Most famous for its canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Panama is the last Central American country before you expand into South American nations. A land border in the north connects Panama to Costa Rica, while in the south, the country meets Colombia.
In the very middle of the country, the Panama Canal has become significant for international maritime trade as the waterway cuts through the Panama Isthmus.
Bienvenidos – Welcome to Panama!
Yet, far beyond the geographical significance of this Central American nation, Panama is a diverse tropical paradise. With world-class swells on the Pacific Coast and a laidback lifestyle in the Caribbean, Panama has a little something for everyone.
Travelers are most drawn to the beautiful beaches and tropical rainforests, but they may be surprised to find that Panama is one of Central America’s most developed countries. While tourism trails shortly behind that of Costa Rica, Panama has grown to become a major destination.
Jam-packed with urban skyscrapers, Panama City is the country’s capital and the definition of cosmopolitan. Unlike the rest of the country where you can find peaceful getaways on remote beaches, Panama City is restless and chaotic. However, Panama City has become the country’s major icon and a place where worlds collide.
As travelers from international waters and both coasts converge in the city, the capital has become a hub of activity. Whether you’re exploring the urban streets or heading off on a remote Panamanian adventure, Panama City will be your gateway to this tropical nation.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Panama’s pre-Columbian history is not as well-recorded as the years when the Spanish began to colonize the Isthmus of Panama. However, most historians agree that the Native American groups that lived in Panama prior to the arrival of the Spanish were the Cueva, Chocoan, and Chibchan people. These groups relied heavily on the land as they were hunters and gatherers.
By 1501, European explorers from Spain began mapping the Isthmus of Panama. The Europeans arrived on the East Coast and were followed by Christopher Columbus a year later. The settlers declared Panama as Tierra Firma and they began to spread throughout the area as they solidified their control.
In 1519, the colonizers established a settlement on the Pacific Coast, which would one day become the modern-day capital, Panama City.
For most of the colonization period, Panama was a part of the Audiencia Real de Panama, which gave Spain the power to rule from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. During these years which ranged from the late 1500s to the early 1800s, Panama was developed into an empire. The indigenous people were forced into slave labor, but they eventually fled to rural areas of the forest.
This led to the importation of African slaves, which were essential to the colonizer’s labor force as they expanded throughout the Americas and Caribbean. Starting in 1819 and completed by 1821, Panama sought to make itself independent from Spain.
However, the newly independent nation was in desperate need of allies to become stable, so they forged a relationship with Venezuela and Simón Bolívar. For the beginning half of the 19th century, Panama remained tied to Venezuela. In the latter half of the 19th century, Panama changed courses and began a union with Colombia.
For most of the 19th century, the country struggled to come to means with its identity, until 1903, when it was declared officially independent from Colombia. This drastic change was heavily encouraged by the United States who had started an agreement with Panama and signed a contract allowing them to build the Panama Canal.
However, the country still struggles with political issues, even as they have tried to establish a democracy. Hard times in the late 1980s saw a corrupt president in power and since then, the country was worked hard to build itself a better future.
Throughout the country’s history, its people have learned how to preserve and celebrate their culture. With influences from African, American Indian, and Spanish cultures, Panama has a unique cultural landscape. With festivals, holidays, and parades, Panama is Central America’s melting pot.
Most travelers will be surprised to know that diversity is also present in the local language. While Spanish is the country’s official language, the growth of Panama’s tourism and business industries has helped English become more popular amongst the locals.
It’s estimated that up to 14% of the 4.3 million population (as of 2020), speaks English with the largest concentrations of English-speaking people residing in the city. However, tourism has strongly influenced even the rural areas in Panama, which means that in remote places, English may still be spoken.
While most people think of Central America as one of the world’s best places for backpackers, many tourists in Panama will say that they were surprised by how much money they spent while visiting the country. It’s true that Central America is mostly affordable, but countries like Panama and Costa Rica have gained a reputation for being expensive.
Travelers in Panama can get away with a limited budget, but they will have to find ways to save money and be conscious of what they are spending each day of their trip. A spending budget can help you stay on track with your costs and determine what you should spend and where.
