Backpacking Panama on a Budget: Tips, Highlights, and a 3-Week Itinerary

There are tons of exciting activities and breathtaking destinations to see while backpacking Panama on a budget! Read below for some tips and highlights of the beautiful country.

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Common Questions about Backpacking Panama:

Is Panama good for backpacking?

Yes! Panama is a relatively safe, affordable, and easily backpacked country. In Panama there’s cheap food and accommodations, tons of free activities, and friendly people.

Can I travel to Panama during Covid?

Yes, anyone can visit Panama during Covid!

Visitors from all countries are welcome to visit Panama, however, non-vaccinated travelers or travelers with less than 2 (two) doses will have to present a negative COVID-19 test for entry. Here is the official Panama Covid Webpage for visitors.

Is Panama expensive to travel?

No, Panama is not expensive to travel if you read below to learn some tips and tricks about backpacking Panama on a budget. Stick to local and budget eateries (you can find lunches for $3-$5 pretty easily!), stay at backpacker hostels, and enjoy the amazing free activities that Panama offers. You can do a historic Panama City walk, snorkel the turquoise waters in the Caribbean, walk through the jungle spotting sloths, poison dart frogs, and toucans ALL FOR FREE!

Do you need to know Spanish when visiting Panama?

Probably the biggest barrier to backpacking Panama is that English is not always spoken, so you must attempt speaking or writing some Spanish. Bring along your phone, google translate, and get a cheap sim card. Even better, practice Spanish on the free and fun app, Duolingo. You can practice Spanish on Duolingo on your phone or on your desktop for free – this is like Rosetta Stone, but even better.

The Best 3 Week Backpacking Panama Itinerary:

Below, I summarize our epic 3-week tour of Panama. Preferably, we don’t book to far ahead because it’s easy to hop on a bus and book a hostel in panama, things are really rarely fully booked, especially since Covid-19. The best thing about backpacking a country like Panama is the ability to find a spot that you love, and hunker down for a while. If you like the below Panama backpacking itinerary, read on for more details about each stop on the itinerary!

  • Casco Antiguo (Old Panama) – ceviche shop hopping, historic walk, fruit markets
  • Santa Catalina – Surfing, scuba or snorkelling, fresh seafood and fruits
  • Coiba Island – scuba or snorkelling, nature walks and hiking for howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, crocodile spotting
  • Bocas Del Toro – Island Bar Hopping, snorkelling / scuba diving, nature walks, Caribbean chilling
  • Manatee and Sea Turtle Spotting @ Changuinola AAMVECONA
  • Panama Canal University Tour – Learn and see the amazing local species!

Budget travel bus prices when backpacking through Panama

  • $1.25 bus from airport
  • To take the Panama City Bud, you need a “rapi pass” ($2 for pass deposit) then can add money. Each trip is $0.10 can use pass for multiple people
  • $9.70 bus from Panama City to Sona
  • Taxi from hostel to bus depot should be $3.50
  • Coiba – 45 min to view point
  • Coiba – 2 hours trail one way, back in hour and a half cause walking not as slow
  • Santiago to David – $9, 3 hours
  • Sona to Santa Cruz – $4.65
  • David to Amirante $8.45
  • David to Panama – $15.25, paid $12
  • Changeinola to David – $9.

Landing in Panama you arrive at Tocumen International Airport. This is a large airport that really is the hub between South America and North America.

How to get from the Tocumen International Airport to Panama City

This can be a really cheap journey – simply take a $1.25 bus from airport into town, then take the city bus or an uber to your hotel. Backpacking in Panama can be so cheap if you take public transit!

Backpacking Panama City

If you want an in-depth guide to visiting Panama City, check out this post by Globe Guide: Best Things To Do in Panama City

There are two parts of Panama city: old Panama city and new Panama city.

