Capital: Panama City
Currency: Panamanian Balboa (PAB) and US Dollar (USD)
ATM withdrawals: Most ATMs charge $5 for each withdrawal – BAC was free!
Languages spoken: Spanish & Indiginous languages
Dominant Religion: Christianity
Visa Requirements: British Click Here Polish Click Here
Health & Vaccinations: Click Here
Ability to communicate in English: 3 – Very difficult
Long distance transportation type: Bus, Plane, Taxi
Electricity: 110V, 2 types of electrical sockets – type A and type B
Greeting: “Hola”, “Buenas”
Vegetarian options-availability: 2 – Difficult but possible
Supermarkets: Super 99, Riba Smith, El Machetazo & Rey
Budget: £1150 per person for 3 weeks
Legend: 1 – Good 2 – Difficult but possible 3 – Very difficult
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It allows you to search multi-city tickets, or tickets to “anywhere” – where you can search from your ideal location to find the cheapest flights to anywhere in the world. One other feature we use is the monthly view flight option, which shows you the cheapest price per day throughout each month, so you can select the cheapest date if you’re flexible with your dates.
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Time Visited: June 2022
Duration: 19 days
1. Panama City – 6 nights
2. El Valle – 1 night
3. Bocas del Toro – 4 nights
4. Portobelo – 1 night
5. San Blas Islands – 5 nights
What brought us to Panama was the sailing trip through the San Blas islands from Panama to Colombia, which had always been high on our bucket list. Outside of the 5 days sailing through the San Blas islands, we initially only planned to spend 5 days in Panama City, mostly to get over the jet lag after having to travel all the way from Asia. Whilst boarding the plane from Indonesia to Panama, our sailing trip got cancelled. Eventually, we managed to book a different date but it meant we needed to spend an extra 2 weeks in Panama. An upsetting cancellation turned into an exciting opportunity to explore more of Panama that we had not originally planned.
Very quickly we discovered how much Panama had to offer and that the time we had there was not going to be enough to cover all of the places we wanted to explore. This became a tough decision of which places we should visit, whilst having this little time, as we couldn’t extend any longer due to the booked sailing trip.
Eventually, we decided to spend time in the capital, Panama City, before a short venture to the second largest inhabited volcano crater in the world – El Valle de Antón. After exploring a big city and hiking, it was time to explore the Panamanian islands on the Caribbean coast – the famous Bocas del Toro. All these incredible experiences ended up being a taster of what we really came here for, sailing through the San Blas islands, from Portobello to Cartagena de Indias. It not only was the perfect ending to our time in Panama, it soon became one of the most beautiful experiences of our lives.
It’s not the most popular destination in Central America, but it has enough to offer to draw in crowds of tourists who want to go off the beaten path, or simply want to complete their Central American adventure.
Panama gained its independence from Colombia in 1903, with support from the United States, to allow for the construction of the Panama Canal. The canal significantly contributes to their economy and is part of their national identity.
Panama is a huge hub for expats, especially from the United States who have decided to either settle in Panama or retire here, as it offers an exotic Latin American weather, well developed infrastructure, at a more affordable price than the United States.
Transportation links around the country are well developed and easy to navigate, from local buses around the city to long distance routes. What can be observed in Latin American countries is the love for blasting air conditioning at very low temperatures. Extra layers and a sleeping bag were essential for survival.
Overall in the country we felt relatively safe, but in bigger cities like Panama City, there are neighbourhoods that should be avoided, unless you want to be stopped by an armed police officer, escorted to the police station and later taken back to your hotel by the tourist police (don’t ask how we know this)!
Like in a lot of other Latin American countries, walking the streets in Panama will awaken your senses, from hearing the rhythms of Latin American music, seeing colourful colonial architecture, to smelling and tasting the local food made on the side of the road (yes, it’s mainly fried chicken).
Accommodation was a lot more expensive than we had initially anticipated, a double room in a questionable hotel cost $24 a night for two, or a dorm in a relaxed and well equipped hostel for 2 for $30, although the hostel included breakfast. If you want to spend less than this you might be staying in a dubious place.
Our favourite accommodation in Panama was the quirky bed and breakfast, over the sea in Bocas del Toro. Every night falling asleep whilst hearing and feeling the waves was extremely relaxing, even when some of the nights got stormy, this only made us sleep better. With a delicious breakfast of our choice, and unlimited coffee, we found the price of $43 a night for a double room, more than justifiable.
Overall in Panama, depending on the location, you will be able to find a mixture of hostels, boutique hotels, outdated hotels and Air BnB’s of different setups and styles.
We will share our favourite accommodation for each destination in the individual posts for the places.
Our Top choices in Panama:
Bocas del Toro – Barrbra BnB Over the Sea
El Valle de Antón – Bodhi Hostel & Lounge
Panama City – Bodhi Panama City
Banks and ATMs
In Panama there are two official currencies in use, the more popular one is the US Dollar, but you are more likely to get your change to bigger bills in Balboa. This is a 1:1 exchange rate to the US Dollar.
