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Driving through Panama with a rental car (Part 1) – a rollercoaster of emotions

We traveled through Panama with two children for almost four weeks and experienced everything from positive surprises to major disappointments. Here we report on the highs and lows of this exciting trip.


Traveling high two family in the car
We explored Panama in a rental car.

Even the little tiger and the little bear knew about the supposed advantages of Panama. Everything there is supposed to be better, bigger and more beautiful than at home and it also smells of bananas. The thing about the banana smell is even partly true.


"Oh how nice is Panama."

Well-known quote from the children's story of the same name by Janosch.


We have been wanting to find out for a while whether the rest is true and visited the Latin American country as part of our 6-month family trip. We started in the capital Panama City. A metropolis that is one of the positive surprises of this country for us. The city has everything you could wish for on a varied city trip: a modern center, a wonderful old town, interesting excursion options, a good public transport system and the Metropolitan Park, a green lung that is absolutely worth seeing.

You can find out more about Panama City in our blog: Our tips for Panama City.


Panama City is also the best starting point for a round trip due to its central location in the heart of the country and the international airport.


Some information about Panama

The country in Central America borders Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east (the border area on this side should be skipped) and has an Atlantic and a Pacific coast. In 1903, Panama gained independence from Colombia through military intervention by the USA and has since then blossomed into one of the richest countries in Latin America. Today, more than 29 percent of the land area is divided into 15 nature reserves that serve to protect and preserve the native flora and fauna. With a few exceptions, tourism is well geared to "spoiled western travelers," which is also reflected in the general pricing policy.

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Is Panama expensive?

Shopping in Panama is more expensive than in Austria or Germany and the restaurants are of a similar standard. Only accommodation offers bargains with good value for money. As almost everywhere in Latin America, excursions here are also quite expensive and there is hardly a hiking trail or waterfall that does not require an entrance fee. For someone who normally hikes through the Austrian mountains and for whom nature is a common good, this is quite unusual, but it is something to be expected here. Panama is definitely not a cheap country and the services offered do not always correspond to the high prices. This leaves a somewhat bitter aftertaste.


The stops on our Panama tour

We have already done a few tours and have gotten used to taking it easy. In comparison to other alternative tourists, we are not "mile eaters" who drive 500 kilometers or more and change accommodation every day. We don't want to rush through the countries, but rather get to know the country and its people properly.

Panama is crossed by the Central American mountain range Cordillera de Talamanca and is quite difficult to cross despite the well-developed roads. For this reason, we decided never to drive more than 300 kilometers at a time - we didn't quite manage to do that because of a last-minute change of route.

Panama Route Round Trip
This is the route we took through Panama,

The route:

Panama City: 4 nights – we picked up our rental car at the Europcar city office (see BLOG “Panama City”). Accommodation: Tryp by Wyndham

Santiago de Veraguas: 1 night – here we stopped off in a relatively inexpensive hostel. Accommodation: Hostel Travelers Santiago

Bajo Boquete: 4 nights – we particularly enjoyed the mountain village at over 1000 meters above sea level. Accommodation: Boquete Garden Inn

Bocas del Toro, Isla Colon : 5 nights – the archipelago in the far northwest of Panama is sold as a Caribbean island paradise and was the biggest disappointment of this tour. Accommodation: La Luciérnaga Big Creek

Bocas del Toro, Isla Cristobal: 2 nights - we originally planned to stay here for four nights, but we left after two nights. The "Bocas" and we will never be friends again in this life. Accommodation: El Clandestino (water bungalows)

Las Lajas: 2 nights – we fled here at short notice from the disappointing Bocas, which at least shortened the remaining daily stages. Accommodation: Residence Las Lajas

Pedasi: 4 nights - we actually wanted to stay three nights in Chitre, but finally decided on this Airbnb bungalow with kitchen. Accommodation: 3 min to Pedasi, 5 min to the beach, private pool! (yes, a strange and meaningful name at the same time, but the pictures and reviews rightly appealed to us)

El Valle Anton: 3 nights – we really wanted to see the green place in the crater. Accommodation: Villa San Antonio

