Panama Travel: A Crash Course

This year for my trip abroad I picked Panama as the destination. My friend Carmen is from there and she gave me plenty of great tips and suggestions on things to do, places to see, and the culture in general (thank you so much girl!). I had actually wanted to go last year but my travel plans fell through.

The great thing about traveling to Panama is that they you don’t need to worry about exchanging currencies— they use USD and many places take credit card. I bought my airfare two months prior to traveling in mid October, for a decent $400ish roundtrip with one stop in Florida. Direct airfare ran for about $630ish. I recommend using the app Hopper to watch prices and get notifications on when prices will drop or climb (thanks Wolf for the rec!).

I arrived at Tocumen International aeropuerto and upon exiting the gate was heralded by a host of taxi drivers vying for my business. As in other Latin American countries, haggling is part of the culture. If they know you’re American they’ll try to rip you off (I don’t blame them), so it helps if you speak Spanish fluently. I suggest at least learning basic phrases and numbers. Definitely shop around and get the taxi drivers to compete with each other and lower their prices. I hopped in a taxi with some random girl and we were able to get a ride from the airport to Panama City for $20 each.

Uber is way cheaper than in the States. To give you an idea of just how cheap, I was able to get a 40 min ride for only $5. In the U.S., that’d typically cost anywhere from $40 to over $100 depending on peak times, at least in the DMV. It’s also usually cheaper than taking local taxis. I always recommend Uber for a safe means of foreign transportation if you don’t feel like waiting around for public transpo. (I’ve used Uber for cheap in Cuba and TNT as well). If you don’t mind waiting, there are chicken buses you can hop on, as well as the metro which is very affordable. I like having personal drivers since the ride is the perfect opportunity to make a new friend or ask for recommendations. They often offer to be your tour guide as well so they can make some extra cash, and I’ve had some great tours and kept in touch with several of my drivers for future trips.

Typically when traveling to a foreign country I opt for staying with a local host via Airbnb. This time I decided to switch it up for once and booked a really nice hotel, Global Hotel Panama en calle 54 through the Airbnb website. (I didn’t know this at first, but if you do decide to stay there check the hotel’s website first for specials- since I booked through Airbnb, my breakfast buffet wasn’t included. If you’re my friend, hit me up first since I know a few of the receptionists). It only cost about $75 USD/night, and a hotel of that quality in the U.S. would run around $150-200/night! Cost of living in Panama, as in many other countries, is much cheaper than in the U.S.

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The amenities were great; upon your arrival they provide a complimentary glass of champagne as you’re waiting to check in. All the staff provided great service and were friendly and fun to chat with. I imagine they get a lot of international business travelers, so most if not all the staff also speak English. (Of course, I still practiced speaking in espanol most of the time). They have a small fitness center, an outdoor pool and Jacuzzi, and a restaurant and lobby bar…that has a seven hour happy hour every day. Surprisingly, I only visited the bar once or twice. I was also super happy that they lent out umbrellas, since I didn’t bring one and it happened to be rainy season (especially October and November). Unfortunately I didn’t discover that amenity until near the end of my trip. Could have used that the first day when I got stuck waiting outside the dollar store for the rain to go away (because I left my entire makeup bag at home…I always forget something important!). A kind gentleman ended up renting an umbrella from a guy on the street for me so it all worked out.

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View from my hotel room. The only downside to staying there was the pricey food, since it’s more of an Americanized place. Unlike in the U.S., in Panama tipping is actually optional and not expected. To stay consistent with the culture there, I often didn’t tip, except when I felt service was exceptional (tipped the housekeeping lady and certain servers or Uber drivers). At some places they may add tip onto the bill, but feel free to ask them to remove it by saying no propina.

In general I recommend staying with locals via Airbnb if you want to get the most cultural immersion. Did that in Cuba and TNT and had amazing experiences. You get the scoop on local events, authentic food places, things to do that aren’t as touristy, and what parts of town to avoid.

When traveling abroad it’s always a good idea to have data everywhere you go in case of emergencies (somehow I managed to survive Cuba without it, only checking my phone at wifi parks). Plus you’ll need it if you want to use Uber, maps, make calls, or stay in touch with people. You can easily get a local SIM card and buy data at any cell store; there are a ton of Chinese owned shops that sell them for cheap. My new Colombian friend showed me the store and helped me get mine. I only paid $7 for the SIM card plus 7 days’ worth of data! Cheaper than buying international roaming from some U.S. carriers.

It felt odd speaking Chinese in a Spanish-speaking country, but I suppose it’s not much different from speaking Chinese in an English-speaking country. (Not gonna lie, my Chinese was rustier than my Spanish, not having used it in so long! I even started thinking in Spanish at times). In Panama City there’s a large Chinese population since a lot of them go to open businesses. It was around 8pm and I was standing outside the store when the Chinese owner came out to warn me to be careful in the streets at night. Apparently all the Chinese people get off the streets by 7 or 8 pm since sometimes people get robbed even on main streets in Obarrio, the downtown financial district where I stayed. Not sure if it’s because Chinese people are targeted more for crimes, since I still saw non-Chinese people walking around at night. Personally I’ve never been targeted before at home nor abroad, but I’ve also been told by strangers that I have a super confident demeanor. (If someone tried to rob me unarmed, you can bet I’d be pissed and try to chase them down and get my stuff back).

A few safety tips specific to Panama:

  1. When possible, avoid using ATMs since they make you an easy target for robberies.
  2. Avoid Colon, the most dangerous city in Panama.
  3. If you happen to hear any gunshots, just keep walking and you’ll probably be fine (I did hear one while on the streets, and did just that).

In general, it didn’t seem much more dangerous than any other country I’ve been to, including the U.S. Everywhere you go, there will be some areas that are safer than others. Just use common sense.

Obarrio isn’t a bad place to stay for convenience while visiting Panama City, but there are other great options in Panama as well depending on what you want to do. My trip was only six days so I didn’t get to travel to western Panama. In the west you can visit the Boquete highlands to go ziplining, hike across high hanging bridges, see a volcano, or take coffee tours and chocolate making classes. There’s also the Gulf of Chiriqui where you can visit Boca Chica, a waterfront hub of activity. If I ever go again, I definitely want to hit up the beaches in Bocas del Toro, an island province off the coast of Panama. They apparently aren’t the cleanest beaches, but all the locals say the nightlife there is great!

Stay tuned for my next posts on Panamanian cuisine and specific things to do while in the city!

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