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So, you’re planning your Panama backpacking trip and you’re wondering where to begin. Where will you stay? What are the best hostels? What’s the easiest route? Where do backpackers go? Well, backpacker friends, I am here to answer all these questions for you. See, I had intended to stay in Panama purely for Tribal Gathering festival, and ended up in this wonderful country for over a month! And, in the process, I ended up traveling the perfect Panama backpacking route, shared in the itinerary below.
Pin this Panama Backpacking Guide!
Panama backpacking truly sucked me in – and rightfully so! I had no idea what to expect in this country, but it’s safe to say it totally blew me away and is now on my list of the most underrated countries I have been to. Previously, when I thought of Panama, I would never have thought, “pristine Caribbean beaches,” “amazing travel-worthy surf,” “great parties,” “beautiful jungle-y mountains,” or “volcano climbing,” but now all of those things are synonymous with Panama to me. And I would love to share them with you.
For the sake of simplicity, I will start a Panama backpacking route from the north. Many backpackers travel through Panama coming south from Costa Rica or north from Colombia, and I will list a route from Costa Rica (specifically and most easily, Puerto Viejo), but if you use your common sense you can do this route in the opposite direction, too! 😛
But First: Panama Backpacking Tips
- Busses: The busses can get FREEZING. Like, freezing, guys. I literally put one of my sockless feet into an empty sunglasses case that I found in my backpack once – it was that bad. Bring jackets on the bus or prepare to be an actual iceberg when you get to your destination.
- Money: Some of these destinations, like Lost & Found, Santa Catalina, and Playa Venao, have no ATM’s in town. Bocas del Toro only has one ATM. So, get cash out when you have access to an ATM!
- Getting Around: for most places, there will be the option of taking public busses to save money, or taking organized transfers to your next destination for a bit more money plus piece of mind. You can decide for yourself what’s right for you in each situation. You can ask about transfers to your next destination in each new place; hostels and agencies usually have them set up for backpackers everywhere along this Panama backpacking route.
- ASK: If you are confused about something while Panama backpacking, ask someone. Most times I was standing in a bus station confused about what was happening, I was able to ask someone the location of my next bus/transfer and figure it out. It does help if you know some Spanish in some places, but seriously, when in doubt, ask!
- Currency: The currency in Panama is the Panamanian dollar, or USD. The exchange rate is 1:1 and they have some of their own coins but the money is basically all USD.
- Budget: Some places in Panama, like Bocas del Toro, are actually fairly expensive due their remoteness and tourism. If you’re on a budget make sure to watch out for this! More budget tips in my Bocas del Toro Guide.
- Rainy Season/Weather: Panama can get very hot in the summer, and colder in rainy season/in Boquete and the high altitude jungles. Panama definitely has a rainy season, so make sure you know the best rainy season clothes for backpackers if you are traveling at that time of year.
1. Panama Backpacking Route: Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a classic first stop on any Panama backpacking journey, and is sure to start you off with a bang. Bocas is a surf town and party capital of the Caribbean coast, offering more adventures that are possible to complete in a few days and also renowned backpacker parties. Bocas del Toro is an island archipelago, with one main town and many smaller communities on other beautiful islands to explore.
Getting to Bocas del Toro
You can get to Bocas via transfer very easily from lots of locations. If you’re traveling south, you can get there most easily from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Many/most hostels and agencies organize transfers, so you can ask inside any travel agency or at your hostel.
But, you can also get a bus to Bocas easily from David (the northern hub of Panama) if coming from the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. If you’re coming north, the destinations below also easily organize transfers to Bocas.
What to do/Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro for Backpackers:
Since I wrote an entire guide about Things to Do in Bocas del Toro AND Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro, I’m going to go ahead and refer you to those guides (opens in a new tab) for these. There’s too much to do in Bocas to list on one post – trust me on this one. These posts list EVERYTHING to do and EVERYWHERE to stay – from the party hostels to the smaller quiet ones to the ones with the cheapest private rooms.
These posts are not specifically geared towards Panama backpacking either, so they also list resorts and hotels as well as 7-8 hostels and what they’re known for. As for things to do, expect a comprehensive list of all tours and activities to do in Bocas – think, diving, snorkeling, swimming in pristine Caribbean waters, boat trips to secluded islands, kayaking, sailing trips, biking, TONS of surfing, and more.
You can also expect the best places to eat, bars for nightlife, and places to watch the sunset! Have a gander at it! Click the links above or the images below.
