How to Visit Panama on a Budget
Panama is not always expensive to visit. Traveling here is a little cheaper than traveling to Europe, Canada or the United States, but a little more expensive than to Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.
It’s not the most expensive country in Central America – that price goes to Costa Rica, closely followed by Belize – but frugal travelers will need to plan carefully and sacrifice a few home comforts to keep costs to a minimum.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to save on food, accommodation, transportation, and excursions. Beaches are free and outdoor activities abound in Panama’s extensive network of affordable national parks.
Here are our top tips for a successful Panama adventure bueno, bonito and barato (good, nice and cheap).
Visit during the rainy season
The rainy season extends from May to November in Panama. Hotel rates can drop 10-30% during this time, but you’ll have to deal with torrential downpours. Most showers are fairly brief, breaking out in the afternoon and dissipating an hour or two later, but several days of continuous downpours are not unheard of. Some activities, such as bird watching and rafting, are much better during the rainy season.
Bocas del Toro has a very changeable microclimate; the province is frequently wet when the rest of the country is dry, and sometimes vice versa. International flights to Panama are usually cheapest towards the end of the rainy season, from September to November.
If you only plan to visit western Panama, consider visiting Costa Rica
Many of Panama’s best attractions are found in the western provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. If you don’t plan to travel beyond these areas, it is sometimes (but not always) more economical to fly to San José in Costa Rica and then travel overland to Panama .
The direct bus from San José to the international border at Paso Canoas is about an hour longer than the bus from Panama City to David (the second largest city in Panama). You will need to go through immigration formalities, which can take time.
Travel to Chiriquí is quicker and cheaper if you use intercity buses rather than international buses like Ticabus, which usually means longer journeys, higher prices and does not stop at David.
Take the bus to and from Tocumen Airport
An official taxi from Tocumen International Airport to downtown Panama City can cost you between 30 and 40 USD. A shared taxi is cheaper at around $15 per person if traveling alone.
The cheapest is the Metrobus, which costs no more than $1.25. Before leaving the airport, be sure to buy a rechargeable Metrocard, which can be used on all metrobuses and trains. They cost $5 and are good with $3 included fares.
Note that you will need a Metrocard to access intercity services at Albrook bus station.
If you are single, stay in a hostel dorm
Solo travelers will find the cheapest accommodations in hostel dorms. Depending on the location, you’ll get a few amenities and clean accommodations for $10-20 per night.
Hostels are prevalent in the main tourist centers of Panama City, Boquete and Bocas del Toro, but less common elsewhere.
Couples and groups must stay in hotels
A private room in a budget hotel costs about the same as a private room in a hostel, around $30-50 per night. In terms of comfort, however, hotel rooms are generally superior. Cheaper, more spartan rooms have fans and cold-water-only showers (air-conditioning can drive prices up $15-20).
Some hotels have a handful of extremely basic, ultra-cheap ($15-20) rooms with a shared bathroom; ask reception if they have Algo más economico (something cheaper) or a quarter with a compartment (one bedroom with shared bathroom).
Of course, the main downside of using hotels is that you won’t have a communal kitchen available to you.
If you really want to save, sleep in a hammock
If you don’t mind that, a hammock is the cheapest option. Hostels usually charge between $2 and $5 per night for a pitch, and you can find locals willing to offer the same service.
Use mosquito repellents, mosquito nets and/or insecticidal coils, especially during the rainy season. A warm blanket or sleeping bag may be necessary as temperatures can drop significantly at night, even in the humid lowlands. Note that it is dangerous to sleep at night in public areas, including the beach.
Use Public Transportation in Panama City
Panama City taxi drivers are notoriously tricky. Overcharging is the norm, especially if you seem like a foreigner. Worse still, the city is often congested, making travel by car slow and inefficient.
To save money and hassle, use metrobuses and trains to get around ($0.25-0.35 each way). If you must use taxis, try to agree on a price before getting in. And if your driver turns out to be a good driver (many of them are), take their cell phone number for future use.
Avoid tourist taxis and taxis waiting outside hotels. They will definitely overcharge you. Ubers are generally cheaper and easier than taxis.
Choose buses over domestic flights
Domestic flights are undeniably fast. You can fly across the country from Panama City to David in about an hour. But with most round-trip fares exceeding $120, domestic flights don’t come cheap and also have a heavy carbon footprint.
Although much slower (the same trip from Panama City to David takes seven to nine hours), the Terminales David-Panama (TDP) or Padafront buses are much more economical and environmentally friendly.
Gorge on fruit for breakfast
Fresh fruit in Panama is nutritious, delicious, ubiquitous and inexpensive. Options include a rainbow array of locally grown produce like pineapples, papayas, avocados, bananas, watermelons and oranges.
Get some fruit from street vendors and local markets (a fruit breakfast in a restaurant is relatively poor value). Smoothies are another healthy and economical option.
Feast on carbs for lunch
If you plan to eat out a lot, lunch is the most economical meal of the day. Street food is thin on the ground in Panama, but inexpensive sit-down restaurants abound and usually offer inexpensive set menus and/or high-carb lunch buffets for around $5 per person.
A typical Panamanian lunch consists of a main course of fatty meat or chicken with a generous side of rice and beans along with some plantain strips (sometimes sweet) and a sweet drink. Unfortunately, vegans and vegetarians are not well served in Panama.
You can usually drink tap water
With the exception of Bocas del Toro, Guna Yala, and other remote areas, tap water in Panama is generally safe to drink. Save money and plastic waste by refilling your reusable water bottle at the kitchen tap.
Carefully choose guides and excursions
Unless times are really tight, you’ll want to splurge on one or more tours. If you speak reasonably good Spanish, finding your own local guides may be cheaper than hiring a tour operator.
It’s best to ask your hotel or hostel for solid recommendations, as they usually know where the best deals are. Most towns have an office of the national environmental ministry, Mi Ambiente, and will point you in the right direction.
A Guide to Daily Costs in Panama (US Dollars)
Dormitory bed in a hostel: $10 to $20
Basic hotel room for two: $30 to $50
Independent apartment (including Airbnb): $70-100+
Public transportation in Panama City: $0.25 to $0.35 or $1.25 for toll roads
Coffee: $1 to $3
Lunch for two: $10 to $20
A dinner for two: $20 to $40
Beer at the bar: $1 to $3