A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!Palindrome (first published by Leigh Mercer)
Panama (República de Panamá) is known as the “Crossroads of the Americas” due to its position between North and South America. This small country in Central America has much more to offer than a canal, with incredible bio-diversity, idyllic tropical islands, delectable cuisine, and welcoming locals. If you found this post, you likely need no inspiration and may have already booked your trip. Read on for the most comprehensive guide to understand what to know before you go to Panama.
I find you get much more out of visiting a country if you understand key historic events as well as current events. Besides providing more meaning in what you see, its also good conversation material in your interaction with locals. Obviously, use your judgement with politically sensitive topics.
- 1501 – Panama isthmus first explored by a European, Rodrigo de Bastidas (Columbus visited a year later)
- 1538 – Panama became a Spanish colony
- 1671 – Panama City burned to the ground by British mercenary
- 1821 – Gained independence from Spain
- 1831 – Panama joined with Nueva Grenada to become Colombia
- 1903 – Seceded from Colombia and became independent nation
- 1903 – Treaty between the US and Panama to construct the canal was signed (construction began in 1904)
- 1914 – Canal completed; ~5,600 died in its construction; the cargo ship Ancon was the first ship to pass through the canal
- 1989 – Manuel Noriega deposed via US invasion
- 1999 – Panama took over full control of canal from US
- 2016 – “Panama Papers” leak of 11.5M documents revealing over 214k shell companies used for money laundering for criminal activity
- 2016 – Panama canal expansion project completed
- Panama Current Events (BBC)
- Only place in the world where you can see the sun rise on the Pacific Ocean and set on the Atlantic Ocean (Carribean Sea) on the same day
- Only 80 kilometers separate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at its narrowest
- Before the canal, gold and silver were hauled across the isthmus on a route known as the “Road of Crosses” due to the number of deaths
- Home to the most expensive and pure coffee in the world
- Richard Halliburton swam the canal in 1928 and paid a toll of $0.36 (large ships now pay $1M+)
- Has over 1.5k islands
- Panama is slightly smaller than South Carolina
- Population is 4M (2017), with half of population living in Panama City
- The Canal is 1/3 of Panama’s total GDP
- The Panama hat is really from Ecuador
- Panama’s motto is ‘Pro Mundi Beneficio’, which means ‘For the Benefit of the World.’
- 65% of the population are Mestizos (indigenous Indians and Spanish)
- The Kuna are an indigenous American Indian tribes inhabiting the San Blas Islands
- First Latin American country to adopt the USD
Customs / Etiquette
- Locals dress semi-formerly in Panama City when going out, so bring at least one nice outfit. Check out my favorite men’s travel clothing. Locals won’t typically wear shorts, but you certainly can (it’s often hot/humid).
- Locals greet each other with a light kiss on the right cheek. Visitors should greet individuals in Panama with a simple wave or handshake.
- Eye contact during conversation is appreciated.
- Bargaining is not a common practice.
Where is Panama Located?
Panama is between Costa Rica (northwest) and Colombia (southeast). The Pacific Ocean lies to the South and the Caribbean Sea (part of the Atlantic Ocean) to the North, with the Canal cutting through the center of the country connecting the two. It’s the southernmost country in Central America, hence its moniker “Crossroads of the Americas”.
Panama’s Tocumen International Airport (PTY) is the largest Airport in Central America. It’s about 25 kilometers from downtown Panama.
Panama City is a major Latin America hub, so there are many direct flights from major airports in North and South America. There are non-stop flights to Panama City from the following U.S. cities: Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., Newark, New York City (JFK), and Orlando.
Within Latin America, there are direct flights from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. I was in Costa Rica, so took an hour flight from San Jose (SJO) via Copa Airlines (booked through United).
Uber is prevalent in Panama City and should be your first option when possible. It was $28 from the airport to Casco Viejo and took about 30 minutes. It was mid-day, so could easily take an hour or more at rush-hour. Uber will pick you up across the street in front of departures in a parking area that is labeled with numbers. You will select a number of the aisle you would like them to pick you up in front of (18 seemed closest).
Unfortunately, my trip back to the airport wasn’t as successful. I ordered an Uber to arrive at 6:30am based on estimated time. It arrived at 6:40am, so I was already worried about morning traffic picking up. The driver asked if I was going to the airport (before I got in the car) and said he would loop around to get me. He turned the corner and cancelled the ride…great. The Uber app then showed someone finishing a ride nearby, but 15 minutes later he still hadn’t arrived.
