Torn between travelling to Panama or Costa Rica for vacation? Curious which place has the better beaches, islands, and cities? If so, you’ve come to the right place! 

I have visited each place and put together this guide to help you choose where to vacation next. 

Costa Rica is known for its magnificent mountains and volcanoes, exceptional national parks, and abundance of outdoor activities. Panama is known for its famous canal, biodiversity, charming coastal towns, and beautiful islands. 

Both Costa Rica and Panama have lush rainforests, delicious traditional cuisine, beautiful beaches, and endless activities for tourists. But there’s key differences that set them apart.

In this guide, we’ll cover the key differences in beaches, climate, cost, nightlife, safety and more! 

Ready to find out which place is best for your next vacation? Let’s dive in!

Panama vs Costa Rica
Image by: Tom Podmore | Karol Chomka

Panama vs. Costa Rica: A brief overview



Costa rica


Dense tropical forests, freshwater lakes, and tropical islands

Lush rainforests, volcanoes, towering mountains, and picturesque beaches

Tourist Activities

Panama Canal, Metropolitan National Park, San Blas Islands

Manuel Antonio National Park, Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna Waterfall


Lively and laid-back (rooftop lounges, wine restaurants, jazz cafes, nightclubs)

Lively (disco bars, comedy clubs, sports bars, dance clubs) 


The average daily cost in Panama is around $78 per person

 The average daily cost in Costa Rica is around $111 per person


Safe in the majority of areas including the islands

Safe in the majority of tourist areas

Panama At A Glance

Located in Central America, Panama is a country known for its iconic panama canal, cultural richness, picturesque islands, and abundance of beautiful nature attractions.

Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo
(Image by: Kaori Hirakata)

The landscape of Panama is diverse and offers everything from lush rainforests to pristine beaches, and freshwater lakes. Panama is most known for the Panama Canal, a narrow 82 km waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. 

Panama has an abundance of picturesque white sand beaches with turquoise blue waters at islands such as the Tabogas and San Blas Islands. However, the closest beaches to Panama City are roughly an hour drive from the city, at the Taboga Islands and Playa Coronado. 

San Blas Islands
San Blas Islands
(Image by: Angel Silva)

Panama is home to over 1000 islands, and many beautiful coastal towns. Head to Tabogas Islands to stay for a day in a charming coastal town with some of the best beaches in Panama. 

If you’re looking to venture out into nature, Panama has various national parks such as the Metropolitan National Park and the Coiba National Park. At the Metropolitan National Park, you’ll see beautiful tucan birds, sloths, monkeys, and other fascinating wildlife. 

Similar to Costa Rica, Panama has lush rainforests where you can go to zipline and observe wildlife. If you’re looking to snorkel, the Coiba National Park and the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park have some of the best diving spots in Panama. 

Traditional Panamanian food is flavorful and influenced by Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, and indigenous traditions. Their national dish is sancocho, a hearty chicken soup with vegetables on rice.

sancocho soup
Sancocho Soup
(Image by: Keesha S Kitchen)

Other popular dishes include arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), tamales, and ropa vieja (spiced shredded beef and vegetables). Panama is also home to many incredible seafood restaurants in its coastal towns. 

The nightlife in Panama is lively and there are a variety of bars, clubs, and casinos in the capital, Panama City. Head to Panama’s historic district, Casco Viejo, for trendy bars and rooftop lounges.

Casco Viejo in Panama City
(Image by: Kaja Reichardt)

Casco Viejo is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is known for having some of the best nightlife in Panama once the sun goes down.  

Panama City, the capital, offers a dynamic nightlife scene with its array of bars, clubs, and casinos. The Casco Viejo district is a hotspot for trendy bars and rooftop lounges, while the Amador Causeway provides waterfront dining and entertainment options.

Panamanian culture is vibrant and festivals are held throughout the year to showcase traditional dances, music, and art. 

All in all, Panama has the perfect blend of natural beauty, cultural richness, exciting nightlife, and delectable traditional cuisine. 

