Panama or Costa Rica? Which is the best travel destination in Central America?

Panama or Costa Rica? Which country in Central America should you travel to next…? They are both internationally known as a great travel destination, but is one better than the other? We will explore everything about them and try to you figure out if you should travel to Panama or to Costa Rica.

The two countries offer a wide range of activities for travelers to enjoy, but they are famous for their beaches, tropical forests, and national parks. We will compare them in terms of:

  • Tourist attractions;
  • Outdoor activities;
  • Natural beauty;
  • Beaches;
  • Culture and heritage;
  • Resorts;
  • Eco-friendliness;
  • Shopping;
  • Nightlife;
  • Food scene;
  • Travel facilities;
  • Travel safety;
  • Costs;
  • Tourist index;

Panama vs Costa Rica – travel edition

Tourist attractions in Panama and in Costa Rica

Both countries have more than their share of tourist attractions, with plenty of things to do and see spread all over them. While this is true this topic we need to explain that Costa Rica probably has more attractions but they are less diverse than in Panama.

In Costa Rica, almost all the big attractions are national parks, nature hikes, and other outdoor activities. There are very few really interesting man-made tourist attractions. In Costa Rica, the biggest attractions are the Manuel Antonio, the Monteverde Cloud forests, Arenal Volcano and the whole Cahuita area.

Tourist attractions in Panama and in Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National park in Costa Rica has plenty of animals to spot

Panama, on the other hand, also has nice national parks, beaches, and mountains, but it has a more interesting capital city with attractions that aren’t available in Costa Rica. Things like the Panama Canal, Casco Viejo, and old Panama… But you also have the paradisiac San Blas islands and the more backpacked hub of Bocas del Toro and the cloud forests and hikes of Boquete.

Tourist attractions in Panama and in Costa Rica
Boat Crossing the Panama Canal

For this reason, Panama wins this first topic but only by a small margin. However, if nature is the only thing you are looking for, then you are probably better going to Costa Rica.

Outdoors activities in Costa Rica and Panama

Following what we were saying, Costa Rica has to win this topic. It’s not that Panama doesn’t have outdoor activities. In fact, it has many things to do outdoors, with great variety and very enjoyable. Panama is way above the average in terms of things to do in the wild. The thing is… Costa Rica is probably the best country in the world on this!

In Costa Rica, you have an incredible variety of things to do in the wild. You can hike a volcano, go to wild beaches, hike in many cloud forests, go bird watching, whale watching, go search for animals in the park (and actually seeing them), go rafting, kayaking, zip-lining, surfing in dozens of different places. You can spend weeks doing all these, always at different places. It’s just unbelievable for such a small country.

which country is better Costa Rica or Panama?
Baby sloth and mother sleeping in Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica

Panama is somewhat similar, it has almost all the above-mentioned things to do, but in less quantity. Particularly if we think of animal watching. On this, Costa Rica is easily the better country. It’s much easier to find wildlife in Costa Rica than in Panama. It also helps that Costa Rica is a tourist destination for a longer period than Panama and it also has a more developed tourism sector.

Outdoors activities in Costa Rica and Panama
Views from Bastimentos Cloud forest in Panama

Natural Beauty – Costa Rica vs Panama

Cloud forests, tropical beaches with warm turquoise water and soft sand, national parks with beautiful trails, wonderful mountains… Both countries have them all, and in both countries, they are spread all over.

This is a very difficult call and I think we will have to give it a tie. If are looking for a beautiful, tropical country, you’ll be pleased with either one.

Outdoors activities in Costa Rica and Panama
Hiking Santa Helena cloud forest reserve in Monteverde in Costa Rica

The beaches of Panama vs beaches of Costa Rica

One of the big reasons to travel to Panama or Costa Rica is their beaches… But, which one has the best beaches? This is a tough call, but if I had to choose I would prefer the beaches in Panama. Why?

The two most beautiful beaches in the region are in Panama, the San Blas islands (almost any beach there really) and Pollo beach in Bastimentos. They are absolutely picture-perfect, with almost blue-fluorescent water, soft sand, and snorkeling spots right from the beach. It really doesn’t get better than that.

The beaches of Panama vs beaches of Costa Rica
Beach in Chichime Island in San Blas, Panama

Costa Rica has many great beaches, and some of them have been considered among the best in the world several times. However, in our opinion, they aren’t as good as the two we referred above. Some are crowded (in Manuel Antonio for example), others are good, but not as good. What we like the most about the Costa Rican beaches is that almost all of them are pretty decent and many are absolutely gorgeous. Costa Rica has miles of amazing beaches for you to choose from.

