16 Things to know before Backpacking Panama 

Nicknamed the “melting pot” because of it being at the crossroad of different cultures, Panama is one of the places you absolutely MUST visit. Sandwiched between Costa Rica to the North and Colombia to the South, Panama has a constant stream of tourists from across the globe. All of which are looking to experience Panama’s natural beauty, wildlife and array of activities.

After backpacking Panama ourselves, we were taken aback at how amazing, relaxing and exciting the country was. We want to convince everyone to pack their bags and head to this great country so we’ve created the 16 things to know before backpacking Panama. This is so we can give you all the travel tips and hacks to make sure you have an amazing time!

Disclaimer: Some of the links included on our website may contain affiliate links. We may receive some commission from purchases made via these but it will NOT affect the price you pay. This is to allow this site to stay online and ensure that readers use, what we believe, are the best products possible whilst travelling.

1. Is Panama good for backpackers?

Absolutely! The whole of Central America, and Panama specifically, is a haven for backpackers. It has such a good mix of outdoor activities, beautiful beaches, vibrant nightlife, and bustling cities that there really is something for everyone. 

Thanks to its great airport connections, Panama is a great start for onward travel for the rest of Central America and South America. This is because it borders Costa Rica to the North and Columbia to the South.

2. Where are the best places to visit in Panama for backpackers? 

Panama City 

Panama city

Panama City is the capital of Panama and if you are starting your backpacking adventure in Panama, you will likely start your trip here. 

It’s a great place to get accustomed to your stay in Panama. There are loads of great restaurants and bars to check out as well as an endless supply of activities. However, by far the most attractive aspect of Panama City is its street food. Practically on every corner, you’ll have stalls selling everything from Empanadas to Queso Blanco. You need to try as much as you can and see what you like.

There is also an endless supply of activities in Panama City. We’d highly recommend venturing out to Ancon Hill to have a view of the city or the Miraflores Visitors Center. Here you will be able to watch boats of all sizes pass through the famous Panama Canal. Alternatively, the Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and the Historic District of Panamá are incredibly popular tourists due to their designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bocas del Toro 

No backpacking trip in Panama is complete without a trip to the Bocas islands. 

Situated in Panama’s northwest on the southern tip of Colon Island, Bocas del Toro is incredibly popular with tourists and backpackers alike. Despite being a relatively small town in size, the island has it’s own airport where flights regularly land.

The town itself is great to wander around as there are loads of places to eat, chill and relax. However one of the main reasons people visit is due to its notorious party scene. Many of the hostels do events every evening, on rotation, so there’s always a place to go and meet new people. We found the Selina on the island to be the place everyone visited most nights. It had a great atmosphere with a mix of local and international music and there wasn’t a better setting to party to.

If this isn’t your thing then you shouldn’t be put off as there are tons of other activities. For example, people come from all over the world just to visit Starfish Beach. Here you can relax on a beautiful beach but have the opportunity to see hundreds of starfish up close that are scattered about on the shallow sea floor. It truly is a mesmerising sight and the experience stays with you forever.

Do remember not to touch the starfish as they don’t like it and you’re in their environment.

As it’s located on the opposite side of the island, buses regularly leave from the town centre for less than $5 per adult. But make sure not to miss the last bus back as you’ll be stranded and have to find another way home.

Isla Bastimentos

Isla Bastimentos in panama

The next island over from Bocas is Bastimentos Island. Getting here from Bocas is incredibly easy as boats regularly cross between the two. We’d advise you to either ask at your accommodation or at Palagna Ferry Terminal. You’ll be dropped off on the opposing side of the island so be warned there’s a bit of walking before you get there. The path through the mangroves and forest is easily signposted so you need not worry.

By far the main attraction here is Red Frog Beach. This is by far one of the best beaches we’ve ever been to. You can pull up a sun lounger, your book or Amazon Kindle, and read until your heart’s content. This can be done whilst soaking in the beautiful weather and pure tranquillity.


Boquete panama

Boquete is a small town situated in western Panama that’s incredibly popular with tourists from all around the world. Whilst it’s not the biggest of places, Boquete is a great place to take a few days to relax and see what it has to offer.

There are tons of great places to find a bite to each or relax here so you won’t be short of options. Make sure to check out our guide to The 8 Best Restaurants in Boquete for everything you need to know.

Similarly, there’s a good amount of activities to keep you busy. We particularly enjoyed Perfect Pair’s Chocolate Class where we learnt about everything cacao and got to create, taste, customise and eat all of our own chocolate.

