Panama is a small country (just under four million inhabitants) in the heart of Central America, surrounded by Costa Rica and Colombia. It is a not so well known, but really worthwhile travel destination.
Why Panama is a nice destination? Find out in the Panama travel blog, the overview page is here.
Panama is a great destination because it really has a lot of sights to offer, culture, history, nature, the rainforest, some beautiful islands off its coasts. Panama has the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Pacific Ocean to offer, and of course one of the most remarkable structures in human history, the Panama Canal.
The inhabitants of this country are rather charming at second sight, a bit reserved, but very pleasant. For the individual traveler to Panama, there are great options for a self-organized trip. For self-drivers on the Panamericana, from the north resp. coming from the west, Panama is the last stop, because here the road ends. You have to load the vehicle and travel by ship to South America.
Panama is also exciting for backpackers, and has with the San Blas Islands as well as the enchanting Isla Taboga some beautiful destinations to offer. The Panamericana road may end here, the gringo trail does not!
Following is an overview of best Panama travel tips and the most pressing questions and answers for your travel planning to Central America, respectively. Panama: language, money, food, accommodation, entry and much more. Everything tested by myself and tried out on the spot!
Arrival and entry to Panama
For German and Austrian citizens it is possible to enter Panama without a visa (for a stay up to 180 days), a valid passport is needed. Immigration resp. visa on arrival is done at the international airport of Panama City.
Best travel guide
In book form, or as e-book: I swear on the English Lonely Planet. This is really tailored to individual travelers, always with tips on how to get where, with many tips and the prices for buses, guides, accommodation.
Language: Spanish rather than English
In Panama more Spanish is spoken and less English understood than I thought. Even quite a few people don't speak English, although the country was something like a colony of the USA for many years. The Americans are gone, what remains are the typical housing areas and some big cinemas. And the gringos seem to have taken their language with them as well. So: speaking Spanish helps in Panama! However, don't worry who doesn't speak Spanish now. Panamanians are flexible, someone always speaks English..
Money and ATMs in Panama
The US-Americans have obviously left the currency in the country. Panama's currency is officially called "Balboas", but the bills are US dollar bills. The coins however are national, mixed with dimes, nickels and quarters. Balboas and US-Dollars are linked and 1:1 identical in value. This is quite practical, so you can bring US dollars from Europe, and you don't have to search for an ATM at the airport at night.
By the way, ATMs are quite common in Panama City, but not all of them accept European credit cards. In principle you should have a Visa as well as a Mastercard credit card with you. EC cards do not work at the ATMs in Panama. There are no ATMs at Taboga, so you have to carry enough cash with you.
Panama Tocumen Airport, accommodation at the airport
The international airport of Panama Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen is a very well organized airport, with a surprising number of flights to the Caribbean, South America, the USA and the neighboring countries of Panama.
There is a nice (but expensive) restaurant on the second floor, with many classic Central American dishes on the menu, as well as the typical Panamanian grandiose fruit juices. Behind the security check there are all kinds of stores and many nice souvenirs.
Who in PTY Panama a stop over or. If you have a layover with an overnight stay, you don't have to drive all the way from the airport to the city and back. There are at least two large international hotels directly at the airport, which also offer a free shuttle service to and from the terminal. The travel time to these hotels directly at the airport is only a few minutes, otherwise you need from the airport to the city center rather 20-30 minutes, if there is traffic jam (and there are massive traffic jams on the streets of Panama City) then it takes longer.
Advertising: Find here in this travel blog your accommodation at the airport of Panama or in Panama City:
A cab from PTY Tocumen airport to Panama City costs approx. 30 US dollars. Uber: around 15 USD, the bus: less than 2 USD.
Getting there from Europe: Panama International Airport is quite good and convenient for connecting flights to South America or Central America, many European and American airlines now fly there, including.a. Iberia, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, Turkish, as well as American, United, Delta, Avianca and Copa. Lufthansa flies non-stop from Frankfurt to Panama, Iberia via Madrid, and KLM via Amsterdam with very good feeder flights from most airports in Germany, as well as from Vienna and Zurich.
If you want to reach other destinations in Central America or South America, you can fly from Panama International with the airline COPA to remote areas, to El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela. Or also to Bogota and Cartagena in Colombia, to the Caribbean, Mexico, USA. Copa is a StarAlliance class airline and very reliable, with an impressive network of routes in the region.
There is another airport for domestic flights in Panama, the Allbrook Airport (Aeropuerto Marcos A Gelabert), which is mainly served by Air Panama. Flight routes within the small country go u.a. to Bocas del Toro, San Blas Islands Corazon de Jesus, David, Sambu in the Darien. Tickets online at Air Panama or at the airport sales office. Cab to the airport Albrook costs around 5 US Dollar.
Panama City, view from Parque Metroplitano
Accommodation in Panama: Super selection, bookable also in the country
In Panama as a country as well as in the capital there is a very good selection of hotels, guesthouses, apartments, backpacker hostels. There is something for every price range and budget. From on the way you can use e.g. booking.com very good and easy to book and reserve your accommodation. I always do this on my trips, so you can still change your route quite spontaneously in the country.