ATMs are easily available throughout the country and card payments are widely accepted in restaurants and shops. Most ATMs charge a withdrawal fee of $5 per transaction, luckily we found bank BAC offered free withdrawals, although this was not the case for others we tried.
Culture & Customs
Panama is not only a bridge that connects the two continents, it also connects cultures and people. Different indigenous communities, African heritage, and Spanish influence, create a rich cultural mosaic, known today as modern Panama.
Portobelo offers the opportunity to explore Panama’s Congo culture, as well as Panama’s Afro-Caribbean gastronomy.
Christianity is the dominant religion within the country, which can be observed from the number of churches, bank holidays, and catholic festivals dedicated to the saints.
Part of the visible cultural influence in Panama are handcrafts produced by indigenous communities, like Kuna Yala in the San Blas islands. They often bring their products, such as woven baskets, molas, tagua nut carvings and hand-beaded chaquira necklaces to Panama City and other cities to sell to tourists. In an effort to empower indigenous women ‘Law 20’ was introduced in 2000, protecting indigenous dress, dance, music and those indigenous handcrafts.
Family plays an important role in everyday life, children usually live with their parents until the day they get married, and even extended families live in close proximity to each other.
When walking the streets of Panama you can expect to be greeted by friendly locals, make sure to smile back and say “Halo” or “Buenas”.
Food & Drink
Panama is a bridge between two continents and its population is very diverse due to the country’s history and colonial influence, creating a mix of African, Spanish and Native American cuisine. Due to its geography and climate you will find here a large variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs.
The cuisine in Panama is heavily based on meat, fish and seafood. As vegetarians this unfortunately prevented us from tasting traditional dishes, but the traditional menu in a local restaurant would include some of the following: Ropa Vieja, a shredded beef meal with tomato, garlic, onion, spices and typically served with white rice or patacones.
Patacones are a famous side dish in Latin American countries, these are hard green plantains that have been fried, smashed and then fried once more (not good for your cholesterol). Arroz con pollo, the most classical dish, is a simple mix of shredded chicken with rice. Empanadas are a deep fried pastry snack, stuffed with ground meat, potatoes or cheese, and can be found on nearly every corner. You will leave Panama with a slightly bigger waistline.
One very local product that we managed to enjoy was a whole variety of hot sauces, local shops, restaurants and hotel owners were all making their own variations of this product. How we soon fell in love and used it on every meal. We even decided to make sure we always carried a bottle in our backpack. We know our priorities!
For drinks, Seco Herrerano is the national liquor of Panama, 80% proof spirit derived from sugarcane, what could possibly go wrong. Throw this into a cocktail and it can be rather enjoyable. Local beers of Atlas, Balboa and Panama happily washed down an evening meal, and if you are a craft beer lover, take a trip to Bocas Brewery to try honey orange pilsner, hemp seed black DIPA, or exotic IPA’s.
Our Top Activities
1. San Blas Islands Sailing Trip
A 5 day sailing trip from Panama through the San Blas Islands, all the way to Colombia. You can either choose to sail on an old school wooden sailing boat or a more modern catamaran. You get the chance to visit uninhabited islands, snorkel the reefs, and enjoy the sun on the deck of the boat. This is a trip of a lifetime.
2. Starfish Beach on Bocas del Toro
We have never seen so many starfish! That gentle walk into the sea, up to your knees, soon proved to be more difficult than expected with the task of avoiding stepping on all the starfish. It was a great day trip from the main town of the island.
3. Panama Canal
You can’t visit Panama without taking a trip to the world famous Panama Canal. We weren’t too excited about this place, but after watching the cargo ships pass through the locks, learning more about its history and impressive engineering that was involved in its construction, we were left very impressed and happy about our visit. Luckily no ships got stuck this time.
4. Cascos Veijo
This UNESCO World Heritage site in Panama City offers great photo opportunities on every corner. The colonial architecture throughout is there to impress and is still home to museums, quirky coffee shops, restaurants and hotels. Indiginous tribes can be found here selling their products on the local market.
5. Hiking in El Valle de Antón
The second largest inhabited volcanic crater is home to the town of El Valle de Antón, and it offers some impressive hiking routes, with extremely green and picturesque views. Waterfalls, hot springs and birdwatching are other activities this laid back and very local vibe town has to offer.
Our rather unexpected visit to Panama allowed us to really appreciate the diversity this country has to offer, from breathtaking beaches and islands, to colonial architecture and beautiful hikes. We didn’t really know what to expect when we first arrived but it definitely left us wanting to explore more. In our opinion this is a country to explore and not skip when in Central America. With upcoming posts on specific locations we visited in Panama we hope to encourage you to visit this country in the future.