Insider’s Guide to Panama

Estimated reading time 7 min

Panama provides an array of unique experiences in a single destination. It is truly a country of diversity. Visitors can relax on beaches on two different oceans and wander the streets of bustling modern cities and colonial villages in a single trip. From surfing to mountain trekking, Panama offers it all and more. Your time is best spent planning the details of your upcoming vacation, so this insider guide to Panama is here to help you cover the basics.

Insider Guide to Panama - Map

The Basics

Panama is located on a narrow isthmus in Central America. It shares land borders with the South American country Colombia to the southeast and Costa Rica to the west. It is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Caribbean Sea to the north. It covers a land area of just about 29,120 square miles. The population of Panama is just over 4 million, with approximately half residing in Panama City – the country’s capital.

Panama has a tropical climate, which is characterized by high temperatures, high humidity and little seasonal variation. In the morning, temperatures may be around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the afternoon, temperatures hover just around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures on the Pacific side tend to be slightly cooler, and some of the mountain ranges occasionally experience frost.

When preparing for a trip to Panama, pack light clothing made of natural fabrics. Bring a jacket for evenings in the mountainous regions, and a waterproof jacket for the rainy season, which typically runs from April to December. The UV rays in Panama can be quite high, so bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen.

Language

Spanish is Panama’s official language, and the exact dialect spoken is called Panamanian Spanish. Over 90% of the population speaks Spanish as a first language. However, native languages are still spoken by about 400,000 people.

English is the most widely spoken second language in Panama. Many Panamanians speak some English, and many involved in international business and the tourism industry speak it fluently. Panama is an important business hub, and the country’s proficiency in English reflects this. Outside of major cities, English speakers gradually become harder to find. Learn a few important Spanish phrases before your trip, and download a translation app to your smartphone. Panamanians definitely appreciate the gesture.

Money

Officially, the Panamanian currency is the balboa, which has been fixed at a 1:1 rate with the U.S. dollar since 1903. However, U.S. dollars are legal tender throughout the country. In fact, Panama does not have it’s own paper currency. Balboa coins are interchangeable with American coins. Prices may be listed with either a $ or B/ symbol, but they both mean the same thing. Credit cards may be accepted at hotels and restaurants in major cities, but most smaller places only take cash.

Tipping

In restaurants, a 10% tip is common. Bellmen and housekeepers at hotels can be tipped anywhere from just $.25 to $1.00. Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but private drivers and guides can be tipped similarly to hotel staff, depending on the length of the journey and service provided. Tourism taxes of 10% are added to all hotel stays.

Culture

The culture of Panama has been greatly influenced by European and African cultures. Panama is an impressive melting pot of races, and this diversity is evident in almost everything, including traditions, food, art, dance and music. Family always comes first. Extended families often live in close proximity of each other, and younger generations are expected to take care of older generations. This is more common in rural areas, but the importance of family is also clearly seen in metropolitan areas.

Panamanian people are friendly and often greet passers-by with a variation of the word “buenas”. Men shake hands, while women kiss on the cheek or hug. Titles are important, so use “Don” for men, “Dona” for women and professional titles for professionals. The Panamanian culture is relaxed, so punctuality isn’t extremely important. Arriving late to social events is not considered rude. Panamanians also care greatly about their appearance and hygiene. While the country is casual, outfits are usually stylish and personal grooming is impeccable. Of course, this is more relaxed in beach towns.

Food

Sancocho de gallina - popular food in Panama

Like the culture, Panamanian cuisine is influenced by Native American, Spanish and African cuisines. When compared to other Latin American countries, the cuisine is mildly flavored and emphasizes the fresh ingredients. Common ingredients include rice, beans, yucca, plantains, tropical fruits and maize (corn). Pork, chicken and beef are the most common meats, while seafood is fresh and abundant. Sancocho de gallina, a chicken and vegetable stew, is the national dish. However, don’t forget to try the ceviche and empanadas.

Meals and meal times are similar to those in America. Breakfast is usually fried, but there is a recent push towards healthier options. Panama is a social country, so both lunch and dinner can last hours. These meals usually feature rice and meat or seafood. Snacks include things like tropical fruit juices, fried yucca and meat pies.

Safety

In general, Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America. Petty theft does occur, so be aware of your surroundings. Remove valuables from parked cars, and only use licensed taxis. Avoid taxis with other passengers, and agree on the fare before departure. Avoid demonstration areas in all regions.

Some beaches in Boca del Toro and on the Pacific coast experience dangerous rip currents that unfortunately lead to numerous drowning deaths each year. Obey all signs, and know your physical limits.

Regions

Casco Antiguo in Panama City - Insider Guide to PanamaCentral Panama

Central Panama includes Panama City. The capital of Panama, it is the largest city in the country and the most modern city in all of Central America. Casco Viejo is the historic center of Panama City and features beautiful colonial-style buildings and a wide range of accommodations. On the popular Amador Causeway, the BioMuseo is a newer museum that showcases the cultural and natural history of Panama. Impressively, it is also world-renowned architect Frank Gehry’s first Latin American project.

Of course, a trip to Central Panama wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Panama Canal. Marvel at technology and watch ships pass by at the Miraflores locks. After, visit the on-site museum, restaurant and theater.

Bocas del Toro - Insider Guide to PanamaCaribbean West

Located in western Panama along the Caribbean Sea, this region is home to Bocas del Toro, or simply Bocas Town. This idyllic island destination is only accessible by air or boat. For adventure travelers, the SCUBA diving and surfing is superb. The Bastimentos Island National Marine Park is only a 20-minute boat trip away and is a popular ecotourism and sight-seeing destination. As a whole, Bocas Town and the surrounding islands are extremely walkable and the beaches are pristine.

Waterfall near Boquete - Insider Guide to PanamaPacific West

Located opposite the Caribbean West, the Pacific West is home to a plethora of worthy destinations and numerous world-class beaches. The beaches are obviously huge tourist attractions, but the region is also home to charming villages in the highlands, such as Boquete. This scenic town boasts an impressive arts and music scene and hosts the annual Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival. Nearby, Volcan Baru, an active volcano and the highest point in Panama, is a popular hiking and rafting destination.

Turquoise Waters in Panama - Insider Guide to PanamaEastern Panama

Eastern Panama is largely made up of the infamous Darien forest and swampland. The Darien National Park is one of the most important world heritage sites in Central America. It is also an important UNESCO biosphere reserve due to the various habitats represented. The park landscape ranges from sandy beaches and rugged coastline to dense swamps and tropical rain forests. Wildlife is also abundant, and the bird watching is some of the best in the world. The area is widely known for having the only break in the lengthy Pan-American Highway.

However, due to its isolation, Darien National Park is not easily accessible. It is only reached by Santa Cruz de Cana and Pirre Station. This isolation has seemingly only made the park more attractive to ecotourists and adventure travelers.

From Atlantic Ocean to Caribbean Sea, the culture in Panama is second-to-none. This diverse nation offers something to even the most discerning traveler. Easily accessible and navigable, it’s no surprise that travel to this Latin American destination is on the rise. Whether you’re looking for swank nightlife or a laid-back cocktail on the beach, Panama is the place to be. Let this insider guide to Panama guide you on your journey.

Book your Panama vacation today.

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