14 Ways to See Panama City on a Budget: Take Your Money Further With These Saving Tips – Lonely Planet Travel News | Gmx Pharm

If you’re a budget traveler looking to visit Panama City, start with these money-saving tips.

While Panama is more expensive than most of its Central American neighbors – with the exception of Costa Rica – its cosmopolitan capital is still reasonably priced, especially when compared to cities in the US and Europe.

There are many ways to spend your money in the city – including stylish boutique hotels, world-class museums, fine-dining restaurants and hip cocktail bars – but there are also ways to cut costs, from shared dorm rooms in a hostel to takeout the bus and eat with the locals.

You can always use the money you save for a once-in-a-lifetime experience — maybe swimming with whale sharks in Parque Nacional Coiba or island hopping around the comarca of Guna Yala. Here are our top tips to stretch your budget further.

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Avoid the high season and the highest prices

Tropical Panama is a year-round destination, but prices spike during the hot dry season – which lasts from around December to April – and get even higher around the numerous Independence celebrations in November, Christmas, New Years and Easter. If you travel during the hotter rainy season – around May to November – you’ll escape the crowds and also snag a bargain on accommodation and organized tours.

Take one of Central America’s long-distance overland buses to Panama City

If you’re already exploring Central America, consider catching one of the inexpensive, cross-border bus routes that operate in the region. Ticabus has air conditioning, Wi-Fi, restrooms and reclining seats, and if you’re from Costa Rica, the 18-hour bus ride from San Jose to Panama City costs about $45 — much cheaper than the 75-minute direct flight, which costs about $230 .

Host family could mean saving some money while improving your Spanish © L. Toshio Kishiyama / Getty Images

Stay in a dorm or with a family

There’s no shortage of budget-friendly beds in Panama City with something to suit every budget, from hostel bunks to family home accommodation. Check out booking sites like Hostelworld, Homestay, Couchsurfing and Airbnb and you’ll enjoy social interactions, insider tips and kitchen space – your Spanish might improve too.

Cash is still preferred in Panama

Credit cards are widely accepted at more upscale establishments around town, but the use of plastic often means ATM fees and credit card transaction fees at home. It is advisable to carry cash for everyday use and when the ATM is not working. And make sure you have some small bills for neighborhood restaurants, local shops, and city taxis, as they rarely have change.

Public transportation is the cheapest way to get around Panama City

Parts of the city are easily walkable (or driveable or bikeable), particularly the cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo and the waterfront promenades of the Cinta Costera and Amador Causeway.

But if you venture further afield, the city has an efficient public transportation system, including Central America’s first and only subway, connecting the city center to the northern and southern reaches of the metropolitan area. You must purchase a $2 rechargeable Metro, MetroBus, or RapiPass card to use it. Then all rides are $0.35.

The pass also works on the Metrobus, the sleek replacement for the flashy but unregulated one diablo rojos (red devils), with rides that cost $0.25.

Aerial view of Panama City with skyscrapers and many yellow cabs on the street below waiting in traffic
Hire a yellow cab from outside a hotel or mall and pay more for your fare © Gianfranco Vivi / Getty Images

Be wise when using local taxis or download a ridesharing app

Panama City’s yellow-licensed taxis can be a cheap way to get around, but they’re not metered, so you’ll need to negotiate a fare before you go — make sure it’s per trip, not per person. And avoid taking taxis in front of a hotel or shopping center as it will automatically increase the price. Drivers do not expect a tip, but you can always round up the fare.

Uber is a better option; There’s also UberEnglish for non-Spanish speakers and UberAssist for those with mobility issues. Lyft is also available.

Learn some Spanish to avoid the “gringo tax”.

English is widely spoken in Panama City so you can get by without a word of Spanish, but a little of the local jargon goes a long way. It’s always worth having a few useful phrases up your sleeve – and the Google Translate app on your phone – to avoid higher prices, especially when dealing with taxi drivers and market vendors.