2. Panama Backpacking Route: Lost & Found Hostel
Perhaps quite unknown on many Panama backpacking routes, Lost and Found Hostel is located high up in the mountains between Bocas del Toro and the Pacific coast, on a mountain in the jungle with one of the best views I’ve ever seen.
This is by far one of the coolest and most unique hostels I have ever stayed at. To get here, you must hike 15 minutes uphill with all your things. They have hiking trails, actual scavenger hunts based off a book you can read, a strong community vibe, great food, and an all-around amazing experience. Read my post on Lost & Found Hostel for more – it really was a highlight of my time in Panama.
Getting to Lost & Found Hostel:
Bocas del Toro, Boquete, and David should all have transfers/busses to Lost and Found. I got a transfer very easily from Bocas del Toro from my hostel.
If not, it’s literally on the side of the road between David and Bocas, and there’s only one road. Tell your driver! 😉 There are public busses that drive the road all the time to/from David, and from Lost + Found it should cost about $3.50. And remember, these are Panamanian busses – they are often crammed and standing-room-only, but get you there just the same.
What to Do at Lost & Found Hostel for Backpackers:
As seen in my post, do the scavenger hunts (both of them!), read the Lost & Found books, meet new friends, visit the waterfall and the canyon, visit the organic coffee farm, go horseback riding, play foot-only jenga (no, I’m not kidding!), and spend the rest of the time marveling at the view of Volcan Baru. It may be remote, but you could stay in this place for ages. I didn’t want to leave!
View Lost + Found Hostel Rooms + Rates Here
3. Panama Backpacking Route: Boquete
Boquete (bo-ket-tay) is a little mountain town and a large expat community within Panama. Many who are Panama backpacking will end up in Boquete for a little while to enjoy the jungle scenery and cooler climate.
For some reason, there are LOTS of American expats in Boquete. It’s a mid-sized town with everything you could possibly need, with lots of great restaurants and shops as well. It’s surrounded by mountains/jungle and has a lot of interesting hostels and shops.
Many people come to Boquete to hike Volcan Baru, a 3650m-ish elevation volcano in the middle of Panama. Volcan Baru is the highest point in Panama, and on a clear day you can actually see both the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans at the same time!! It’s quite a strenuous hike – 13km uphill to the top then 13km downhill again – and pretty much everyone does it for sunrise.
It’s a thing to hike Volcan Baru at 12-1am, and arrive just in time for the sunrise at 5:30-6:30am. The hike takes 5-6 hours in theory, and is a quite, dare I say, boring in the darkness just walking up and up and up. But I will let you in on a little secret – it’s worth it! The sunrise is spectacular and is well worth a visit to Boquete.
You guessed it! I have a post on this too. Click the image to read!
Getting to Boquete:
Boquete is not too far from Lost & Found Hostel in theory, but either requires a proper transfer (L&F-Boquete at 3pm each day for $15) or that you take a public bus to David from the side of the road outside L&F (about $4) and then another bus to Boquete ($1.75) which is quite easy. That might sounds complicated, but once you are Panama backpacking you’ll understand!
What to Do in Boquete:
The one thing you’ll want to make sure you do is hike Volcan Baru! People hike this around 12-1am to watch the sunrise from the top, and it’s VERY hard but worth it. Make sure you have lots of water, warm clothes, snacks, and a camera!
Other than hiking Volcan Baru in Boquete, you can explore the cute town, eat some great meals, sign up for farm tours and nearby canyon tours (some go to the same canyon as Lost & Found Hostel), or other adventure activities that you san sign up for in many hostels!
Where to Stay in Boquete for Backpackers:
- Mamallena Backpackers: If you want to be in town, Mamallena Backpackers is the most popular option.
- La Jungla Experience: For an intimate family hostel that feels like you are legitimately at home on your living room couch, I recommend La Jungla Experience. It’s a bit out of town, but such a nice and homey small spot that I really enjoyed- and it has Netflix!
- Bambuda Castle: I have also heard Bambuda Castle is cool. It’s very highly rated, has great common areas, and can help you book all your tours as any of these hostels would.
Disclaimer: this photo was definitely NOT taken in David. 😛
4. Panama Backpacking Route: David
Honestly, David is just a transit city. You can stay there for a night or two if you want, but I would not know anything about it because in the multiple times I’ve been through the place its given me stressful and sweaty vibes.
