Panama Vacation on a Budget

  • 01 of 20

    Affordable Luxury

    Look for affordable luxury in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    A Panama vacation could offer you a nice budget travel situation -- affordable luxury.

    Rancho de Caldera is a resort in the mountains, 13 miles from Boquete, Panama. By all appearances, it is a luxury resort. Check out the beautiful infinity pool and patio with a commanding view of the mountains. A few steps from the pool is a restaurant in which a residential world-class chef prepares meals similar to (or perhaps better than) what you'd be served in a big-city gourmet restaurant. The resort also has its own stables should you care for some horseback riding through the countryside.

    Infinity pools and on-site gourmet fare are not commonly the trademarks of budget travel stops, especially in Central America. But at Rancho de Caldera, an air-conditioned room with a fully-equipped kitchen and a spacious balcony overlooking the picture-book scenery runs less than $150/night. Smaller rooms with shared bathrooms are well under $100/night. Rates can come down further with discounts offered...MORE in the off-season months.

    Travelers in search of some luxury would expect to pay more than twice that amount in most parts of the world, and there are places in Panama where you'd shell out a lot more money for similar amenities. But it is possible to find luxury here at a greatly discounted price.

     

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  • 02 of 20

    Cheap Hostel Rooms, some with Air Conditioning

    Budget accommodations are easy to find in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    The most frugal of budget travelers discovered Panama long ago.

    They know that if they visit Panama City armed with some money-saving tips, it can be among the more affordable capitals in the region.

    In the resort town of Bocas Del Toro on the northeast Caribbean coast near the border with Costa Rica, you'll find a variety of offers similar to what's pictured here. At those prices, you might be sharing a room with several strangers and depending upon sea breezes to keep you cool. But if your budget is greatly limited, Panama presents the possibility of touring and lodging that is well below what most travelers find in their home countries.

    There is middle ground, too. Basic hotels with private rooms frequently charge $50 or less for an overnight stay. You might have concrete block walls and worn furniture in your room, but for travelers who spend most of their time on the run and simply need a place to sleep, Panama can be easy on the budget.

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  • 03 of 20

    Affordable World-Class Zip Lining

    Enjoy affordable ziplining in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Zip Lining began as a way for botanists to observe the rain forest without making damaging or personally dangerous hikes. Popularized in neighboring Costa Rica, the zip line or canopy tour experience is gaining in popularity worldwide.

    In Panama, Boquete Tree Trek offers a three-hour trip that spans a dozen platforms. Safety is paramount in this operation, and the fee includes all the needed equipment plus a detailed safety lecture prior to arrival at the first platform. On our tour there were retirees from Florida and recent college graduates from Switzerland -- the appeal of this tour transcends generational and cultural differences.

    The base camp is probably 2,000 ft. above the village of Boquete, which places its overall height at about 6,000 ft. above sea level. Fortunately, a 4X4 transport truck takes you most of the way. The 10-minute hike to the first platform is level and pleasant (at this elevation, the temperature is under 70 degrees all year).

    The company also provides...MORE mountain biking, hiking and fishing expeditions. It has its own restaurant and lodging facilities at the base camp.

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  • 04 of 20

    An Abundance of Wide, Empty Beaches

    Panama offers wide beaches that are frequently uncrowded.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    With both Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, Panama offers an array of attractive beaches. Some appeal to surfing enthusiasts, while others are great for snorkeling and simple relaxation.

    Another physical feature of the Panamanian coastlines is islands chains. Some of these islands are large enough to have landing strips, small towns and even tourist facilities. But many others are either uninhabited or the home of indigenous people such as the Kuna on the Caribbean coast.

    So there is much to explore and experience here -- and you often make those explorations without having to fight crowds. It's not unusual to visit a Panamanian beach and have it largely to yourself.

    The trade-off for tourists is that many of the finest beaches are fairly remote and perhaps lacking large selections of restaurants and resorts.

