Panama Travel Tips
Seasons. High tourism season in Panama goes from December to April, play it safe and make your reservations in advance.
Money. Since 1903 the legal currency in Panama is the US Dollar. Even though there is a name for the Panamanian currency (Balboa), there is no Panamanian paper money, only coins, which are the exact same size and denomination as US coins. It is also important to know that paying with a 50 or 100 dollar bill can be problematic even in Panama City. Therefore it is recommended to carry small bills.
Public Bathrooms. Limited along the highways, and on some gas stations could be out of toilet paper, better to carry your own.
Panama Hat. This popular hat is actually from Ecuador, not Panama. It got the name because people where using it during the construction days of the Panama Canal. The real hat from Panama is the “Sombrero Pintao”.
Pack Light. Over packing heads the list of biggest travel mistakes. Domestic airlines have limited space and can be forced to leave your bags behind to send on the next flight. The boats going to Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro are small, and therefore are not equipped with big storage areas.
Cultural Differences. Be patient and understanding as every culture has its own way of doing things, this just makes it different, not wrong or inferior.
Language. Even with no common language, rudimentary communication is easy. Butcher the language if you must, but communicate. By making the effort you will earn the respect of the locals.
Gifts. If you want to bring gifts for the local kids don’t give sweets; instead bring clothes or school supplies, and ask your tour operator or driver to give them to community elders so that you don’t encourage begging from children.
Support the Locals. Use local guides, hotels, restaurants, and markets to benefit the local economy.
Clothing. Be sensitive to the local culture by wearing clothing that is accepted.
Erosion. Don’t be tempted to create a new track or take a shortcut. Stay on the existing trail when possible even if it’s muddy or there’s room to walk alongside.
Responsible Travel. Do not remove any objects, plants or animal products from nature.
Snorkeling. A relaxed snorkeler is less threatening and less of a target. When the aquatic wildlife realizes you are not a threat, they resume their normal routine, allowing you to experience their world.
Make a Difference. Choose your travel provider on the basis of their eco principles and practices.
Falling Coconuts. When walking under palm trees watch your head from falling coconuts, they can cause a serious injury.
Lost in the Rainforest. To the untrained eye the rainforest can be perceived as a big blur of green, making it an easy place to get lost. Never enter a trail in the rainforest without an experienced local guide.
Walking. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way when crossing the streets, at least not in the minds of car drivers, even on painted crosswalks you have to be very careful as most drivers are not used to people throwing themselves in front of their cars.
Driving. If thinking of driving in Panama be aware that there is a significant shortage of road sings. Because of the lack of road signs and proper illumination, driving at night should be avoided whenever possible.
Slow Lines. For domestic flights you need to be at the airport one hour before departure. It is very important to comply with this requirement because lines can be very slow.
White Water Rafting. Prior to your expedition your guide will give you a tutorial, be sure to pay attention. One of the most common errors that rafters make is to paddle in the wrong direction.
Wildlife. Poison dart frogs can’t inject venom as their venom is in the skin, however if you grab one and you have a cut in your hand you can be in trouble.
Room Noise. If you are a light sleeper you might need ear plugs at some point. It could be because of the neighbor’s dog barking in the middle of the night, or the roosters waking everybody up early in the morning.
Foreign Owned Hotels. After a few nights in Panama you might start to wonder, where are the Panamanians? Like in most developing countries, deficient levels of education and limited access to information have steer locals away from becoming entrepreneurs and therefore benefit from the natural wonders surrounding them. Instead, it has been the visiting foreigners detecting a need and an opportunity to open a business.
Panamanian. When in Panama do as the Panamanians do… try the local food. “Sancocho” is a very tasty chicken soup, “Comida Corriente” is served at informal places and it translates to meal of the day, it usually includes rice and beans with chicken, beef or pork. Other things to try are “Carimanola”, “Yuca Frita”, “Patacones”, and “Pescado Frito”. Our version of the corn “tortilla” is different than what most people are used to, it’s thicker, like a hockey puck.
Drink. The local alcohol is called “Seco”, it’s made from sugar cane. People mix it with milk or fruit juices. There are several brands of local beer, the ones that sell the most are “Atlas” and “Balboa”.
Bellow are some rough guidelines for tipping in Panama, specifically for tourism and restaurants. Please note that in our culture tipping is perceived more as a bonus than as an expected part of the person’s salary.
- Tour guide: US$10.00-US$20.00 per person/day.
- Transfer driver: US$2.00 per person.
- Tour driver: US$5.00 per person/day.
- Tour boat driver: US$5.00 per person/day.
- Restaurants: 10%-15% (make sure it is not already included as “propina” or “servicio”).
- Yellow street taxis: Not customary to give tips.