“I can totally budget myself in Panama on $35 a day,” said naive Monica.
“I can probably keep it at around $40 a day,” said more experienced Monica.
“Well, $55 a day isn’t too bad… I did want to see the country…” said Monica on the plane ride home.
I knew Central America had a tendency to be expensive, but I thought I could get by on $35 a day. I failed miserably.
First off, if you want to get anywhere, you need to take a taxi. There are buses, but they’re crowded, confusing, and you need a metro card to ride them. The airport doesn’t have a machine to buy metro cards, which is why you need to take a taxi in order to leave the airport: the taxi is $30-35.
Street food can be anywhere from $2-5, but once you sit down at a restaurant, you’ll be spending roughly $10-20. Where I stayed, hostel rooms went for around $12-16 a night.
If you want to see the country, get ready to spend some money. All of my expenses were mandatory. Although I could have narrowed down my expenses on food, the rest I could not. I wanted to see more than just Panama City, and I wanted to try the local cuisine and eat more than peanut butter sandwiches (which served as lunch multiple times throughout the trip).
I started my trip in Panama City, took an overnight bus to Bocas del Toro where I spent another few days, and ended my trip in Boquete (before heading back to Panama City for my flight).
I’ll break down the costs for you:
Like I said, taking a taxi was inevitable. In order to see any other part of the country, such as Bocas del Toro and Boquete, I either had to fly, rent a car, or take an overnight bus (which I ended up doing). The overnight bus was the cheapest option, but obviously took the longest.
I spent a few days at Bocas del Toro, which is a part of a few beautiful and pristine islands in the north of Panama. In order to get to the islands from the main land, you have to take a ferry (a tiny motorboat). Once you’re there, you have to take a water taxi to get to any of the other islands (it is great being able to say that I’ve taken a water taxi, though!).
I had to take taxi’s in Panama City in order to see Panamá Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cerro Ancón, and for those interested, the Panama Canal (which I saw in the distance from a lookout point during a hike. I’m counting it!).
The hostels are on the cheaper side, although they are still not ideal. If the thought of sleeping in muggy, hot, stale air for a few nights in a row bothers you, then you will need to spend a few extra bucks paying for a room with A/C.
In Luna’s Castle Hostel, the rooms with A/C were only $1 more than the regular rooms. I weighed the benefits and decided to go with the A/C. In Selina Hostel in Bocas del Toro, I spent the first two nights in a room without A/C since it was $5 cheaper. However, by the third night, I couldn’t take it anymore. I treated myself and spent a few extra dollars to a room with A/C. Mamallena, the hostel in Boquete, was quite cool at night, so there was no need for A/C.
Again, Couchsurfing is always an option. I contacted a few members on Couchsurfing to see if they could host my friend and I, however, none of them had gotten back to me on time. Another cheap alternative is Airbnb.
Selina Hostel, Bocas del Toro
Food/ Drink: $194.03
Like I said above, it depends where you go. I found a hidden gem in Casco Viejo in Panama, Cafe Coca Cola. They had huge plates of arroz con pollo for $5 (I went there four times. Not kidding). Otherwise, I went grocery shopping, ate the free breakfasts at the hostel, or went out for food. I found the average price of meals for dinner to be $10-13, with more touristy places being around $20.
One thing I can say, though, is that the beer in Panama is cheap. Lunas Castle Hostel had $.50 beers during happy hour, otherwise, I was spending around $1-1.50 for beer.
Other Expenses: $28
Cover charges for bars, admissions to see sites such as Panama Viejo, and admission to the beaches are all part of exploring Panama. In Bocas del Toro, admission to a few of the beaches was $3. Admission to Panama Viejo for students was $3, otherwise, it was $8.
I went to a few bars with cover charges, and found that most bars that have a cover charge anywhere between $5-10 (unless it’s ladies night at Iguanas in Bocas del Toro- then everything, including drinks, is free!).
This is not to say that you can’t get by on around $35 a day. However, it will be quite difficult to see a lot of the country on only $35 a day. Getting from point A to point B may already cost you half of your budget for the day. Furthermore, while I was in Panama City, I barely saw any food stands selling good, cheap food. In Bocas del Toro, your only option was either the grocery store or a restaurant. I had delicious fish tacos in Boquete ($10), happy hour tapas ($2, but the food was smaller than the size of my palm), and was lucky enough that someone staying at my hostel cooked $2-4 meals for everyone spending the night.
Despite all of this, Panama is an incredible country full of lush jungles, unspoiled islands, and mountains. It’s a country with gorgeous gems waiting to be explored.