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  • 05 of 20

    Short, Cheap Flights from North America

    Shop for cheap flights to Panama from North America.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Although Panama City isn't too far from the northern reaches of South America, it is only a three-hour flight from Miami. Panama City has become one of the most important banking cities in the western hemisphere, so business fliers have prompted a strong selection of flights to east coast cities in the U.S. as well as South America.

    Sometimes, casual airfare shopping for Panama City's Tocumen Airport can turn into a budget vacation. For example, in April 2011 American Airlines offered a one-way sale fare of $84 to Panama City from either Orlando or Miami. With taxes and fees, that figure jumped to nearly $140. But a round trip fare for one person in July came in under $300. Typically, you'd pay twice that fare. It was one of those deals that appeared and vanished in a short time.

    American isn't the only airline to offer deals to Panama, so it pays to aggregate your airfare search by using a tool that reviews at multiple sources.

    The so-called "Green" (read...MORE "rainy") season in Panama begins during summer and continues into the fall.

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  • 06 of 20

    Great Wildlife Watching

    Wildlife watching is a favorite pastime in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    The picture above was taken in a place called Dolphin Bay. It's just a few miles from the village of Bocas Del Toro, and you can book an all-day porpoise watching/snorkeling trip for under $30/person. The best time to spot porpoises at play is in the morning. By afternoon, they've moved to deeper, cooler waters.

    You probably won't be in Panama for too long before you notice people with their eyes inclined upward. They'll be looking at three-toed sloths lazing the day away in a tree branch. It's fun to see how many of these unusual sights you can spot on a hike through the rain forests and parks of Panama.

    Bird watchers are unlikely to find a place much more friendly than Panama. Quetzals and macaws can be found with a little patience and local knowledge. In all, more than 900 species of birds can be seen in Panama, making it one of the best bird-watching sites in the world.

    All of these pleasures come at relatively little expense. Tours designed to reveal the various...MORE habitats can be expensive. It pays to shop for the best tour deals before you leave home.

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  • 07 of 20

    Snorkeling near Bocas Del Toro

    Panama offers good snorkeling south of Bocas Del Toro.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Diving and snorkeling enthusiasts will find Panama offers fine opportunities on both coasts.

    On the Caribbean side, the area around Bastimentos Island is known for its snorkeling options. There are shallow reefs protected from ocean waves by mangroves that make for wonderful snorkeling. At the southern end of Bastimentos (which is a maritime preserve) are the Zapatilla islands, which feature some of the best snorkeling in Central America.

    At certain times of the year, snorkeling here can be difficult. Wave action in the channel between Bastimentos and these smaller islands can make for poor visibility and require some strong swimming skills. It's best to go with a guide, who will be well-versed on the current conditions and take you to spots that are most likely to be interesting.

    In Bocas Del Toro, consider Jampan Tours. We booked an all-day trip for $25/person. The tour leaves Bocas Del Toro at 9:30 a.m. and returns about 4 p.m. There is a lunch stop at a seafood restaurant, but...MORE food is not included in the tour price. Also not included is a government fee of $10/person for entering the marine reserve.

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  • 08 of 20

    Free Health Insurance During Your Stay

    Panama offers free health insurance for visitors.
    ••• Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

    Want medical insurance coverage during the first 30 days of your stay in Panama? If so, put your wallet away.

    All you'll need to show medical personnel is your passport for free care. There are a few notable exceptions here: injuries from what is loosely termed "extreme sports" are not covered; health problems related to alcohol or drug abuse also are not covered. You must enter the country through Tocumen International Airport near Panama City, the point of entry for a vast majority of the country's tourists.

    There is some confusion about a health card that travelers are supposed to acquire at a table in the airport. I saw no such table during a brief search and did not receive a card. A tourism official at Tocumen told me no card is needed. You simply present a valid passport at the point of treatment.

    The Panamanian health insurance policy for tourists covers up to $7,000 in expenses for injuries resulting from an accident or by disease contracted on Panamanian...MORE territory. This is fairly solid evidence that Panama is serious about encouraging more tourism. It's a wonderful perk that hopefully you won't need to access.

