflected at this Peruvian run restaurant. I recommend the fried ceviche and any of the fish dishes. These starter portions are pretty big, so you could share two kinds of ceviche as a main between two.
Even if the food wasn’t great, I’d recommend the restaurant in the beautiful American Trade Hotel purely because it’s one of the most stunning buildings in Casco Viejo. Luckily, the food is delicious! We came here for breakfast one morning and ordered the pancakes and cinnamon, pecan crusted french toast. It’s the best place to come for a treat breakfast, lunch or dinner whilst you’re in the city.
There are three levels of (expensive looking) restaurants here. We skipped them all for cocktails on the rooftop overlooking the city, but we got a sneak peek as the iron frame lift shoots through them on the way up. If you visit the roof bar at happy hour, prices are really reasonable and it’s the perfect way to finish off a long hot day in the city.
If you’re looking for tasty ice cream that won’t melt down your hands as you eat it, check out this joint. You can get fresh, natural ice cream flavours and have them dipped in melted chocolate and served to you in their own personal tray. Nom.
Although it seems to be a chain, I’d never eaten at one of these before! Their ice creams are almost as fun to watch being made as to eat. If you’re a dessert lover, you have to visit this place.
Bocas del Toro and Islands
We stayed in Bocas del Toro for a total of two weeks, one at the start and one at the end of the trip. There’s so much to do and see here because of all the islands to explore that I could have written a whole separate blog post.
Bocas del Toro is a chain of islands on the Caribbean coast. Isla Colon is the biggest island and where you’ll find the town of Bocas. This is where you’ll land if you go by plane. If you arrive by bus, you’ll need to get a taxi boat to Isla Colon from Almirante. This journey takes around 25 minutes.
Isla Colon and its main town of Bocas is busy and full of travellers and locals alike. There are plenty of supermarkets, a huge variation of restaurants, bars and hostels.
Our first week we stayed in Bastimentos and our final week in Bocas on Colon, using taxi boats for trips to other islands.
Note: When we got here there was a drought. Due to hotter, longer dry seasons, there can be an issue with water access. Some of the hostels actually ran out of water when we were staying in them, and had to buy it in or close. Others would turn the water off for the most part of the day – so, no flushing the loo whenever you want!
It was like this in almost all the places we stayed apart from Santa Catalina. Although, it was more of a problem in places like Lost & Found Hostel near Boquette and in Bocas del Toro. Nowhere is immune though.
If you’re travelling in the dry season just keep in mind that weather dependent, you may not be able to shower or wash whenever you want – and you must be especially mindful of your water usage and consumption.
Where to stay in Isla Colon
We flew to Bocas from Panama City. It was a lovely, easy flight (especially compared to the long and uncomfortable bus journey on the way back). We stayed two nights here as it seemed like a cool but quiet place to ease in. And, it’s near Paunch surf break (very important for Jackson).
The location is further from town, but you can rent push bikes and taxis aren’t too expensive. There aren’t any big golden sandy beaches around here – more like narrow slivers of sand (especially compared to the beaches in our home county, Cornwall). If you’re looking for bigger, nicer beaches you can always get a water taxi to one of the other islands in the archipelago.
The young American couple who own the place were friendly and really helpful. The kitchen isn’t big but it’s well organised and equipped – there’s a bar and also options to get dinner and breakfast from their tasty menu. Handy if you don’t fancy cooking or schlepping to town.
This hostel is really close to the boat taxi stations which is really convenient. It’s a calm, quiet hostel (unless someone pulls up outside and starts playing booming music through their car speakers) clean and with a nice kitchen. Try and ask for a room that doesn’t face the main street as it will be even quieter.
What to do on Bocas/Colon
Bocas del Toro is a surf mecca, and you can tell with the number of surf shops and paraphernalia in Bocas town. The island of Carenero is a popular choice for surfers as well as the surf breaks like Paunch. You can even get boats out to some breaks, waving to be picked up when you’re done! The surf breaks are mainly shallow reef breaks through, so not ideal for beginners.
