Last edited 12/Jan/2023

In the hammock on your porch, you’re rocking lazily in the orange light of the setting sun. Exhausted but happy as can be, you’re looking back on a day of snorkeling, island hopping, crystal clear sea, and those dolphins that you’ve met on the way. Backpacking in Panama means time to unwind.

The trip to Panama. It’s for good reason that Janosch’s Tiger fell madly in love with this country. And we did just as well.
It was the perfect finish to our trip through Central America. After months of adventure on chicken buses, in jungles, and on volcano hikes, Panama has shown us its sweetest side.

The thin, long stretch of land which looks like it’s hugged by the Pacific and the Caribbean Sea makes up the southernmost point of the North American continent.
Not that many travelers head out to go backpacking in Panama, maybe because so many are flocking to its neighbors Costa Rica and Colombia. And that’s honestly a shame. Panama’s beaches are among the best in Central America, its nature is awesome, and the vibes are relaxed.

Backpacking in Panama / Panama Reisetipps

Sailing through the San Blas can't be missed when backpacking in Panama / DIe San Blas Inseln gehören zu den besten Panama Reisetipps

Places to see when backpacking in Panama

Bocas del Toro

Ahhh it’s this feeling of freedom that hits me as we’re riding along the shore on our beach bikes. The sea-salt smell carried by the wind. And the rushing of the waves surfers long for.
From Costa Rica, you reach Bocas Del Toro easily within a few hours. The archipelago is known for great surfing, diving, and snorkeling. Everything beach lovers could wish for.

If you’re up for a party, you can stay in Bocas Town on the main island Colón (especially known for the lively party scene on Fridays). If you’re not, stay further away from town or directly on one of the other islands, such as Bastimentos or Caranero that can be easily reached by boat within a few minutes.

Don’t miss renting bicycles to ride to one of the beaches or further into the jungle to go sloth spotting.
Speaking of beaches, you shouldn’t miss:
  • Bluff Beach – An unbelievably long beach along the east coast of Bocas’ main island Colón. You may find yourself alone by the beach over here, as it’s extremely long.
  • Boca del Drago A Caribbean dream with lots of shade from huge palm trees, and just a 30 minutes ride by bus from Bocas Town.
  • Zapatilla island – In around a 30-minute boat ride from Bocas Town, you reach one of the most beautiful beaches when you’re backpacking in Panama. Zapatilla island will make you feel like you’re on an untouched paradisiacal island with white sand and warm, shallow water.

Besides, You can also join a boat tour to surrounding islands, such as the white-sanded Zapatilla island, go dolphin watching, or snorkeling. Just take enough snacks to avoid having lunch at the overpriced, bad restaurant where all the tours stop.

When you’re in Bocas, you should definitely stop by Arboloco for an amazing Caribbean dinner in unique surroundings in the middle of nature. The “Tofu Nest” there was delicious and the waitresses spread such a good mood.
Also, stop for a coffee or snack at the organic cafe Dosha – such lovely owners and yummy, organic treats (you can also come for a yoga session).

Bocas del Toro


Boquete is the perfect place for outdoor adventures. Hiking, rafting, ziplining, hanging bridges, hot springs. Boquete has it all!
The lost waterfalls are a great hike along gorgeous trails through crisp jungles where you come across three waterfalls.
Also, it’s a beautiful coffee region where some of the world’s best coffee grows. So it’s the perfect place to visit a coffee plantation and experience how they produce the local coffee.
Similar to Costa Rica‘s Monteverde, you will find a cooler and often cloudy climate up here. This can be a welcome change to the heat along the coast.
Besides, it’s one of the last regions where you can see the rare Quetzal (which is actually Guatemala‘s national bird).

The coolest stay with amazing views of the jungle is the Lost and Found Hostel in Valle Hornito, a beautiful area right next to Boquete.

