As we prepared to cross the Sixaola border from Costa Rica into Panama our plan was to spend only two weeks in the country and then move on to Colombia. We heard it was expensive. Many backpackers speed through Panama so there were very few stories of its beauty.
Our bus approached the border to Panama and I gazed out the bus window, mesmerized by the banana plantations at the base of the first Panamanian mountains that came to view.
Our first stop was Bocas del Toro with its pristine waters and affordable dive shops. In the spur of the moment, we signed up for scuba diving classes and got PADI certified.
From Bocas del Toro we headed over the mountains and I fell in love with the views and the high-elevation lake. We crossed over the mountain range towards the Pacific and spent a couple of months in spring-weather Boquete where we had a wonderful experience in a private hacienda playing chef to a cowboy and participated in a cabalgata.
After Boquete, we went on a diving trip in Coiba National Park where we got to swim with sharks and float in the middle of schools of ocean fish. We then toured Panama City and were impressed with the beautiful waterfront walks and clean downtown. One hundred and three days later we said goodbye to Panama and a piece of our hearts. We fell in love with the country and the people we met.
How Much We Spent
In Nicaragua, we spent an average of $22 a day. Costa Rica cost us $32 a day. Panama came out in between at $27 a day. This includes all living expenses for both of us, lodging, food, clothes, and miscellaneous. The Miscellaneous category includes reading glasses, clothes, and other incidentals. The only thing not included is health insurance and health-related costs, like my knee surgery in Panama or Trin’s dental work in Costa Rica.
In each country, we try to help out a non-profit. Aside from giving something back to society, primarily we find it very enriching. We learn so much with each experience and they often become the highlights of each country. The same came true in Panama but in an unexpected way.
When I read the Workaway request from Roger, who had just lost his wife and wanted some help with cooking, we applied for the volunteer position in hopes to help him and offer some companionship. Little did we know that I would need knee surgery and he let us continue staying with him and cooking for him for the six weeks of recovery that I needed.
This arrangement provided free room and board for the two and a half wonderful months that we were with Roger, a bona fide cowboy whom we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know. Without that there is no way our living expenses in Panama would have been so low.
Should You Visit Panama?
Now to what you really want to know. Should you go to Panama for vacation? Yes, Absolutely YES! Might you retire in Panama? It’s a really good option, and Boquete would be my suggestion. There is good infrastructure and health care plus you can pick your favorite climate from very hot David or other coastal lowlands to nice and cool mountain towns like Boquete and Volcan.
What To See and Do
If you only have one week:
- Get in touch with Glenn at the Coiba Dive Center and book a three-day dive trip in Coiba National Park. You will be amazed at the abundant life teeming in the waters, and then you have an uninhabited island to relax between dives and overnight. If you have time book the fourth day to tour the island and the old prison. This is a great option for busy people as they take care of everything for you. From the moment you leave on the boat to Coiba until you come back to Santa Catalina everything is taken care of for you.
- If you fly into Panama City set aside a half day to go see the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Get there early in the morning for the best chance of seeing massive ships raised through the locks. It was worth the $15 entrance fee which includes a documentary film and a museum.
- Before you leave take a walk along Cinta Costera, the waterfront of Panama City, or stroll around the Casco Viejo neighborhood.
If you have two weeks:
- Add a couple of days to relax in Boquete; visit Cerro Punta, one of the most beautiful mountain towns I have seen; take a tour of a coffee plantation; or go on some amazing hikes. I was disappointed not to be able to do the hikes myself due to my surgery, but I’ve heard of the beautiful waterfalls and trails. While there spend an afternoon at Cañon Macho de Monte a beautiful gorge between Boquete and Cerro Punta.
- Take a jaunt over to Bocas Del Toro to relax on a beach, go snorkeling, see clear blue waters with tons of starfish, scuba dive (or get certified) or explore jungles on the islands.
Things to know about visiting Panama:
- For US travelers the Panamanian Balboa is easy. It is tied directly to the US dollar. In fact, the only Panamanian-produced money you will see are a few coins as the US dollar itself is utilized.
- Don’t write off Panama because of the stigma of being expensive according to most backpacker standards. It costs more than many Central American countries but it is cheaper than Costa Rica. In exchange, you will enjoy good roads, clean cities, and good accommodations.
- Remember that you are on Panamanian time. Don’t expect anything to start on time, sit back and relax.