Tropical white fish marinated in lemon juice and chopped onions, served in a coconut with baskets of green plantains surrounding the plate.
Panama City is full of fresh seafood dishes © Sergio Amiti / Getty Images

Prepare your own meals

Hostels and homestays usually have well-stocked kitchens where you can cook your own meals, make your own picnics, and save yourself a handful of dollars by shopping at supermarkets like Super 99 and Justo & Bueno. There is always plenty of fresh fruit on offer – the aguacate (Avocado), sandia (watermelon), Pina (Pineapple), passion fruit (passion fruit) and papaya are particularly delicious.

Eat like a local and fill up on Panama’s favorite dishes

Panama City has a cosmopolitan dining scene, from bento boxes to spaghetti bolognese, but some of the best — and cheapest — food is traditional Panamanian fare, or comida tipicaserved in hole-in-the-wall restaurants, self-service cafeterias, and from street carts.

Arroz with chicken (chicken and rice) is a lunchtime favorite with locals and is well-stuffed empanadas and portable Patacones (fried green plantains) make filling snacks.

At city institutions like Café Coca Cola and El Trapiche, affordable, filling (and often fried) fare is a must ropa vieja (pulled beef with vegetables and rice) and sancocho (hearty chicken and vegetable soup) or go all out Bandejas (mixed platters) to try a bit of everything. Rinse everything with a glass Chichaa refreshing blend of tropical fruit juice and water.

Spot wildlife without leaving the city

You don’t have to leave the urban jungle to get a taste of Panama’s breathtaking biodiversity. For just $5, you can explore the manicured trails of the city’s green lung, the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a vast nature reserve where the lush tropical forest is home to an amazing variety of flora and fauna.

Head early for the wildest action – and cooler temperatures – with a chance to see sleepy sloths, cackling monkeys and chatty toucans. And don’t miss the stunning views of the city from the park’s lookout point.

A hand holds a beer can against a body of water, with a city skyline in the distance
Save some money by choosing a local beer instead of an imported one © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Drink the local brew

Thirsty travelers looking for a cold beer should skip imported beer brands and choose one of the local lagers — Panama, Balboa, and the lighter Atlas — and aim for happy hour at a hostel or local watering hole.

Panama’s craft beer scene is booming, and La Rana Dorada serves an array of award-winning beers, including a Belgian wheat beer, a German Pilsner, and an English pale ale, as well as a few seasonal specialties. With a growing number of brewpubs across the city, the Casco Viejo branch is all bare stone, polished wood and gleaming brass, with a very liberal happy hour that runs from noon to 6pm.

Stay hydrated with a water filter bottle for less

With the high temperatures and even higher humidity in Panama City, it pays to drink enough fluids. Tap water is generally safe to drink in the city — although it’s best avoided in rural areas and on islands including Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Archipelago. Save money and reduce plastic pollution by investing in a water filter bottle like the LifeStraw Go.

Take a ferry to Isla Taboga for a budget-friendly slice of island life

You don’t need to take a trip to Bocas del Toro or the San Blas Archipelago to get a taste of a tropical island paradise. Historic Isla Taboga, with its golden sands and swaying palm trees, is just a 30-minute ferry ride from the port on the Amador Causeway for $24 return – perfect for a day at the Playa, with beaches, cafes and shops all within walking distance of the dock. Try going during the week when it’s a much quieter getaway.

Check out Panama’s discount websites

Bargain hunters should check out the daily deals on Panama’s discount websites. The most popular is OfertaSimple, where you can find everything from half-price burgers in Casco Viejo to discounted day tours of the San Blas Archipelago. Gustazos is another good option – both websites are in Spanish and English. And try Degusta Panamá for great discounts at restaurants when you book through the website or app.

Daily costs in Panama City

Youth hostel: $10-15
Basic hostel room for two people: around $30
Airbnb double room: around $30
Subway ticket: $0.35
Bus ticket: $0.25
Meal for two at a local restaurant: around $20
Draft beer: $2.50
Coffee: $3.50

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