We stayed in Panama City for a few days and I think that was enough for us. While the city seemed nicer and safer than other Central American capitals we have been to, it’s not a budget friendly city. All the hotels/hostels seemed either cheap and really rough or okay but not worth the money for what you get. We stayed in the Las Vegas hotel and paid about $85 for a double room. And while it was adequate (air conditioning, wifi, fridge & microwave, good location), it seemed expensive compared to the rest of the country.
All hotels, hostels, and guesthouses in western Europe must post their star rating on the outside of their establishment. The star rating has everything to do with amenities and price and nothing to do with how nice it actually is. Also, at the front desk, a list of room prices must be displayed for all guests to see. This is very helpful when trying to stay on a budget. Also, it is very common to ask to see the room and tell the front desk you are looking at a few hotels and will be back if you choose their hotel or guesthouse. This is a great way to see how far your money can go. Sometimes when I travel and am staying in one town for more than a few nights, I will book a hotel for the first night and then take an hour or so to walk around to other hotels and see if I can find a better deal. This works best in the off season.
For us, the Panama trip continued to be an adventure. After driving cross country to get to Almirante, we parked the car, and hopped on not one, but two water taxis (also called launchas) to get to Isla Bastimentos. Check out this link for transportation info. While on the island, we stayed at Tio Tom’s guesthouse. It was right next to the public dock which was helpful and not a drawback. The guesthouse is sparse but a good deal at about $25 per night. The owners, Tom and Ina, are a friendly German couple. During our stay, they were very welcoming though opinionated about life on and off the island.
Two restaurants on the island that I recommend are Roots and Kesha. Both have great, affordable food around $6 per meal. Also, drinks are pretty affordable most everywhere on the island, $1-2 per beer and $3-4 for the ever-popular cuba libre.
We were only on Isla Bastimentos a few days so we had limited time to see the island. We thought about taking a day tour (average $20 per person) to snorkle, fish, etc. but decided against it and chose to walk to Wizard Beach instead. Be wary of our choice. We were told that there was a trail from Bastimentos town to Wizard Beach and that it was “kind of muddy.” This was the understatement of the trip. We walked uphill to get out of town (it looks like you are walking through someone’s backyard at times) and finally found the trail. But the trail was not a little muddy, it was a lot muddy. There were points where we were walking in mud a foot deep. This would not have been a problem had we not worn flip flops and been concerned about what lies underneath the mud. Once we got use to the idea of being muddy, sweaty, and possibly lost, it went a bit smoother. Once we passed through the land of mud and abandoned flip flops, we made it to Wizard Beach which was quite deserted (the only way to get there is to walk as the riptide is too strong for a dock). To get back from Wizard Beach, you have two options; walk back the way you came (about 45 minutes and, did I mention the mud?) or another 45 minute walk down the beach and through the jungle to Red Frog Beach. From there, you can get a boat back to Bastimentos town for $4 per person. We arrived on Red Frog Beach as a band of ragamuffins; sweaty, muddy, exhausted, and with stray dogs in tow. We celebrated at the bar as all good explorers should.
We went to Casco Viejo which was nice looking but seemed like a false front when you have already seen the real city. I do, however, recommend taking a cab (about $5 per person) out to Panama Viejo to see the ruins. It’s free to wander the grounds and look at the beginnings of the city. We did not pay to get into the museum so it was a cheap outing. Also, we went out to the Panama Canal to see ships go through the locks. To save some money, I recommend only paying for the observation deck. Skip the museum and 3-D movie and watch the PBS special before you go.
While in the city we ate some great food but it was harder to find a good, cheap meal. Prepare to spend about $10-$20 per person on lunch or dinner in Panama City. We ate at Beirut and Caffe Pomodoro after having had our fill of Panamanian cuisine. Also, on average the national beers (Atlas, Balboa, and Panama beers) were $2.50 in the capital.