Hey, fellow traveler! Just a heads up, you may find affiliate links in here for programs/products that I'm diggin' right now which means I get a commission for purchases made through these links. But don't worry, I only recommend things to you that I love & use myself!
Where are the best places to go in Panama and how do I get there?
Is it safe for me to travel there?
What are the best hostels to stay at?
These are the questions I constantly get asked from fellow travelers heading to this beautiful country. This guide should answer all the above based on my personal experiences.
Panama City is a mix between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with the old town of Panama having a Cuban vibe. It’s a city great for sightseeing and shopping especially Albrook Mall and Multiplaza. However, the main attraction of Panama City is the Panama Canal ($20) which is one of the world’s greatest marvels. Also, a visit to the historic old town area of the Casco Viejo district is a must. Filled with authentic pastel colonial buildings and bustling bars and restaurants, their regeneration project has transformed the district into a thriving tourism hotspot and is now a Unesco world heritage site.
Getting around Panama City
There are plentiful taxi’s around the city, however, some of them do not run on meters so make sure you have an idea of how much your journey should roughly cost. I found Uber to be a lot cheaper and the drivers to be very pleasant. There are also plenty of bus routes around the city and although they are cheap and convenient, they can get rather crowded. The buses did run on schedule and were continuous throughout the day. If your trying to get your steps in, the long stretch of seafront promenade is a pleasant walk. Don’t expect a long stretch of sand though. A walking/bike tour around the city is a must as there are so many cool spots to check out.
Where to Stay in Panama City?
El Machico Hostel
Situated in the cosmopolitan Marbella zone, close to plenty of restaurants and shopping areas, El Machico hostel is very hip and modern. The hostel has a nice sociable pool area and even does open-air movie nights if your not up for the party scene. They have a free pancake breakfast which is a great bonus, a good kitchen to cook and friendly knowledgable staff who are always willing to help. You can easily book one of the San Blas tours at a decent price and even have a bike tour around the city. Bear in mind it is about a 45-minute walk down the oceanfront promenade to the Casco Viejo area. You can stop off at the Panama sign for a cheesy tourist pic!
Luna Castle Hostel
If you would prefer to stay in the heart of Casco Viejo, then Luna Castle Hostel is the place to be. Luna Castle Hostel is a Spanish colonial mansion situated on the water’s edge with an authentic hostel vibe. It has a funky colorful design, with a popular outdoor bar making it easy to socialize with other travelers. I highly recommend their organized walking tour with Chris, where you head to Ancon Hill and the local spots where you get a real feel for the history, culture, and wildlife. The staff are super friendly and go out of their way to make your stay as enjoyable as possible. They have a range of San Blas island hopping packages that are definitely worth the experience.
Bocas Del Torro
Situated north of Panama is the tropical paradise of Bocas del Torro. It is without a doubt the place to be! Whether your partying and island hopping the Filthy Friday bar crawl or relaxing on the oceanfront exploring the different islands. Filthy Friday costs $35 which includes the free vest top and water taxi to each place and is full of backpackers looking to have a good time. Is it worth it? If you like to drink and party then of course! However, if that’s not your thing there is plenty of islands to explore and snorkel. A snorkeling hot spot is starfish beach with crystal clear water and you guessed it, easy to spot starfish. Please don’t be that dickhead to pick them up to get a picture for ‘the gram’ though!
How to get there?
I came straight from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. It was easy enough to get a bus to the closest town on the mainland Almirante, where you will then have to catch a boat to Bocas. However, there is an airport on the main island Isla Colon (which is tiny) if you would prefer to fly. Once you’re on the islands, there is plenty of water taxis where you can negotiate a rate to explore neighboring islands. In Bocas town, it’s easy enough to rent a bike or scooter to get around.
Where to stay in Bocas Del Torro?
For the island hopping bar crawl, I stayed at the Selina hostel on the main island, Isla Colon. Selina is a well-known hostel chain throughout Central & South America and is one of the largest hostels in Bocas del Torro town. As the after party was here it was easy for me to sneak off (or crawl) to bed when I had one too many drinks.
Bambuda Lodge or Palma Lodge
Once your all partied out I can highly recommend staying at Bambuda Lodge or Palma Lodge. They are both situated right on the oceanfront and perfect for nursing a hangover and very good value for money.
Lost & Found Jungle Hostel
If you’re a budget backpacker and enjoy being immersed with nature then Panama’s only hike-in Lost & Found jungle hostel is for you. Once you arrive, the views and the jungle vibes make it all worth it. The hostel offers family dinners and activities where it’s easy to make friends if you’re a solo traveler. If you’re looking to have some fun while your there, then do the Sherlock Homes treasure hunt around the grounds of the hostel, challenging but fun!
Bear in mind that the hostel is in the JUNGLE, which means that there will be bugs around! The hostel is in a complete REMOTE location (en route to David from Almirante) so be sure to remind the driver to stop there! Bear in mind, that the local buses can get VERY crowded. The card machine is unpredictable due to the location so take CASH with you and stock on up food if you want to cook yourself as there are NO shops nearby.
Situated up in the mountains with a much cooler climate, Boquete is a hikers paradise! The sunrise hike to Volcan Baru and El Pianista trail is well worth the trek along with The Lost Waterfalls. It is a quaint little town surrounded by mountains, coffee farms, and lush gardens filled with natural beauty.
How to get to Boquete?
It’s about a 45-minute local bus ride from the main town of David and has a mix of backpackers, American ex-pats, and friendly locals. Alternatively, you could also fly from Panama City to David which is a 40-minute flight (but what’s the fun in that!).
Where to stay in Boquete?
As a backpacker, Bambuda Castle was one of my favorite places I’ve ever stayed at! I’ve always wanted to stay in a castle and now I can say I have! This place is an absolute BARGAIN! Amazing facilities, from a luxury swimming pool and hot tub to the tv room and family dinners at the grand table. However, although the food is amazing, it is a bit pricier than the average backpacker standard food budget. As I was coming to the end of my trip, it was worth splashing out on a decent meal for dinner.
There is also a well-equipped kitchen there but be sure to stock up in the main town as there are no shops close by. It has such a homely feel and perfect to meet other travelers and socialize. Although the location is a bit out of town, they provide a FREE shuttle twice a day to the main area. The taxi’s seemed to be cheap enough and there was always someone else that was heading there as well.
San Blas Islands
If your traveling around the rest of Panama, I highly recommend leaving the best until last. The San Blas Islands are situated off Panama and Colombia and are made up of 360 breathtaking islands that are home to the Kuna people. They are an indigenous community who are very protective of preserving their traditional heritage and against mass tourism. The islands are pristine and are completely uninhabited full of natural beauty.
There are a number of San Blas tours and packages available so it depends on how long you want to go and the type of accommodation you would want to stay in. San Blas Adventures is a popular choice for backpackers especially if you’re making your way to Colombia. However, it is easy enough for backpackers to book a tour package when you get there through hostels as most of them leave daily. You can expect nothing but an authentic experience especially if you opt to sleep in a hammock under the stars. Regardless, the San Blas Islands are a piece of paradise not to be missed on your journey.
Should you add Panama to your travels?
Absolutely! Overall, I would highly recommend Panama to any traveler especially when traveling Central America. I expected Panama to be underwhelming but found it very refreshing after being in some of the other countries. I was not expecting it to be so advanced and built up especially when it came to Panama City which was a cosmopolitan hub. Without a doubt, this country is one to add to your bucket list especially if you’re traveling Central America!
Have you been to any of the above places? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.