Baru Volcano National Park

When you’re in Boquete, it’s only a stone’s throw to Panama’s highest mountain Volcan Baru which is also the country’s only volcano. Thus, visiting the Baru Volcano National Park is an awesome day trip from Boquete.
The park itself is a wild jungle where you can spot many animals and breath in the fresh, jungly air.
And on top of the volcano, you’ll be greeted by a very unique view on a clear day – you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans! No more words needed for that, don’t you think?

Jungles in Panama

Panama’s south coast

All Central American countries have their surf hot spots. And Santa Catalina and Playa Venao are the pride of Panamanian surfers.

Santa Catalina

A small, rather rural town where you can take surf lessons, catch great waves and relax on the sandy beach. What else do you need?
There are different beaches for pros featuring amazing tubes, such as Playa Santa Catalina and Punta Brava, as well as the calmer Playa Estero which is said to be perfect for beginners.

When you’re in Santa Catalina you shouldn’t miss taking an eco-tour to the stunning Coiba National Park. Within just a fifteen-minute boat ride from Catalina, you reach this marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located in the Gulf of Chiriquí, Coiba National Park offers some of the world’s largest biodiversity and there are amazing whale watching tours out there.
It’s not possible to stay overnight on this island, but it’s a unique place to go diving, with a huge reef full of manta rays and whale sharks.

Playa Venao

Relaxed surfer vibes in a small town off the beaten path in Panama sound just like what you’re looking for? Then you should head to Playa Venao.
The special shape of the bay makes surfing in Venao perfect for beginners as well as surf pros. Depending on which part of the beach you’re at, you can get gentle waves or powerful ones just a bit further.
Playa Venao is also the perfect place for some beachfront yoga classes.

Selina Playa Venao is definitely the place to be (and stay) in Playa Venao. They have dorm rooms for those who are backpacking Panama on a budget, glamping tents as well as fancy suites.

Relaxing by the beach in Panama

El Valle de Anton

Not far from Panama City, you can find this town nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano. A lush place to relax, unwind and go hiking. Plenty of hikes lead around the rim of the crater which is quite a special sight. One of the most popular sunrise hikes is La India Dormida.
Also, make sure to hike to some of the waterfalls, such as Chorro el Macho and the stunning Pozo Azul Waterfall Canyon.

On Sundays, the small town gets busy due to the artisanal crafts market with many stalls of the local community. A great place to shop for some souvenirs and support locals.

San Blas Islands

So well-known, yet so untouched. Spread into hundreds of tiny, flat, white-sanded beaches sprinkled in front of Panama’s coast, the San Blas Islands are extremely beautiful.
Most of them are less than 100 meters long and have only around 10 very basic beach huts. An experience that you can’t miss when you’re backpacking in Panama. For many, as it was for us, the San Blas Islands are the highlight of their stay in the country.
Being owned by Indigenous Guna Yala people, here you can experience the authentic beauty of Panama’s Caribbean way of life. During our stay on Isla Iguana, it amazed me how little development you find on the islands, and I mean it in a totally positive way. Among all the Caribbean beach destinations captured by tourism, these gems feel like they’ve remained the same as 30 or 40 years ago.

Most popular throughout the San Blas Islands are the sailing trips (including the 5 days sailing from Panama to Colombia), day trips or very basic overnight stays.
If you’re up for a rustic adventure, stay at least one or two nights on one of the islands. Waking up to the sound of the waves and the wind rushing through the palm leaves in your beach hut over here can be such a unique experience. But be prepared to spend your days with saltwater showers, simple fish and rice dishes (veggie means eating just sides), and of course far away from the internet. And your nights in a basic bamboo hut with sand making up your floor and only a mattress inside. You basically exchange civilization for shallow, crystal clear water, natural turquoise pools, boat rides, and tiny island hopping.

If you’re not able to spend a few days on the San Blas Islands, you can also opt for a day trip to four islands from Panama City, where you can enjoy snorkeling, kayaking, sunbathing, and swimming.