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  • 09 of 20

    Taxi Cabs without Meters

    Taxis in Panama usually operate without meters.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    We've all dreaded cab rides in unfamiliar cities, where we fear the driver will take the long route to run up a bigger bill. That doesn't happen in Panama.

    Cabs here do not have meters, so it's essential that you agree to a price for the ride before you get in and shut the door.

    Within Panama City, even rides across town can be arranged for less than $10; and most are $5 or less. One notable exception is the ride between Tocumen Airport and the city center, which can cost $25-$30.

    It's best to leave the driving in Panama City to professionals. Traffic moves fast and drivers rarely yield the right of way. When you combine these rather treacherous driving conditions with people who don't know where they are going, it creates some big potential problems for those planning a car rental. Unless your trip dictates a rental, they are best avoided.

    Outside of Panama City, driving is far less difficult. But cabs remain fairly cheap across the country. On my trip, I did run...MORE across drivers in several cities who tried to charge far more than the going rate. I simply shook my head and waited for the next driver.

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  • 10 of 20

    Cheap Cross-Country Flights

    Cross-country flights are usually cheap in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Two of the nation's most interesting destinations are more than 250 miles to the west of Panama City: Bocas Del Toro, which is situated on an island along the coast, and Boquete in the mountainous area near the border with Costa Rica.

    The Pan-American highway covers much of that distance, but there are secondary roads through the mountains that can be slow to cross.

    Budget travelers who want to save time during their stays can book a domestic flight between Panama City and Bocas Del Toro or David (south of Boquete) for as little as $80 before taxes. The flights generally last about an hour. The domestic airport in Panama City is located in the Albrook section of what was once the Canal Zone, so you'll be treated to a nice aerial view of the canal if the weather is cooperative.

    David is the second largest city in the country and offers several hotel and car rental choices for air travelers.

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  • 11 of 20

    A Cheap Cross-Country Bus Ride

    Bus travel can be inexpensive but slow in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    If you're traveling with several members in your party, an $80 one-way airline ticket will save time, but you might not have the money to access that speed.

    Much like public transportation in Costa Rica, bus fares in Panama are priced to serve the citizens, not gouge the tourists. Many in this country labor for less than $10/day in wages. So it shouldn't be too surprising that a bus trip from David (near the Costa Rican border) to Panama City sometimes is priced at less than $20/person.

    This 260-mile trip took 6-7 hours and included a 20-minute lunch stop in Santiago, which is roughly the halfway point in the journey. The trip provides a closeup look at life in rural Panama. If you know Spanish, it can be an opportunity to make new friends and learn much about this country.

    The bus isn't exactly luxurious, but it certainly doesn't fit the "chicken bus" stereotype so many travelers carry about Central American public transportation. You'll have a comfortable...MORE seat, a rest room aboard and even a full-length movie to watch in transit.

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  • 12 of 20

    Cheap, Filling and Tasty Meals

    Cheap, tasty, and filing meals are common in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    In Boquete, you can eat lunch in trendy bistros where the surroundings and prices resemble what Americans expect to find at home.

    Let's employ a basic technique for finding affordable food in another country by eating where the locals choose to dine.

    Restaurante el Sabroson is a cafeteria popular with the local residents but largely devoid of tourists.

    Two full plates of food and two soft drinks totaled $6. The food wasn't exotic, but it was tasty and filling. At other places in Boquete, you'll see food advertised at prices Americans haven't seen in years. How about a hamburger for $1.50 or an ice cream cone for fifty cents?

    A typical Panamanian meal consists of rice, beans and meat, with perhaps a small salad and some plantains included to round out the meal.

    Places similar to Restaurante el Sabroson can be found throughout the country. You won't need a guidebook to find them -- they are on the main street and frequently crowded with local repeat customers at meal time.