Plan B kicked in and I decided to try for a cab. An empty cab drove by but ignored my hail. Another cab came by and this one stopped. Once we confirmed destination, she asked me how much!? She had no meter and wanted me to make an offer. I said Uber stated $12 (true) but she just laughed. I tried $20, but finally agreed to $30…I would have paid $100 at that point! I tracked the ride on Google Maps to make sure I was really going to the airport and made it with no incident. The cab driver did point out the traffic in the other direction, so I surmised that it is not desirable for them to come back through the city from the airport. It may be worth a premium to have your hotel or AirBnB host prearrange your transportation to the airport for peace of mind.
Note: I never would have made my flight if I had to check my bags. The line for Copa Airlines was massive and would easily have taken an hour or longer.
When to Go
Panama is a year-round destination, but it is recommended to visit in the dry season (mid-December to mid-April). Average temperatures throughout the year in Panama hover around 85°F (30°C) and drop to 71-74°F (22-24°C) at night. The coastal regions are a bit warmer than the highlands. It is the tropics, so expect humidity, and the midday heat can be brutal. Panama avoids almost all hurricanes as it is south of hurricane alley.
I went mid-December, and besides the midday heat, found it quite pleasant. I never needed a sweatshirt/jacket, wore shorts in the day and jeans at night. There was one torrential rain that lasted an hour, which was a perfect time to grab a mojito and empanada.
Christmas is a big holiday in Panama, and the decorations and festivities made December a wonderful time to visit. Locals were out celebrating with their families, there was a parade, and a massive fireworks display.
Passport / Visa Requirements
Requirements for Entry
- A passport valid for at least three months past the date of entry.
- A return ticket to home country or onward destination.
- Money – either $500 in cash, or credit card, bank statement, letter of employment or travelers checks. (It’s a stated requirement, but I didn’t have to do this).
- Criminal Record Restriction – Panamanian immigration reserves the right to deny entry to any person with a criminal conviction.
- Tourist Visa Required (US): No
- 180 Day Stay: Tourists can only remain in Panama for 180 days
- Check US State Dept Country Information for latest information
Spanish is the official language of Panama, but many Panamanians are bilingual and 14% speak English as their native tongue. There are also various indigenous languages. Those in the tourist industry generally speak English. While you can get by with English, it is always helpful (and polite) to learn a few key phrases. Also, make sure to download the Google Translate app.
Practice your Travel Spanish
Panama is largely a cash based society, particularly outside of Panama City. However, the only places I needed cash were the San Blas Islands and in Panama City (for a street vendor). Always remember to notify your bank and credit card company of your travel plans.
Panama is fairly inexpensive, but Casco Viejo dining prices are closer to that of the US. AirBnB’s and tours seemed to be very good deals.
- USD is the official currency, so no need to exchange money if coming from the US.
- Balboa (PAB) is the local currency, and is pegged at 1:1 with USD.
- While shopping or eating out, you may see prices with either a “$” or a “B/” before them, corresponding the dollars or balboas. They mean the same thing and have the same value.
- ATM’s (cajeros automáticos) may be hard to locate outside of Panama City.
- The San Blas Islands and other remote areas are cash only. Bring small bills as $50 and $100 are actually illegal in the hands of the Kunas.
- ATMs generally accept most credit and debit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Amex, Cirrus, Plus) and will charge a service fee, usually around $5.
- Bills larger than $20 will often not be accepted due to counterfeiting concerns. Even $20’s are often hard to use. I never tested this, but would be surprised if true in Panama City.
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- Outside of Panama City, credit cards are rarely accepted.
- Bring a card with no foreign transaction fees such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which also has the benefit of 3x points for travel and dining.
Taxes / Tipping / Bargaining
- Sales tax: 5% on all nonfood items
- Hotel tax: 10%
- Restaurant tax: 5%
- Restaurant tip: 10% across the board (check your bill to be sure they didn’t already apply as a service fee)
- Taxi / Uber tip: Not expected
- Bargaining is not a common practice, but it can’t hurt to try (especially if buying multiple items)
Power / Phone / WiFi
In short, I had no issues with power, phone, and internet while in Panama. Obviously, there are very remote parts of Panama where access is limited to non-existent, but I was even able to connect on the San Blas islands (only to check into my flight and then I put my phone away!)
- You do not need a power adaptor if traveling from the US.
- Online Tool to see if you need an adaptor (just enter your country)
- I always feel safer charging my phone via my portable charger in case of power surges or variations in power
I had fantastic voice/data service in Panama, with no issues uploading photos / videos. I was even able to do my flight check-in from the remote San Blas islands, although this took multiple attempts.
Panama, like most of the world, uses the GSM cellular standard. If you’re from the US, AT&T uses GSM, but Verizon and Sprint still use CDMA. Newer Verizon and Sprint phones should also support GSM, but you should verify with your carrier.