Backpacking the Panama City Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Old Panama city is antiquated and reminiscent of winding cobblestone streets in Sevilla, south of Spain. Along the narrow stone roads you’ll find convenience stores, boutiques, and restaurants. If you go to the center there is a open square with tented fruit stalls and vendors, and sometimes live music. Along the ocean there is a lovely sea wall and walkway.

Ceviche stand in Panama City

On the fringes of old Panama city there is a fish market and plenty of vendors selling fresh small styrofoam cups of ceviche and seafood salads. It’s a wonderful lunchtime activity to go walking from stall to stall, sampling their fresh catches. Our very favourite spot was Mariscos y Ceviches La Bendicion S.A.

Backpacking Panama City – The New City

New Panama is very similar to what you expect in any modern central American city: busy roads, tall cement building, and noisy traffic releasing fumes into the streets. Not exactly picturesque.

I have Backpacked all over Central America and the Caribbean on a budget, and have lots of great tips and tricks! Check out my other posts:

How to get around Panama on a budget

With a little Spanish, backpacking Panama on a budget is easy! If you don’t know any Spanish, that’s ok. Google translate and a cheap sim card for some data will be your best friend.

There are many buses (‘autobuses’) that travel throughout Panama at reasonable prices. There buses are really minibuses, seating 8-14 people. They rarely have a/c but we were comfortable enough with the windows open.

Backpacking Santa Catalina, Panama

Santa Catalina is a small, sleepy seaside town on the Pacific west coast of Panama. There’s little wooden shack restaurant selling fresh catches near the beach. We got lobster dinner for $10 each. There’s a brown-sandy beach that grows very wide when the tide is down. I was very wary of the beach, especially at sunset and early morning, as there were many crocodiles all over Panama. Activities in Santa Catalina include surfing, hiking, and scuba diving.

Scuba Diving in Santa Catalina, Panama

We dove with Scuba Coiba, and they were an excellent operation. Scuba diving in Santa Catalina and Coiba island is very similar to Scuba in Corcovado, Southern Costa Rica (I wrote an article about it here), though I might argue that Corcovado Costa Rica has better diving. , When scuba diving, the dive shop takes you out to the nearby island of Coiba, which is a marine protected park. Here you can see countless white tip reef sharks tornadoing around in the water, as well as giant moray eels, puffer fish, and some schooling fish. There are also interesting thermoclines here. Once the warm water was green, then abruptly changed to pink red and relatively freezing.

If you’re really into scuba diving, you need to backpack in the Galapagos! Did you know you can backpack and scuba dive on a budget in Galapagos? Read the below articles for my secret tips and tricks!

Corcovado island backpacking panama

Backpacking Overnight at Coiba Island, Panama

Yes, you can stay overnight at the beautiful and natural Coiba Island! Coiba used to be the home of an offshore prison, but now is a base for marine conservation, with a handful of military personnel and a few civilians living in a small community. The old prison was converted to a low budget accommodation, with a few beds (no bedding or mosquito nets) and a washroom with outdoor showers. There are hammocks on the trees outside, and a sheltered pavilion for dining and gathering.

Food on Coiba Island

There are no, I repeat, no restaurants, stores, or any source of food on the island. We went terribly ill-prepared with only an off-brand box of fruit loops, 3 cans of tuna, 1 loaf of white bread, and (thank god) a sawyer water filtration straw for safe drinking water. This was between 3 of us for 3 nights! We survived, and looking back we laugh, but I urge you to arrive at Coiba island better prepared than we were. I also suggest you bring bug spray, sunscreen, and a sheet or silk sleeping bag liner.

Crocodiles on Coiba Island

There is a resident saltwater crocodile in Coiba’s main little village named Tito, who had lived here for almost 50 years. He lounges around in a march in the day, coming around the bend and patrolling the beach in the afternoon through the night. There are many saltwater crocodiles in the area and we spotted a few in our time there. The beach out front of the hostel is beautifully inviting with white sand and warm turquoise water, but it is also nerve-wracking to enter the water. We saw Tito the croc swimming past as early as 12 noon! It is never really safe in the water when there are crocodiles around.

