Backpacking Panama

Looking for important travel information while backpacking around Panama? Here you will find information on working in Panama, entry visas, Panama hostels, and much more.

Table of Contents

Facts About Panama

The Southernmost country on the Central American isthmus, Panama has always had a vibrant, multi-faceted culture. Since the construction of the Panama Canal, it has also been an industrially significant country with economic clout and a booming tourist industry. From Caribbean beaches to Pacific breaks, hiking adventures to spa hotels, Panama’s got something for everyone, which explains why it has become such a popular destination for backpackers and package tourists alike in recent years.

Climate

Panama stretches from the Caribbean coast down to South America, and as you might expect its climate is hot and tropical. The dry season runs roughly from December to April and is the best time to visit, though temperatures can soar to uncomfortable heights in places. During the rainy season, though, it can really pour with rain � and mountainous regions can get much colder than the humid lowlands.

Temperatures do not vary too greatly year-round, with Panama City’s temperature tending to fall in the mid-to-late 20o during any given month. The BBC weather website has a comprehensive and often accurate five-day forecast for Panama though you will need to search more widely to find more specific local breakdowns.

Things to do and see

Travellers to Panama will encounter a curious mix of American surfers on ‘Spring Break’, earnest bird-watching ecologists, retired couples and gap-year students, as well as the backpackers, families and even a Panamanian or two.

The surfing is justifiably famous, with the most skilful and daring heading to excellent breaks off the rugged Pacific coastline. The coast is also home to acre upon acre of American timeshares and golf-courses, which is unfortunate or exciting depending on your holidaying preferences.

Tours involving active sports also draw travellers. River rafting, boating, waterskiing and especially diving and snorkelling are available across the country. Snorkelling in the Caribbean coast is a popular option offering as it does an opportunity to see some spectacular underwater flora and fauna.

And if it’s flora and fauna you want, Panama is the place to be. The mountains and jungles have extremely high biodiversity, and you might catch a glimpse of exotic creatures, from wildcats to giant spiders. Tours vary from arduous camping expeditions to gentle guided strolls around the national parks. Recent developments have constructed luxurious, eco-friendly cabins and tree houses with spas inside the national parks for a bit of post-hike relaxation.

The remains of Indo-American civilizations have always brought travellers to Panama, and though not as famous as the remains in Mexico and Costa Rica, evidence of ancient civilizations is scattered across Panama. See the architectural remains of the Cuevas and the Cocl� civilizations everywhere from the remotest of mountains to Panama City itself.

The capital’s malls and markets sell everything: fruit and vegetables, knock-off designer clothing, genuine designer clothing, native arts and crafts, local food and music.

Panama’s most famous feature is not just for engineering buffs. Many travellers walk or cycle or boat along the Canal, and a trip to Panama just isn’t valid unless you’ve at least seen it, and maybe bought the t-shirt.

Useful Links

www.panamainfo.com Telephone (507) 315-0609

Official tourism website: visitpanama.com

Travel

Although it is possible to travel to Panama by sea, this is a lengthy and often expensive option � most of the traffic comes from the pleasure-boat industry and from trading ships rather than independent travellers. Most people arrive in Panama by air or over land. It is possible to fly to Panama indirectly from the UK, changing in Europe, the USA or Latin America (or all three). No airlines offer budget flights to Panama at the time of writing, though STA Travel will offer younger travellers advice on the cheapest option.

Overland from Costa Rica or Columbia, bus is your best bet. Buses to and from the border are reliable and surprisingly frequent from across Costa Rica and Columbia � it should be fairly easy to find a connection by checking at the bus station in any town.

Panama is a small, thin worm of a country compared to some of its Latin American neighbours, so it is easy to travel round the country on public transport. And like most of its Latin American neighbours, bus is usually the most comprehensive and most frequent public transport system. Buses are reliable and mostly safe, though the comfort factor can be quite erratic, with air-conditioned coaches showing American DVDs and overheated, overcrowded minivans running the same routes.

Taxis are cheap in Panama and can often be a convenient, economic alternative to car hire, particularly given the less-than-desirable state of provincial roads. However, if you want a bit more freedom, then you can find car hire at www.car-hire-centre.co.uk.