The beaches of Panama vs beaches of Costa Rica
Beach in Cahuita National Park in Costa Rica

So, if you have time to explore the whole country, maybe Costa Rica is a good option. You’ll find many beaches to swim, to surf and to snorkel. However, none of them are as beautiful as the absolute best of Panama, San Blas and Pollo beach in Bastimentos. Still, I haven’t been to any beach in the world that is better than those…

Local culture and heritage of Costa Rica and Panama

When it comes to local culture and heritage that you can delve and explore, Costa Rica and Panama are interesting but not extraordinary.

The Costa Rican are famous for their relaxed way of being and an approach to life where finding happiness is important. As they say: Pura Vida! It’s an easy place to travel and connect with locals. The Ticos are extremely friendly and love to talk with foreigners. The Panamanians are similar and also easy to connect to.

Local culture and heritage of Costa Rica and Panama
Capital of Costa Rica- San Jose

In terms of cultural tourism, Costa Rica has little to offer and it’s mostly located in central San Jose, which very few people travel to. Panama, on the other hand, has a few very interesting things, mostly located in the capital too. You have the Panama Canal, one of the most impressive engineering achievements in the worlds, the ruins of Old Panama and the Casco Antiguo. Panama City is much more interesting than San José.

Local culture and heritage of Costa Rica and Panama
Casco Antiguo in Panama city

In conclusion, Panama has much more to offer in terms of culture and heritage which is a nice contrast from all the nature and wild you get to explore in the rest of the country. Costa Rica is more one dimensional.

Which is the best eco-friendly destination? Panama or Costa Rica?

When it comes to being a friend of the environment, Costa Rica is the star.

Costa Rica takes environmental sustainability very seriously and plans to be carbon neutral by 2021 and to zero out emissions by 2050. These are very ambitious goals but they reflect how important ecology is for Costa Rica. While traveling in Costa Rica you’ll notice this and all the signs asking for not littering and to reduce pollution. Not everything is perfect and you still find trash, sometimes, but Costa Rica is doing the right things and going in the right direction here.

Panama or Costa Rica?
Views of Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica

Panama, on the other hand, isn’t close to this level of commitment, but it’s a fairly clean country where ecotourism is perfectly possible, but not to the same extent as in Costa Rica. Yet, we need to mention Coiba island, which is famous for its virgin tropical forest and sometimes referred to as the new Galapagos. Nevertheless, Costa Rica wins this one by a landslide. If you are looking for ecotourism, Costa Rica is the answer.

Panama or Costa Rica?
Panama’s Biomuseo in Panama City

Shopping in Panama and Costa Rica

If you love to shop when you travel, then you probably should pick Panama, and particularly Panama City. Panama City is a modern city with everything you would expect to find in a developed, urbanized area. The Albrook Mall is a huge shopping center with an unbelievable number of shops. In 2015 it was considered the biggest shopping center in the Americas and the 14th in the world…

best travel destination in Central America
Views of Panama’s city sky skyscraper’s

Costa Rica doesn’t really have an answer for this. San José is the biggest town but doesn’t come close to the level of development of Panama City. In terms of shopping, Panama wins.

best travel destination in Central America
Crafts market in Dominical in Costa Rica

Resorts in Panama and Costa Rica

Both countries have nice resorts, yet neither is a kind of resort tourist destination. You’ll find resorts in both countries and some are pretty good, but for that kind of tourism, you’ll probably find better destinations in other countries. Particularly if you are looking for all-inclusive resorts. So, we will give this one a tie.

Which has a better nightlife? Costa Rica or Panama?

Similarly to what we said on the shopping topic, Panama City makes the difference between Costa Rica and Panama. Panama City is a vibrant, diverse, waterfront metropolis and Costa Rica simply doesn’t have anything close to it. However, apart from Panama City, both countries have few options.

In Panama City, you can find many discos, bars, and upscale restaurants. There are options for everyone’s taste and pocket… So, Panama easily wins this one.

Best travel destination Panama or Costa Rica?
street vendor in Panama selling hot dogs and arepas

Food scene in Panama and Costa Rica

When it comes to the local food and drinks, both Panama and Costa Rica disappoint a bit. In fact, the food is very very similar in both countries and they share lots of dishes. They are also heavily influenced by Mexican and US food. You can easily find fast-food restaurants in both countries.

But, which has the best food? We believe that Costa Rica is slightly better, although it isn’t a foodies destination… not even close. In both countries, the food is very unhealthy with lots of fried dishes and carbs. It’s perfectly natural to have, rice, beans, plantains, yucca, etc., all in the same dish.