You can go on day trips snorkelling, fishing or visiting island chains further away like Cayos Zapatilla. These are two uninhabited islands where you can swim and snorkel. Day trips cost around $40 per person and fishing from $80.
Jackson went on a fishing trip tour on Bastimentos and didn’t catch anything – despite not being a beginner, so there’s no guarantee of a yummy fish dinner!
There are loads of places you can rent kayaks. We actually rented ours whilst we were staying on Bastimentos. It was a cloudy day so thankfully, a little cooler. We were followed for ages by a golden retriever who wouldn’t leave our side. To the point where it was putting itself in danger. I eventually had to shout at him to make him get out so we could canoe to open water.
Starfish beach is a shuttle bus ride away from Bocas town. It’s a shame that so many of the beach vendors choose to play very loud music (this seems to happen all over Panama) because otherwise, this would be an amazingly relaxed experience. This, however, is the way things are done here so you must adapt or bring earplugs. The beaches will be quietest in the morning.
The sea is calm beautiful and clear on this part of the island, perfect for swimming and snorkelling.
Note: Despite there being plenty of signs pleading not to hold starfish, sadly some ignorant people still do this. This is devastating for the starfish who can die after being held out of the water for just a small amount of time. Sun creamed human hands are also really not good for the starfish who, a silent and slow creature, cannot escape or make its discomfort known.
Where to eat in Bocas, Isla Colon
We had so many good meals here you can’t go wrong… I didn’t write down everywhere we ate but here are a few favourites.
The “dirty burger” here is amazing! They also do really tasty tacos! The best place for tex-mex on the island.
This place is great if you’re a vegetarian and desperate for great food that isn’t fish or meat! The falafel is as good as anything you’d find in Israel.
Where to shop in Bocas del Toro
There are loads of expensive surf brand shops here that I recommend avoiding. You can find some really cool hidden gems if you look properly!
An awesome shop selling original and ethically made swimwear, clothing and jewellery as well as stocking some other cool brands. Locals get a discount, and all the factories (located in Nicaragua) employ the same standards as factories in the USA. The shop is run by locals and managed by the founders Kelli and Jessica. These girls are awesome and I’m interviewing them soon on A Wilder Life as part of the world wide creator series.
We found out about this boutique when the owner jumped out at us from the pavement as we were passing and asked Jackson if he wanted to sell his surfboard! Run by an Argentinian couple who design and make some awesome and original clothing, it’s a great place to find something unique for yourself or as a gift.
Which islands to visit
Exploring the islands is essential. Each island has a different personality which makes island hopping all the more fun! We spent most of our time on Colon, Bastimentos and Carenero.
This island was definitely one of my favourites! It feels like stepping into another world once you get off the taxi boat. The residents of Bastimentos are descendants of Antillean labour force brought to work in local banana plantations. They speak a unique creole called Guari Guari, based on English with a Jamaican patois accent and local indigenous dialects. This means locals can usually speak and understand English just fine.
Wizard Beach (on Bastimentos) is hidden down thin forest tracks covered with leaves, tree roots, stagnant ponds waiting to suck up your shoes if you misstep. The waves crash as you finally emerge onto coconut littered sand on a jungle-lined shore. Just a handful of tourists and locals sponging up vitamin D or splayed out under the shade of thick mangroves and palm fronds.
There’s a sign warning tourists not to take valuables to the beach, so even if it feels safe, take heed. Just bring what you need for the day including water and food as there’s no shops or restaurants here.
Red Frog Beach (on Bastimentos) is a big sandy beach and can be reached via Wizard Beach but it’s not a short walk in the heat. All you need to do is walk right along wizard beach as far as possible until needing to get onto the banks to continue. The walk stays close to the sea so if you find your heading inland considerably (more than 20 or so metres) you’re probably now going the wrong way. Trust me – we did this and got lost in the jungle for hours! Not recommended.
Alternative routes. If you don’t feel up to the walk, you can take a boat taxi to Red Frog. There’s a well-maintained path that will take you to the beach, but, it goes through private land and there’s a charge of $5 per person for the privilege.