Internet and mobile network
As in all of Latin America, the network coverage between Costa Rica and Colombia is quite good. The exception are the remote corners at the borders, especially the Darien Gap. Cell phone providers in Panama who want to buy a local sim card are Digicel and Movistar. Roaming with most European sim cards is possible.
Getting around Panama, buses
Main means of transportation between the cities in Panama is the bus. From Panama City buses go to all parts of the country, they should be the most important means of transportation for most travelers and backpackers. They are for most Panamanians in any case! The trip to the second largest city in the country, David, takes 7-8 hours. If you want to go to San Jose in Costa Rica by bus you have to drive approx. Allow 16 hours from Panama. Most buses leave from the Albrook Bus Terminal next to the domestic airport of the same name. The bus terminal has a good infrastructure for travelers, toilets, stores, even showers.
Shopping in Panama City
Travellers who forgot to bring their daily necessities or whose luggage remained in customs in Panama City, Florida (or when changing planes in the USA) need not despair.
In e.g. the Albrooks Shopping Mall of Panama City has everything: bags, suitcases, clothes, shoes, a drugstore. The mall is about half the size of Liechtenstein (but twice as full of people), and there are more malls in the banking district of Panama City.
In other words: Panama has a more than great infrastructure for backpackers, self-drivers and self-supporters, too.
Visit to the Panama Canal, cost
The tourist highlight in Panama, and very easy to reach from Panama City, is the Panama Canal. The closest locks are the Miraflores Locks, with visitor center and museum. Admission is 15 US dollars per adult, a cab there and back, with two hours of waiting costs around 30 US dollars.
By the way, this is always in bar. And a matter of negotiation.
Travel blog Panama: What's tasty to eat and drink in Panama?
Most travelers ask the same questions that are asked at home, and one of them is always: How was the food??
Seems to move most people a lot after all, me, admittedly, not so really. I somehow lack a deeper interest – traveling means to be subject to so many influences anyway, so I don't need a kick in food.
Which is why I don't visit gourmet restaurants on the Catalonian coast or on the Rhone near Lyon, but street food stalls and pizzerias in beautiful Panama..
Food for vegetarians on the road in Panama
In Panama good food and drink is no problem at all. Pizzerias with really good pizza are plentiful. Salads are mostly prepared without fish and meat, and Mexican vegetarian specialties like quesadillas or tortillas are common. Likewise, there are many Asian and especially Chinese restaurants in Panama City. And like everywhere in Central and South America: Ask the friendly restaurant owners, they will conjure up something meat-free..
Drinks in Panama: juices and beer
There is delicious beer! This is already good news. No one in this friendly country has to drink Heineken! The national drink, that is what Pisco Sour is in Peru or Te Mate in Argentina, is called Seco Herrerano in Panama, is a clear sugar cane liquor and class in combination with fruit juices and mineral water: Fresh, colorful, sparkling and sweet, fits very well in this country! Otherwise Panama has great fruit juices, which are served with crushed ice, pineapple, or melon, watermelon, papaya, whatever is available. Be sure to ask!
Breakfast in Panama
The Central American breakfast is a mixture of Caribbean-Spanish and US-American: Pancakes, Scrumbled Eggs, sometimes a little rustic-labby toast, but everywhere fabulous fruits and fruit juices. So for vegetarians also rich choice! Tea and coffee anyway.
In Panama City there are many Asian, especially Chinese restaurants for the very large Chinese community in the city. In the old town of Panama there is actually a pizzeria with an Italian pizza oven, a vegetarian restaurant with many fish dishes, a restaurant with Panamanian cuisine and some nice bars with finger food.
The national drink of Panama is the Seco Herrerano, which is sugar cane liquor mixed with colorful juices, and then looks like this, right in the photo:
Tastes fabulous! We tested it for the first time on Taboga Island, with a view over the bay of Panama – priceless!
The selection of beers in Panama is manageable, mostly there are two brands: PanamA and Balboa, both are good drinkable, light lagers with little flavor and alcohol, but a lot of freshness!
I always find the vegetarian dishes like quesadillas (dumplings filled with cheese, a Mexican dish) very tasty?) or toasted sandwiches, also with vegetarian fillings. Available at bakeries, street food stalls, sometimes supermarkets, for small money and on the hand.
Summary: The food in Panama lacks great sophistication, but is good and varied, with enough options for vegetarians. The best: the freshly prepared fruit juices with ice cream.
Electrical appliances / plugs: bring adapter plugs!
In Panama you definitely need an adapter plug! The power sockets look like this (see photo), and without adapters you can't use them! The electrical outlets in Panama are the same as in the US…
In the old town of Panama the tourist police is watching over you. Otherwise, I found Panama City pretty laid back and it felt very safe to me. However, even the locals advised against a trip to Colon, the city on the Caribbean port of the Panama Canal. But you can do this with an organized tour if you want to take the train along the Panama Canal to Colon.
