It’s a generally easy country to visit, but there are some travel tips for Panama you should know before you go.

Basically, I love Panama and think it’s an underrated Central American country. It’s generally safe, it’s easy to get around, and there are a ton of incredible activities. I backpacked around the country with my brother and had the best time.

But, as you’ll read in this article, we definitely made some mistakes on our trip. (We laugh about them now, but things went awry a few times).

In this post, I spill my top travel tips for Panama to make sure you have the best trip possible.

Panama Travel Tips

Don’t Underestimate Travel Times

A man at Nowhere Remote Working Retreat in Bocas del Toro, Panama
My brother poking out of our Nowhere dome in Bocas del Toro

If you look at a map, Panama doesn’t look very big. Certainly, it doesn’t take very long to get around?

Wrong. So wrong.

Assuming travel distances in Panama is a major error. An error I made a couple of times. And look, I’m a Canadian who has driven from coast to coast. I know big countries and long travel times.

For example, Bocas del Toro is a popular destination in Panama. But, to get from Bocas del Toro to Panama City (or vice versa) you have to hop on a 30-minute boat to Almirante and then take a 10-11 hour bus ride to Albrook Bus Station.

We did this route on our way back to Panama City from Bocas del Toro, and it ate up an entire travel day.

Of course, you can drive in Panama or take a plane. Which we would have done except for…

Book Flights Ahead of Time

Palm trees and the ocean in Bocas del Toro, Panama
A cloudy day in Bocas del Toro

Except that we didn’t book our inter-country flights ahead of time. Well, we looked, but by the time we figured out our route a flight from Bocas del Toro to Panama City was way too expensive for our taste.

In order to skip the long travel days, make sure you book your Panama flights well in advance. Besides the major international airport in Panama City (Tocumen), smaller airports are scattered throughout the country.

Book Bus Tickets in Real Time

Albrook Bus Station in Panama City
Albrook Bus Station in Panama City

Unlike flights, you can (usually) get away with booking bus tickets in Panama on the day of.

This tripped up my brother and I, who expected to purchase tickets ahead of time. But, after some research, we decided to just head to the Albrook bus station the day of our travels from Panama City to Santa Catalina.

I know a little bit of Spanish, but the whole thing was still kind of confusing. However, they ushered us right onto the next bus and we got to Santa Catalina that day.

The first exception I found to this rule is when you’re booking guided day tours. Definitely book day trips ahead of time.

The other exception is when going to and from islands. My brother and I booked our bus ticket and boat ride from Bocas del Toro to Panama the day before we traveled to make sure we got a spot.

Pack Gravol (Dramamine)

Taylor and her brother Garrett swimming in the San Blas Islands, Panama
My brother and I roasting our skin in the San Blas Islands

I’d recommend a few items for your Panama packing list, but one of the most important is Gravol (Dramamine). And sunscreen, but we’re talking about queasy stomachs right now.

Panama’s roads can be brutally twisty and turny. One of the worst drives in my life was going from Panama City to the San Blas Islands. Everyone in our 4×4 vehicle was nauseated and on the verge of tossing their cookies due to motion sickness.

It didn’t help that our driver was completely nonplussed by our green faces and went way too fast on those roads.

And then, the motion sickness happened again on the bus from Boquete to Almirante.

I wouldn’t say I have a particularly strong stomach, nor a weak one either. But motion sickness pills were an absolute lifesaver in Panama.

Be Careful in the Sun

Look. The sun near the equator is no joke. I’ve told myself this numerous times and yet, I almost always come home from travel with a crazy sunburn.

I got one of the worst sunburns of my life in San Blas. My brother and I took a tour of the archipelago, and despite applying a mountain of sunscreen over and over, it wasn’t enough. We both got burned.

A few days later, as our burns started to peel, I took a shower. Afterward, when I was dry again, my skin felt like someone was poking it with needles all over. This happened to my brother too.

We tried not to scream.

I’m not being dramatic.

Pack (and apply) sunscreen. I like SPF 50 from Sun Bum.

Get the Appropriate Vaccines (& Buy Bug Spray)

A woman hiking the Lost Waterfalls Trail near Boquete, Panama
All smiles while hiking The Lost Waterfalls / Las Tres Cascadas trail near Boquete

Speaking of things to do to stay healthy in Panama, I recommend getting caught up on your vaccines before you travel there.