The tiny San Blas Islands

Panama City

A beautiful, historic center is a rare sight in a Central American capital city. Thus, its pretty quarter San Felipe (also fondly called Casco Viejo – “old helmet”) is reason enough to spend at least a day in Panama City. Usually, Central American capitals are not really worth seeing, but I’d say a day or two in Panama City can be quite interesting.
Besides, it’s probably the most developed capital in Central America (yep, there are actually skyscrapers).

Why not just stroll around the alleys of the Unesco World Heritage Site with its pastel-colored Colonial buildings? You can stop for a cooling drink or a cup of the famous Geisha Coffee (some say it’s worth it, some say it’s ridiculously overpriced) in one of San Felipe’s many pretty cafes. Mahalo Cocina y Jardin has a beautiful backyard, Mahalo Snack Shack offers super yummy breakfast, and Dodo Bon Pan has awesome vegan sandwiches.

When you’re in the city, also don’t miss taking a walking tour to learn more about the city’s history and stopping by the country’s landmark – the fascinating Panama Canal. What a strange opposite seeing this busy watergate, embraced by dozens of modern skyscrapers.
The canal connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean and spares ships a distance of around 15.000 km. A very special experience on your Panama backpacking trip is a day trip by boat through the Panama Canal where you can get from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in a day trip. Kind of surreal, isn’t it?

Panama City is the best base to get to many islands, such as the famous San Blas Islands, Saboga, or the popular Macondo Hostel on Isla Grande. For a unique experience, you can book a Catamaran day trip to Taboga Island.

Casco Viejo & Panama City

Panama itinerary

How many days do you need to go backpacking in Panama?

You should plan at least 10 days in Panama in order to experience some of the country’s islands and jungles. In order to experience more different areas in the country, 2 weeks – 2,5 weeks would be perfect.
The country is a thin, long stretch of land, so be ready for a few long bus rides. Two of the places I’d recommend most for backpacking in Panama are in the far west (Bocas del Toro) and northeast (San Blas Islands) of the country.

10 day backpacking Panama itinerary

If you’re traveling from north to south (coming from Costa Rica), you can do the following Panama itinerary:
  1. Bocas del Toro
  2. Boquete OR Valle de Anton
  3. Panama City
  4. San Blas Islands
(You can also take it the other way around if you want to continue to Costa Rica afterward)

2 – 2,5 weeks backpacking Panama itinerary

When you’ve got 2 weeks or more, you should definitely see some more of Panama’s many beach towns between Boquete and Panama City. You can add a stop in Santa Catalina or Playa Venao. Also, this may be enough time so you don’t have to decide between Boquete and Valle de Anton.
  1. Bocas del Toro
  2. Boquete
  3. Santa Catalina OR Playa Venao
  4. Valle de Anton
  5. Panama City
  6. San Blas Islands

How to get to Panama from other countries?

From Colombia to Panama

Coming from the south, you can do the itinerary the other way around. From Colombia, I’d highly recommend joining an epic 5-day sailing tour from Cartagena through the San Blas Islands. The tour will bring you all the way to Panama City. You can book these tours at local companies anywhere in Cartagena, Colombia, as well as in Panama City.

From Costa Rica to Puerto Viejo

Coming from Costa Rica, the best first stop in Panama is Bocas del Toro. You can easily get there from Puerto Viejo or from San Jose in Costa Rica:
  • Take a 45-minute bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola (for around 3 $) or a 5h bus from San Jose
  • ⇨ Pay 8 $ at the Sixaola border to exit Costa Rica (can be paid online through a barcode)
  • ⇨ Be aware that there are no money changers at the border (we were quite surprised, as the CR-Panama border was the only border all over Central America where we couldn’t exchange money). So take some dollars with you for the onward trip!
  • ⇨ To Bocas Del Toro: Take either a shuttle for 10 US$ or take the easy trip yourself: Hop on a bus to Changuinola (1 $, 30-minutes), change to another one to Almirante (also 30 minutes), and take a ferry to Bocas (6 $ one way or 10 $ return).

Traveling within Panama

How to get around Panama?

