Let’s compare Costa Rica vs Panama below to see which suits you.
When backpacking one of the most popular areas to backpack in the world, it’s difficult to make the right decisions when it comes to the safe spots and the dangerous ones.
Researching the necessary information is what we would advise, as there are many bits of information one can learn.
Costa Rica vs Panama
A trip through Central America may come with many compromises to the planning of the journey, surprises whilst you’re there, and overall some downright awesome places to visit.
Panama and Costa Rica are two of the top countries visited in the Central America region, as they both lie on the coastal paths between both American continents.
Panama is often visited for its strategic position, with the canal connecting two major oceans and sitting on the border with South America and the North.
They border each other, so they have a lot in common in terms of dialect, cuisine, and biodiversity. However, there are some differences that may make tourists and backpackers choose one above the other.
The name ‘la costa rica’, meaning “rich coast” in Spanish, was to most expert estimations first applied by Christopher Columbus.
Columbus sailed to the eastern shores of Costa Rica during his final voyage in 1502, but he wasn’t exactly the most accommodating. Learn about the culture of Costa Rica before visiting, you won’t regret it!
Is Costa Rica Expensive?
Costa Rica is more expensive than most other Central American countries, but you can still experience the country on a backpacker’s budget. Read the tips from my Central America travel route for more.
That is if you take the time to investigate low-cost sleeping options such as camping, hostels, and small eco guest houses.
Budget travelers that are experienced in backpacking can potentially last the trip on around $30 – $50 USD per day. Costa Rica’s unit of currency is the Colon (about 520-550 colones = $1 USD).
While US dollars are widely accepted, changing your currency to colones is recommended to avoid overpaying for amenities in dollars.
On a budget of $43 USD a day, you can afford cheap rooms, mostly local food, and some Western meals. This can include going out and many outdoor activities which would be considered touristy.
The least cost-effective method of traveling is by taxi, but it is admittedly the most convenient.
Is Costa Rica Safe?
Costa Rica is a largely safe country, but petty crimes such as bag snatchings and car break-ins are common.
It’s not as dangerous as neighboring countries, but you still need to stay vigilant. Many of Costa Rica’s dangers are nature-related.
Naturally occurring events such as riptides, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are more common than tourist-related petty crime.
Costa Rica, just like most countries in Central America, is a major transit country for drug trafficking.
Thousands of migrants from poorer neighboring Central American countries have flooded into Costa Rica, mostly seeking work.
While some have found it troublesome, many others do not have regular employment and are desperate enough to join gangs without the option of fleeing to Rica.
Be sure to read this comprehensive guide to safety in Costa Rica for more up-to-date info on keeping yourself safe in the country.
Beaches in Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio Beach is one of the most popular beach destinations in the whole country.
It’s considered a coastal gem since it borders Manuel Antonio National Park, a coastal rainforest teeming with wildlife. Another one of the top locations for tourists is the Tabacon Hot Springs.
It’s the largest accessible network of natural hot springs in all of Costa Rica. The pools are located within a private rainforest reserve and part of the Tabacon Thermal Resort, so booking ahead is advised.
In 1945, by a total accident, the Venado Caves were discovered by a farmer who fell into them.
There are eight magnificent chambers that make up a maze of limestone deep down in the earth, making it an essential spot to visit.
Best time to visit Costa Rica?
Just like Panama, there isn’t really a specific time of year to recommend. The best time to visit Costa Rica for most people is from mid-December to April (the dry season).
This is peak tourist season, however, so the prices are very high. That being said, the dry season boasts plenty of sunshine making it an ideal time for exploring rainforests and chilling on the beach all day.
Many book rooms and tours three months in advance to secure a spot since there are limited numbers for this type of peak season traveling.
If you don’t mind getting a little wet, visit between May and November when prices are at their lowest and you can enjoy many activities in small numbers. This way you won’t have to book far in advance.
If you’re in the middle of planning a trip to Costa Rica for the very near future be sure to take all this into account.
Cost of Living in Costa Rica
Most Americans or other nationality ex-pats in Costa Rica spend less money on day-to-day expenses than they do in their home countries.
The cost of living in Costa Rica, of course, depends purely on your lifestyle and how good you are at setting yourself a budget.
However, in many ways, Costa Rica is much more affordable than back home. A single person can live on between $1,400 and $1,700 a month including all bills you can consider.
Some single people scrape by on much less, and others spend hundreds of dollars more, depending on their lifestyle.