I’ll let you discuss which vaccines you need with your healthcare practitioner, but I personally made sure I was caught up and boosted for Hep A and Typhoid.

Malaria and Yellow fever may also be concerns on your trip. But again, don’t listen to me, talk to your doctor.

Then, when you get to Panama, I recommend buying bug spray and applying it regularly. Some mosquitos thrive during the day there, so just give yourself a spritz every now and again.

Plan for the Season

A man sits in front of a fan in his hotel room in Bocas del Toro
The Nowhere dome was cute, but there was no AC

When you travel to Panama is just as important as where you travel in Panama. Generally, you’ll want to travel during the dry season, which lasts from December through April.

Late April through November is the rainy season. During this time, there are almost daily rain showers, it’s hotter, and the humidity is much higher.

We planned our trip to Panama in late February / early March, and as you can tell, it was manageable and lovely, but still pretty toasty.

Wear Loose Clothing

Regardless of when you travel to Panama, you’ll feel sticky and hot while out exploring. For this reason, pack bright and loose clothing.

I know, I love black clothes and leather jackets as much as the next person. But heed my advice and avoid a panic trip to the Panama City Mall’s H&M.

Don’t Skip Panama City

A man standing in front of the Panama City Skyline
Garrett in front of the Panama City skyline

Chances are, you’re traveling to Panama for two main reasons: the jungle and the beach.

These are two excellent reasons to visit Panama, in my opinion.

But not spending at least a few days in Panama City is a mistake. Panama City has a quaint old town, a great waterfront, and a ton of history.

It’s also the place to do one of the top activities in Panama – see the Panama Canal.

We bookended our trip by exploring Panama City. Although it has rough parts, we liked it and were glad we booked some nights there.

Research Neighborhoods

A man standing in Panama City Old Town
Garrett in Panama City’s Old Town

Speaking of rough parts, I highly recommend researching neighborhoods before you book accommodation. This mainly applies to Panama City, but also to other locations around Panama as well.

Unfortunately, there are very prevalent income disparities in Panama. And, while traveling around Panama is mostly safe, we did find that it was easy to wander into a not-so-good neighborhood without really realizing it.

When in Panama City, I recommend sticking to the tourist trail. Personally, Garrett and I stayed at Hotel Marbella, a very basic mid-level hotel. While I wouldn’t walk around the area at night, it was perfectly fine during the day.

Drink Water From the Tap (but…)

A giant Aperol Spritz in Panama
You can’t tell, but Garrett was thoroughly annoyed with my photography here.

Generally speaking, drinking water from the tap in Panama is perfectly safe. Panama, like Costa Rica, has a contemporary water treatment system and you won’t have to worry about getting sick.

The exception to this is in remote areas of the country. If you plan on going off-grid, do your own research into the water situation.

Or, if you just want to be extra cautious, I recommend bringing your own water filtration device. I’ve been using the Grayl Geopress for years and bring it on almost all my travels.

Take Guided Tours

Taylor and her guide on top of Volcan Baru in Panama
Our tour guide took me to the peak of Volcan Baru in Panama

My favorite memories from my trip to Panama came from the guided tours we booked.

Yes, you can backpack Panama and see most of the country independently, but tours truly do sweeten the deal.

Garrett and I took a guided tour to the San Blas Islands (this one is similar), and a guided tour up Volcan Baru in a 4×4 Jeep (the link is to a similar one, the company I booked with no longer offers the one we chose).

I can’t say one was better than the other, but the Volcan Baru tour was one of my favorite experiences of all time.

With tours, you’ll get an insider vantage point into some of the most beautiful locations in the country.

Hike Earlier in the Day

Generally speaking, it’s best to hike earlier in the day in tropical countries because of the heat. This is pretty well known – don’t be out in the heat of the day to stay safe.

However, there’s another reason to start day hiking early in the day in Panama.

Some of the trails close.

Now, I scoured the internet to find more information on this, and turned up empty.

But I can tell you from first-hand experience that some of the hikes require signing in, and that they may not let you on the trail if you show up late.

I recommend looking at AllTrails and seeing what hikers before you have said about the trail.

Or, when in doubt, just start early.

Understand the Two Currency System

Adventure and tour signs in Bocas del Toro, Panama
Signs in Bocas del Toro

Panama’s official currency is The Panamanian Balboa. The exchange rate to USD is 1:1. One Panamanian Balboa equals one US Dollar.

