Panama Travel Tips

Panama Travel Tips

Disclaimer: After two weeks, I don’t claim to be an expert but if I’ve piqued your interest, here’s a few Panama travel tips I’ve learned/observed after a couple weeks of traveling around.

Panama City from the sky, photo courtesy of Dsasso https://www.flickr.com/photos/dsasso/

Panama City from the sky. Photo courtesy of Dsasso

As the wealthiest country in Central America, Panama is a good choice for people looking for beautiful beaches, a Caribbean feel and efficient place to travel with well-paved roads and modern comforts. You have access to the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal and a nice mix of Central and South American culture, with a Caribbean flavor and indigenous influence. In addition to beaches, you have areas near volcanoes and the dense Darien rainforest that separates Panama from Colombia.

Although I met way more Canadians than Americans, Panama is an especially easy place for US citizens to visit because it uses the same currency and Panama mints their own coins but use American currency and you don’t need a visa for a 180-day stay as long as they have a ticket out of Panama (so some people buy bus tickets to Costa Rica that they may or may not use) and proof of accommodation. Upon entering, I received a pamphlet about 30 days of complimentary tourist insurance for visitors- I’ve never been to a country where I’ve seen that before! Furthermore, Panama’s healthcare is known to be excellent, even making it a medical vacation (which I don’t really understand but is reassuring, nonetheless).

With some of the best water filtration around, even tap water is safe to drink (except for maybe in Bocas). That being said, don’t expect to pay Central American prices while traveling in Panama. Taxi rides tend to be reasonable (unless you stand out like I do, but usually if you ask around, you can get a driver that will offer you a good rate) and you can find cheap places to get food, but for public transportation, lodging and tour packages, you’ll basically be paying American rates. Shared dorms in hostels typically start around $12 while privates start at $25- fortunately I enjoyed all my accommodations.

Typical Panamanian bus.  Photo courtesy of Michael Nyika

Typical Panamanian bus. Photo courtesy of Michael Nyika.

Transportation: I wrote a few entries about wild bus rides this trip but most routes offer air-conditioned coach buses that arrive on time. Private companies offer smaller buses that could get you there cheaper (but you don’t even get your own seat, like my trip to David) or more expensive (several hostels offer more direct routes between tourist destinations for slightly higher rates). I had to buy all my tickets in person at the bus station and certain routes only allow you to buy tickets the day of, or day before, your desired trip (for example, Panama City to Bocas).

I didn’t fly within Panama but Copa and Panama Airlines tend to be popular options for local routes.

Safety: I felt very same in Panama and many travel books that I read recommend it as a place to experience Central America without having to worry as much about safety. No backpacker that I talked to had an issue in Panama. There were certain areas in Panama City that I won’t dream of walking but generally, most areas tourists would find themselves are safe and guarded by police. I can’t remember encountering any beggars or homeless people, even though I moved around quite a bit.

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Panamanian People: In my experience, the Panamanian people were definitely pleasant. Not extremely outgoing but polite and helpful if you asked them questions.  Kuna women are often in touristy places selling malas, beautiful, colorful hand-stitched fabrics and beaded bracelets.  And they love bachata music, which automatically makes them amazing.

Food: I was on a quest for Panamanian food but besides eating Kuna dishes in San Blas, I didn’t have much luck hunting down “traditional Panamanian food”. Fish, chicken and coconut rice seem to be popular. Dustin introduced me to patacones, “Panamanian French fries”, fried green plantains and ceviche is very popular. Generally, their food doesn’t seem to be too healthy- people constantly seem to be eating chips, drinking soda and beer. I hated seeing the Kuna kids eat potato chips for breakfast but that seemed common.

Drink: Balboa, Atlas and Panamá are the national beers, with Balboa being the most prevalent that I could see and Panamá having a reputation of being popular with the ladies (from what I was told). Ron Abuelo is the most popular domestically produced rum. Lonely Planet’s cover of their Panama guide boasted about its national liquor of seco, a very raw white rum. However, I didn’t witness this being commonly consumed or advertised at bars.

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