All you need to know Panama guide
Bianca and I Snorkeled, we were in Panama. Between two pristine San Blas Islands we had masks set over our faces we looked deep into the crystal blue water. Visibility was superb although the bottom was a blue pit, the ground too deep to be seen. Our suddenly blood boiled with excitement as we saw a something just out of our vision’s reach. In the distance, we made out blurry shapes. Large dynamic shapes, slipping seamlessly through the water. Closer they came. They grey shapes shot straight under us. Dolphins! “I can’t breath” Bianca burst out, totally overwhelmed by exhilaration. A small pod of dolphins playfully put on a show. A young calf stuck close to its mother. Spiralling, darting around us just beyond arm’s reach. Above water the sunset lit the sky on fire ending another day in paradise. Panama’s, San Blas Islands.
Panama is a must for any traveller crossing continents from North America to South. But instead of taking off straight up to Costa Rica, take-in all that this awesome country can offer.
Learn about the Panama Canal which links North and South Americas, a modern wonder of the world, made at an immense human cost. Explore Central America’s second biggest city and a doorstep to Caribbean paradise, in the likes of Bocas and San Blas Islands. Surfers welcome at the reliable pacific breaks. Save up some travel time and spend it in Panama.
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Bocas Del Toros, Panama – Total ₡7712 ($14USD) each
From Puerto Viejo you can take 2 local buses and a ferry to reach the beautiful Bocas Del Toros in Panama. There are direct shuttles from Puerto Veijo for $25USD but you can save more than half the price if you take the local transportation.
See below our breakdown guide on how we reached Bocas from Puerto Viejo.
– Puerto Viejo to Sixaola – ₡1630 ($3USD) each
Catch the bus from the bus stop in Puerto Viejo to the border (Sixaola). These buses leave as early as 6.30am in the morning then every hour after that.
– Crossing the border to Panama – ₡6518 ($12USD) each
When leaving Costa Rica you will need to pay an exit tax, depending where you go to pay the tax varies in price. We purchased our exit tax down the hill from the immigration office and paid $8 in cash. We later found out you can pay $7 in the immigration office with your debit/credit card, saves you $1.
Once you are finished with Costa Rican immigration, you need to walk over the long bridge. Take a right at the end of the bridge and you will enter one of the Panama immigration windows. Here you pay an entry tax of $4 and get given an important entry ticket to keep, do not loose this. Walk down the hill and to the left. At the next immigration office you wait in line to get your passport stamped, photo taken and fingers scanned.
Tip: You will need to show proof of exiting the country as well, so make sure you have a ticket confirmation handy to show the officials, this can be printed or on a electronic device.
Panama border to Bocas Del Toro town – $15USD each total – (including a return ticket from Isla Colon, Bocas Del Toros to the mainland)
We were in a group of 8 and haggled a deal on a direct shuttle from the border to the ferry terminal, it took an hour and cost us $5USD (As the Panama dollar is fixed to the U.S dollar, we only used USD in Panama). Once we arrived at the ferry terminal we bought our return ferry ticket to the main island, Isla Colon for $10USD. The ferry took 40mins.
Bocas Del Toro to Panama City – $33USD
We decided to take an overnight bus from the mainland straight to Panama City. This journey leaves at 6pm and arrives around 4am. Roughly 10hrs. The bus drops you off at Albrock mall where we took a taxi to our accommodation.
Tip – Book your overnight bus in advance and remember to wear warm clothes on the bus, as it gets very cold.
Panama City to Puerto Lindo – $5.50USD
We signed up with Blue sailing to sail around the San Blas islands and beyond to Cartagena, Colombia. If you have booked a similar tour, you will most likely leave from Puerto Lindo. Instead of catching an organised shuttle for $25USD we opted to take the local buses. We first caught a bus from Albrock bus station to colon for $3.00USD taking around 1hour 30minutes. When you get dropped off at the bus station you need to hop onto another bus to La Guarya. Get off this buss early, at Puerto Lindo. This bus will cost $2.50USD.
San Blas, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia – $550USD each
Like many people we did not want to go by road from Panama to Colombia (through the Darien gap), as it is far too dangerous. After some research, we found you could sail around the San Blas islands then on into Cartagena, Colombia in 5 days. It was a huge highlight and one of the best decisions we have made on this trip and we cannot stop raving about this unique adventure!
We went with Blue Sailing for a 5 night sail from Panama to Colombia, for the first 3 days you sail around the idyllic San Blas Islands, then the next 2 days are at open sea
We had an awesome boat full of companions and a great two-man crew making this trip even more special. Harry and his first mate/chef Cesar captained our boat Big Fish. We dined on delicacies fit for kings. Lobster, Tuna and Barracuda, caught straight from the back of the boat. We ate our fill and some. Never were we left wanting anything.
Blue Sailing got full marks and we really recommend anyone to use them.