Things To Do In Panama

From walking through charming old neighbors to observing wildlife at a national park, there’s no shortage of activities to do while in Panama.

The historic district of Panama City is Casco Viejo, and it has vibrant streets filled with old colonial buildings, art galleries, restaurants, and rooftop bars. Casco Viejo is a hotspot for nightlife so it’s a good place to visit when the sun comes down. 

Just like Costa Rica, Panama is home to several national parks teeming with wildlife. Some of the most popular national parks include the Parque Nacional Soberania, Coiba National Park, Metropolitan National Park, and Parque Nacional Santa Fe.

Cambutal, Panama
Cambutal, Panama
(Image by: Austin Neill)

The national parks in Panama consist of dense rainforests. You can expect to see sloths, snakes, monkeys and diverse bird species including tucans! 

If you want to spend time on the beach, head to the Taboga Islands in the gulf of Panama. You can take a 30-minute ferry from Panama City, and the area’s surrounded by picturesque beaches. You can go hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling, or hop on a private boat to explore the islands. 

Alternatively, Playa Coronado is about an hour away from Panama City, and it has breathtaking black sand beaches. In Playa Coronado, there’s surfing schools, handcraft markets, zoos, botanical gardens, and the Coronado Dry Forest where you can go hiking. 

Panama has many notable coastal beach towns, including Bocas del Toro and Portobelo. Bocas del Toro is a popular beach town that’s a 2 hour drive from Panama City. It has beautiful beaches for surfing and snorkeling, chocolate farms, national parks, bat cave tours, and more.  

Portobelo is another beach town that’s a little over a 2 hour drive from Panama City.  It’s home to well-preserved historical forts, fascinating ruins, national parks, and beaches with top-notch snorkeling opportunities. For $4, you can take a bus from Panama City to Portobelo, or take a taxi for $29 to $40. 

Another island you won’t want to miss in Panama are the San Blas Islands, which are a 4-hour one way drive from Panama City.

San Blas Islands
San Blas Islands Pier
(Image by: Alessa Ciraulo)

The San Blas Islands have white sand beaches with sparkling blue turquoise waters, and ample opportunities for snorkeling, swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking, and more.

The islands are homeland to the Kuna Indians, one of the largest indigenous tribes in South America. You can grab a picnic table and relax on Isla Perro beach, and get local native Guna food at a restaurant nearby the beach. 

If you prefer staying in Panama city, there are plenty of museums, shopping malls, national parks, and historical landmarks to explore in the capital city alone.

Here are some of the top attractions in Panama. 

  • Panama Canal
  • Casco Viejo (Historic District)
  • Metropolitan National Park
  • Parque Nacional Soberanía
  • Gatun Lake
  • Bocas del Toro
  • San Blas Islands
  • Gamboa rainforest
  • El Valle de Anton

Costa Rica At A Glance

Costa Rica is a country located in Central America known for its breathtaking landscape with lush rainforests, volcanoes, steep mountains, and pristine beaches. 

From hiking volcanoes to going on a tour through coffee plantations, there’s endless activities for tourists in Costa Rica. 

Jaco Beach
Jaco Beach
(Image by: Samuel Charron)

If you’re looking to see wildlife, Manuel Antonio National Park is one of the most popular national parks in Costa Rica. The national park is surrounded by lush rainforests and is home to sloths, monkeys, diverse bird species, and other fascinating wildlife. 

Head to the Arenal Volcano National Park to get scenic views of the magnificent Arenal Volcano. The admission to the park is $15 per person, and the area is surrounded by lush rainforests. You can also take a guided tour to explore bridges, waterfalls, and hot springs within the park. 

costa rica
Isla Tortuga Beach
(Image by: Atanas Malamov)

Just like Panama, Costa Rica is home to many incredible beaches along its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Just around a 1.5 hour drive away from the capital city San Jose is Jaco Beach.

Jaco Beach is a popular beach town with national parks, chocolate tours, and opportunities for surfing, ziplining, snorkeling, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and more. 