A lot of tourists use it as a base to Hike Volcan Baru which has some spectacular views from the top.

Santa Catalina 

Santa Catalina Panama
Photo by Christian at My Travelworld

If you’re looking for a tropical vacation-type place, Santa Catalina will be right up your street. Described as the best waves in Central America, there are so many great surfing spots around the bay, no matter whether you’re an expert or a beginner. However, if you’re the latter, we’d recommend checking out Playa Estero.

There are also so many other things to do in Santa Catalina, you’ll never want to leave. From trekking along the Punta Roca trail to looking at the magical reflections at La Coquita, Santa Catalina is absolutely beautiful. this is also a great place to scuba dive if you’ve already got your Open Water licence or looking to qualify.

Ultimately, Santa Catalina has some amazing laid-back and chilled-out vibes that you’re going to want to experience.

San Blas Islands 

San Blas Islands Panama
Photo by Victoria from guideyourtravel.com

Compromised of approximately 365 islands, the San Blas Islands are a tropical paradise full of adventure. Known for its well-protected natural beauty, people understandably flock from far and wide just to go on vacation here. In particular, Isla Robeson is an island with endless warm crystal-clear waters, endless white beaches and the ability to see everything swimming around your feet.

There are three main ways of getting to the islands and all are from Panama City. You can either choose to take a three day, two night tour that includes a trip to Cayos Holandeses. Alternatively, if you’re looking to spend longer on the islands, you can choose to take a propeller plane from Panama City and book some beautiful accommodations.

Do be aware that the island is fully in the control of the native Kuna people. the Kuna’s aim to protect their lands against excessive tourism in order to keep the ecosystem healthy and beautiful. Make sure to always be respectful to both the people and the island.

3. Is Panama safe to backpack? 

Yes! We felt very safe during our time in Panama but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be cautious. 

If you use your common sense, you’ll be absolutely fine. This means locking your valuables away in your accommodation and keeping them out of sight if you’re out and about.

We’d highly recommend this Outdoor Hiking Bumbag and this Two Pack Heavy Duty BeskooHome Padlocks. The reason for the long shackle is so it can fit any type of lock or cage, no matter where you are.

Similarly, don’t go out alone after dark, especially as a female (unfortunately), and try and travel with others as much as possible.

4. What’s the best way to get around Panama? 

Public buses

Whilst slightly chaotic, public buses (also known as chicken buses) are, in our opinion, the best way to get around Panama. It’s also the cheapest way to get between all the popular destinations. 

Unfortunately, the buses can tend to turn up whenever they fancy so if you have a plane to catch, give yourself plenty of time to get there. It can be tricky to find timetables online so it is best to ask at your accommodation or locals for the bus schedule. 

Usually, the buses will have a sign with their route on the front, just put your arm out and ask if you’re unsure. If you know it’s the right bus, hop on and someone will come around to take cash payment.

Buses get super busy so expect people to be sat in the aisle and your bags to be shoved on the roof! 


If you have a larger budget for backpacking Panama, you might want to opt for taking a shuttle bus.  

These tend to be less crowded and often have air conditioning which makes your journey a bit smoother. Planning your journey will also be easier as shuttles will also pick you up from your hostel.

However, shuttles can be pricey so if you are wanting to save money, always opt for the public bus. 


You can use both Lyft and Uber in Panama but you may not be able to get it in the more remote locations. Popular areas like Panama City, Boquete and David will be full of taxis.

We used taxis a few times during our time in Panama, either through ride-hailing apps or booking one through our accommodation. Always negotiate a price before getting into the taxi and follow your Waze app to be sure you are going in the right direction. 

In our experience, Taxis are safe but they do prey on tourists. Absolutely work out how much your journey should cost before negotiating with the driver. This can be done by speaking to your accommodation and ensuring you don’t get scammed.

5. How expensive is Panama for backpackers? 

If you’re visiting from either Europe or North America, it won’t seem that expensive to you. However, if you’ve already been to other countries in the rest of Central America, it’s not cheap at all.

The main reason for this is because the main currency Panama uses is the US Dollar. This makes products naturally more expensive in Panama as it’s such a strong currency.

6. What are some of the best hostels in Panama? 

Palmar Beach Lodge (Isla Bastimentos)

Walkway to Palmar Beach Lodge
Walkway to Palmar Beach Lodge

Situated directly on Red Frog Beach, this hostel is literally the definition of a paradise. You simply roll out of your bed and you’re on one of the most picturesque beaches in Panama. The weather was unbelievable during our stay and it only rained a couple of times in a week. As the hostel we located on the edge of a jungle, we bumped into a wild sloth!