David is basically a massive bus station with people walking every which way and many trying to sell you things. It’s always hot and I haven’t seen any non-sketchy food stalls/restaurants there at all. In my opinion, when you get to David, just…. continue on. I add it to the list because it’s one of the biggest transfer points for Panama backpacking. So, use David as a transfer point, but if you ask me, keep going!
If You Must Stay in David:
- Stay in Bambu Hostel – it’s your best option. They might be able to give you tips on things to do from there!
5. Panama Backpacking: Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina is a popular surf spot near some secluded islands on Panama’s Pacific coast. It’s a bit more remote, and isn’t always on panama backpacking routes for this reason. It’s a tiny town and is not very built up, but I wanted to include it to give you the option of checking out this little paradise.
Travelers who are Panama backpacking will spend a few nights there to surf, enjoy the beach, or do any of a few different adventure tours. Besides surfing, Santa Catalina is known for fishing and world-renowned scuba diving.
Getting to Santa Catalina:
This one is a bit more complicated as it’s very remote. You can take a few busses from David to Santa Catalina – from David to Santiago, then to Sona, and then to Santa Catalina. Because the destination is rising quickly in popularity, many hostels and agencies are starting to offer transfers to Santa Catalina. The best thing to do while Panama backpacking is to ask around!
What to do in Santa Catalina:
Again, this is a place for surfing, diving, fishing, and enjoying the beautiful scenery! You can also dive, explore, and hike in Parque Nacional Coiba. You can take diving courses here if you wish.
Where to Stay in Santa Catalina for Backpackers:
- Hostel Villa Vento Surf – Perhaps the most popular place for Panama backpackers in Santa Catalina, Hostel Villa Vento Suft offers a chilled out yet sociable atmosphere and can organize lots of your activities for you here. There’s free breakfast, but the wifi is not.
- B & B EcoLodge Deseo Bamboo – more secluded hostel tailored more to people who may want private space (they have private rooms) but also have dorms available. The atmosphere is beautiful to hang out in.
6. Panama Backpacking: Playa Venao
Playa Venao is a lovely U-Shaped beach also on Panama’s Pacific coast. There are a few great hostels there, good surf, and beautiful places.
Getting to Playa Venao:
There are transfers to Playa Venao from Panama City, Bocas, and Boquete, and busses via Las Tables/Pedasi from Panama City and David. Pedasi and Las Tablas have regular busses to Playa Venao as well. As another location of Selina Hostels, Playa Venao is very accessible from other Selina Hostels – aka Bocas del Toro (you read my guide, right?!). Playa Venao is an overnight bus transfer from Bocas.
Getting here from Santa Catalina would involve a similar round of public busses as before, or, again, a transfer as Santa Catalina is getting more popular. From Santa Catalina you’d get a bus to Sona, Santiago, Pedasi/Las Tablas, then Playa Venao. Check if your hostel has transfers or if you can meet with other backpackers to make the journey – most are making similar routes!
What to Do in Playa Venao:
Playa Venao is best known for surfing and a lovely sunny climate. It’s yet another lovely Central American surfing town, where locals rise early in the morning to check the waves. Besides the hostels, there are a couple restaurants in town, but Pedasi to the north is a bigger town that will have more amenities.
Keep in mind that, like Santa Catalina, the last ATM’s will be a few bus stops away from the beach. In this case, the last ATM is in Pedasi and the bigger supermarket is in Las Tablas.
Where to Stay in Playa Venao for Backpackers:
- Selina Playa Venao: Selina hostel chain has taken a strong command of the central American backpacking scene with a great product. Their hostels combine adventures with great parties, and basically are the party wherever they are, if that makes sense. The Selina in Playa Venao is beautiful and caters well to both backpackers (dorms) and coupled (private rooms) and has a great bar, full restaurant, and social vibe. This really helps when there are no ATM’s and not many restaurants in town.
- Hostel Venao Cove: More secluded and rustic hostel with both private rooms and dorms. Not as much access to food, however.
7. Panama Backpacking Route: Panama City
Panama City reminds me of Miami meets Cuba meets… Jamaica or something. It’s an unexpectedly big city with massive skyscrapers, but also has quite a lot of history in its quaint old town. The Panama Canal is a must-see, as is Casco Viejo, the old town. Other than that there are a few surf breaks and maybe some beaches to hang out on. But by no means is the city the best of Panama! One day in Panama city is fine for some.
