Panama: Top Tips

We’ve officially ticked the first country off on our tour of Central America. Panama, you were great! Here’s some important bits and bobs to consider if you’re planning a trip there for yourself…

Where to stay:

Villa Vento Surf, Panama City


$13 per person, per night (8-BED DORM)

8/10 – A super chilled, old-school hostel in the centre of Panama City. Free pancakes for breakfast, outdoor pool, nice common areas, air con in the rooms and all dorms are en-suite. We had no water for one of the days we were there but that was city-wide so we can’t deduct points for that. Atmosphere wasn’t super lively but we kind of liked the relaxed vibes plus the staff were amazingly friendly (shout out to Daniel). The only downside was the fact that it was a standard city hostel – there was nothing majorly special about it but for a few introductory nights it was perfect!

Isla Aroma, San Blas

$200 for the full trip (food, transportation, accommodation included)

6/10 – The island itself was amazing but the dorms were super basic. No air con, 12 beds crammed into a shack, no lights and the bathroom was on the other side of the island. Of course this is all totally acceptable for island living but we just feel that the price was a teensy bit extravagant. Location and food was an easy 10/10 but it loses a few points for the sleeping conditions.

Bambuda Lodge, Isla Solarte 

$16 per person, per night (12-BED DORM)

9/10 – Easily our favourite hostel in Panama. The ethics behind the place and inspiring backstory makes you feel like you’re spending your money in the right place. The dorm rooms are big and basic but every bed has a personal fan and plug socket – two luxuries in the backpacking world. There are a ton of bugs and the weather is rainy 90% of the time if you go May-September but the vibes are amazing and it’s the best way to escape the real world. We’re deducting a point purely for lack of other food options – don’t get us wrong, the food was the best we’ve ever tasted but we ended up going way over our budget, so it might not be an appropriate option for everyone.

Mamallena Hostel, Bocas del Toro

$12 per person, per night (PRIVATE ROOM)

8/10 – Lesson learned: Always give new hostels a try. You may be deterred by the lack of reviews but it’s worth the risk purely for the cheap, introductory prices and the special service you get (they’re working twice as hard to get good reviews). Mamallena was amazing – the common area leading onto the dock is beautiful, free breakfast was appreciated and the rooms are super fresh and clean. The building is not 100% finished yet but we think it’s going to be amazing when it is.

General Info:

• Walk to Casco Viejo if you’re staying in the centre of Panama City or vice versa. There’s a ‘PANAMA’ sign by the public footpath, which will undoubtedly make for great photos!

• Bypass the Panama Canal – unless you’re cruising down it, of course. It’s very expensive for what it is and there’s not a lot to see.

• GO TO SAN BLAS! It’s not cheap but it’s so worth it. Don’t worry about booking it before you arrive, just talk to your hotel/hostel or check out some tour companies in town to find the best trip for you. We think staying 2 days and 1 night is absolutely ideal but some people think that’s not long enough – I guess that part’s up to you!

• There are showers/bathrooms in San Blas (this is 100% a dig at the girl who told us there weren’t), so take all the shampoo and soap that your heart desires.

• Beware of the falling coconuts when you’re under the trees. Pretty sure you’d have to be hospitalised if one of them fell on your head!

• Buy your night bus tickets on the same day that you want to travel. Trying to buy them any earlier will involve a wasted journey but also don’t get there too late otherwise you’ll be at the back of the queue. 2pm is an ideal time!

• Get the chicken buses instead of the local buses. They’re a lot cheaper (have 50 cents ready for when you step off the bus) and you get a true taste of Latin American culture. Don’t worry, they shout out the stops so you won’t end up on the wrong one.

• The official currency in Panama is Balboas but dollars are more commonly used. You’ll get a better exchange rate in dollars too, so make sure to have some on your person when you enter the country.

• We’re not sure how much it costs to enter Panama because it was included in our flight price but it’s $4 to leave Panama, which you have to pay at the border.

• If you need a taxi, don’t worry too much about calling one in advance. They drive up and down the streets, sometimes even with their doors open shouting ‘TAXI!’ – just make sure it’s licensed and hop right in.

• There’s a Greek fast-food restaurant in the Marbella district of Panama City called ‘Suvlas’. Just go. It’s so cheap and so good – you’ll be addicted.

• Most ATM’s charge $5 to withdraw money but if you can find a BAC bank then their withdrawals are totally free!

• If you’re vegetarian or vegan be prepared to embrace wraps. I mean, there are salads and soups to choose from but there’s nothing majorly substantial apart from the classic ‘veggie wrap’. Every food establishment does it a bit differently – different fillings/sauces/sides etc. so I guess that makes it slightly more exciting? Maybe?

• Wear sun cream even if it’s cloudy – Alice got more burnt in Panama City than she did on a sunny beach in San Blas. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Panamanian words:

Que sopa, fren? – The equivalent to ‘Como estas?’ or ‘What’s up?’.

Chuso – If you were to accidentally hurt yourself and utter and expletive in response then this would be your go-to word.

We love the Panamanians!

If you want to read about our experiences in more detail, click here:

Panama City 🏙
San Blas 🌴
Isla Solarte 🌊
Bocas del Toro 🚣

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