We particularly enjoyed relaxing on some beach loungers with our Amazon Kindles in hand, reading our books and watching the world go by. However, if you can’t sit still, don’t worry as the hostel also puts on a range of activities. From ATV riding to Zip-lining to a Chocolate tour, there’s an endless list of activities to keep you occupied.

By far the best island to visit in Panama and the perfect location to chill and relax!

Selina Bocas del Toro

Selina Hostel - Bocas del Toro
Selina Hostel – Bocas del Toro

If you’re staying in Bocas del Toro, Selina is THE place to be.

Firstly, the setting is just beautiful. The open water comes directly to the decking making you feel like you’re in a completely remote location. Secondly, it’s a great place to stay if you enjoy socialising. Selina pretty much hosts some form of event every evening. This includes DJ sets, party ping-pong, you name it. We met so many people here that we still keep in touch with them now.

The location is also really good as it’s right by some really good cafes and restaurants that are a must-try!

The hostel also organises tours and as boats can come right up to the hotel decking which makes transport very easy.

Lost and Found Hostel 

View from Lost and Found hostel
View from Lost and Found hostel

If you either love hiking, being off the grid or want to experience something totally different then Lost and Found Hostel is for you.

Located on the side of the Reserva Forestal de Fortuna, Lost and Found really is in a whole world of its own. You get stunning views of the ravine below and another place you can literally spend hours. This is also a great place to socialise and meet loads of other travellers. In the evenings you’ll get the chance to have a meal together and get to know each other as there really isn’t anything else to do at that time!

Lost and Found is blessed to also have some great hiking nearby. The hostel has particular trails mapped out which is a great way to explore the mountainside with your friends.

Getting here can be quite a pickle. Coming from the Bocas islands, you’ll need to get a shuttle bus from Almirante and the Terminal de buses a Panama near the Secondary School Almirante. Do NOT go to Terminal de Transporte which is more in the town centre. From Almirante, get the shuttle bus to David. Make sure to tell the driver you want to get off at Lost and Found and they’ll tell you when to get off. Nonetheless, make sure to get off at Restaurante Vista Hermosa. Ask here if you’re unsure but follow the track for about 15 minutes and you’ll eventually get to Lost and Found. Again, it’s all signposted so don’t worry.

Bambuda Castle – Boquete

Bambuda castle a hostel for backpacking panama
Bambuda Castle

Out of our whole trip, this was by far the most picturesque location we stayed in. From the restaurant, you get unrivalled views over the nearby Volcan Baru with clouds continuously rippling over the hills. You also directly over a beautiful winery. You could literally gaze at the views for hours its that good.

The facilities themselves were also incredible. The hotel has its own restaurant which is very affordable given there’s nowhere else to eat nearby. We ended up having the steak with different sauces on multiple occasions because it was that good, especially for the price. There are also self-catering facilities if you’re travelling on a budget.

The grounds are also beautiful but it’s all topped off by the huge swimming pool and jacuzzi. These amenities are all available to stayers at the hotel. The jacuzzi was just what we needed after a long few days of travelling, perfection.

The only downside is it’s a short drive from Boquete itself so you will need to catch a bus or get the hotel to ring you a taxi each time.

Overall, if you get the chance to visit Boquete, you absolutely have to stay here as there’s no better accommodation.

6. What backpack should you take to Panama? 

Having a reputable and reliable backpack will make your trip so much easier and far less stressful. As Panama doesn’t have the smoothest of roads or pavements, you’ll need a backpack that can tough it out.

Personally, we absolutely swear by Osprey Backpacks and they have never let us down throughout our time travelling. It was also really helpful to purchase a waterproof backpack cover to keep the contents of your bag dry. With Panamanian weather being so unpredictable at times, it saved us on many occasions.

The other reason we chose this specific backpack was that it opens like a suitcase. Along with some packing cubes, this makes packing and unpacking super easy so you can see what you have without unloading everything out.

7. What should you pack for Panama? 

There is so much to say about what you should pack for Panama. That is why we’ve dedicated a whole post on What to Pack for Panama – A Complete Guide. Make sure to check it out for all the best travel tips whilst traveling to this beautiful country!

backpacking panama in bocas del toro

8. Do you need to speak Spanish to backpack Panama? 

No, but it will definitely come in handy. The locals have a basic grasp of English and the vast majority are super friendly.