On our first day on the island, a military man, Micheal, kindly took us on a hike to overlook the bay. There were tons of howler monkeys, and also capuchin money’s (same species as Ross’s monkey on the show Friends). The capuchins looked innocent, until the cornered us on a trail and bared their terrifying teeth and we almost had to beat them away with a stick.

I was resting in a hammock on our second evening on the island. Around 5pm, we noticed one of the local men was swimming out toward one boat moored in the bay. He was swimming a splashy butterfly crawl, and we were all wondering why he was taking his sweet time. When he passed by the boat entirely, we realized he was out for a recreational swim, and we also realized Tito was in the water and bee-lining for the foolish man. We started shouting ‘cocodrillo’ (crocodile in Spanish), throwing rocks, and gym teacher whistling. The man took an agonizing while to take heed, looked out where we were pointing, and then started swimming for the nearest dry land, which was a tiny rocky island near the edge of the small bay. But the current was running hard against him, and he had no fins, and Tito was fast gaining on him as he barely moved, despite the man’s frantic flapping. An unarmed military man came running over and shouted at the man in Spanish, looking furious. The gap became smaller and smaller between the swimmer and the crocodile until I could barely watch and wondered to myself if I should look away and accept the man’s fate. But with the croc snapping at his heels, the swimmer hauled himself out of the water, grabbed a large rock, and pounded the croc on the snout in one swift movement. The croc came flailing out of the water in anger, flopping over backwards. The man Conti used to throw rocks and the croc slunk away into the water. After an hour of building courage, the man had to swim back to shore.

The next day I chatted with Micheal about the ordeal in my best attempt at Spanish. Micheal had been kindly showing us around the island on prior days. He told me if he had been there, he would have been forced to shoot Tito. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and he’s surprised the man lived. Our dive shop owner was thrilled to see the video Shandon took of the ordeal, but then quickly requested that he not post it on like for fear of scaring away clients from the area.

One late morning it poured rain for like 5 minutes and then a dozen vultures landed on the beach with their wing outstretched, drying in the sun.

Backpacking Bocas del Toro (Bocas Town), Panama

Bocas del Toro is a collection of lush islands dotting the Caribbean sea in the north eastern part of panama, just below the border with Costa Rica. The main part of town is full of restaurants and hotels are on stilts and in the water, like a central American Venice.

There are a few activities to do in the area, and we opted to do a boating bar hop called “Filthy Fridays”. It was a great time, herding a group of about 40 young adults from island to island at little beach bars set on rickety wooden piers and walkways. There was loud music, free drinks, and lots of fun all around.

Best Hostel in Bocas Del Toro- Aqua Lounge

We stayed at Carenero island at a fantastic little hostel, Aqua Lounge Bar and Hostel. Carenero island is only a $1-2, 3 minute water taxi (small speed boat) from the main island. This sweet hostel has air-con and fan rooms, a rope swing over an enclosed swimming area with light blue water, and a slack line over another pool of open ocean water (we tried and got about 10% of the way across). An excellent and cheap restaurant, JJ’s, is right in the hostel serving delicious pesto pasta and other great dishes.

You can walk around the island and stop by at other beach bars, and there’s also a nice snorkelling spot where we saw stingrays, nurse sharks, and lots of bright coral and fish. The water was almost too hot at 29-30 degrees Celsius! To get here, you take a water taxi. There as little convenience store to the north of the island, a 15 minute walk up.

Red frog beach, Bocas Del Toro

We opted to stay at a really great hostel, Palmar Beach Lodge. You arrive at a pier in the mangroves. Here is a brilliant spot to see sloths. It’s just a small hike to the hostel, and along the way there are caymans in ponds and lots of interesting flora. Palmar is a upbeat hostel with private rooms and a beachfront restaurant, hammocks, and yard games.