However, Panama doesn’t print paper Balboa’s, so you’ll use US Dollars as day-to-day cash in the country. They do have Panama-specific coins, however.

Carry Cash

A woman sipping a Pina Colada in Santa Catalina, Panama
Me sippin’ a Pina Colada in Santa Catalina

Day-to-day in Canada, I very rarely carry cash. But in Panama, I definitely recommend keeping some on you.

Garrett and I paid for (almost) our entire trip in cash. We paid with a credit card for hotels and tours but paid in cash for daily expenditures like restaurants and souvenirs.

The internet can be shoddy and unreliable in smaller beach towns like Santa Catalina (pictured above). A lot of places don’t even take cards, to be honest. So, you’ll always want cash on you just in case.

Double Check the Bill for the Tip

Garrett eating at a restaurant by the ocean in Panama
Deep in conversation about how much to tip our waiter

Generally speaking, a 10-15% tip is standard for waitstaff in Panama. Of course, this isn’t required, but it is welcome.

However, depending on the location and restaurant, you may find this sum already added to the bill when it arrives. To avoid double-paying a tip, look for “propina” on your bill to see if they’ve already added a gratuity.

Use Taxi’s, Uber, & Shuttles

Garrett at the Panama Canal in Panama
We took an Uber to get to the Panama Canal

As I mentioned above, getting around Panama is pretty easy. You’ll find Uber and taxis in Panama City, and taxis elsewhere throughout the country.

Then, besides the regular old bus, shuttles will take you long distances.

We took Hello Travel Panama shuttles from Santa Catalina to Boquete, and then again from Boquete to Almirante.

If you’re ever unsure how to get somewhere, ask your hotel reception. It’s pretty easy.

Learn Basic Spanish Phrases

Old buildings in Panama City's Old Town
Panama City

Panama’s official language is Spanish, so you’ll have to know a few basic phrases before you go.

Now, I’d say it’s easier to get by with English in Panama than in some other places – Colombia, I’m looking at you. Still, without a few basic phrases like “Can I have the bill?“, and “Where’s the bathroom?“, you’ll be pretty sad and confused.

I recommend downloading this translator app before you go to ensure you don’t have any language problems.

Know the Emergency Numbers

Taylor swimming in the San Blas Islands
Oh San Blas, how I still dream of thee

Regardless of where I travel, I always write local emergency numbers on a little piece of paper and stick it in my wallet.

In Panama, the emergency number is 9-1-1 and the number for ambulances and fire is 1-0-3.

Avoid the Darién Gap

I don’t have an image of the Darién Gap because I didn’t go there. And you shouldn’t either.

Found in the south of Panama, the Darién Gap is the piece of land that connects South America and North America. It’s located in Panama’s Darién province and joins with northern Colombia.

It’s essentially a thick, jungly, swampy, no-mans land. For many reasons, it’s one of the most dangerous places in the world.

And yet, when you look at a map, it just says “Darién National Park”.

I recommend doing some reading about it to get a better scope. But don’t go there.

Choose Adventure

Garrett walking on a rickety river crossing in Boquete, Panama
A very rickety river crossing

I’m going to level with you. Adventure (the good kind, not the Darien Gap kind) is easy to find in Panama.

You can climb to the top of volcanoes, trek with Quetzal birds, go surfing and scuba diving, zipline through the jungle, and try your hand at whitewater rafting.

In my opinion, Panama is an underrated adventure travel destination.

Even though we had some hiccups on our trip, it’s the times when things went a little wrong that we still giggle about to this day.

Do the things that scare you. Choose adventure in Panama.

Trust the Process

A man driving a boat in Panama
We had no idea where we were going on this boat

To be honest, Panama kind of makes adventure easy. Whether we were on buses or taking a guided tour, there was often little communication as to where we were going or who our guides were.

And yet, nobody ever lost us, we certainly never lost ourselves, and we had the best time.

We just surrendered to the process. We let go of the reins a little and let the days unfold as they were supposed to.

In Panama, you might not always know what’s going on, but you have to trust the process. You’ll get where you need to go.

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Thanks for reading my Panama travel tips! I hope this gave you a ton of value for your Panama trip. Up next, check out my tips for traveling on a budget.

Happy travels!

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