Ultimately, whilst you don’t need to speak Spanish to backpack Panama, taking the time to understand a bit of Spanish will help you out massively. If people see you’re trying to learn the language and culture, they’re going to be even more grateful.

9. What are the best things to do in Panama? 

Panama Canal and Jungle Tour

By far the most popular and famous construction in Panama is the Panama Canal. It’s now one of the world’s most important trade assets thanks to its ability to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Nearly $270bn worth of goods pass through this straight every year.

This tour will allow you to watch ships pass through the locks and understand the process of simply getting a boat through. You’ll also get to experience the abundance of flora and fauna on the canal’s shores which includes capuchins and tamarins. We also particularly enjoyed the Aqua Clara Locks Visitor Centre as it was really interesting to learn about the canal’s history through the many displays and exhibits.

Catamaran Excursion

If you enjoy being at sea or simply want to experience Panama from another angle, this tour is for you! You’ll get to spend your day bathing in the beautiful sunshine as well as snorkelling with the beautiful marine life. The package comes with an open bar, snacks and lunch all included meaning all you need to do is sit back and relax.

You’ll also get the chance to visit and sail around Taboga Island. Also known as the Island of Flowers, you’ll get the chance to view Panama City Skyline from the water and explore the island’s Village. We particularly loved the ability to walk around the village. Even though it can be quite touristy, it still had a great authentic feel to it.

Did you know Taboga Island is home to the second oldest church in the whole of Latin America?!

No matter the size of your group or even if you plan on going solo, there is no way you won’t be able to enjoy this trip.

Panama City and Panama Canal Tour

If you still want to see the famous Panama Canal but prefer city life to wildlife, then this tour is for you.

By far the most enjoyable aspect was the opportunity to visit the Miraflores Visitor Center. As well as exploring the four exhibition halls, and learning about the Canal’s history, we also got to watch ships transit through the canal itself. Unfortunately, the price of the tour doesn’t include tickets to the centre but we still think it’s well worth exploring.

Similarly, we love city life and the ability to learn more about the history of each city. We had no idea that Panama Viejo (Old Panama) was a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also on the tour, you’ll see the inside of Plaza de la Cathedral, Panama’s most important church in the whole country.

There’s a pickup point or you can request they pick you up from your accommodation or even the airport. A local guide will travel around with you in your air-conditioned vehicle imparting on their expert knowledge.

Monkey Island Tour

Another great activity for nature lovers is this trip to Monkey Island. Here you’ll travel to the Gamboa Marina where you’ll get the chance to be up close and personal with a range of monkeys. You’ll find Howler, White-face and Geoffrey’s Tamarins all located on the island.

Included in the price of your ticket will be a local guide who will impart his extensive expert knowledge about the island, its inhabitants and the techniques they use to spot wildlife. The staff are super friendly and always happy to answer any questions. For a small fee, they are even able to entice the monkeys into getting a selfie with you!

Your travel to the Gamboa Marina includes an air-conditioned vehicle as well as a riverboat ride on the Chagres River.

San Blas Island Tour

If you’re looking to experience some tropical islands but don’t know where to start or don’t have enough time, why not check out this 4 Island tour of the San Blas Islands?

Located to the North East of Panama City, this San Blas tour has you island hopping by boat for the whole day.

You’ll first visit Island Perro Grande for breakfast and the ability to use the Kayaks once your food has settled. It’s then onto Isla Perro where you’ll make use of the provided snorkelling equipment and check out the sunken boat nearby. If you’re feeling sporty, or at least competitive, why not challenge to locals to a game of volleyball?! Afterwards, there’s still enough time for more swimming and a locally cooked lunch before heading home.

10. How long do you need to spend backpacking Panama? 

Whilst this purely depends on how much time you have, we’d recommend backpacking Panama for around 2 weeks. This will give you enough time to visit the beautiful Bastimentos Island and Bocas del Toro in the north as well as Santa Catalina to the south and Panama City in central Panama. 2 weeks will also give you the flexibility to stay in places longer that you enjoy.

Beach in panama

11. What is the best backpacking route around Panama?

This depends entirely on where you’re going next and where you’re coming from.

If you’re coming overland from Costa Rica, we’d recommend coming from Puerto Vieja de Talamanca. here you can go straight to Bocas del Toro and Bastimentos Island. From here you can go directly south to the Manglares Nature Reserve near David, via Boquete. If you do visit Boquete, which we thoroughly recommend, you absolutely have to check out The 8 Best Restaurants in Boquete!

