Panama is one of those places where people who visit usually love it and hate it at the same time. As someone who was born and raised in the United States, who now lives in Panama, you start to have a better appreciation for things like good customer service, reliable public transportation, and punctuality.
Nevertheless, I would encourage anyone looking for a place to go to for their vacation to come to Panama. While there are definitely some things that the country can improve on, it is still an exciting place to visit with several things to do.
If you are planning to visit the country, then here are some tips that you can use that will save you money, time, and, possibly, your life.
1. Walk With Your Head Down
True story. The first week that I was in Panama my uncle said that he was going to a funeral for his friend in the morning. Naturally everyone wondered how did his friend die. The cause of death was he fell on the sidewalk and hit his head. Huh? Now of course his friend was drunk but you don't normally here about someone falling on the sidewalk dying, even if they are drunk.
After I started walking in city on my own I quickly realized that you can die walking on the sidewalk without being drunk. If you are not careful you will slip or fall. In is not uncommon to see uncovered manholes and miscellaneous metal sticking up out of the sidewalk. You will also see sidewalks that are uneven with extra steps going up and down. Other things that you may not be used to is ceramic tile on the sidewalk. During rainy season, the sidewalks can, literally, become an obstacle course.
With that said, you should be very careful walking in city and pay attention to the ground. If you follow this tip, then you will surely avoid an unnecessary trip to the emergency room.
2. How To Avoid "Gringo" Pricing On Taxis
The taxi drivers will definitely try to take advantage of tourists. This is especially true, if you are looking desperate and clueless. When the taxi drivers see this then immediately they go into "Gringo Pricing" mode, which basically means that the fare will go up by 200 percent.
In Panama the taxis do not have meters, they basically charge you by the distance travelled. If you are staying in the city and are making trips throughout the city then your fare should be no more than $3. The rule of thumb is a $1 for very short trips, $2 for short trips, and up to $3 for regular trip inside the city. If you are planning to go outside the city, depending on where you are going, the pricing can be as high as $30 dollars.
There are some drivers that will offer you personalized service for a minimum of $10 an hour. Basically, they will take you wherever you want to go throughout the city and wait for you until you are ready to go to your next destination. If you are just trying to visit the most common tourist spots, then I would advise you to use the "Hop On Hop Off" bus instead of a taxi.
Other things that you should know about the taxis are:
Know the general area that you are traveling to so you know how much you should have to pay.
Be patient. Sometimes, especially during rush hour, it will take a little longer to get a taxi. There will be some drivers who hear where you going and just drive off. No worries because there are plenty taxis that will be coming your way.
Never ask them what is the price of the fare. As soon as you say "¿Cuanto?"(How much?) you have let them know that you want the "Gringo price".
3. Come During Non-Peak Months
You should be able find the cheapest flights to Panama between May and November, which the non-peak travel time. It may even better to try to book before November because during this month a lot of Panamanians who live abroad try to come back to participate in Independence festivities throughout the month. Panama celebrates independence from Columbia and Spain in the month of the November. The city practically shuts down during this month.
During the peak travel season, which is between December and April, you are dealing with a lot "Snowbirds" from places like Canada and the US who are trying escape their crazy winter climates. In addition to that, during the month of February and March you will dealing with people who want to participate in the most popular Carnival in the world, second only to Brazil, of course.
4. Utilize Hostels And Guest Houses
Believe or not, I never knew about this guest house or hostel concept until I visited Panama. When I first came I stayed in a hostel and I was paying $550 a month for room. Try to get a hotel room in Panama for $18 ($550 divided by 30 days) a night. Not happening. I had everything that you would have in a hotel in addition to access to a kitchen to cook meals if I wanted to.
The other added benefit of staying in a hostel or guesthouse is that you will usually meet some interesting people. Most hostels have social areas, even a large balcony, where people can chill and have a drink. It is not uncommon to see people relaxing popping open a cold bottle of wine. After a while, you and neighbors will seem like a big happy family. It's weird but that's the feeling that I got.
You find out more about different hostels, guesthouses, and rooms for rent on websites like AirBnB, Hostel Bookers, and Hostel World. You should be able to find a decent place to stay on any of the sites for under $50 a night. These sites will usually have customer reviews that you can look at before you decide on a place.
5. Make Copies Of Your Passport
Make sure that you make at least 2 copies of your passport. Making a copy of your passport serves two purposes.
Firstly, you do not want to be walking around with your real passport and lose it. DISASTER. Keep your real passport in a safe place in your room. The second reason why you want to make a copy is if you happen to get stopped by the police, which we talk about later, they will not be able to extort you.
It is best that you take care of this before you even get on the plane to come to the country. You do not want to have be running around trying to find a photo copier. Also make you that you keep the copy inside of a plastic bag to keep it from getting wet.
6. Keep Your $100 Bills At Home
Spending a $100 bill in Panama is like trying to get access to see the president. One day I was shopping in a grocery store and I pulled out a $100 bill to pay. The cashier pulled out a pad, called her manager, and asked for my ID. I was like what the hell is going on. In the US they simply make sure that the bill is real and that's it. But here it was like a national security breach.
