Panama in Summary

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What we did: A bit over a month of overland travel from Colon (where the ship let us off), traveling north. This was our first stop in a country where we had virtually no plans whatsoever prior to arriving. As we learned, this really opened us up to any opportunity that arose, and it ended up being incredibly successful for us.

Where we went: 1 week in Panama City, three days in Boquette, a brief stop in David, and three weeks on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro. Also noteworthy was the jaw droppping bus ride through the cloud forest between David and Almirante (a journey in itself). Well worth the trip for the views alone.

About costs: Panama, operating on the US Dollar, has a wide range of choices when it comes to budget– that’s a nice way of saying that it could be easy to spend a lot of money here. We’d heard from many travelers about how expensive it was, some who told us they thought it to be pricier than Costa Rica (the current budget killer of Central America). We were nervous about our time here, assumed we’d have to rush through quickly, and reluctantly went with the online recommendation of $70 per day for an estimated spending goal. But as we said earlier, being without plans opened us up to any opportunity that arose.. This simple plan to have no plan saved what would otherwise have been an expensive few weeks. In the end, we spent a month in Panama for the bargain price of $31/day– that’s for two people, including all food, board, and transportation. To top it off, we felt like we were living really well here. In other countries, we’ve felt like we needed to sacrifice a lot to stay within our budget. Not here, however. Things here were perfect.

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How we did it: We volunteered for a few weeks after stumbling upon the request for help online. It was a bit of a risk, as we were worried about spending three weeks in a camping tent, but we’re really happy we went for it. Through our work here, we got to practice our rusty Spanish skills, learn about the workings of ‘off the grid’ living, viewed some incredible wildlife, and we made some good friends in the process. Without this, our budget would have more than doubled, and we would likely have had to leave much earlier. Not to mention, we collected a lot of stories here- from people from all over the world and all walks of life. Panama draws a unique collection of personalities. There is an emotional lightness about the average resident here, and an openness that is indulging. Everyone seems to be here because they choose to be here, and that creates a very welcoming dynamic.

Food: Panama is not profoundly known for cuisine, and this is a reputation is deserves… Somewhat. While we didn’t find ourselves whipping the camera out at every meal, we stumbled upon some great street food. Arenas stuffed with fresh cheese, empanadas fried crisp with ground meat and spicy sauce, and the ever-present Caribbean influence of beans, rice, yuca, slow stewed proteins, and gravy-like sauces crafted from fresh herbs, juices, and meat drippings. It’s nothing exceptionally rare, but the food is hearty and good. The daily meal found most everywhere (Comida del Dia) is black beans or lentils, rice, and stewed meat– a large plate of it runs about $3. This was our staple for most of our time in Panama, as other dishes were often much more expensive.

Don’t forget the spice: We love the hot sauce in Panama. It seems most every restaurant makes their own. We often watched people refilling the small bottles from a bulk container stored in the fridge (usually a reused gallon water bottle container). The contents were typically yellow from scotch bonnets, thick with flavor, and often with a touch of sweetness. The slight modifications from restaurant to restaurant brought a nice surprise to each meal.

Next up: two long travel days as we skip across Costa Rica in transit to Nicaragua. Costa Rica unfortunately isn’t an easy stop for our budget, and so we are placing it on the list of destinations for a future adventure. Up next: Nicaragua!

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