Once you’ve finished, then head east where you can stop off at numerous places, including Santa Catalina, on your way to Panama City. You can then decide to fly out to your next location or into Colombia via ferry.

Conversely, if you’re starting in Panama City, first head to Santa Catalina before heading northwest to Bocas del Toro. We’re massive fans of Costa Rica so would strongly recommend continuing on through this beautiful country. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Costa Rica for more great tips!

Leah backpacking

12. Where else should you backpack to after Panama? 

Having spent a month in Costa Rica, we absolutely loved the country and couldn’t recommend it enough. Make sure to check out Why Costa Rica should be your next Travel Destination so you know exactly why we enjoyed it.

From Costa Rica, you can work your way up to other countries in Central America. This absolutely has to include Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

Alternatively, you can head south to South America to popular countries of Colombia, Peru and Brazil. Within each country, there are endless amounts of activities to experience. From partying on Copacabana Beach to hiking the Inca Trails to Machu Picchu.

Costa Rica
Costa Rica

13. How much should you budget for backpacking Panama? 

As we’ve mentioned above, depending on where you’re visiting can dictate whether you feel Panama is expensive or not.

During our two weeks in Panama, we spent less than $1,000 per person. Whilst this is slightly expensive, everything in Panama is US dollars and it included everything from food to activities. If you’re looking to see a lot of Panama, you may want to budget slightly more than this.

Mountains in Panama

14. How to take cash out in Panama

Taking cash out in Panama is identical to any other place in the world. Simply find your nearest bank, when it’s open, and withdraw however much you need.

Being in a foreign country, safety is paramount. We’d recommend always going inside the building to withdraw. It is likely they’ll be cameras, security guards and air-con to keep you safe and cool. If that’s not possible and you’re travelling in a pair, have one looking out whilst the other withdraws.

You also need to make sure your Magstripe ATMs function on your online banking is turned on. With Monzo Bank, for example, this allows you to withdraw money from ATMs worldwide for seven days. Once expired you can simply turn it back on, just remember to check before you try and withdraw. Do be aware that banks may charge you a withdrawal fee no matter how much you withdraw.

When taking cash out, be mindful that you may want to take enough cash out to pay for accommodation as some places may only accept this.

It is also worth checking your bank T&Cs to know if you’ll be charged for exceeding a specific limit.

Sea in panama

16. When is the best time to backpack Panama? 

By far the best time to go backpacking Panama is between January and May. We visited in January 2022 and were lucky to have amazing weather with little rain and a manageable temperature.

Having said that, January is considered the dry season so tourism is at peak times during this period. Unfortunately, this also means prices increase for accommodation and activities.

If you’re looking to try and save money, definitely consider visiting during the rainy season between May and December. Whilst the showers can be intense, they actually don’t last for long at all. It is worth carrying around a lightweight poncho.

There you have it. Our guide on the things to know before backpacking Panama, so you know all the tricks and tips BEFORE you travel. That way you know what to expect which will allow you to enjoy Panama that much more!

Please let us know any of your own tips in the comments below!

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Disclaimer: Some of the links included on our website may contain affiliate links. We may receive some commission from purchases made via these but it will NOT affect the price you pay. This is to allow this site to stay online and ensure that readers use, what we believe, are the best products possible whilst travelling.

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    1. We couldn’t agree more! We’ve seen so many people just be careless and lose hundreds of pounds/dollars worth of items, including passports!

  1. We’ve only been to Panama City, but absolutely loved it! I’d love to return one day and check out some more of the places you’ve mentioned here. Panama is often underrated as a destination in opinion.

    1. We couldn’t agree more. We absolutely loved Panama City but Bocas del Toro and Red Frog beach were easily the best. You should definitely visit again!

  2. I wanted to go to Bocas del Toro to visit the Starfish beach since my husband and I are going to Costa Rica, but he doesn’t feel comfortable crossing borders. Next time though, it’s so high on my bucket list!

    1. Crossing the border was super easy! Happy to drop you an email if you want to know about it. Starfish beach is totally worth it I promise!

  3. I’ve just got back from Costa Rica and now I’m interested in seeing more of Central America. Thanks for the great tips and ideas, Panama sounds like a great option.

  4. I’ve always wanted to go to Panama and I do sometimes travel light for trips so it’s great to know all of these tips for backpacking around the country.

    1. Travelling light is definitely one of the best things you can do around Panama. It’s also such a beautiful place to visit, but i’m sure you know that!

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