Budget Backpackers’ Guide to Panama

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Sunset from Isla Colón, Bocas del Toro, Panama

From cycling around Isla Colón, snorkelling in warm Caribbean water, jumping into the refreshing water of a mini canyon, or go hiking, one will never get bored in this country with plenty to do, all on a friendly budget. You will still be able to find your own space to relax and be mesmerised by the Caribbean sunset if you would like, even in the party town Isla Colón.

Note: Currency is in U.S. dollar. Panama has its own currency, Balboa, which has the same value as U.S. dollar. Budgets are based on travelling in west side of the country and, in Aug/Sept 2014 which are considered to be the low season.

Typical Costs

Accommodation – Dorm beds are $7~$10/night (usually includes breakfast). A private room in a hostel starts from $10/night. If you have your own tent or hammock, you can set them up starting from as little as $2/night, or if you don’t, hostels who have them would offer it to you starting from $5/night.

Transportation – Local bus ride is approx. $1 for a 30mins to $1.75 for a 80mins ride. A minibus ride may cost $1.45 for a 40mins ride to $8.45 for a 4hrs ride. Taxis run by meter, or drivers may charge a fixed price by per person for shared taxi. Rides within the same town are $1/pax or less be it shared or not. A shared taxi ride from Sixaola border to Almirante pier can cost $10/pax. For Bocas del Toro, water taxi between Isla Colón and Almirante is $6 one-way. Water taxi to nearby islands are $1/trip (e.g. Isla Colón – Isla Carenero).

Food – Eating out at a restaurant can cost as little as $3 including a bottle of beer. You may also find combos like Hamburger+Fries+Drink starting from $3.95. Street food from $1.50 hamburger as well. Drinking out at a restaurant is not at all expensive. You can find a bottle of beer from $0.75! so imagine at the supermart, cocktails from $1.50, and margarita from $2.50. I got a shock in my home country after this gap year, looking at the menu of $12/bottle *gasps* 1L of water cost $1.25

10620625_10152457926803842_4801945989637681787_nActivities – Bike rental is around $5/day. In Bocas del Toro, you can find yourself something to do from $3. Classes for kickboxing/aerobic/yoga starts from $3. Chocolate tour from $20, or snorkelling tour from $20 which brings you to min. 2 sites + dolphin-watching or whales if you are lucky. Fun dives starts from $60 for 2 tanks, and Open Water Diving Course for beginners is around $225. Go on a sunset cruise starting from $10. Scan through those posters plastered everywhere and you may find yourself sailing for free! In Boquete, you may go play paintball with $8. Hiking, Bike, or Safari tour starts from $25. There is also coffee tour which the place is famous for, or simply go for a coffee tasting.

Entry/Exit Fee – I have read different requirements for those arriving/departing by air. One of them is that there would be a $5 tourist fee, and the other one being $40 (paid by cash) during departure. Please check if any of these has already been included in your air fares. Exit and Entry fee for overland travels are both $3, paid separately.

Tips/Advices

Ask if there is Economical Menu when dining out – I found this offer while flipping through a folder at a hostel. Some restaurants offer the same meal in smaller portion at a discounted price, and it aims to provide budget-traveller/student the opportunity to dine out/enjoy a bit of luxury.

Look for Happy Hour – Especially in Bocas del Toro, many of the bars/restaurants have Happy Hour or Meal of The Day. Offers you may find are $0.75 for a bottle of beer, $0.50/chicken wing, $1 taco, $1.50 mixed alcoholic drink or $2.50 margarita.

There are buses from the border Sixaola/Guabito to Almirante – for travellers heading to Bocas del Toro, you will have to take the water taxi from Almirante Pier. While at the border, drivers will come and offer you ride directly to the pier for approx. $10/pax, lying that there are no more buses for the day etc. The bus station is on the right of the border, coming in from Costa Rica, the same open space as where the cabs are. To get to Almirante, take the bus from border to Changuinola ($1) then change to another bus for Almirante ($1.45) = $2.45 for the trip instead of $10.

Mineral water; Buy one with larger capacity and refill – A 3.78L of water is $2.25 while 1L of water is $1.25 Getting one with a larger capacity could save yourself $0.66/litre. Refill your bottle at $0.25/litre instead of getting new ones. Automatic machines for refills are almost everywhere.

Cook – though meals in Panama are affordable ($3/meal), eating out 3 times a day and you would spend $10. You could prepare 3 meals with $3 worth of groceries = $1/meal. Do not worry. I bought meat and vegetables with that amount (:

Pack some snacks for your day trip – so that you would not get stuck paying for that over-priced meal at the only restaurant available. Doughnuts, empanadas, muffins etc., starts from $0.60 each.


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