Costa Rican cuisine is Central American cuisine, and common ingredients include rice and beans, palm fruit, plantains, and fresh seafood. Compared to Panama, Costa Rican cuisine has milder flavors and incorporates more starchy ingredients.

costa rican food
Gallo Pinto
(Image by: Loren Biser)

Some popular dishes include patacones (mashed green plantains), palmito (palm heart salad) sopa de pejibaye (palm fruit soup), and rondon (seafood and coconut stew). 

Costa Rican natives (also known as Ticos) are incredibly friendly and hospitable. They often enjoy sharing their traditions and culture to foreigners. 

If you’d like to immerse yourself in Costa Rican culture, book a trip during a festival.

One of Costa Rica’s most notable festivals is Fiesta de Palmares. Fiesta de Palmares starts on every second Thursday of the year, and it features bullfighting, fireworks, live music, parades, and more. 

The capital city of Costa Rica is home to markets, museums, historical landmarks, botanical gardens, and shopping malls. Head to San Jose Central Market to pick up souvenirs, fresh local produce, flavorful Arabica coffee beans, and handcrafted clothing. 

Similar to Panama, the nightlife in Costa Rica is lively and abundant. Popular coastal towns such as Tamarindo Beach and Jaco beach have energetic bars and beach clubs.

Jaco Beach
Jaco Beach
(Image by: Chalo Garcia)

In San Jose, there’s everything from disco clubs to rooftop lounges. 

Overall, Costa Rica has a nice blend of natural beauty, lively nightlife, and cultural richness.

Things To Do In Costa Rica

Whether you’re looking to hike cloud forests or take a dip in hot springs while exploring volcanoes, Costa Rica has something for you. 

One of the most popular places to visit in Costa Rica is the Manuel Antonio National Park. This national park is surrounded by lush rainforest, scenic waterfalls, and unique wildlife.

costa rica
La Fortuna Waterfall
(Image by: Etienne Delorieux)

The admission to the park is $18.08 for adults, and $5.65 for children 2 to 11. You can also book a guided tour for $65 if you’d like to visit hidden waterfalls and get the best chance of spotting sloths. 

The next must visit destination is the Arenal Volcano, an active volcano with hiking trails.

The volcano is surrounded by lush rainforests and home to one of Costa Rica’s most stunning waterfalls, the La Fortuna waterfall. If you plan on visiting, make sure to visit this breathtaking 70 meter waterfall.

arenal volcano
Arenal Volcano National Park
(Image by: Patricia Palacín)

You can take a guided tour through the park to visit the waterfall and hot springs. Additionally, there are ziplining, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting tours if you’re up for an adventure. 

If you’re a coffee fanatic, touring a coffee plantation is a must. Known for making some of the most flavorful Arabica coffee beans, Costa Rica is home to hundreds of coffee farms.

The Britt Coffee Tour is a good option, that’s just a 30 minute drive from San Jose. The Britt Coffee Tour is a half-day coffee tour that’ll take you through the coffee plantation and roastery, accompanied by a chocolate tasting! 

If relaxing on the beach and enjoying seafood is high on your priority list, stay in the town of Tamarindo. 

Tamarindo is a coastal town roughly 5 hours away from San Jose that has the perfect blend of beaches, nightlife, and cuisine. It has stunning golden sand beaches, national parks, watersport rentals, surfing schools, gyms, and breweries.

tamarindo beach
Tamarindo Beach
(Image by: Jeffrey Eisen)

Every Thursday from 6PM to 9PM in Tamarindo is the moonlight night market, a festival that has delicious food and features DJs, fire dancers, live music, and clowns for kids. 

And if you’re looking to stay in the capital, San Jose is home to museums, historical landmarks, shopping centers, markets, botanical gardens, and an amusement park.

You can also pick up local ingredients from the San Jose Central Market or go on a food-tasting tour within the capital as well. 

Here are some of the most popular attractions in Costa Rica. 