Food at Red Frog beach is available from a chilled beach shack Nachyo Mamma’s (the fish tacos and truffle fries are delicious!). At the end of the beach there’s fancier restaurant The Point, serving (arguably) blander food like pizza and other off the menu items. If you’re feeling tired or it’s late, you can get a ride from The Point to Red Frog Beach Island Resort on the island (just ask the bar staff) where you can make your way to the jetty for a taxi boat.
Note: Both Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach are hard to swim at as the currents are strong and the swell can be large.
Carenero has some of the nicest beaches around here as the vegetation stops a little further back from the sea. Although they’re not big like Wizard or Red Frog, you can swim in the water easily thanks to the protecting reef.
There are several places to get food on the island but our favourite was Bibi’s on the beach. It can get busy here at lunch times though!
Some people were worried about sand flies here (they can be a problem after it’s been raining) but we didn’t have a problem. Maybe because it was a drought when we were there!
Getting Around Bocas del Toro
Transport around the islands is by shuttle, by taxi (mainly on Isla Colon as many of the islands don’t have cars), by boat or by taxi boat.
Catching a taxi boat is really simple. There are taxi boat stations on Colon, but for all the other islands you can really just go out on one of the many jetties and wave your arms around – someone will come along shortly! There are usually certain places on the islands where you’ll see people gathered waiting for taxi boats.
If you wave down a regular taxi cab, be prepared to share as taxi pooling is normal. As a tourist though, it won’t make your ride cheaper as you pay per person, per ride. But – it is better for the environment!
Shuttles are available for longer journeys and trips to other parts of Colon like Starfish Beach. You can pick up shuttles without booking, you just need to go to the place they leave from. I’d tell you the street – but I can’t remember! It’s on a corner along the same street as the Selina hostel and not hard to find.
You can also rent push bikes, quad bikes and mopeds on Colon to get around too.
If we’d known we weren’t going to make the San Blas islands, we’d have stayed here for longer. We stayed just outside of Boquete at Lost and Found Hostel. It’s on the way to Boquette from Bocas Del Toro. You just tell your bus or shuttle driver clearly that this is where you’re going and they’ll stop to let you off at the right place. There will be a sign on the road so if you’re looking out – you’ll see it.
This hostel isn’t cheap but it has an incredible view of the surrounding mountains. We spent a lot of time just chilling in the hammocks making the most of the views. There are various trails to explore around the mountains to waterfalls, viewpoints and rivers. Eating fruit right from the trees was a treat (the best grapefruits I have ever eaten) and some very sour oranges!
Like anywhere in Central and South America, much of the tourism centres on and around the beaten path. Formerly popular mostly with divers and snorkelers, the boom in surf culture has transformed sleepy towns like Santa Catalina, located on the Pacific Ocean in the Veraguas province. Surf hostels, surf schools, eco-lodges and more have cropped up across town – giving the laid back vibe of the area a mellower note of surf mecca Bocas del Toro on the Carribean Coast.
The beaches in Santa Catalina aren’t the best. Firstly there’s no shade, so when the sun’s out in full force it’s quite oppressive. The largest beach, Estero, who’s black sand absorbs every bit of heat, is a little inhospitable for anyone who doesn’t surf and just wants to relax.
The town is laid back and runs on its own time. There’s one small shop but a good selection of restaurants. They’re generally not open all day though – so remember to check opening times before heading out for food.
Santa Catalina is around 4 hours drive from David if you’re hiring a car.
On the way, you’ll pass Boca Chica, which is worth a visit if you have time! Otherwise, you’ll need to take a bus to a hot and dusty town called Sona. For more details – check this site here.
If you need anything from the pharmacy or want to stock up on certain foods – do so in Sona or before. There are no pharmacies in Santa Catalina and the food store is small, more expensive than Sona and limited in choice.
We hired a car for this part of the trip. It made it much easier to get around in the heat. We could pop into Sona when we needed groceries or visit the pharmacy and it made the trip to Boca Chica possible in the amount of time we had. I definitely recommend doing this.