Many retired couples live well on $2,000 a month and even better on $2,500 to $3,000. Those learning Spanish get more for their money.
That includes all costs, including housing, transportation, medical care, utilities, food, and other factors such as entertainment.
Real estate, whether you rent or buy, is more affordable in Costa Rica, with North American-style homes keeping to reasonable prices even in amazing locations.
Your trip to Panama could be a thrilling adventure through the cloud forests of Chiriqui or relaxing on gorgeous beaches.
But the main question tourists may have before visiting, will primarily be, is Panama as safe as people say it is?
Also, is it a country that’s only glorified due to the canal? This guide is designed to give you only the facts.
Is Panama Safe?
Definitely. The UK’s travel advice page states that most visits to Panama are ‘trouble-free.’ Read this safety in Panama guide for more.
You just need to read this guide, as well as others like it online and you need to be prepared.
Just like other countries that are nearby to Panama, crime is quite an issue within the bustling city centers.
Tourists aren’t particularly targeted. But obviously, if you’re flashing jewelry or gadgets all the time, you may fall victim to petty crime.
Panama is an incredible country that sits right on the precipice of so many geographical barriers. Stay in one of the many eco-lodges here.
Many backpackers pass through this country, so you’ll definitely find tourists and travelers if you find yourself stuck or lost.
Is Panama Expensive?
The official currency in Panama is the Panamanian Balboa.
This currency is very strange compared to what you may be used to, as it is only available in coins.
It just so happens that 1 Balboa = 1 US $ though, so the exchange isn’t a complicated maths game. If you get cash out of the ATM it will be in dollars and also everything will be paid in dollars.
Most places do not accept cards so make sure to always carry around enough cash, whether it’s dollar notes or Balboa coins.
Since Panama is unsuccessful in fully implementing an income tax system and does not make any revenue from foreign export, almost everything is imported on which Panama collects a large duty.
There is a 7% sales tax on almost everything except edible groceries, and there is a steep gasoline tax.
This is why traveling or the cost of living in Panama is noticeably more expensive than in Costa Rica.
Best Time to Visit Panama
There may be peak times to visit around the Summer, but there is no best time to visit Panama; it has the advantage of being extremely visitable all year round.
The dry season is from November to April and the wet season May to October.
In the rainy season, the Caribbean is wetter than the Pacific, where afternoon showers last an hour or two.
Easter week is very busy, but as local people head to the coast or lakes, the towns are empty.
Living in Panama vs. Costa Rica
Bear in mind, in Costa Rica imported goods are eye-wateringly expensive. Items aren’t as cheap as you’d find in Colombia.
The high import duties make everything that isn’t local expensive, which in a way is no different to Panama.
If you’re looking to live on a budget in either of these countries, you’ll have to embrace the lifestyle. Luckily, the fresh, local fruits and vegetables are cheap.
Costa Rica produces a range of organic food and drinks to feast on, as does Panama. In Costa Rica however, public transport and taxis are cheap, as is entertainment.
In Panama, it is quite expensive. The cost of living in Panama has increased in recent years, but some Public transport is still cheap.
Tickets for Panama City’s metro cost 35 cents per journey, which is common in some European cities but is sometimes rare here.
Uber does exist here, and many ex-pats swear by the use of Uber over taxi services as taxi drivers can inflate the prices if they guess you to be a tourist.
This is another one of the great reasons to get up to speed with basic Spanish conversation if you’ll be spending any length of time.
How far is Panama from Costa Rica?
Panama and Costa Rica are bordering countries in Central America, which are often passed through as travelers go from one continent to the other. Many people like to compare Nicaragua vs Costa Rica too.
The countries in Central America typically have unstable regions, typically around borders with neighboring countries.
The border between Panama and Costa Rica however, is quite safe. There are a few entry points, and travelers going from Costa Rica into Panama need to remember that there is a tax for leaving the country.
Another important nugget of information is that Panama is one hour ahead of Costa Rica, so set your clocks ahead one hour is advised.
Got Travel Insurance for Central America?
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Costa Rica vs. Panama
When it comes to these two countries, they both have their strengths and they both have their weaknesses.
The main difference between the two really is the price of living. Panama is more expensive in general.
For us, if we were forced to choose just one location, we would say that Costa Rica has all the facilities and a better economy to ensure a better quality vacation.
What do you think? Why not read more on safety in Central America if you are still concerned about which destination to choose?
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