  • Manuel Antonio National Park
  • Arenal Volcano
  • Tamarindo Beach
  • Spirogyra Butterfly Garden
  • Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve
  • Tortuguero National Park
  • La Fortuna Waterfall
  • National Museum of Costa Rica
  • Marino Ballena National Park
costa rica beach
Marino Ballena National Park
(Image by: Selina Bubendorfer)
Panama vs Costa Rica

Which place is better for a vacation? 

Panama and Costa Rica are two incredible places for a vacation that have breathtaking rainforests and beaches, thrilling nightlife scenes, and endless tourist activities. 

Panama is the best destination for you if you’re looking to visit the iconic Panama canal, stroll the historical district of Casco Viejo, explore beautiful islands, and savor flavorful Panamanian cuisine. 

Costa Rica is the best destination for you if you prefer visiting scenic waterfalls in lush rainforests, going on a coffee tour, or taking a dip in hot springs while exploring the magnificent Arenal volcano. 

But that’s just scratching the surface. Each place has much more to offer.

Keep reading to learn the key differences between Panama and Costa Rica’s beaches, climate, currency, languages, cuisine, cost, nightlife, and safety!

Panama vs Costa Rica


Costa Rica has beaches ideal for swimming, surfing, and water sports.

Some of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica are located at Puerto Viejo and Cahuita in the Southern Caribbean. These white sand beaches have soft white sand and clear water making them perfect for swimming.

Manuel Antonio National Park
Manuel Antonio National Park
(Image by: Atanas Malamov)

The Manuel Antonio Beach is another very popular beach that’s located in the national park. It’s surrounded by rainforests, and is an excellent spot for birdwatching and surfing. 

Here are some of the most popular beaches in Costa Rica.

  • Playa Tortuguero
  • Manuel Antonio Beach
  • Playa Conchal
  • Playa Santa Teresa
  • Punta Uva
  • Playa Hermosa
  • Jaco Beach

With over 1000 islands, there’s no shortage of beautiful beaches in Panama. There are a variety of picturesque white sand beaches in the San Blas Islands and the Tabogas islands.

You can take a 30 minute ferry and spend the day in the Tabogas Islands if you’re looking to go swimming or snorkeling. If you’re looking to avoid crowds, the San Blas Islands are home to several isolated gorgeous white sand beaches.  

Bocas Del Toro, Changuinola Panama
Bocas Del Toro, Changuinola Panama
(Image by: Pablo García Saldaña)

Here are some of the most popular beaches in Panama. 

  • Starfish Beach
  • Playa Coronado
  • Punta Chame
  • Cayos Zapatillas
  • Playa Buff
  • Isla Perro
  • Red Frog Beach
  • Isla Coiba
  • Wizard Beach


Both Costa Rica and Panama have humid, tropical climates. The average temperature in Panama ranges from 76 F to 90 F, and the average temperature in Costa Rica ranges from 75 F to 90 F.

The wet season in Costa Rica runs from May to November, while the wet season in Panama runs from May to January


In Panama, the official currency is the balboa and the official currency in Costa Rica is the colon. However, the American dollar is widely accepted throughout Panama because the bilbao is fixed to the US dollar at a 1:1 ratio.

Although you don’t need to convert currency while visiting Panama, you should convert dollars while in Costa Rica. The conversion rate of USD to the Costa Rica Colon is: 1 Costa Rican Colon = 0.0019 USD.


The official language of Costa Rica and Panama is Spanish. About 14% of the population in Panama speaks English, whereas around 38% of Costa Ricans speak English.

In addition to Spanish, there are also several indigenous languages spoken in both Panama and Costa Rica.


Panamanian cuisine is flavorful and is influenced by African, Spanish, and Native American origins. The cuisine uses fresh chili peppers and spices like cumin and pepper. 

Here are some of the most popular dishes in Panama.

