[All content and prices updated February 2013]

Why you should add Panama to your Indie/RTW trip

  • Unlike other Central American countries (with the exception of Bocas del Toro), the backpacker circuit has only recently started to penetrate Panama’s interior, making it one of the last Central American countries that is refreshingly ripe for off-the-beaten-path adventures.
  • When asked the question “Mountains or ocean?” your answer is ” . . . . .” then Panama is perfect for you. Crystal turquoise seas sit at the base of mystical highlands, and snaking rivers cut through a great tropical wilderness, (and all are accessible in hours by bus), making Panama the perfect half-half holiday location.
  • You can visit the 7th modern wonder of the world, the Panama Canal. This 48 mile-long (77 km) international waterway allows ships to pass between the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean, and was the first of its kind. An added bonus? Nearby Panama City is an eclectic hub with a bustling nightlife, beautiful old city, and great markets.
  • Options. From modern cities like Panama City and backpacker havens like Bocas del Toro, and from secluded islands like San Blas, to highland escapes like Boquete and Parque Nacional Volcan Baru,  this is a diverse country will entertain and wonder any traveler.
  • Cost. Panama is a tad more expensive than other Central American countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, (think more along the lines of Costa Rica in terms of cost), however it is still cheap to travel in by western standards. Depending on your tastes, your dollar can go far, or you can get pampered on a higher budget.

Indie Travel Tips

Panama is quickly becoming a solid stopping point of the Central American tourist trail, but there are still plenty of ways to get off-the-beaten-path:

  • Take a local bus to visit the Panama Canal rather than an organized tour. You will be able to see the countryside on the journey, and the friendly locals are more than excited to engage you in conversation.
  • Tired from grueling bus rides? Take a boat tour to the remote San Blas archipelago. Of these 378 islands and cays, only 49 are inhabited. Come here to relax, read a book, lounge in crystal clear seas, and reflect on life.
  • If you are a coffee lover then Boquete is a must on your Panama itinerary. Boquete is known for its cool, fresh climate and amazing natural environment. Rejuvenate with a cup of fresh mountain brew, and once you have your caffeine fix, choose from one of the many outdoor activities available. Boquete offers incredible hiking and climbing, river rafting, as well as coffee plantation tours, hot springs, and canopy tours.
  • Get your fill of the exquisite marine life that Panama has to offer. Parque Nacional Coiba is home to 23 species of dolphins and whales, such as humpback, killer and sperm whales. In addition, several species of crocodile and turtle, and 15 species of snake, as well as a plethora of birdlife roam the Isla de Coiba.

What to do

The canal running through this isthmus may be its most famous attribute, but Panama is a special tourist destination for reasons beyond its importance to shipping routes. You should go to Panama if you want more than the usual resorts and beaches on your vacation. Although you have the option of lounging on beaches on both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean, Panama really shines when you spend your time outdoors, hiking and birdwatching.

Panama is attractive to travelers as an outdoor paradise, so you should plan as many excursions and activities as possible. The Pearl islands, an archipelago off the coast, are a beautiful destination and may look familiar if you’re a fan of the TV show Survivor. Swim, snorkel, and hike till you’ve either exhausted the island’s possibilities or yourselves.

Another archipelago to visit, the Bocas Del Toro islands are developed in such a way that even when you’re exhausted you won’t have to leave the beauty of this seaside enclave. Restaurants and lodging are built right above the water and incorporated into the environment.

For more in depth accommodation information, check out the what to see and do section of Indie Travel in Panama .

Getting there

Flights to Panama arrive just outside of Panama City at Tocumen International Airport, although if you’ve got your own plane, Panama has more private landing strips per square mile than any other country in the world and you can try plunking your plane down on one.

For getting around inside the country, read the transportation section of Indie Travel in Panama.

Where to stay

As Panama’s watersports and ecotourism gain popularity, Panama’s hospitality industry booms. Big hotel chains like Marriott have moved in and smaller hotels that you can book online are popping up everywhere. If you want to do Panama on $20 a day, you can hostels for about half that in several cities. If you need more advice on where to stay or what to do in Panama, check out the message boards.

For more in depth accommodation information, check out the accommodations section of Indie Travel in Panama.

Chelsea Perino is an avid traveler and has spent a significant amount of time in Central America. She traveled through Panama as a solo female, so she was able to really embrace and understand Panamnian culture. Chelsea recently graduated with an MA in Public and Organizational Relations and is now a freelance Public Relations and Marketing consultant and writer in New York City. She is the Co-Founder of her own online lifestyle magazine

Photo credits: benkucinski