Panama City: 1 night – here we ended our tour and prepared for our onward flight to Los Angeles. Accommodation: Tryp by Wyndham


The advantages of a rental car

As mentioned, we already wrote about our stay in Panama's impressive capital in our last blog. We decided to rent a car again in Panama. Having your own vehicle makes the whole thing easier in several ways. Firstly, you are much more flexible and not dependent on public transport timetables, secondly, you can take more luggage with you, which is particularly convenient when buying large quantities of groceries. Thirdly, it is simply more convenient. Even the costs are not much higher if you are travelling with four people than if you take the train, bus and regular taxis. We paid just over 900 euros for a mid-range Hyundai for our 4-week trip to Panama - in addition to

Toyota pickups are apparently the favorite car brand in Panama.

On our trip we met a German couple who had been travelling through Panama by bus for seven weeks. They confirmed to us how exhausting and uncomfortable long journeys on public buses are. They said this was not recommended, especially with children and a lot of luggage, so we reserved our rental car in advance at the Europcar city office - just a five-minute walk from our Tryp by Wyndham hotel.


From Panama City to Santiago de Veraguas

Our route took us from the city center over the Puente de las Américas, over the Panama Canal and the famous Pan-American Highway to Santiago de Veraguas . The 250-kilometer-long journey took us around four and a half hours. Before driving on the Pan-American Highway, also known as Route 1, you should definitely know how important it is to stick to the speed limits. In built-up areas the maximum speed is usually 40 km/h and on country roads the speed limit is almost always 80 (very rarely 100). We have never been to a country where there were more police checks and more police officers with and without radar devices standing at the side of the road than in Panama - which is probably also the reason why most road users drive so civilly.

Lots of police in Panama

In the first two weeks alone, we were stopped four times (without driving too fast) and were waved on each time after one of us stammered "No hablo español" with a smile but an apology. The rest of the procedure was probably too strenuous for the uniformed officers and we really speak almost no Spanish.

Santiago de Veraguas is not a tourist highlight. Besides a shopping mall, there is one thing in particular here: traffic jams. It took us almost three quarters of an hour to cover the last five kilometers to our accommodation. For us, this unspectacular town served mainly as a stopover on our way to Boquete, which is why we decided to stay in a hostel. We wanted to stay overnight cheaply, so we only paid $83 with (good) breakfast. By comparison: the good city hotel Tryp by Wyndham with a rooftop pool and breakfast buffet cost the four of us $86 per night.

All in all, the Hostel Travelers in Santiago de Verguas is a good tip for a short stopover.

However, the operators and staff of Hostel Travelers were very friendly and helpful, even though the accommodation does not have the best value for money.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a key to our room because the previous tenant had forgotten to hand it in. So we constantly had the uneasy feeling that someone was going into our room - probably for no reason, but still.

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You can find out how our Panama tour continued and why we fled the highly praised Bocas del Toro archipelago in our next blog.


Follow us on Facebook and Instagram, best regards Max, Steffi and Co.

Our shopping tips for your trip to Panama:

Joy of life in Panama - a new Lonely Planet about Panama, the southernmost tip of Central America: On over 250 pages, the guide gives plenty of active tips for the best surfing beaches, diving spots and rafting on the Rio Chiriquí. Outdoor freaks will find everything they need to know about exciting trekking tours through the tropical rainforest and the Transpanama Trail. If you're short on time, the best way to tour the country is on one of the tailor-made routes. And to relax, the Lonely Planet sends you to the dream beaches of the San Blas Islands. The authors have compiled the travel tips with attention to detail and researched everything independently: sights and events, travel routes and transport routes, art and architecture, history and culture. Whether you're a backpacker, package holidaymaker or 5-star tourist - with the Lonely Planet in your backpack or glove compartment, you're guaranteed to be well prepared.

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All of our trips and excursions are self-funded - we do not give paid recommendations! Exception: Affiliate links. Most of the links in our blog are affiliate links, i.e. advertising. We try to recoup part of the costs of our blog and ask for your understanding.

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