Essential parts of your spending budget will include the price of airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
The vast majority of travelers visiting Panama will fly into the International Airport in Panama City. However, with the Panama Canal and its connection to both Central and South America, you may also travel by water or land. Whether you’re flying in or traveling another route, you need to be prepared to pay your fare to get to Panama.
The average cost of a flight from the United States to Panama is a few hundred dollars. Yet, the popularity of Panama as a tourist destination means that many airlines will offer special deals. The time of year that you travel to Panama will also affect the price of airline tickets.
As a tropical destination, Panama has two types of climates – wet and dry. By far, most tourists seek to travel to Panama during the dry season, which means that the cost of your trip and airline ticket will be more expensive when there is less rain. The dry season in Panama runs from December to April.
Yet, the dry and wet seasons do not heavily affect the cost of accommodation, food, drink, or transportation. Most visitors will notice that prices remain relatively stable and if they do fluctuate, you won’t save more than a few dollars. However, the price of your accommodation is important, especially if you want to stay on a lower budget.
Hostels are the best option for backpackers because they are affordable. Some hostels also have private rooms for those that need their space. For about the same price, you may be able to find a room in a budget hotel.
For couples or pairs of travelers, budget hotels can be a great alternative to hostels because they are still affordable but provide you with more privacy. If you prefer a 3-star or Western-style hotel, prepare to pay more. Especially if you choose a resort of luxury accommodations, which will have nightly rates in the hundreds.
For groups traveling through Panama, Airbnb is offered throughout the country. However, the most popular listings will only have availability in the big cities.
While some hotels provide free breakfast, not all places include this benefit in your nightly rate. On top of that, Panama City is well-known for its gastronomy and many visitors will find that they tend to go over their budget because they have been eating out at restaurants.
For travelers on a budget, you’ll need to shop for groceries and cook for yourself to avoid going over budget. While food can be affordable in Panama, the delicious dishes bring a lot of temptation to travelers who are looking to dive into the local culture.
As a Latin country, Panamanian cuisine tends to stick to cultural favorites like rice, plantains, and meat. However, Panama creates its own unique flavor by including influences from its diverse culture. This means that strong spices are often the highlight of the dish, as they add more flavor to the locally sourced ingredients.
Sancocho is a Panamanian soup, which features beef and chicken boiled in a strong broth with onions, corn, and tomatoes. One of the country’s favorite dishes, which combines meat, rice, and plantains is called ropa vieja. The shredded meat featured in this dish has been flavored with cumin, pepper, and oregano.
For breakfast, you might be served carimanolas, which are made from yuca and stuffed with a blend of ground beef.
For more spice and flavor, visitors should try carne guisada. This dish is popular throughout Panama and combines potatoes with meat for a hearty meal. Some of Panama’s side dishes that have become famous are tostones, yuca frita, cocadas, and platano maduro. While each of these dishes is sweeter in flavor, they have become a traditional side to meat and rice.
With so many different flavors to try and culinary geniuses creating their own take on Panamanian favorites, it’s easy to see how travelers are able to spend so much on food. In Panama City, the urban setting has led to plenty of restaurants tempting you to taste their menus. If you want to eat out, you need to be prepared for the cost of food in restaurants.
Backpacker budgets would do best with shopping and cooking or dining at food stalls. A typical meal in a food stall will cost a few dollars, whereas you could cook for yourself and spend less. Most sit-down restaurants will charge a moderate amount, though the best establishments will be exceedingly more.
Travelers who are drinking need to be mindful of the cost of alcohol because it can be quite expensive. Local beer is the most affordable option, owever, in touristy areas, you could spend much more.
How to Get Around
When it comes to traveling around Panama, there are a few different options to explore the two coasts and everything in between. Buses are the most affordable way to travel around Panama, but you can also take domestic flights or rent a car.
Buses in Panama are reliable, and they have routes that service the entire country. Most bus tickets will cost minimal per hour of travel. With tourists more consistently using buses to get around, most buses are newer and feature amenities like AC and modern seating. The two most popular companies in the country are Expreso Panama and Tica Bus.
These two companies provide tourists with the ability to travel longer distances in Panama. However, if you’re traveling around an area or want to travel the local way, you can take one of the Diablos Rojos (Red Devils). The local bus system uses old school buses to transport people around and they are mostly used by the locals.