In parts of Panama it’s quickest and cheapest (and most fun) to get around by boat. Of course, this is particularly the case with the off-shore islands. It’s usually possible to find a ‘water taxi’, that is, anyone with a boat who’ll take a few coins to take you where you want to go. As always, be careful of who you get into a vehicle with.

Accommodation

Although there are limited property-rentals and package tours available, most backpackers in Panama will find themselves staying in a hostel or guesthouse as the cheapest and often most sociable accommodation. There are a number of websites catering specifically for this � try Hostels.comHostelworld.com, or HostelBookers.com.

In provincial Panama, it is not unlikely you’ll find yourself in a place where there’s no official ‘tourist accommodation’ option � and even in the city, there’s often a very fine line between a family-run guesthouse and staying in a family’s spare room. This tends to be a positive thing as with a little asking-around you can often find cheap accommodation with a friendly host, although the practice is dying out as tourism grows and the spread of official hostels � and of course, international hotel chains � continues.

It is rarely necessary to pre-book a hostel or hotel in Panama, though many have websites and it can be reassuring to do so for your first nights in a town. When visiting for feast days and carnival this is also advisable.

A number of websites also offer rental accommodation in Panama, although these can be bland and overpriced. Nonetheless, international companies such as Holiday Lettings or the Travel Library will be reliable.

Healthcare

UK residents can apply for a comprehensive, up-to-date report on health issues for travellers in Panama. The personal report, which includes recommended vaccinations, foreign office travel health advice, advice on seasonal diseases and up-to-date health news, is available from the Medical Advisory Services for Travel Abroad (MASTA). The MASTA website also has details of locations of travel clinics to visit before you leave.

Broadly speaking, Panama is a fairly safe country to travel to health-wise, so long as you don’t take any foolish risks. Make sure you are vaccinated before you travel and carry a certificate of vaccinations with you. Current UK advice counsels Hepatitus A, Typhoid and Yellow Fever vaccinations for all travellers, as well as a number of others including Rabies for travellers who will be visiting at-risk areas or living long-term in Panama or Latin America. Check with your doctor or nhsdirect.nhs.uk (in the UK) for up-to-date advice.

Similarly, medical care in Panama is generally of a good standard. Clinics in Panama City are high-quality and will usually have at least one English-speaking doctor on hand. Outside the city, facilities are fewer and further between, and it’s probably best to travel back to the capital for any non-emergency treatment.

However, it is not normally necessary to shell out on any premium-level insurance packages. The type of cover you choose will depend on your planned activities. Speak to an agent mentioning the areas you plan to visit and what you plan to do there, and they will be able to advise you on the best cover.

Entry Visas for Panama

Travellers are officially required to give proof of onward travel on entry into Panama � that is, whether you are arriving into the airport or over land, you will need to be able to prove you have a ticket to leave the country. On entry into the country you will be given a 30-day stamp on your passport, which stay can be extended at immigration offices in one of Panama’s large cities.

UK citizens currently only need a valid passport in order to gain entry to the country, though citizens of the USA, Australia and elsewhere will have to purchase a tourist card from border control. The card should be under $10 USD, but ensure you have cash on you before you depart, particularly if you are making an overland entry. Citizens of some other countries will need to apply for a visa before entry into Panama.

However, the particularities of these entry requirements and the countries they apply to have been known to change, so it’s best to contact the Panamanian Embassy well before you travel in order to ensure that you have your papers in order. The British Panamanian Embassy can be contacted from anywhere via their website. Contact details for the Panamanian diplomatic missions around the world can also be found here.

Foreigner Work Permits in Panama

The Panamanian government has traditionally tried to minimise native poverty by tough immigration laws which make it hard for foreigners to find work in Panama. This freeze on foreign employment is thawing to a certain degree, and foreign students and travellers can find casual, short-term or part-time work as deck-hands and baggage handlers, farm labourers and bar workers. However, it is vital that young foreign workers respect the needs of local labourers as well as legal restrictions when job-searching.

The other option for the non-skilled or casual (English-speaking) worker in Panama is to teach English � either through a language school in the city or offering independent tutorials. Official TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) websites such as Teach Abroad Panama give information on courses and job opportunities as well as country-specific advice on this work.