Panama has a great network of buses. Backpacking Panama by bus is probably the easiest way to get around and definitely the cheapest.
For longer distances, there are several bus companies with large, comfortable buses. A trip from Bocas to Panama City for instance (which means crossing almost the whole country) costs 27 $.
Just ask your accommodation where to get the bus tickets

Within towns and cities, you will come across the “diablos rojos” (red devils), as the colorful chicken buses are called in Panama. They’re always fun to ride and only cost a few cents, but keep an eye on your belongings.

So, there’s no need to take an overpriced shuttle, even though of course Panama offers tourist shuttles as well.
A comfortable option to move around, especially in Panama City, is Uber (also to get to and from the airport).

From Bocas del Toro to Boquete

Boats depart from Bocas town back to Almirante every 30 minutes. From the dock, it’s best if you catch a taxi to the bus terminal (around a 10-minute drive). Take any bus from Almirante towards David. If you fancy a jungle stay, choose the epic Lost and Found Hostel in Valle Hornito and tell the bus driver that you want to be dropped off there (it’s along the road towards David). If you book any accommodation in Boquete town, you need to change in David to another bus to Boquete.

You can also get directly to Panama City from Bocas del Toro by taking the 14-hour night bus. You can buy the ticket in the green dock building left of the police station in Bocas Town (walk all the way to the water, where you will only pay 27 $ for the night bus instead of 35 or even 40 at other vendors). But be ready for 14 hours in a fridge! We actually asked the bus driver to lower the aircon a bit, as it was around 17 degrees on the bus (Who has ever told them that tourists want to freeze in buses?!).

From Boquete to Panama City

Be prepared for a long bus ride (around 13 hours). First, take a 30-minute ride to David, where you can catch the night bus to Panama City. Don’t forget to bring your sweater and wool socks!

If you have more time, I’d totally recommend spending some time at one of the beautiful beaches on the way to Panama City, such as Santa Catalina (to take a boat trip to the Coiba Island Natural Reserve) or Playa Venao for a surf break.

Panama City is a great starting point to travel to many islands, such as San Blas Islands, Saboga, Isla Grande or Taboga.

Boat ride to San Blas

Good to know

Sustainable travel in Panama

Panama has developed sustainability standards for tourism businesses, working closely with conservation and sustainable tourism organizations. This included the Green Tourism Initiative which introduced the App “Ecotur Panama”. Guiding tourists through the protected forests of Panama, users can find maps and information about trails in the protected areas.

Keeping in mind, that sustainable travel has three pillars, we should also consider how locals are supported. There are still several indigenous tribes in Panama, with their own traditions and cultures. Panama is putting a lot of effort into protecting and preserving its natural and cultural heritage.

We as travelers should always try to make a difference as well, by trying to travel more sustainably. Here are some tips on what you can pay attention to when you’re backpacking in Panama:

  • Support locals – Whenever possible, prefer a local restaurant, hotel, or guide instead of an international one.
  • Eat vegetarian – You can always find vegetarian dishes, such as rice and beans (and also veggie burgers in many places).
  • Take the bus – The public transport network in Panama is great, so there’s no need for domestic flights
  • Save energy – Even though it can be very hot at the coast, try to use the fan instead of the aircon.
  • Avoid waste – Bring a reusable bag, food container, and a bamboo cutlery set in order to avoid plastic bags and packaging.
  • Drink tap water and filter – you can drink tap water almost anywhere on Panama’s mainland. So bring your own bottle and refill it in order to save lots of plastic bottles.
    In order to also be able to drink the water on the islands, bring a filter bottle!

Filtering water & the precious nature in Panama

Food in Panama

Being surrounded by so much sea, Panamanian cuisine features a lot of fish with typical Central American sides such as rice, black beans, plantains, and sometimes corn tortillas.
You’ll also come across yuca quite often – a  root that tastes similar to a potato. Yuca frita (fried yuca) is a yummy appetizer or side and tastes similar to potato fries.