The cashier wrote my name, ID number, and the serial number of the bill then the manager had to sign off. Then I had to sign my signature. With that said if you plan on visiting keep the "Benjamins" at home unless you want to spend 15 minutes trying to check out $20 worth of merchandise.
Also if you are in a casino or a bank and they try to give you a $100 bill. You tell them politely in Spanish,"No quiero un billete de cien dolares. Quiero un billete de viente dolares solamente." Roughly translated in English, "I do not want $100 bills. I want $20 bills only."
7. Use The "Hop On Hop Off" Bus
An economical way to see the city is to use the "Hop On Hop Off" city tour bus. Basically, it is a tourist bus line that takes people to all the major tourist destinations like the Panama Canal and the Amador Causeway.
This method gives you a little more flexibility that taking a scheduled tour. You can spend as much time as you want in a specific destination as long as you catch a bus before the cut off time. The buses run on 60 to 120 minute intervals until around 11pm. Tourist can purchase 24 hour ($29) or 48 hour ($39) travel passes.
8. Try To Learn Some Basic Spanish
It is a good idea to learn some basic spanish. While you will find a lot of Panamanians that speak English, there are a lot that only speak Spanish. Sometimes it almost seems like when you need an English speaker the most they are no where to be found. This is definitely an area that the country needs to work on considering that the tourist industry is support by a lot of English.
Nevertheless, if you want to survive you should know some basic spanish. You should be able to find a basic spanish guide online or in your local bookstore. If you have a desire to become fluent, then you should consider purchasing the Rosetta Stone course. When you arrive in Panama you can also take a class with native speaker who will be able to help you.
When you are learning you should focus on learning things like:
Basic greetings and courtesies like "Buenos Dias" (Good Morning), "Hasta Luego" (See you later), "Con Permiso" (Excuse me), or "¿Como Esta?" (How are you?).
Basic introductions or small talk like "¿Cual es su nombre?" (What is your name?) , ¿Habla usted ingles? (Do you speak English?), Soy de Estados Unidos (I am from the United States) or Mi nombre es Omar (My name is Omar).
Basic numbers and phrases dealing with financial transactions like "Necesito comprar" (I need to buy), "la cuenta por favor" (The bill or check please), or "¿Cuanto cuesta?" (How much is it?).
Basic directions and describing where you are like "Estoy en frente el restaurante cerca de edificio numero 9 en la calle 50." (I am in front of the restaurant near building number 9 on 50th St).
Basic foods, fruit, vegatables, and drinks like "Yo quiero una cerveza de Panama por favor" (I want a Panama beer please.) or "Un vaso de agua y un plato de arroz con pollo por favor." (A glass of water and a plate of rice with chicken).
You should be able to survive with the basics. Just be patient and try to work with the person that you are trying to communicate with. Communication is such a wonderful thing don't you think?
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9. If You Drive...Drive With Extreme Caution
If you can drive in Panama, then you can drive anywhere in the world. When it comes to driving in Panama it is an experience like none other. All of the defensive driving techniques that us Americans learned in driving school will immediately change once you start driving in the city. You will quickly realize that if you are not aggressive then you will not be able to move through the traffic, especially during rush hour.
I have a friend, Krista, who is from Texas and she has become so aggressive driving that when she visits the United States she forgets that she does not have to blow the horn and cuss people out who are not moving fast enough. The driving will come as a shock at first, but when you see it you will quickly get with the program. Even the bus drivers drive like maniacs.
If you rent a car in Panama, then you will need to get the "Platinum" coverage package. Get every type of coverage possible because you will definitely need it. One of my friends got in a wreck in a rental car just leaving the airport.
Remember that when you are driving your head needs to be on a swivel paying attention to everything going on around you. You should definitely refrain from using a cell phone while you are driving. Also remember that you must be an offensive and defensive driver if that makes sense.
10. Don't Give The Police A Reason To Stop You
I am from Texas where several cities are notorious for police ticketing you for everything under the sun. With that said, I have never been stopped so much by the police in my life until I came to Panama. It seemed like everywhere I went the police were stopping me. I have been stopped by the police walking and driving alike.
I even had situation where I thought that I was definitely going to jail. One night as me and a friend of mine, from Canada, were walking to a bar the police stopped us. They asked us for our passports and then proceeded to pat us down. Then the unthinkable happened. The police found a bag of weed in my friend's pocket. I was like "OMFG". We are both foreigners with no clue of how the justice system worked nor did we know a lot of Spanish at the time. Ultimately, my friend had to pay the police off in order for them to let us go.
With that said, do not do anything that will give the police any reason to extort you because they will. I know extort sounds strong, but when police stop you in anticipation of a pay-off that is extortion. All of the police are not doing this, but there are a lot who are. At night it is not uncommon to see police setting up road blocks.
If the police stop you do not panic just show them your passport or, better yet, the copy of your passport. If you are driving, then you will have to show them your passport and driver license from your country or state. If you are not doing anything illegal, then you have nothing to worry about. The police will usually let you go on your way.
However, if the police are being a pain in the ass then kindly ask for the tourist police or "policia de turista". This will usually back them off. I have never had to use this but my uncle who lives in Panama says that this is what I should do when I am having problems with the police.
Have you ever visited Panama? If so share your experiences in the comment section below.
Also if you have any questions about visiting leave them in comment section and I will try to answer them.
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