Panama Travel Tips: What To Know Before You Go

Culture

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.

Slow Lines. If there’s a line, breathe in and breathe out, it can take a while. Slow lines are so normal you will rarely see anyone wondering why it’s taking so long.

Panama Hat. This popular hat is from Ecuador, not Panama. It got the name because people were wearing it during the construction days of the Panama Canal. The hat from Panama is the “Sombrero Pintao”.

Money. US$50 and US$100-dollar bills can be problematic. Because they are rare some people get nervous thinking they will get in trouble if they accept it and it turns out to be a counterfeit. Another reason is that you might empty all the change from a small store. Sometimes even a US$20 can get you an uncomfortable look if you are buying something only worth a few bucks. In conclusion, it’s better to carry small bills.

Nature

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 principles and practices.

Warnings

Falling Coconuts. When walking under palm trees watch your head from falling coconuts, they can cause 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.

City 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. Think twice before choosing to drive in Panama or anywhere in Latin America for that matter if you are coming from a place where traffic laws are more than only suggestions. Yes, that’s what it appears to be sometimes… Stop sign? I think it’s ok if I only slow down a bit. Signaling when making a turn? Oh, I didn’t know that’s what that lever was for. Three-lane highway? Alright! More lanes to pass those slow drivers.

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. This also applies to all other guided adventure activities.

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 on your hand you can be in trouble. Better to leave wildlife alone.

Pack Light. Overpacking 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.

Accommodations

Room Noise. If you are a light sleeper you might need earplugs 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.

Where are the Panamanians? Deficient levels of education, inequality, low wages, or sometimes just the language barrier can make things harder for most locals to become tourism entrepreneurs and benefit from the opportunities around them. Instead, it’s mostly visiting foreigners from wealthier countries identifying these needs and opportunities, and having the means to open a business catering to other travelers.

Food

Panamanian. “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”.

Tipping. 10% is the norm. Some restaurants include the tip in their total, so it is important to check this. Your bill should include the amount consumed, a 7% service tax (ITBMS), and either the tip (servicio) or a space for you to include this.

General Information

High Tourism Season Dec-Apr
Low Tourism Season May-Nov
Capital Panama City
Country Borders Costa Rica (West), Colombia (East)
Area 75,517 sq km (29,157 sq mi)
Estimated Population 4.5 Million
Language Spanish
Religion 85% Roman Catholic
Currency US Dollar/Balboa
Government Constitutional Democracy, elections every 5 years
Climate 30C Lowlands, 24C Highlands
Electricity 120V 60Hz
Calling Code +507
Time Zone GMT-5

Holidays

New Year’s Day Jan 1
Martyrs’ Day Jan 9
Carnival Changes every year
Easter Changes every year
All Soul’s Day Nov 2
Independence from Colombia Nov 3
Flag Day Nov 4
First Call for Independence Nov 10
Independence from Spain Nov 28
Mother’s Day Dec 8
Christmas Day Dec 25