Money & costs
Throughout the country, you can get a budget hotel room for about US$15 to US$20 a night, while die-hard shoestring travelers can probably find some questionable digs for about US$10. In recent years a number of backpacker-friendly hostels have popped up around the country, particularly in Panama City, Bocas del Toro and Boquete – a dorm bed at any of these places will set you back less than US$10 a night.
Good, inexpensive food isn’t hard to come by. You can eat comida corriente (set meals) at Panamanian restaurants for about US$2 to US$4 no matter where you are in the country. Buses and taxis are also reasonable – a two-hour bus ride costs a few dollars, while a cab ride in the capital costs the same. All in all, if you’re traveling frugally, it’s possible to get by on US$20 to US$30 a day in Panama.
Midrange accommodations are reasonably priced in Panama, and compared to other parts of Latin America, you tend to get a lot more for your money. You can eat at better restaurants for US$5 to US$10 a person and stay in decent quarters for US$20 to US$40 a night. Add in a flight or two (Kuna Yala, Bocas), a few activities (national-park fees, snorkeling and/or boat trips), a nightly cocktail or two and you can easily get by on US$55 to US$65 a day.
With that said, you’ll get more value for your money if you can split the costs with someone. At midrange hotels, single rooms aren’t much cheaper than doubles, and you’ll save money on excursions if there are more of you to share the cost.
If you’re looking to have a blow-out vacation, there are numerous ways to experience Panama’s natural and cultural riches at the top end. There are several excellent all-inclusive lodges throughout the country, which are designed for everything from wildlife-watching to sportfishing. Travelers looking to part with a little cash can also take advantage of the decadent restaurants in Panama City, secluded B&Bs in the highlands and luxury ocean-side resorts along the coasts.
The standard tipping rate in Panama is around 10% of the bill, though in small cafés and more casual places, tipping is not necessary. Taxi drivers do not expect tips.
Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it’s exactly the same bill, and in practice people use the terms ‘dólar’ and ‘balboa’ interchangeably. Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US coins, though both are frequently used. Coins include one, five, 10, 25 and 50 centavos (or centésimos) – 100 centavos equal one balboa. Most businesses won’t break US$50 and US$100 bills, and those that do may require you to present your passport.
Throughout Panama, ATMs are readily available except in the most isolated places – look for the red ‘sistema clave’ sign. Generally speaking, ATMs accept cards on most networks (Plus, Cirrus, MasterCard, Visa, Amex), though a charge is usually levied depending on your issuing bank. The amount that can be withdrawn at one time varies from bank to bank, though it is usually around US$500.
Although they are widely accepted at travel agencies, upscale hotels and many restaurants, credit cards can be problematic almost everywhere else. In short, carry enough cash to get you to the next bank or ATM.
There are several places where it’s essential to show up with cash. Among tourist destinations, the following places have no banks, and it’s a long way to the nearest ATM: Santa Catalina, Santa Fé, Boca Brava, Isla Contadora, Isla Grande, Portobelo, Isla de Coiba and the Darién.
At the time of research, very few businesses on Bocas del Toro accepted credit cards. Find out if your hotel does before you go to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
The only bank that exchanges foreign currency is the Banco Nacional de Panamá counter at Tocumen International Airport. Once you have departed from the airport, the only place that can change foreign currency for dollars is a casa de cambio (exchange house), which can be difficult to find outside Panama City.
A tax of 10% is added to the price of hotel rooms. When you inquire about a hotel, ask whether the quoted price includes the tax.
A 5% sales tax is levied on all nonfood products.
Although they can be cashed at a few banks. traveler’s checks are rarely accepted by businesses, and traveler’s checks in currencies other than US dollars are not accepted anywhere in Panama. In addition, some banks will only accept American Express traveler’s checks. The banks that do accept traveler’s checks typically charge an exchange fee equal to 1% of the amount of the check.