Among the best reception of US dollars is Bocas del Toro, Panama, a small Caribbean sea-side community an hour's flight from Panama City. A quiet town reminiscent of California beach cities in the 1950s, Bocas is relatively inexpensive and the dollar is the country's currency. There are waterfront and over-the-water hotels that run from $1/day to around $150 for the nicest places. The $25-35 range will give you a comfortable, clean room with bath and often with breakfast. Jungle areas and small private islands compete for your attention. There are world-famous surfing breaks, a national park, a naitonal marine preserve, and lots of good swimming, snorkling, and scuba diving in the coral reef areas.
Yes. You are right. Panama and most of the other Central American countries are a great deal when compared to other places to travel. Nicaragua is even less expensive than Panama. Plus, it is not as "discovered". It is starting to be built up now though so I suggest visiting soon. I have heard it compared to Costa Rica thirty years ago.
With any of the Central American countries, you can spend A LOT of money with some of the newer/exclusive type properties OR go and enjoy and try some of the local properties. They will be half the cost. Also, try the local food. During the past 10 years, we have seen Central America develop very quickly. What we like to do is mix it up alittle. For example, we might stay at a "boutique" property that costs a little more than the standard property but then eat at the very local restaurants. We also try to use a local driver so that we can learn more as we drive through the country.
I agree about the low costs in Nicaragua, though the country is a little more third-world than Panama. However, if you are going somewhere in the country other than Managua, flying is usually the best option, and there is a Best Western hotel (Las Mercedes) directly across the street from the airport (less than 100 yards, so easy walking distance) which has lovely gardens, is very quiet, and is reasonably priced--that includes a substantial breakfast. Our flight arrived too late in the day to make our in-country flight, so we stayed in the hotel overnight and walked over the next morning to the small intra-country section of the airport. We bought out tickets there and were on our way with no difficulty. The personnel at both the hotel and the airport were extremely cordial and helpful and they spoke excellent English. By the way, you can book your airline tickets on-line if you want to (La Costena airline --[email protected]).
While the San Blas islands are lovely, there's not much to do there. Unless you have your own boat, you're at the mercy of the hotel (if you can call it that) that you're staying with. They will take you to other islands for snorkeling / relaxing on the beach / purchasing molas, but that's it. There are no shops, no pubs, nada. Sorry - there are so small grocery stores where you can buy the basics - beer, water, etc. The food is usually included in your stay. It is extremely basic. Usually fish caught by the locals and some rice with fruit for dessert.