  • Arroz con pollo: Chicken with rice
  • Guacho: Hearty meat and rice stew
  • Hojaldra: Fried round flat bread
  • Platanos: Fried plantains
  • Almojábanas: Fried “S” shaped dough made of corn and cheese
  • Carimañola: Deep-fried yuca stuffed with meat.
  • Ropa Vieja: Shredded spiced beef cooked in tomato sauce
Panamanian Cuisine
Panamanian Breakfast of stewed sausages, Almojábanas and Platanos(Image by: Betzy Arosemena)

One of the most popular dishes in Panama is “arroz con pollo” (chicken and rice), whereas Costa Rica’s most popular dish is “gallo pinto” (rice and beans).

In general, Costan Rican cuisine has mild flavors and uses spices like coriander, cilantro, and parsley. Costa Rican cuisine incorporates lots of starchy ingredients like cassava, plantains, rice, beans, and potatoes.

Here are some of the most popular dishes in Costa Rica.

  • Gallo Pinto: A traditional breakfast of rice and beans 
  • Sopa de Pejibaye: Palm fruit soup
  • Casado: Plate of rice, beans, meat, salad, and fried plantains.
  • Olla De Carne: Beef and vegetable stews
  • Rosquillas: Cornmeal biscuits with with cheese or sour cream 

Cost to Travel

Generally speaking, Panama is cheaper to travel to than Costa Rica on average in terms of transportation, hotels, and food.

The average daily cost in Panama is around $78 per person, and $111 in Costa Rica. However, the prices will vary widely depending on which cities you stay in and the activities you attend. 


Panama and Costa Rica have lively nightlife. Panama City has everything from disco clubs to rooftop lounges. In the Business district of Casco Viejo, you’ll find popular rooftops, wine restaurants, jazz cafes, and live music. 

In Costa Rica, one of the best hotspots for nightlife is the coastal town of Tamarindo. This beach town hosts the moonlight night market festival every Thursday from 6:30 to 9:30 PM where you can enjoy live music and drinks. It’s home to many beach clubs and lively bars like Sharky’s Sports Bar.

In the capital city of San Jose, there’s a handful of popular disco clubs, rooftop bars and live music venues as well.


Panama and Costa Rica are both relatively safe for travelers and have low crime rates in tourist areas. However, you should exercise increased caution in Panama and Costa Rica due to crime, according to the US Travel Advisory.

Both places have safe areas and dangerous areas. Read about the city before visiting, and always take precautions to protect yourself. This includes being aware of your surroundings, concealing your belongings, and not walking alone at night. 

Panama vs Costa Rica

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit both Panama and Costa Rica is from December to April during their dry seasons.

If you’re on a budget, the cheapest time to visit Panama is from April to December and the cheapest time to visit Costa Rica is from May to November. However, this is during their wet seasons so there’s a higher likelihood of heavy rain. 

Also read:


How do you get from Costa Rica to Panama?

To get to Panama from Costa Rica, you can either drive, fly, or take a bus. The fastest option is by flight, from San Jose to Panama City. The flight costs $123 to $501, and is roughly 4.5 hours.

The cheapest option is to take a bus, which costs $56 to $80 and is roughly a 16.5 hour trip. Alternatively, you can drive which will cost $100 to $160, and take approximately 12.5 hours. 

How close is Panama to Costa Rica?

Panama is 219 miles away from Costa Rica or 353 kilometers. If you plan on driving from Panama to Costa Rica, the driving distance is approximately 424 miles or 683.5 km. 

How long is the flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City?

The flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes for a nonstop flight. 

How long is the drive from Panama to San Jose, Costa Rica?

The drive from Panama to San Jose Costa Rica is approximately 10 hours and 45 minutes

Can you get a bus ticket from Panama to Costa Rica?

Yes, you can get a bus ticket from Panama to Costa Rica via the Tica bus for around $55 to $85. However, the bus trip takes 11 hours, while a flight takes roughly 4.5 hours

What mountain range is between Panama and Costa Rica?

The Talamanca Range is the mountain range that falls between the southeast of Costa Rica and the far west of Panama.

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