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Panama Is An Expensive Place To Be A Tourist

Turn tourist here and pay the price. Literally.

Panama beach town
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PANAMA CITY, Panama- Every country has a relative pricing index. You can usually determine how much things should cost based upon what you pay for almost any other thing (exclusive of imported products). The price of hotels should give you an idea of the price of food, which should give you an idea of the price of transportation, which should give you an idea of the price of entertainment.

While I’m well past the point of writing about travel budgets and how to get between A and B and reviewing hostels, there was just something about the extreme disparity in the relative pricing index in Panama that I found interesting.

In Panama, judging from the price of hotels, food, and transportation you’d consider it to a low-medium cost country. You can get a hotel in the capital city for $15 to $20 a night, a meal costs $5 to $10, an Uber across a city for $3, and public transportation ranges from so cheap that it’s not worth mentioning to a $3-$4 an hour on a nice bus. You can get a beer for a buck or two; you can get a small cup of ceviche for $1.50; a beef empañada for $2.50.

But where Panama violates the relative pricing index is in the realm of tourist attractions. Be a tourist here and get wrung dry. To watch some boats go through the Miraflores locks of the Panama Canal costs $17, to go to the Panama Canal Museum is $15, to walk along a trail through Soberaniá National Park costs $30, to get a meal in Casco Viejo you’re looking at $25 to $50+, to take a tour to the top of Volcan Baru is $120. And this is all in a country without a single big ticket tourist attraction.

Little of this really concerns me much, but I just found it a little surprising — a walk down a trail in the woods probably shouldn’t cost 1.5X the price of your hotel room. While I don’t have anything against tourist attractions, they’re just not really how I wish to utilize my time in a place. I mean, really, what can you write about visiting a tourist attraction?

“I followed man to this. Man told me to look at that. Man taught me things I could have read on Wikipedia. I gave man tip.”

Not my thing. But it doesn’t have to be.

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I would like to take a moment to thank Trevor for the generous donation that he made to Vagabond Journey the other day. I believe you all know him here. He’s does the Nomadic Backpacker blog and did a series of incredible articles on Vagabond Journey about his pandemic travels. These donations are really what’s keeping us going and they’re very much appreciated. If you’re able, please consider making a donation or subscribing for just $5 per month.

Thank you and walk slow.

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Low density, high income tourism has always been the rallying cry of Panama. The country seems bent on not becoming another Costa Rica. They want tourists, yes, but only those with an inclination to spend.

And the country is incredibly successful at applying this model.

I don’t think I saw a single backpacker in Panama. What I did see was a bunch of pensioners getting their pre-croak travel fix, young professional digital nomad types, and the standard lot of tourists with wide brim khaki hats, cargo shorts, and the works.

Tourism in Panama isn’t bad; it’s just different than the rest of Central America.

Or — important correction here — how I remember Central America to be.

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Filed under: Panama, Tourism

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Rob June 5, 2024, 6:52 am

    “wide brim khaki hats, cargo shorts, and the works”. Add an Aloha shirt, sandals, a silver goatee and you have me!

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    • VBJ June 7, 2024, 7:04 pm

      Haha sweet! I’ll be on the lookout!

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  • Trevor June 5, 2024, 1:23 pm

    As I don’t eat Big Macs, or even Small Macs, I always use the McD Coffee Index. or the coffee in a back street dive.

    When I started my travels, my daily budget used to be about 2x the room cost. A dorm was 10 bucks, food, transport etc was another 10. but then I didnt really drink beer then.

    “what can you write about visiting a tourist attraction”. I like writing about how to get there, cheaply, as many bloggers like to write, “there is no public transport, so you need to take a taxi”.

    the only THING i did in Panama was go see the ships/boats.

    walking slow in Africa, again

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    • VBJ June 7, 2024, 7:10 pm

      Yes, that works, except in countries that don’t drink coffee and it’s a premium beverage.

      Haha, that beer really adds to expenses, but what else are you going to do? I wish I was joking here but I’m kind of serious. So much of what’s interesting about traveling comes from drinking beer.

      Def worth it, those boats were cool!

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      • Trevor June 8, 2024, 12:04 pm

        No only from drinking beers. Coffee houses are also good. Like in Tangiers (not the ones in NL)

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      • VBJ June 15, 2024, 2:54 pm

        Right on!

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