With ticket prices costing a dollar per ride, they are a popular choice for backpackers who are trying to stay on budget. In big cities like Panama City, there are local buses that can help you navigate the network of streets.
If you need to get around quickly or prefer to travel by air, domestic flights are limited but available. The most popular domestic flight runs from Panama City to Bocas del Toro. Other popular locations for domestic flights include Boquete, Pedasi, and the Pearl Islands.
Finally, some tourists choose to drive themselves. Car rentals in Panama cost a moderate daily price, but the agencies may not include the price of insurance or extra fees on their website pricing. Driving is safe in Panama and the main roads are in decent condition.
Top Cities to Visit
With a rich history and culture, Panamanian cities are the best way to explore the country and connect to the local lifestyle. Whether you’re exploring Panama City or heading out to a beachside town, there is a lot of exploring in Panama. Here are Panama’s top cities to visit.
With its world-famous skyline emerging from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Panama City is modern and sophisticated. On the outskirts, you can visit the Panama Canal, and in the heart, you can explore all of the bars and restaurants.
Thrown in its modern landscape, you can visit Casco Viejo or the neoclassical Presidential Palace. As the hub for business and tourism, Panama City is one place you won’t want to miss. The best views of the city aren’t from the water but from Ancon Hill.
Bocas del Toro
Famous for being located close to the Chiquita Banana Plantation, Bocas del Toro is a series of 9 Caribbean islands that have become a major destination in Panama. With eco-friendly lodges and beautiful beaches, Bocas del Toro has become one of the best family-friendly destinations in the country.
Located up north towards the border of Costa Rica, Boquete is the gateway to Panama’s coffee plantations, hot springs, and the Baru Volcano National Park. The town is small, but the nearby sights are not to be missed. In this peaceful landscape, you may even catch a glimpse of the rare and unique Quetzal bird.
Remote and off the grid, Pedasi is not a popular place for tourists, but it has some of the best surf in Panama. For surfers, Pedasi is the place to go, if you want to spend a day gliding over the gentle waves. With less tourism than Bocas del Toro, Pedasi feels like your own private paradise.
Points of Interest
Alongside the cities, Panama is host to plenty of points of interest. With places to entertain surfers, beach lovers, and history buffs, these are Panama’s top attractions.
Another big resort area in Panama is the Pearl Islands. These small specs of land were originally discovered by Spanish Conquistadors, but they have been turned into an exclusive tourist destinations.
With hotels and resorts to fit every budget, any traveler can spend some time relaxing on the Pearl Islands.
Stretching over 48 miles across the middle of Panama, the Panama Canal is a world-famous waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The canal was built to reduce the amount of travel required by ships and to divert them safely around Cape Horn.
While the canal operates daily with transporting goods and passengers, you can book a tour and visit the canal from land.
Also called Casco Viejo, this site is an important part of Panama’s history and it holds the last standing remnants of the original settlement that was built during the time of colonization. Once destroyed by Captain Morgan, Casco Viejo is the only part that remains of the original settlement in Panama City.
An old tower and scattered foundations remain at the site, but for history buffs, a day trip to Casco Viejo is a must-do.
Soberania National Park
One of the most popular parks to view wildlife including birds and sloths, Soberania National Park is a highlight for nature lovers and families who are visiting Panama. Plenty of hiking trails lead you into the rainforest and the farther you go, the more remote you get.
This gives you the best chance to view Panama’s local wildlife. However, if you want to view the animals without the interruptions of other guests, you should try to head to the park early in the morning.
Metropolitan Natural Park
While Panama City is known for being a cosmopolitan city, it’s located close to the Panamanian jungle. On the outer edge of the skyscrapers, the Metropolitan Natural Park is a way for urbanites to get out into the jungle and explore the local wildlife.
Home to many of Panama’s native plant and animal species, the park is a great place to go to take a break from the chaos of the big city.
“Pro Mundi Beneficio” (“For the Benefit of the World”)
Sitting at the crossroads of oceans and continents, Panama is an exciting tropical destination that is still relatively unknown to tourists. While the Panama Canal has become a famous tourist destination, most people don’t explore beyond the capital city.
But in a world where there are two coasts and endless rainforests, there are plenty of adventures waiting for you in Panama.