Getting to Panama City:
You can get anywhere in the country from Panama city, and you can get to Panama city from anywhere in the country. From Bocas it’s a brutal 11 hour transfer, but there are still two transfers each day.
From Playa Venao, it should be about 5 hours for a transfer to Panama City, or 6ish hours for a public bus or taxi through Las Tablas.
What to Do in Panama City:
The best thing to do in Panama City is to See the Panama Canal! There are lots of tours to do this – most of the ones below stop at it. You should also explore and dine in the old town (Casco Viejo) and take a tour of the town. Check out these tours below:
- Panama City Hop on Hop Off Bus (honestly the easiest way to see the city the fastest…. and laziest way possible)
- Panama City Half Dal Canal Tour (you MUST see the Canal while here)
- Panama Canal and Monkey Island/Indigenous Village Tour (very popular with travelers – read more about the monkey island day trip here!)
- Panama City Day Tour (the classic sightseeing, but on foot!)
Where to Stay in Panama City for Backpackers:
- Luna’s Castle: I would recommend to stay at Luna’s Castle in Casco Viejo while Panama backpacking. It’s a safe area, which is important. Luna’s is a spacious and social hostel with bed curtains, free breakfast, and a nice eating area with a bar downstairs and many bars around the old town.
- Mamallena Backpackers: This hostel is right in the city and is the home base for many tours to San Blas. It’s popular among backpackers although the area could be better.
- Hostal Casa Areka: This is on the other side of the city, close to the big buildings and city buzz.
- Magnolia Inn: This is a bit of a splurge for Panama Backpacking but is a lovely space right in the Casco Viejo, the area I would stay in for sure. It’s beautiful here and backpackers seem to love it.
8. Panama Backpacking Route: San Blas Islands to Colombia!
Honestly though, if there’s one thing you do in Panama, make it San Blas. If you are traveling on from Panama, definitely go through the San Blas to cross between Panama and Colombia. These are by far the most beautiful, perfect, and picturesque islands I have seen in my life; they’re perfect to the point that you question reality and if it is actually possible that hundreds of tiny, white-sand, circular, palm-tree topped, reef-surrounded islands could actually exist in such close proximity to one another in real life. And yes… yes, they can.
You can do day tours to the San Blas Islands from Panama City, or you can go through the islands to cross between Panama and Colombia. Because you cannot travel by land across this border (the Darien Gap is one of the densest and most dangerous jungles in the world and there’s no road), you must either sail through the San Blas Islands or fly. And I’ll give you a hint: Sailing through San Blas is SO worth it. Take a speedboat tour with San Blas Adventures and you will be able to see more islands, spend less time on a boat, and experience them in their true splendor while also getting across the border to a cute little Colombian fishing Village.
San Blas Islands Options
If you are sailing the San Blas islands between Panama and Colombia, you have two options: Speedboat or sailboat. These two options may seem similar but are in fact very, very different, and both have their perks and pitfalls. I did a speedboat tour, wrote all about it in one post, compared speedboat tours to sailboat tours in another, and also wrote a travel guide to the tiny Colombian city called Capurgana that speedboat tours end in. And you guessed it, they’re linked below! Click the posts below to see what’s right for you.
Getting to the San Blas Islands from Panama City
Tours to the San Blas all come with transport from Panama City. Some may charge extra, but there are hardly any circumstances where you’ll need to get yourself to the boat launch point. And there’s also no way to do San Blas without a tour because the indigenous tribes of the area, the Kuna People, own and inhabit the islands and you can’t really go to islands without knowing/making deals with Kuna people first. So, book a tour of some kind, and getting to the islands will be accounted from from Panama City.
What to Do in the San Blas Islands
Swim, sunbathe, snorkel, relax in hammocks, take zillions of photos to try to capture the perfection of the islands, play beach volleyball, interact with the local tribes, drink cold beers in the warm water, have bonfires, and more! This is what we did on my tour. The San Blas are total paradise and a perfect way to end (or start) an epic Panama backpacking trip.
Where to Stay in San Blas:
You will stay in hammocks, onboard a sailing boat, or in dorms on San Blas tours. It all depends if you choose a sailboat or a speedboat!
Well, my Panama backpacking friends, I do hope this has given you some insight in what it’s like to backpack through this incredible central American country. Whether you opt for public busses, party hostels, or both, you’ll have an incredible time. Damnit, I am getting jealous of you and already want to go back…. sigh. Please comment below and let me know how your trip goes!
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