In comparison to other Central American countries, you can feel the Caribbean influence and the proximity to South America more often. Dishes tend to be a bit spicier and there’s more diversity.

The infamous Geisha Coffee seems to be Panama’s strongest pride. As I’m neither a coffee drinker nor a specialist, so I can’t comment on the coffee. So you probably have to find out yourself if it’s worth its extremely high price.

When is the best time to go backpacking in Panama?

To be honest, in a country so close to the equator, travel is fun all year round, as it’s always really warm.
Many say the best time to go backpacking in Panama is from December to April when it’s supposed to be the driest. Central American dry season lures with lots of sun and lazy days by the beach.
That said, we experienced a lot of rain all over Panama in March, but we still had an awesome time.

Panamenian food

Panamanian Caribbean food

Is Panama safe to travel?

Among the Central American countries, Panama is definitely one of the safest countries. However, it always depends on where you are.
Especially in Panama City, there are certain areas that you should avoid, so always check with your accommodation if the area you’re planning to visit is safe. You should be more attentive in the poorer areas El Chorrillo (which surrounds the neighborhood of Casco Viejo, so you will probably pass through), Curundu, and El Marañón.

Also, you should avoid Colon which may be the only city in Panama that you can actually consider dangerous. And well, the Darien Gap which makes up the border region between Panama and Colombia should be avoided by any means. There’s lots of drug traffic down there and there’s no reason for you to head there, as the rest of Panama offers amazing nature and remote jungles as well.

While muggings are rare, it’s always smart to take the usual precautions such as leaving your valuables at the accommodation and avoid walking alone at night.
I also always store my money and credit cards in different places in my luggage. Just in case you may get mugged, you still have some money source somewhere else.

Palmtrees in Panama

Is backpacking in Panama expensive?

While Panama is not as expensive as its rich neighbor Costa Rica, it’s still more expensive than most other Central American countries.
Eating out can easily be almost as expensive as in Costa Rica with around 10 $ for a meal, but this gets better once you reach more remote areas.
Double rooms can be found for around 30 $ per night, but the most popular areas such as Bocas del Toro are usually more expensive.

Besides, the San Blas Islands can only be visited by booking a day trip or tour for several days which is quite expensive (the cheapest trips start around 100 $ per person per day) but it’s extremely worth it. But don’t skip them, it’s such a unique experience!

What’s really cheap in Panama is public transport. For short trips within the city or a town, you pay a quarter dollar. And long trips will cost around 1 $ per hour as a rule of thumb. Just avoid the expensive shuttles.
A great tip in order to save some money is to haggle. This way, you will easily get a better price, e.g. for boat trips on Bocas del Toro than the one they first offer you.

Be aware, that the currency can be a bit confusing when you first enter Panama, as both the Panamanian Balboa is still in use, as well as US Dollars. While US Dollars predominate in everyday use, you sometimes get your small change in Balboas.

Do you need to speak Spanish to travel through Panama?

I’d say that you don’t necessarily have to, but it will help you a lot if you do. Speaking English will be fine to get around in many places, but as everywhere in Central America, some basic Spanish will improve your experience a lot.
It helps to get more in touch with locals and to be able to have basic chit-chat. That has helped me a lot, for example when I needed to ask locals where the bus leaves.
The alternative is always to find a travel buddy who speaks Spanish.

Reading on the beach in San Blas

Backpacking in Panama – a wrap-up

Panama in three words: islands | almond trees | sloths

Did you know? One of the 365 San Blas Islands, namely Pelicano Island, has been the film location of the famous Netflix Series Casa de Papel (Tokio’s and Rio’s hiding place)

Favorite photo spot: The turquoise water right under our nose (or actually in front of our hut) on Isla Iguana

Favorite food: The Caribbean Tofu Nest at Arboloco in Bocas del Toro

Can’t miss: Spending a few nights on a tiny San Blas Island

Did you ever go backpacking in Panama? How was your experience? Feel free to share any tips in the comments below!

More about Central America

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