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  • 13 of 20

    Currency: The U.S. Dollar

    The currency in Panama is the U.S. Dollar.
    ••• Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

    Currency exchanges can be costly during a trip. You're often converting several times, losing a percentage of your cash with each transaction. But such exchanges for U.S. tourists visiting Panama are unnecessary.

    Technically, Panama's unit of currency is the Balboa, named in honor of the famous explorer. But since one Balboa equals one U.S. dollar, the government no longer prints its own currency. Thus, U.S. currency is used for all of your transactions in Panama.

    Coinage is another matter, but you'll find that the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters are similar in size to their counterparts in the U.S. and Canada. Tourists try to spend their change, because it generally is not accepted elsewhere. Some bring home souvenir pocket change.

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  • 14 of 20

    Cosmopolitan Panama City

    Panama City is a cosmopolitan metropolis.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Panama City is a diverse metropolis. Many here trace their ancestries through people who arrived to help build the Panama Canal nearly a century ago. It was a project of worldwide significance, and it drew workers from around the globe.

    Today, the city continues to draw investors from throughout Latin America and beyond. Evidence of this rapid economic growth can be seen in the picture. Imagine this: prior to the toppling of the Noriega regime, there were no buildings here taller than 20 stories. Today, Panama City's skyline ranks among the most impressive in the Western Hemisphere.

    Visitors arrive to find a surprising array of restaurants and shopping opportunities. How about a shopping mall in the middle of the city with its own casino and health spa? Would you have guessed that a quality chain restaurant specializes in Middle Eastern dishes? Or that there is a sizable Chinese community here?

    Panama City is full of pleasant surprises, which helps explain why it is becoming a popular...MORE destination for North American retirees.

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  • 15 of 20

    Some of the World's Best Coffee

    Panama produces some of the world's best coffee.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Coffee beans grow best within latitudes about 25 degrees north or south of the equator. Many countries produce larger coffee crops than Panama.

    But few countries can compete with this small nation when it comes to international competitions that measure the quality of the coffee product. Geisha coffee from Chiriqui province has won some prestigious awards and has commanded some exclusive prices in the marketplace.

    The unofficial center of the coffee business in Panama is Boquete, a mountain village that Modern Maturity Magazine recently ranked among the world's best retirement locations. Some of the coffee plantations in this region offer picturesque settings and are therefore bought and converted to private estates.

    But Richard and Dee Lipner decided they would continue growing coffee on their property, even though they arrived from Berkeley, Calif. with little knowledge about the business. Their Cafe De La Luna brand is named to describe this organic farm, which operates in...MORE conjunction with lunar phases for top results. Beyond his methods, Lipner sees Boquete as the "Napa Valley of coffee growing," with soil and climatic conditions that are ideal for producing the best product.

    Lipner gives tours of his operation ($30/person) that will leave you fascinated with the subject of coffee and perhaps a bit envious of his adventuresome spirit. Other tours in the area go for similar prices, allowing visitors to sample the product and even take some home. Tours are typically 2-3 hours in duration and include transportation from the center of Boquete.

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  • 16 of 20

    The Panama Canal

    The Panama Canal is a favorite tourist attraction.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    There are a variety of options for visiting the Panama Canal.

    The basic, low-cost option is a stop at the Miraflores Locks, located just a few miles from the center of Panama City. Transportation here usually can be arranged for about $20 round trip. Be sure to opt for a full-visit ticket that grants admission to the observation deck, the well-designed museum and its theater for viewing a movie (in several languages) describing the canal's history and operation.

    As you watch from the observation deck, giant container vessels slowly rise or fall 45 feet in about 10 minutes. Whether they rise or fall depends upon direction of travel. Those bound for the Pacific will be dropping. Operations continue here around the clock. In the picture above, far in the distance, construction is underway that will double the canal's capacity by 2014, the centennial year for operation of this engineering marvel.

    For those who want more than just a look, there are small-boat partial- and full-transits...MORE available on certain days of the week. Ancon Expeditions is a trusted company offering these trips and tours of the nearby rain forests. These transits start at about $150/person; keep in mind that smaller tour boats do not have top priority in the canal. For that reason, this 80 km. trip will often take a full day.