Many carriers are now offering $10/day international voice/data/text plans which automatically charge on the days you use. I love the convenience of this as you don’t have to add/remove a plan or worry about getting a massive bill. I used this with AT&T and it worked seamlessly. Verizon seems to have a similar option.
If you have a new iPhone, you may want to check out using the new Dual SIM with eSIM capability. GigSky offers the most comprehensive international coverage. Your phone must be unlocked to utilize (Verizon phones come unlocked).
You can also buy a local SIM from a carrier such as Movistar or Claro if your phone supports. You can buy minutes and data as you need them via pre-paid cards or by signing up for a monthly plan.
WiFi / Internet
Free wi-fi hotspots are quite prevalent in Panama, particularly Panama City. There are app such as Free WiFi from Wiman (Google Play only) that can be used to find free hotspots, but in Panama City you won’t have much trouble.
I was able to stream Narcos on Netflix at my AirBnB in Casco Viejo if that small sample size has any validity (certainly couldn’t do that in Cuba!). Remember to check ‘wifi’ under Amenities in your AirBnB search.
Health & Safety
- Vaccination Requirement: Yellow fever for passengers entering from countries with endemic yellow fever.
- Medical Care: Panama City is known to have some good hospitals and clinics, but medical facilities outside of the capital are limited.
- Water: Should be fine at major restaurants and hotels, particularly in Panama City. I typically err on the side of caution and drink bottled water when possible.
- Travel Insurance: Review whether you need travel insurance, particularly if doing adventurous activities.
Check the Cost of Travel Insurance
- State Dept Travel Advisory – Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions
- Outside city limits, the Mosquito Coast (Caribbean side) and the Darien Region (Colombian border) are particularly dangerous due to their remoteness and the presence of criminal organizations.
- Demonstrations: There may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-American sentiment.
- Casco Antiguo (Casco Viejo) is very safe, with police / cameras on virtually every corner. It is, however, right next to a dangerous barrio called Chorrillo into which you could easily walk. This area clearly does not look like Casco Viejo so you should notice, but if you don’t, the police (or mugger) will likely let you know.
- Report crimes to the local police by dialing 104 (National Police) or 511-9260 (Tourist Police in Panama City) and contact the U.S. Embassy at +507-317-5000 / Panama-ACS@state.gov
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- Carry Identification: Anyone not bearing identification may be held and will be penalized by the Panamanian authorities. You should always carry your passport that contains the Panama entry stamp in case it is requested by Panamanian authorities.
For more on travel health and safety, check out my other posts on this topic.
Food and Drink
The food and drink of Panama was fantastic. I’ve definitely been focusing more on this aspect of travel, so perhaps my research was partially responsible. In any case, you are right on the ocean, so fresh seafood aplenty as well as delicious traditional Panamanian fare.
What to Eat
- Empanadas– This was my staple snack. A little pastry typically filled with meat and veggies.
- Sancocho de Gallina – Panama’s National dish. Chicken soup or stew containing yuca and coriander. Usually served with rice.
- Carimañolas – Deep fried meat rolls. Similar to empanadas except yucca is used for the pastry.
- Ropa Viejas (Old Clothes) – The full name is Ropa Vieja y Arroz con Coco, which is shredded beef with coconut rice.
- Arroz con pollo – Rice and chicken.
- Ceviche – Panama has very fresh seafood, and most places served wonderful ceviche. This was my default appetizer.
- Patacones – Mashed and fried plantains served as a chip alternative. I like to add a bit of hot sauce to spice up a bit.
What to Drink
Here is my recommended drink sequence for a proper day in Panama City.
- Geisha Coffee – Most expensive coffee in the world. At $9/cup, perhaps just try it once!
- Mojitos – So refreshing in a hot climate and seemed to be a standard beverage.
- Cerveza – The national beers (Panama Lager and Balboa) weren’t bad. I preferred the micro brews from Cervecería Central and Casa Bruja Brewing Co, just for their bottle art alone (pictured above)!
- Rum (ron in Spanish)- If you haven’t tried sipping a nice rum, add to you Panama bucketlist. The best Panama rum I found is Ron Abuelo (apparently the rum is made by the president’s family). There was also a great up and comer, Pedro Mandinga, which you should also try (you can do a tasting in Casco Viejo).
- The Perfect Panama Itinerary: Casco Viejo to the San Blas Islands
- 41 Things to Do in Panama + 3 Things NOT to Do
- Wikipedia: Panama
- Countries and Cultures: Panama
- Panama History Books
- Map of Panama
- Google Earth Panama
- Google Earth Panama City
- Google Earth Panama Canal
Please leave any questions or comments below or feel free to contact me directly. Share your recommendations or experience in traveling to Panama so others in the community may learn.
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