The cost of living in Panama has been steadily increasing over the past decade, and today is at its highest thus far. With the recent change in minimum wage, which went up almost 30%, everyone is raising prices to be able to continue making profits. And that means that travel costs have increased as well. What used to be the perfect backpacking destination like neighbouring Colombia, Panama is a place you now need to think about your budget and how to make it stretch. But as a country of many contrasts, there are some tips and tricks that will help you save your pennies and travel around Panama low-cost.
Of course, Panama offers plenty of hostels as a cheap option for budget travelers. These vary in quality and price, but generally speaking, you can safely choose among the top 3 options in any given city and the hostel should be reasonably comfortable and clean. Some of the top “chain” hostels in the country are the beachfront Selina Hostels and the more off-the-beaten path travel oriented Mamallena. They will typically also be able to arrange transfers and tours at good prices.
For those who prefer to avoid hostels, want a little more privacy, or don’t want to stay with partying backpackers (most of these cater to a party crowd), have a couple of other options. AirBnB has tons of listings for rooms and apartments in a wide variety of price ranges. This is a particularly good option for Panama City, where cheap hotels are hard to come by and many apartment buildings offer nice facilities like pool and gym, for a fraction of the cost of a chain hotel. Keep in mind that renting for under 30 days is not technically legal in Panama, not that this is typically enforced, but it’s good to know.
The other budget alternative are the smaller hotels, which may or may not be listed online. This means that arriving in a town and looking for accommodation on the spot can sometimes be a good idea. That said, it’s probably not ideal in Panama City, since hotels are scattered around the city – but you can try Lemon Inn, Magnolia Inn and Albrook Inn.
In this case, keep in mind high season dates, such as weekends in the summer (December to March), Carnival, Christmas and the Fiestas Patrias in November, during which literally the whole country seems to go to the countryside and everything is booked out.
Most people will arrive in Panama City and then continue onwards to other destinations. The airport is the first place where you are likely to leave a hefty sum of money for a taxi if you don’t know the tricks. Airport taxis do not have a standard rate and will try to charge you crazy rates starting at $30 (OK rate) and up to $50 (not OK rate). The alternative is to take an Uber out of the airport, which will typically cost under $20 to go anywhere in the city. There is free WiFi at Tocumen International, so you should be able to use that to order a car. They won’t pick you up at the entrance though, you’ll need to go to the parking lot instead. Just a note that the government recently introduced new rules for Uber drivers (Jan 2018) and the supply may be somewhat limited at the moment – but hopefully will get back to normal soon.
Alternatively, you can take a bus – walk out of the airport to the main road, which takes about 5 minutes, and very carefully cross the street. There should be buses that say Albrook Corredor Sur that cost $1.50 for the express and take you to the center of the city, from where you can get a cab for under $5 pretty much anywhere you are going. There are two types of buses – Metrobus, which is the official bus and the so-called piratas. They are both fine, Metrobus is more comfortable and somewhat safer, but you do need a card to get on, so you’ll have to find someone who can let you pass and give them the cash.
Getting Around Panama City
As mentioned above, Uber is one of the best ways to get around. Most rides will cost under $5, unless there is surge pricing, and it’s safe and convenient – so hopefully they will figure out their situation with the new laws soon. Taxis are OK too, but you need to know how much you are supposed to pay before you get in and negotiate the price ahead of time, otherwise you are very likely to get ripped off. The absolute cheapest way is to use the bus or the metro, which cost 25 and 35 cents respectively. They are comfortable, air-conditioned and reasonably frequent on most routes.
Traveling Around the Country
Flights are crazy expensive in Panama because there is practically just one airline that flies to the countryside, so if you are on a tight budget, I wouldn’t even bother considering flying. Instead, go by bus and purchase the tickets yourself at the bus station. A pro tip for bus travel is to bring a warm sweater – they turn the A/C on to unbelievably low temperatures and it gets really cold. The only place you won’t be able to get to by bus is Kuna Yala, but the hotel or hostel should be able to arrange transportation for about $30 each way.
Ideally, find a place to stay that either serves breakfast or has a kitchen for you to cook one. If you don’t have this option then look for the chicheros. These are street vendors with a little push cart that sell fried empanadas, chicken, tortillas and sweet fruit juice. Their food is super tasty, but not particularly healthy, so you can also complement your breakfast with some fruit from the market. Make sure that at some point you find the typical Panamanian breakfast called ojaldas, these are delicious fried breads, usually served with American cheese, hot dogs or minced meat – they are to die for.
In Panama City, the cheapest lunches are to be had on the street. While there isn’t a huge street food scene per se, if you are in an area with lots of offices, there will be vendors selling set lunches for anywhere between $2-5. Most restaurants will also have set lunches at this time, which tend to be much cheaper than the regular menu. If you are in Casco Viejo, try places like Fonda Lo Que Hay, Nazca and Tantalo for delicious food and good prices. In the countryside, things are just generally cheaper, so it shouldn’t be hard to find good prices, but looking for a fonda will typically be the best option for a budget meal.
Budget dinners get a little trickier. For this reason, a good bet is to have a kitchen wherever you are staying, since this will cut your costs significantly – just make sure you go to the local grocery store like Machetazo or Super 99 and avoid the likes of El Rey and Riba Smith. If a kitchen is not an option, then look for happy hours, they will usually have both drinks and food on special, so that makes for an early dinner. And last, but not least, opt for food trucks, smaller food stalls and pizza places that offer better value than restaurants. Once again, in the countryside you’ll probably find OK options to get local favorite at good prices, such as arroz con pollo and patacones with fried fish.
While Panama may not be a super cheap place to visit anymore, there are definitely some sites that are totally worth the extra budget. For travelers on a budget, Panama City can offer a lot of free activities and a variety of alternatives with some research. The hot destinations like Bocas del Toro and Boquete cater to all sorts of tourists and you can generally get great happy hours and budget accommodation. Meanwhile, Kuna Yala (or San Blas) is not to be missed and comes with a great price-tag – about $150 for 2 nights with transportation, all meals and tours. The countryside remains quite accessible and not expensive, although budget travelers may want to avoid places like Contadora Island, which will definitely break the bank!