Parque Natural Metropolitano: The urban jungle as an excursion tip
What can you do in Panama City if you have seen the Panama Canal, walked through the old town and the Museo de Biodiversidad (a spectacular building by Frank Gehry on the edge of the city facing the sea) is closed on Mondays?? One goes into the nearby jungle.
This is not the urban jungle of Panama City's banking district, but the evergreen rainforest on the outskirts of the city. In the Parque Natural Metropolitano you can experience very directly what the rainforest that covered the whole country once looked like. The small protected area in the green belt of Panama City is absolutely worth a visit, is more for nature lovers than for city Indians, for hikers, photographers, treehuggers, ant counters, travel bloggers.
The cab ride to the Parque Natural Metropolitano is short and costs, depending on where you start in Panama City, between 10 – 15 dollars. I would arrange with the driver to have you picked up again. Three hours can easily be spent in the small jungle park.
Hiking in the jungle of Panama City
But: you should be good on your feet, heat resistant, and pack enough water to drink in warm weather. Since the path is quite rocky, one should not think to walk there in flip-flops. But hiking boots are also clearly exaggerated. And too warm!
At the ticket office to the Parque Natural Metropolitano they also sell drinks, the entrance fee is 4 US dollars per adult person.
There is a well-signposted trail up the hill ("Mirador") located in the Parque Metropolitano, from the top of which you have a great view of Panama City. The circuit measures about seven kilometers, the paths are good and firm, and moderately signposted, you can't really get lost.
For nature freaks there are very interesting possibilities: Birds in rough quantities and the most colorful colors. Leaf-cutting ants. Water turtles. Iguanas. Geckos. Lizards that can walk on water – therefore in English, how sensible, called "Jesus-Christ-Lizard. With luck you can see: sloths, toucans, coatis. And all this in a shamelessly exuberant color orgy of green. I did not know that there are so many shades of green.
The best Panama panorama
And how hot and humid it can get in the rainforest, that is really incredible. And this silence. And then the view of the metropolis of Panama, to the sea, and the mouth of the Panama Canal at Balboa. Hammer!
Just in time, after we have finished the sweaty little round through Panama City's city park, it starts to rain in torrents. Well, May is not the rainy season in Panama for nothing. After half an hour the wonderful cooling is over, and the sultry heat falls again over the city like a wet curtain.
Luis will drive us the next day to the ferry to Taboga – a small island in the Pacific Ocean. More here in the travel blog.
Manners in Panama
Panama is a pleasant country, and the inhabitants are quite reserved. Not unfriendly, rather inexperienced with tourists. This makes it really easy for travelers, you are actually nowhere harassed, and must first learn to curb his automatic defensive attitude something. Panama is relaxed, and I really liked the unobtrusive nature of its people. Speaking Spanish helps immensely, English is sometimes rather less common. In some travel blogs I read that the people in Panama are unfriendly, but this is not true. They are reserved and reserved and often do not know English, this should not be misinterpreted.
Sights in Panama
The most important places to visit in Panama are the following, this is an italicized selection, and totally subjective:
- Old town of Panama: Very pretty, looks a bit like Havana. With nice pubs, restaurants and stores, very nice for chilling out. Small island in the middle of the bay of Panama. You can watch the ships sailing in the direction of the canal or. lying at anchor. Nice to do nothing at all for a few days
- Panama Canal: Impressive structure that is the economic lifeline of the country. The classic visitor spot are the Miraflores locks near Panama City. With museum, cafe, and huge ships. Hammer.
- San Blas Islands: Located on the Caribbean side of the country, a real backpacker destination. Picturesque.
- Old town of Colon. The city of Cool at the northern entrance of the canal, on the Caribbean coast, has a bad reputation as a wild port city. The colonial old town is nevertheless a world heritage site.
- The old railroad along the Panama Canal is one of the few still active railroads in Central America. Great views of the rainforest and the canal. Can be done as a day trip from Panama City
- Rainforest in various protected areas in Darien. In the direction of Colombia there is still rainforest, here you can make trips into the jungle with various tour operators. Great for nature lovers.
Beaches on Panama's Pacific Coast
For those who want to go to the beach, either for swimming or surfing, there are many options, i.e. small places with beaches southwest of the capital, on the Pacific coast. The most famous beaches are in Gorgona, Playa Coronado, Playa el Palmar, Rio Mar. In some places there are also surf schools for the kooks among us! The best way to get there is by rental car or by bus.
Continue to Central America or South America
Panama and its very busy airport (see above) are an excellent starting point to visit other Latin American countries by air. The flight connections with the national airline Copa as well as international airlines of South America are excellent. In principle, you can fly to and from Panama non-stop from all major countries in South America, e.g. to and from Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile.
LATAM as well as Copa and Avianca make optimal use of the lifting capacity of Panama International Airport. So if you want to travel a route with several countries, from and to Panama has the great choice, it optimally connects North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
- All important info for transferring to Lima, Peru
- The best travel tips for Bogota El Dorado airport, Colombia
Those who travel by bus also have many options but only to the west. so to other countries of Central America. The Panamericana, the road that goes from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, is interrupted at the border between Panama and Colombia. not passable. You have to fly here, or find a ship transport.