Although serious restrictions exist on paid work, a great number of foreign gap-year students and travellers commit to unpaid voluntary work in Panama, which can be rewarding in that it is educational, fun, and a great way to really get into local cultures. They vary wildly, from wildlife conservation projects such as Anconto government-run internships to English teaching or sports coaching in remote villages. Check charity and government websites for information on current projects.

Official Language of Panama

Spanish is the official language of Panama, however, this apparently simple statement belies a complex linguistic labyrinth that every traveller will have to negotiate to a greater or lesser degree. Nearly 20 languages have been identified as in use in Panama today, with dialectic differences complicating things further. The majority of these are the languages of native Indo-American tribes, which are in turn mixed with Chinese, French, English and even Arabic in various creoles. The multiple linguistic identity is due in part to the number of immigrants brought in to work on the construction of the Panama Canal over the last century. However, those who are not multi-lingual need not despair. A working knowledge of Spanish will be more than enough to get around Panama, and the fact that so many different languages co-exist, for the most part happily, means locals will often be open to translating your clumsy assaults on the local language.

Panamanian Spanish differs in a number of minor but not insignificant ways from European Spanish. It is worth investing in a Latin American Spanish guidebook in order to learn about the different forms, particularly as it is possible (though unlikely) that you may encounter some confusion or even hostility if speaking with textbook inflexions. However, some basic Spanish phrases should get you far:

Meeting People

English
Spanish
yes
si
no
no
thank you
gracias
You are welcome
De nada
please
por favor
Excuse me
Disc�lpeme
hello
hola
goodbye
adi�s
Good morning
Buenos dias
Good night
Buenas noches
I do not understand.
No entiendo.
Do you speak…?
Habla usted…?
English
Ingl�s
Spanish
Espa�ol
What is your name?
C�mo se llama usted?
Nice to meet you
Encantado de conocerle
How are you?
C�mo est�s?
Good
bien
bad
mal

Directions

English
Spanish
map
el mapa
left
la izquierda
right
la derecha
Straight on
directo
far
lejos
near
cerca

Methods of Transport

English
Spanish
Where is…?
D�nde est�…?
How much is the fare?
Cu�nto cuesta el boleto?
Ticket
boleto
A ticket to…, please.
Un boleto para…, por favor.
Where are you going?
Hacia d�nde vas?
Where do you live?
D�nde vive usted?
train
el tren
bus
el autob�s
underground
el metro
airport
el aeropuerto
Train station
la estaci�n del tren
Bus station
la estaci�n de autobuses
Underground station
la estaci�n del metro
departure
la salida
arrival
la llegada
parking
el estacionamiento

Time

English
Spanish
What time is it?
Qu� hora es?
Today
hoy
yesterday
ayer
tomorrow
ma�ana

Accommodation

English
Spanish
hotel
el hotel
room
el cuarto
reservation
la reservaci�n
Are there any vacancies?
Tiene habitaciones?
No vacancies.
No hay lugares.
Passport
el pasaporte

Places

English
Spanish
Post office
la officina de correo
bank
el banco
Police station
la estaci�n de polic�a
hospital
el hospital
chemist
la farmacia
shop
la tienda
restaurant
el restaurante
museum
el museo
church
la iglesia
square
la plaza
strret
la calle

Shopping

English
Spanish
How much does this cost?
Cu�nto cuesta?
I will buy it
Lo compro
I would like to buy…
Me gustar�a comprar…
Do you have…?
Tiene usted…?
open
abierto
closed
cerrado
postcard
la postal
stamps
los timbres
little
poco
lot
mucho
all
todo

Meals

English
Spanish
breakfast
el desayuno
lunch
el almuerzo
dinner
la cena
vegetarian
vegetariano/vegetariana
cheers!
skal!
The bill please
Me trae la cuenta por favor

Drinks

English
Spanish
drink
la bebida
coffee
el caf�
tea
el t�
juice
el jugo
water
el agua
beer
la cerveza
wine
el vino

Food

English
Spanish
meat
la carne
fish
el pescado
vegetable
las verduras
fruit
la fruta
potato
la patata
salad
la ensalada
dessert
el postre

 

Panama Hostels

Hostels are a cheap form of accomodation, and so they are essential to backpackers and other budget travellers. We have compiled a list of hostels in Panama to help you plan your journey. If you are looking for a hostel in Panama, you’ve come to the right place.

Chiriqui
Panama City

There you have it, the ultimate Panama backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around Panama.

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