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  • 17 of 20

    Intriguing Indigenous Art

    Indigenous artwork is available in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    A converted YMCA in the Balboa section of Panama City has become a destination for shoppers interested in Panamanian art. It's called Centro Artesanal and although some of what's for sale here is clearly junk aimed at tourists, you will also find native craftsmanship that will be of interest even if you don't want to buy it.

    The Kuna people have established an autonomous region along the Caribbean coast northeast of Panama City. These indigenous tribes live as they have for centuries, raising crops and fishing. Women continue to create the colorful embroidery that is traditional, but these days they sell these creations to tourists.

    One traditional wrap is called a mola. It comes in various sizes and quality of the stitching varies. You will also find paintings and carvings throughout Panama that are worth considering, and prices are usually negotiable. But keep in mind that some of the sellers are struggling to feed their families. Weigh that sad fact against the bargain...MORE price you'd like to pay for their meticulous work.

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  • 18 of 20

    Cool Mountain Retreats

    Despite its location near the equator, Panama offers mountain locations that are cool throughout the year.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Did you expect advice for visiting Panama to include the phrase "pack a sweater?"

    Many people do not realize that Panama is a rugged, mountainous country. There are peaks that rise to 11,000 ft. above sea level. The inactive Volcano Baru's summit affords a view of both the Caribbean and the Pacific from the same vantage point. If the weather cooperates and you're in good physical condition, it's a rare geographic opportunity.

    Even at lower altitudes, one can enjoy springlike weather throughout the year in parts of Panama, especially the mountainous area in Chiriqui Province near the town of Boquete. Temperatures in the 70s are common there, even though the area is at about 9 degrees north latitude.

    You'll still need sunscreen, but you might not want to spend the money on an air conditioned room. Nighttime temperatures can be downright chilly.

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  • 19 of 20

    Panamanian Hospitality

    Panamanians are hospitable and friendly with tourists.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    Within walking distance of the center of Boquete, there is a place with a name that translates as "My garden is your garden." It is a palatial estate with a number of large buildings and a series of impressive, well-tended gardens.

    The buildings are naturally off-limits to visitors, even though the owners of the property do not reside here. But the gardens are free to explore to your heart's content, and there's no admission charge.

    It's possible to spend an hour or more just making a quick survey of the various plants and exhibits. There is even an observation tower for taking aerial photography.

    This has been a free attraction for many years, and the owners are said to take great pleasure in sharing it with strangers at no cost. Such hospitality is typical of Panamanians.

    Many speak only Spanish, but I've found most are more than willing to attempt to communicate with visitors using non-verbal language and a smile. It is polite to learn some Spanish -- the numbers...MORE and a few key phrases are easy to learn. Your efforts will be appreciated.

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    Great Hotel and Resort Values

    Look for great hotel and resort values in Panama.
    ••• (c)Mark D. Kahler

    On a trip to Isla Bastimentos, the Bocas Bound hostel charged $13 for an overnight dorm stay, and offers access to a zip line tour, kayaking, surfing lessons and choice snorkeling. Their private hotel rooms were $75/night.

    A short distance away, Red Frog Beach Rainforest Resort rents villas that could easily accommodate two families. They're equipped with full kitchens, a private pool and patio, two full bedrooms and two and a half baths. The cost: $176/night.

    Two great accommodation values in an area that offers an outstanding series of beaches and outdoor activities. Similar values can be found in urban areas.

    As with any national capital, Panama City offers five-star hotels and prices to match. A property of that type exists in the Marbella section, with rooms starting at about $260/night. Two minutes away by foot is a series of small apartments that can be rented for as little as $60/night through services such as airbnb.com. They put you in the same upscale neighborhood with easy...MORE access to stores and restaurants. You enjoy the same safety and freedom to walk around day or night. You just don't have to pay the big-city prices.

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