Red frog beach backpacking panama

But best of all, the forest around the hostel is full of bright strawberry-red colored Poison dart frogs! Don’t worry, they’re only dangerous if you pick them up and rub them around your body, or eat one, haha. They’re beautiful and very fun to watch and they often travel in pairs, the males attempting to woo a female or fight other males. We also did a small boat tour to see sloths and dolphins, which was fun.

Manatee Spotting at AAMVECONA, Northern Pamana

We arrived by car to the entrance of the park, but there was nobody there at first. Eventually someone came along and with garbled Spanish we attempted to explain that we were there to stay at their lodge and try to spot some manatees. We were whisked in on a small dugout boat down a channel until we reached the camp headquarters. It was boiling in the mangrove forest, and terribly humid. There is no a/c, and we withered away until the evening came in the lodge. We were taken on two all wooden kayaks into the murky water of the estuary to a large wooden platform up in the trees. Below the platform dangled 3 large bundles of bananas over the still water. The rangers told us we best lay down on the platform and quietly peek over the edge. After our long journey, and the sweltering heat of the damp estuary laying on the wooden platform was too comfortable, and within ten minutes Amanda and I passed out into an uncomfortable doze. But I soon awoke to a great RIIIIPPP, almost like a phone book was being torn in half.

I pried my eyes open and was astounded to see that it was the soft, marshmallowy mouth of the manatee eating bananas that was creating the shocking sound. After a while another manatee joined in, though they were incredibly shy and only poked their heads out of the water as far as they needed to in order to feast on the bananas, then quickly retreated into the opaque maroon colored water.

We returned to the lodge and had a light lunch and an afternoon nap. That night we were invited along with the rangers on a patrol of the beach in the moonlight, looking for leatherback turtles, fresh nests full of eggs, or poachers. The rangers had rifles, and in the darkness in the middle of nowhere, I felt suddenly nervous and fool-hearty. But we trudged on into the night, and soon hours had passed. The rangers stopped occasionally to machete open coconuts for team refreshments, and eventually we stopped at some logs for a rest. These men spoke no English, but listened gamely as Amanda and I attempted in Spanish to tell the story of Tito trying to eat the swimmer. We had a laugh and then trudged back to camp, sadly with no leatherback sightings but luckily no poacher sightings either. Leatherback sea turtles are a huge species, weighing 250 – 700 kg! They are incredibly endangered as their beach breeding grounds are overtaken by resorts and developments, and people raid their nests for the eggs, which sell for $2, which can be a lot to someone living in poverty who comes across this illegal source of income.

The lodge finds nests and moves them into the sand in a fenced area in the ranger station, where they’re carefully guarded until they’re hatched and the babies are returned to the sea.
The next morning we were very lucky. Some turtles hatched! We put on rubber gloves and aided the miniatures turtles over to nearby the water, where they used their tiny flippers to drag themselves across the wet sand and into the crashing waves.

We also took a kayak tour with the research lodge. I was paired with a local guide, who happily paddled us along as I gawked at the scenery. We paddled through narrow archways and tunnels in the mangroves and up and down little watery alleyways, once in a while bursting out into sunny clearings.

We applied to have a tour of the research center through the University of Panama website, and we were accepted to do a civilian tour. We took a public bus to the small port on the side of the water, and were picked up by a small metal boat and ferried through a portion of the canal to an inland at its heart.

We learned the Panama canal hosts the desert population of Crocodiles in the world, and through a briefing in a classroom and a few hours of hiking, we learned the canal island is also home to toucans, poison dart frogs, the terrifying bullet ant, and many other interesting species.

Situated right inside the capital city, there is also a beautiful nature reserve. We went to the park by city bus and toured around it on foot. They have a butterfly enclosure that you can go into. You can hike, unguided, up and along the wide path, looking for sloths and toucans and other animals of interest. At the top, there’s a stunning panoramic view of the city.

Questions? Comment below with any questions about backpacking Panama and I’ll get back to you!

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