Food scene in Panama and Costa Rica
Typical Costa Rican Breakfast – Galo Pinto

So, why is Costa Rica slightly better? Despite being similar, we found the food to have a more intense flavor, particularly on the Caribbean side.

On the plus side, both countries have excellent fresh fruit and smoothies. They are also producers of high-quality organic coffee and chocolate.

Food scene in Panama and Costa Rica
Ceviche in Panama

How easy is it to travel in Panama and Costa Rica?

When it comes to travel facilities, things are a bit more complicated. Panama City is a major hub with lots of flights to almost everywhere. While Costa Rica doesn’t have such an important hub, it has developed tourism for longer and also receives many flights. Either way, you shouldn’t have problems finding flights to any of the countries, yet we feel that Panama is slightly better on this one.

Which country should you go Panama or Costa Rica?
The famous Diablo Rojo buses in Panama

As per traveling within Costa Rica and Panama, Panama has more developed infrastructures than Costa Rica. The roads are generally better and the highways are much more developed. This makes travel life much easier in Panama than in Costa Rica. Yet again, Costa Rica has a more developed travel industry than Panama, with more hostels, hotels, shuttle services, and so on… They exist in Panama but to a much lesser extent.

Best country to travel Costa Rica or Panama
Road to Monteverde in Costa Rica

Overall, this is a very close call, but Panama wins it. In general, Panama has better infrastructures and that reflects into traveling.

Which is Safer, Panama or Costa Rica?

Both countries are fairly safe for people to travel around. You need to take precautions, as always, but nothing extraordinary. Don’t let your belongings unattended, don’t forget to lock your car, be wary of places with lots of people and bus stops… that kind of things…

This is a tie, both Panama and Costa Rica can be visited without problems. Nevertheless, it’s always better to make travel insurance.

Which is less expensive? Panama or Costa Rica

Both Panama and Costa Rica are more expensive to travel around than their neighbors in Central and Latin America. They are also more expensive than SEA and most of Eastern Europe. Between them, Costa Rica is even more expensive than Panama, particularly if you look at tours, shuttles and Tourism services. Even the food is very expensive in Costa Rica.

On the plus side, in both countries, you can still easily find cheap accommodation (20-40USD) for a couple and public transports are also very affordable.

In hindsight, Panama has generally similar yet lower prices than Costa Rica. We estimate about 10-20% less expensive, on average. So, Panama wins this one, despite not being a cheap destination.

Which is the best country to travel Panama or Costa Rica?
Costa Rica Colones

Which is more touristy? Costa Rica or Panama?

Costa Rica has invested heavily in tourism and particularly on eco-friendly tourism. It has been a tourist destination for far longer than Panama. Thus, you can easily see that it has more tourists than Panama. Yet, most of Costa Rica is still pristine and with few tourists. Panama’s tourism is definitely increasing and you can see that when traveling around but unless you expect the country to be deserted you won’t have any problems with it.

Don’t get us wrong, in both countries, you’ll find tourists spread around everywhere, and in big tourist destinations, like Casco Antiguo and Bocas town (in Panama) or Manuel Antonio and Monteverde (in Costa Rica) you’ll have to share it with other people.

Manuel Antonio is probably the most crowded place in both countries, and sometimes it’s uncomfortable – entering the National Park can be a bit of a nightmare, but once inside people spread out and it’s much better.

Nevertheless, it’s very unfair to say that either Costa Rica or Panama are crowded when we think about some of the tourist destinations in Europe, US and South East Asia… Between, Costa Rica and Panama, Panama is generally less visited.

Costa Rica or Panama ?
Manuel António beach in Costa Rica

Our Costa Riva vs Panama verdict

In conclusion, when comparing Panama and Costa Rica closely we can see that despite being quite similar, they offer slightly different things to travelers.

Costa Rica is still the ultimate eco-tourism destination, with plenty of things to do in the outdoors, abundant wildlife and amazing beaches and national parks spread all over the country. On the downside, it’s more expensive and lacks a variety of things to do, with less cultural and heritage things to offer.

Which is the best travel destination in Central America?
Playa Galardonada in Costa Rica

Panama, through Panama City, has more cultural and heritage tourism and that vibrant urban and nightlife that is lacking in Costa Rica. Yet, it also has lots of outdoors activities, wildlife viewing opportunities, beaches, volcanoes… It has less quantity, but the quality is similar.

Hence, we preferred Panama to Costa Rica, it’s more diverse (and has San Blas)… but if we had to return we would return to Costa Rica, as we feel that there are more things to see and do that we haven’t explore… Does it make sense to you…? 🙂

Which is the best travel destination in Central America?
One Islands of San Blas in Panama

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