Al Natural Resort, Isla Bastimentos (Bocas del Toro) – $280USD pn two-story superior natural house
Sometimes you decide you need some RnR or just want to treat yourself to a few nights of luxury. Al Natural makes Bocas the perfect location to recharge your batteries. A beautiful resort with a view out to Isla Zapatilla. Stunning scenery, delicious food and incredible cabana style accommodation. What more can you want? It was the definition for paradise.
Aqua Lounge, Bocas del Toro – $11USD pp/pn dorm bed
Bocas is host to plenty of amazing hostels which all look like so much fun. The Aqua Lounge is a little harder to get to as you need to boat over to a separate island. This should only cost around 1 dollar each and it totally worth it. Aqua lounge has a super fun vibe with the best pool area I have seen. A trampoline is built in poolside along with a few high jumping platforms and a set of swings. Then there is the party atmosphere with events like ladies night where females drink for free. Beds are comfortable and the gratis breakfast includes a pancake and all you can eat toast with a coffee to wash it down. Amongst the best hostels we have ever stayed!
We managed to save some money here when the hostel allowed us to share a bed rather than pay for two as usual.
Hostel Casco Viejo, Panama city – $11USD pp/pn dorm bed
We totally recommend staying in the old town (Casco Viejo) it is a beautiful, colourful colonial town with flowers surrounding the terraces. There is a lot of character in this old town and every right at our doorstep. The hostel was in a great location and walking distance to everything inside the old town. It had a rooftop to chill in but apart from that it wasn’t a very social hostel. If you are a solo traveller or looking to socialise we recommend staying at Luna’s castle, which is slightly more expensive. Overall this hostel was great for what you pay for in Panama City, a decent bed, basic breakfast and a kitchen to cook your own meals.
- Comida Corriente – known as ‘meal of the day’ is your typical meal of rice, beans and your choice of meat (chicken, beef or pork)
- Sancocho – A delicious and tasty chicken soup with yucca
- Patacones – mashed plantains fried in a pan like a thick potato chip. Tasty with toppings on top.
- Tortillas are different in Panama than many Central America countries. It is thicker with more corn flavor.
- After a hot day try the popular local beer ‘Panama’ or ‘Balboa’
Fish market, Panama City – Calling all seafood lovers! Check out the fish market near Casco Viejo, they offer a variety of seafood all caught and cooked up fresh.
Must see & do
Bocas Del Toros
- Coral Caye, is the best spot in the archipelago for snorkelling. Lively coral and plenty of fish shallow enough to get a good look.
- Boat over to the tropical white-sandy beaches of Zappotilla Island. Tours are found all over the island but make sure you arrive early to get some time alone on a deserted island before all the tourists come
- On the main island (Isla Colon), check out the starfish beach – Playa De Las Estrellas. Snorkel around and find plenty f starfish on show. You can get here from the main town in a collectivo van for a round tip of $5
- Isla Bastimentos is a beautiful island in Bocas Del Toro, stay there for a few nights or go for a day trip. Wizard beach is gorgeous and when the season is right you can surf here.
- Check out the Panama Canal – Said to be one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. It was first opened in 1914 and stretches to 50 miles long. The canal has three sets of locks – Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatun. They raise the ships from the Pacific, through to Panama, before lowering them back to the Caribbean side and vice versa. The popular lock that tourists visit is Miraflores, which you can get to by local bus from Albrock bus station and costs 0.35cents
- Walk around the beautiful Casco Viejo – surrounded by ruins, street art and stunning colonial buildings you will not get bored walking around this neighbourhood. There is a lot of trendy bars, shops and restaurants to see so don’t forget to make a whole day and night of it.
- Head up to the top lookout bar at Trump tower for and incredible view of the city that stretches into old town. The setting sun lights fire to the sky as it lowers behind the mountains in the distance. Beers are $6 but entry is free.
You are left with limited options crossing the border from Panama to Colombia, Fly or Sail. Please budget in the sailing trip. Sail through a series of over 300 islands. Miniature sand outcrops scattered with a handful of coconut trees surrounded by coral reefs teaming with schools of fish and lobster in some of the bluest most clear water I have seen. The 5 nights and 6days on the yacht include two days at open ocean crossing to Colombia so bring your sea sickness pills if you get motion sick.
Tips & Advice
- You only can drink the water from the tap in Panama city
- Dry/Tourist season mid December to mid April
- May, June, September through to November is the rainiest months. It is less busy to travel around this time. The rain lets up in July and August, so we think this is the best time to go.
- Tipping for food is generally 10%
- Panama is pretty safe to travel. Just be aware in tourist places like Bocas where theft could happen.
- Don’t leave belongings unattended on the beach
- If on a budget cooking meals are still cheaper than going out, so when you can we suggest heading to a supermarket
- Set a price with your taxi driver and ask locals or your hostel how much a ride from A to B. they can charge double as they know you are a tourist.
- There is a daily limit of $500 at some ATM’s. If you are booked on a San Blas sailing tour the generally will ask for a cash payment so bare in mind you will need to get money out a few days before your trip.
Helpful words and phrases
The main language is Spanish in Panama
Please Por Favor
Thank you Gracias
You’re welcome De Nada
Pardon me Perdone
English? Habla Ingles?