Panama is less visited as a destination for backpackers than other Central American countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica, and that's a good thing. Although you'll find prices higher than the Central America average, backpacking here is still affordable and it's worth every penny. A geographical and cultural land bridge between North and South America, Panama is one of the most diverse countries on earth in every sense. Its capital city is as modern as many U.S. cities, yet many of its remote islands and rainforests remain wholly unspoiled. Check out some of our favorite Panama backpacker destinations.
The Bocas del Toro archipelago is without a doubt the number one Panama backpacker destination. It's located near the Costa Rica border, which is convenient for backpackers who are intent on exploring both countries. Bocas del Toro consists of nine islands. Isla Colon is the biggest and it's home to Bocas Town, the largest Bocas Del Toro settlement.
Most Bocas del Toro hostels and budget hotels are located in Bocas Town, as well as restaurants, nightlife and tons of travel services. It's easy to visit other island attractions from here, too, such as the Zapatillas Cayes and Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos, which is strewn with tiny red tree frogs—and plenty of backpackers.
Panama City might be known as the most cosmopolitan in Central America, but this doesn't mean it's not ideal for the budget-conscious traveler. Hostels are plentiful in Panama City, particularly in the Casco Viejo/Old Panama City district. There's plenty to do on the cheap—stroll through Casco Viejo and down the picturesque Amador Causeway, take a bus to the Miraflores locks and glimpse ships passing through the Panama Canal, or hike Parque Natural Metropolitano. Eat where the locals eat and drink where they drink, and you'll be living it up in a fantastic city while spending very little.
The Kuna Yala archipelago, formerly known as the San Blas archipelago, is one of my top recommendations in all of Central America for Panama backpackers. If you're looking for an experience off the beaten path, this is for you. The Kuna Yala region is almost entirely pristine, populated by Panama's indigenous Kuna Yala people. The islands themselves have to be seen to be believed—hundreds of tiny white sand cays with vibrant green palms and water so prismatic, it'll make your heartache.
Luxury travel, this isn't. Visitors typically stay in basic huts on small, private islands, and they eat whatever the fishermen drag in that day. It's the ultimate castaway experience for sure. Voyage by sailboat through the archipelago all the way to Cartagena, Colombia for an even wilder experience. You can book a trip from any large Panama City hostel, such as Luna's Castle.
Boquete has a well-earned reputation as a retirement mecca for ex-pat Americans, but that doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile stop for Panama backpackers, too. The lush, vast Boquete valley is one of Panama's most stunning destinations. Its elevation makes it quite a few degrees cooler than the steamy coast, which is an extremely welcome respite for hot and tired travelers. Boquete is Panama's coffee mecca as well, and tours through the scenic coffee farms are worth a little splurge.
David is a city in Panama's Chiriqui province in the Pacific West, about an hour and a half from the Costa Rican border and an hour from Boquete. It's a worthwhile travel stop offering plenty to do. Enjoy hot springs and other outdoor activities or gamble the day away at one of several casinos. Hang with the locals at one of David's numerous nightlife spots. There are several hostel options here, including Babmu Hostel and The Purple House International Backpacker's Hostel.
Santa Catalina is emerging as one of the top Central America surfing destinations. This tiny coastal village's tourism is swiftly growing. More attractions for Panama backpackers and surfers crop up every year, so it's best to visit this beach sooner rather than later.
Darién is Panama's final frontier and its largest province, but it's visited by only the most intrepid backpackers. The tiny town of La Palma marks the start of the Darién Gap, the only place the Pan-American Highway breaks in both Americas. It's a land of indigenous communities and nearly impenetrable rain forests. The drug trade—and the nastiness that comes with it—is alive and well in the jungles of Darién National Park, which borders Colombia. But this is Latin America at its most pristine, a superlative some travelers just can't resist.