Where to stay
We found accommodation here was some of the most expensive in Panama. Oasis Surf Camp is a hostel right on Estero beach & offers the ONLY shade on the entire beach (and they KNOW it). If you don’t mind forgoing air con you’ll get a better rate, but rooms are still around $40/45. Don’t try and hang out under the palms here unless you’re a guest. Someone will soon come to kick you out (we saw the owner do this frequently). If I was here longer I’d have bought an umbrella!
When it’s high tide you may find you’re wading through a stream that’s waist high to get your bags across to the hostel. This is fine, but might be harder if you have a suitcase rather than a backpack.
Whilst we were here we also stayed at this awesome cabin we found on Airbnb. You can find our review if you scroll down the reviews.
What to do
Diving, surfing, snorkelling, kayaking… there’s loads to do here if you’re around for a few days. These are some of the things we enjoyed:
Day trip to Isla Coiba
One of the most popular things to do is to take a day trip over to Coiba. You can usually get a trip arranged through your hostel or hotel. There’s no other option than to go on a tour due to it being a marine reserve.
You could also go straight down to any of the boat tour operators to ask in person. The cost is around $60-80 p person, which may seem pretty steep. But, you’re out for an entire day, lunch is included and it’s probably the best snorkelling you’ll ever do.
There are different types of tours but the most popular is the snorkel and beach tour. Although there are trips that take you through the island to see the interior wildlife, we couldn’t find any whilst we were in Santa Catalina.
The boat ride is around 1 hour from the mainland. Boats leave from Town Beach at around 9am but you usually meet at the main office of your tour guide first.
Here’s a tip. SIT AT THE BACK of the boat! Your tush will be smashed up and down on the seat every time you go over a slight wave. You may even fly off the boat (you’ll be wishing for this after an hour of ass smashing). Trust me.
After spending years as a prison island, the island has been elevated to marine reserve status. Fish of all kinds are attracted to the coral reefs and if your guide takes you to the best spots on a clear day, you’re in for a treat.
Snorkelling here is like swimming in a very well stocked aquarium. Hundreds of brightly coloured fish – blue and gold snapper, trumpet fish, tiger fish and parrot fish swim past in shoals. Reef sharks, turtles, manta rays, eels, octopus can all be found on the coral reefs. It’s probably easier to count the species of local fish you don’t see, than the ones you do!
The beaches on the islands are perfect with fine, soft white sand and masses of palms. If you’re savvy and find a rock, you can easily find ripe coconuts on the beach to smash open and drink before scooping out the soft flesh! Yum. I wish we could have spent more time here.
Your guide will take you to around 3/4 of the islands snorkelling. Some spots were better than others, so don’t be afraid to ask your guide (in Spanish) if you can spend the most time at the best spots.
Lunch at the old guard station is simple but fine – if you have any allergies though, be sure to pack your own food. Also, many of the guides don’t speak English so it really helps if you can speak at least some Spanish.
Take a towel, shawl or a long sleeve cover-up for the boat ride back. When you’re wet, it can get a bit chilly travelling at speed on the boat once the heat of the day has gone.
We took a paddleboarding tour with SUP Santa Catalina. Gliding through the mangroves you get to see all kinds of wildlife like iguanas, rays, eagles, crabs that catch a ride on your board… You might even get to see a puma if you’re really lucky!
This is a great tour for all abilities – even if you’ve never been paddleboarding before. Perfect for lay days when the surf isn’t pumping or just for exploring a bit more of the area.
If you’re learning to surf then Estero beach is perfect. It’s a beach break that often has soft rolling waves. The water isn’t more than waist to shoulder deep for a considerable stretch and as it’s a larger beach, there’s more space. So, less chance of bumping into each other!
You can rent boards (including foamies) from the hostel on the beach for around $10 a day.
Where to eat
We didn’t eat out a lot here as we were trying to save money, but these are the best places we tried!
We treated ourselves to dinner at the sushi bar one evening and I’m so glad we did! Although the portions weren’t as big as we’d got used to and it was on the pricier side, it was amazing. Definitely some of the very best sushi we’ve ever eaten. The flavours were really original and the service was great. We’d have eaten here every night if we could.
