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Things to know before going to Panama

Idyllic islands, rolling surf, untamed nature and showstopping wildlife all help make Panama an irresistible destination.

Sat at the crossroads of the Americas and connecting two oceans, did you know that beyond its cosmopolitan capital and legendary canal, it’s a biodiversity hotspot? Or that this narrow isthmus produces some of the world’s finest – and most expensive – coffee?

There’s plenty to know on the practical side as well. Read on for our top tips for traveling to Panama.

Planning your trip to Panama

Plan ahead if you want to party

Panamanians love to party, and barely a week goes by without a fiesta, from La Feria de las Flores y del Café in Boquete to the countrywide Carnaval, whose largest and loudest celebrations are in Las Tablas on the Azuero Peninsula.

There’s also Easter, Christmas and New Year’s. November’s numerous independence-related festivals see shops and offices closed and locals flocking to the beach. Hotel prices often double around public holidays and can be booked out weeks in advance.

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A man looking out from El Valle de Anton's crater walk
When packing for Panama, carry layers for the high altitudes and sturdy boots for hardcore hikes © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Pack for the climate

The country’s tropical climate means two seasons – hot and dry from December to April and hot and wet the rest of the year. Although the amount of rain depends on what coast you’re on, downpours usually come in short, sharp afternoon bursts before the sun forces you to put your Panama hat back on.

Pack high-factor sunscreen and hot-weather clothes, but carry something for the icy air-conditioning and high altitudes, and sturdy boots if you’re planning any hardcore hikes.

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What currency do you need?

The Panamanian Balboa may be the country’s official currency, but the bills in use are US dollars. Prices are listed in $ or B/ but both currencies have the same value. Carry small bills for tipping, markets and rural areas, and enough cash in case the ATM doesn’t work – or there are no ATMs, like in the San Blas Archipelago.

Any COVID-19 health checks before you arrive?

Ensure that you’re up to date with the recommended vaccinations before you travel and check the current COVID-19 rules of entry, including submitting an Electronic Health Affidavit to your airline before you fly.

You can’t reach Colombia by road

If you’re thinking of road-tripping south to Colombia, think again. The infamous Darién Gap – the land link between Central and South America – is a mash-up of impenetrable jungle, primordial swamps, poisonous snakes and dubious characters, and there’s no road crossing.

But if you plan to head north to Costa Rica and beyond, several long-distance bus lines, such as Tica Bus, cover Central America.

A group of travelers look over tables filled with souvenirs at an outdoor market in Panama City, Panama.
Learning a few conversational Spanish phrases will go a long way during a visit to Panama © Chrispictures / Shutterstock

Etiquette in Panama

What language is spoken in Panama?

English is widely spoken, especially in Panama City and Boquete, but mastering a few basic Spanish phrases will endear you to the locals and help if you travel away from the tourist hotspots.

Panama may be laid back but it’s important to be polite. Always greet people – good is a catch-all term for hello – and don’t forget to say please (please) and thank you (thank you). And listen out for one-of-a-kind Panamanian phrases, such as what soup? (what’s up?), mouth (a lot), and cold paint (cold beer).

It’s best to avoid subjects involving politics, religion, the Panama Canal and the Panama Papers out of respect to Panamanian residents.

be more calm

Panama moves at a relaxed pace, including the cities, so don’t expect lightning-fast responses to requests. As in most of Central America, punctuality is a loose concept, and service in restaurants can be leisurely – meals are meant to be enjoyed and can stretch over several hours – so if you skip the strict schedule, no worries.

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Don’t strip off in the city

Panamanians dress casually as a rule but tend to be a bit formal in the capital. You don’t have to wear suits or high heels, but the faded T-shirts, short shorts and flip-flops that were fine in Bocas del Toro can look out of place here. And shirtless men are an absolute no-no.

Confirm the fare before taking a cab

Panama’s yellow licensed taxis can be a wallet-friendly way to get around, but don’t forget to negotiate a fare before you set off. Taxis aren’t metered, official rates are usually ignored and tourists are routinely overcharged; ask a local for an idea of ​​the cost in advance.

Uber is a better bet, available in Panama City (although drivers are often willing to go cross-country), along with UberEnglish for non-Spanish speakers and UberAssist for people with mobility issues. Lyft is also available.

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When should you tip, and how much?

Tips aren’t compulsory, but they are welcome. In pricier restaurants, if it’s not already been snuck on your bill, leave a 10% gratuity. Taxi drivers don’t expect a tip, but you can round up the fare, and if someone helps you with your luggage, give them around $1 to $2.

Respect smoke-free zones

Smoking is prohibited in all indoor public spaces, hotel rooms, workplaces, public transport, outdoor dining spaces and sports venues. You can face a fine if you’re caught smoking in a non-designated area. The same goes for vaping, and it’s illegal to import and sell e-cigarettes.

The view of the street of Casco Viejo (Old City)
Panama is one of the safest countries in Central America, but it always pays to take a few precautions © Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Health and safety in Panama

Bring repellent to avoid mosquito bites

Not only are mosquito bites itchy, they can also spread diseases such as dengue fever, so use a heavyweight bug spray, especially if you’re heading to the jungle.

If you need emergency medical assistance, dial 911 for an ambulance. Panama City has good hospitals and clinics, but facilities are more limited outside the capital; make sure you have adequate travel insurance.

Can I drink the water?

With a combo of heat and humidity, it’s important to keep hydrated, particularly if you plan to get active. Tap water is normally safe to drink, especially in cities, but if you’re going off the beaten track, avoid plastic pollution and invest in a water-filter bottle such as the LifeStraw Go, which you can fill up from any water source.

How to stay safe in the city

Panama is one of the safest countries in Central America, but it always pays to take a few precautions.

Pickpocketing is common in crowded areas of Panama City, including bus stations, markets and shopping areas, so keep your valuables safe.

As in any big city, steer clear of poorly lit streets or wandering around dodgy neighborhoods alone after dark. Avoid carrying all your credit cards at once, or wads of cash, and if you need an ATM, try to use one inside a bank during the day.

Report a crime by dialing 511 9260 (the Tourist Police in Panama City) or 104 (National Police), and keep the number of your embassy handy.

Casco Viejo is one of the top 10 experiences in Panama City

Keep an eye on the weather

Before you take the plunge on Panama’s two coastlines, check for strong currents or riptides. Inland, heavy rains can cause flash flooding and landslides – October and November are usually the wettest months – so check the weather forecast and follow local advice before hitting the hiking trails without a guide.

A sloth hangs in a tree in a forested area in Panama
Enjoy Panama’s wildlife at a distance © Parkol / Getty Images

Be wary when interacting with wildlife

While the risk is low, keep your eye out for venomous snakes, such as the fearsome fer-de-lance, while trekking along jungle trails, and avoid swimming in rivers unless you know they’re crocodile-free.

Always carry your ID

Foreign visitors are asked to carry their passport at all times, and the police sometimes check, but it’s safer to carry a photocopy or photo of the opening pages and entry stamp and leave the real thing somewhere secure.

Steer clear of drugs

Panama takes its drug laws very seriously. Getting caught with a small amount of illegal drugs, or even being with someone who is using drugs or has them in their possession, is grounds for arrest and can lead to a heavy fine or a harsh prison sentence.

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