In the past two years I’ve visited Panama five times, and I would not hesitate to move here if I had the opportunity. If you’ve never been to Panama, but would like to visit it, there are some things you need to know.
Panama has two groups of people. Panamanians and everyone else. There are further divisions, but it’s important to note that on any given day, Panamanians may be a minority in their own country. Because of Panama’s relatively stable political and economic environment it has become a haven for many people from Latin America, in addition to the visitors from North America, especially Canada.
Panama likes visitors, but not visitors that overstay their welcome. They require a visitor have a return ticket before they come to Panama. On my last trip, it was Copa Airlines that enforced this at the time I checked in for my flight to Panama.
On my current trip, my return trip was fluid and wasn’t booked until after I arrived. Fortunately, no one asked me for proof, but don’t expect that if you are coming to Panama. Have your information about your return flight with you when you check in at the airport.
Learn the Language
People don’t like it when you don’t learn the native language. This is especially true in Panama. Even my meager efforts at speaking español while in Panama are better than trying to speak English. Speaking English in Panama puts a sign on your forehead that you are a stupid foreigner. It also means you pay more than everyone else.
It also is security. Understanding español means you know what people are saying around you, and speaking it fluently means people don’t see you as someone who is vulnerable. If you can’t speak español, hire a guide when you explore the country.
It is Safe?
Panama is as safe as any major city in the United States. Any city in the United States has places you can feel comfortable in day or night, and it has places you should not go to after dark. The same is true in Panama. Most Panamanians would not commit a crime involving a tourist, simply because the penalty they would pay is too high.
However, no visitor should be so arrogant to visit certain areas after dark, especially if you can’t speak español.
Driving in Panama
You can drive if you have a legal license in your home country, but Panama City is not for a country road driver. There are few stop lights, a lot of traffic, and few rules. Most cars have bumps and scrapes on them because to get into traffic a driver has to be aggressive to the point of proving his manhood. If you are not aggressive enough, the cars behind you will let you know your failings.
Roads have few signs and none in English, so either you know where you’re going or you can expect to be lost all the time. GPS is only marginally helpful, as it often suggests roads that don’t exist, are dead ends, or should be driven unless you’re driving a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Once outside Panama City, driving is easier; however, it still requires a willingness to put your rental car into danger, and if you’re wrong, you will pay a hefty fine when you return the car.
Exploring Panama On Your Own
Don’t do it. At least on your first few trips. Hire a guide. Panama has so many great places that your first visits should be to places that someone can take you to, and bring you back to your hotel or condo. Guide books may give you information about great places to go, but they don’t tell you about how to get from your hotel or condo to the place and back, nor do they tell you what you might see on the way.
Once you know the country, then you can explore.
Restaurants open and close in a matter of months. What was a great restaurant last year may be a dump this year. Research and/or hire a guide to find the best places to eat.
Most new restaurants are focused on offering great food. Some of my favorite meals have been in Panama. Most of the new restaurants aren’t trying to be commercial (feeding the most customers at the lowest possible cost,) which means they are committed to giving you a great meal.
In Panama City, check out the Cosco Viejo area for great dining experiences.