Authentic Italian style natural ice cream made with local ingredients. The Italians that run this place are passionate about their freshly made ice cream. Pop by during opening hours and make sure you order a whole tub to yourself as you won’t want to share!
Jammin Hostel & Pizzeria
Proper Italian pizza cooked in a huge wood-fired pizza oven. You can eat in, but it’s perfect for takeout too. We took ours to the beach to eat whilst watching the sun set. There are loads of toppings available.
Boca Chica is a quieter, smaller version of Santa Catalina. It’s a sleepy town that’s popular with holidaying Panamanians and older European tourists looking for somewhere chilled to spend time.
Where to stay
Accommodation around here can be cheaper than most other tourists spots if you have a car and can stay further out of town. We stayed with lovely Airbnb Superhost Mike – he speaks perfect English and has a background in tourism so was able to give us great advice on what to do and where to eat.
There are a range of beautiful hotels here if you’re looking for something a bit more luxurious.
What to do
Again you can get boat trips to different islands just off the coast – although the snorkelling doesn’t come close to Coiba. I definitely recommend a boat trip mid-week when the islands are quieter. It can get pretty loud and crowded at the weekends on the nicest islands.
There are restaurants, hotels and bars where you can get great food and watch the sunset over a beer or Pisco Sour.
Where to eat
We were only here for two days, but we treated ourselves to a yummy dinner at hotel Bocas del Mar overlooking the sea (the name gives it away!). I ate the best tuna I’d had on the whole trip. Probably the best tuna I’ve ever had! I’d definitely recommend it.
Cost of Travel in Panama
Travel in Panama isn’t cheap. Anyone hoping for a wallet-friendly getaway in Latin America should probably look at Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina. I’ve run through some of the major areas of expenditure below so you can get an idea of where you’d want to splurge and where to save.
We found that in many places, the cost of two bunks is usually equivalent to a private room. Airbnb also generally offers a range of accommodation in Panama and it’s often more budget-friendly than many of the hostels, so that’s good news if you’re travelling in a couple.
If you’re travelling alone, staying in hostels is a good option. It’s easier to meet people and there’s access to useful info and facilities. Panama is now one of the locations you can find Selina hostels. An Israeli hostel outfit creating trendy Instagram ready hostels that make backpacking a pretty comfortable experience. They’re all a bit samey – but if you’re arriving somewhere late or travelling alone for the first time – it can be nice to be somewhere that feels familiar.
We stayed in a Selina in Panama City for two nights on arrival and our last night before flying home. If you’re arriving in the early hours of the morning, this is a good option. The hostel will be open and staff will be on hand. Not many hostels in Panama city would have given us this option.
For me, experiencing local food (when it’s good) is one of the best parts of travelling. So, this can mean sacrificing other things – like fancy accommodation. If you don’t love food (or fish in particular) this will make it much easier on your wallet.
Bus and coach
It’s fairly easy to travel around Panama. The cheapest option is always bus or coach, although the big coaches aren’t as good as the busses in South America so it’s preferable to travel by day. If you’re taking a long coach ride – from Panama City to Bocas or vice versa, ask for seats at the front of the coach – especially if you get motion sick. Swinging around the winding roads at the back of a bus doesn’t do much for your constitution.
We flew from Panama City to Bocas del Toro but got the night bus back as it was cheaper. If we’d known how uncomfortable the night coach ride would be, we’d have flown back too. Imagine everyone holding a sick bag by the end of the journey (just in case). The loo was also broken, not that it would have been possible to use anyway. You’d have fallen right off as soon as the driver rounded another corner.
Sometimes it can be viable to get a taxi shuttle for shorter trips. You can get a taxi transfer for around £25 from Bocas del Toro to Boquete, including the water taxi back to the mainland.
Water taxis are the only way to travel around the islands of Bocas del Toro. Each journey costs a few dollars one way – but prices rise after 5/6pm, so make sure you ask the price before boarding.
If you’re planning your trip to Panama and have any questions, let me know and I’ll see if I can help!