Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tips if you want to visit Panama

If you've ever wanted to visit Central America but weren't sure where to start, Panama is a good place to begin your travels.

Obviously I'm writing this from an American perspective, but I think the info still holds true to most other nationalities.

First of all, Panama is in the Eastern Time Zone (although they don't observe Daylight Savings Time) so no jet lag!

  • American dollars are the currency here (they do have their own coins called "Balboas" but those are minted in Colorado) so there's no confusion about the exchange rate.
  • Many people speak English. In Panama City, almost everyone will speak some, if not fluent, English and in the smaller towns, like where I'm at, they are the nicest people when foreigners at least make an attempt to speak Spanish. My Mom and her friends have survived here for years and they know very little Spanish. In the surfer's paradise, "Bocas del Toro" almost everyone speaks English since it's on the Caribbean side and was settled by many Jamaicans.
  • The water (except in Bocas and some rural areas) is safe to drink.
  • Because of the building of the Panama Canal, most Panamanians are used to foreigners of all kinds and are very tolerant (except for Columbians and the indigenous people, but that's for a later post).
  • Panama is one of the few countries left that truly likes and welcomes Americans. This is because we helped them gain independence from Columbia and built the Canal (which we later turned over to the Panamanian government). Yes, there was that little snafu over Noriega, but that seems to be forgotten.
  • Transportation is very good, whether you take a plane, taxi or bus.
  • Panamanians don't use lard or meat in their beans like Mexicans (which is good for vegetarians)
  • Because there are so many ex-pats here, you can find many products that probably aren't available in other Central American countries.
  • The standard of living here is quite high for Central America, so you don't see so much of the heart-wrenching poverty as in other countries.
  • The country is very diverse. From the megapolis of Panama City (called the Miami of Central America) to the jungles and mountains in the North to the laid-back beach culture on the Caribbean side, there's something to do for everyone.
  • There's no Visa fee or reciprocity fee (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and others charge over $100 for Americans to enter the country). Panama used to charge $5 but they did away with this last year.
Now before you think I was hired by the Panamanian government to do PR, there are a couple downsides.

  • The rainy season. Enough said. The best time to come here is January through July.
  • 85% of the time you can't flush toilet paper. The rule of thumb is that if there's a little basket by the toilet, you're supposed to throw the "used" TP in it. Which works for #1 but I'm not so cool with this practice when it comes to #2's.
  • If you want to watch English-language TV, be prepared to sit through hours of old "Law and Order" episodes, "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Two and a Half Men". These shows are on like 8 times a day. However, at least they stopped showing "Joey", that horrible "Friends" spin-off. This was all the rage when I visited 2 years ago.
  • The Hispanic conception of time--this doesn't only apply to Panama but in Latin America, you're considered to be "on time" if you're less than an hour late. As a short-term tourist, the only time this will probably affect you is when you go to a restaurant, which leads me to my Number 1 tip.
  • DON'T go to a restaurant if you're really hungry. The first time this happened to me, I was starving and after the first hour had gone by with no food and my stomach felt like it had pushed itself against my spine, I almost cried. Another hour later and we finally got our food.
  • Let me give you a recent example: A group of us went to a local restaurant for dinner. The waitress came over after about 8 minutes (this is quick for Panama but it went downhill from here); she took our orders. We wait for 20 minutes with no drinks. She then comes over with one person's food and their drink. We wait another 10 minutes (in Panama, the rule is to eat as soon as you get your food, since you never know when everyone else's will arrive). She brings over one other person's food but no drinks. 5 minutes later, we flag her down and ask about the drinks. She comes back a few minutes later with 1 other person's drink (this leaves me and 1 other girl without our drinks). Finally, she brings all the food and we ask her again about the drinks. 5 minutes later, she brings my drink but not the other girl's (we were all finished eating at this point). Finally, 10 minutes after we were all done, she finally brings the last girl's drink.
This story is funny now, but ridiculous when it was happening. I know when you go to another culture, you have to deal with the way they do things, but this restaurant is owned by a guy from New Jersey and only ex-pats eat there. They need to tell the waitresses that a different level of service is expected if your only clientele are foreigners. Sheesh.

This experience was an aberration, but seriously, don't go to a restaurant if you're starving (or go to a cafeteria).

Hope these help! I'm sure I'll think of more......


  1. Very helpful tips! Thanks! :D
    We have the exact same shows on TV here, and the same toilet paper rule. Actually, many Brazilian toilets and sewer systems are properly equipped to accept TP nowadays, but older people still won't break the habit of throwing the paper in the trash.

    Can't wait to see youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu

  2. hehehe. I HATE the TP rule!

    I know! I can't wait too =)