If you’re going to Panama and want to get the most out of your trip, you’ll want to know a little about the country before you go. Understanding the culture and history will give you a greater appreciation of the place and its people.
So we’ve put together a list of the 20 most useful things to know about Panama before you go. You know, all the things we wish we knew before we got there ourselves.
1. Panama is most famous for its canal
If there is one highlight on any trip to Panama, it’s a must visit to the Panama Canal. This is one of the most popular day trips from Panama City and the Miraflores Lock is just a few minutes outside of the city.
If you visit the Miraflores Visitor Center, you will really appreciate how difficult it was to build the canal. Digging a channel across the Isthmus of Panama was so challenging that the first builders gave up. Thousands of workers died from disease and accidents, and the economic cost was enormous.
The Panama Canal is important for maritime trade. It cuts 5,000 miles from the journey between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Fuel and time savings translate into lower shipping costs and faster shipping times, which benefit all of us at the store.
About 14000 ships pass through the Panama Canal every year and it takes about 8 to 10 hours to complete the journey.
2. Panama runs east-west
It is the only Central American country that does not run from north to south. Panama is shaped almost like a perfect sideways “S”, a large peninsula jutting into the Atlantic/Caribbean to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
The highest point in Panama is Volcano Baru, an inactive volcano in Boquete. If you go to the top, you can see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the same time. The volcano is one of the central spines of mountains that run through the country.
3. Panama uses the US dollar.
Sure, foreign exchange sites may say that Panama uses the Panamanian Balboa as its official currency, but that’s not the reality. People pay for things in US currency. ATM machines also spit out US dollars.
Panama does not print its own paper currency and instead uses the US dollar as legal tender. The exception is the coins, which are Panamanian and come in 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50-cent pieces, or a balboa coin. They are the same size, color, and weight as US coins, and both are used.
Prices may be listed with either a “$” (dollar) or “B/” (balboa) symbol. Either way, it doesn’t matter because both mean the same thing and have the same value. The Panamanian Balboa is pegged to the US dollar, so they have the same value.
ATMs charge withdrawal fees and your bank may also charge an exchange fee. Bring some cash from home; Smaller bills are better. Sellers don’t always have enough cash to pay for change.
4. You can see a lot of Panama without changing hotels
Many of Panama’s best attractions are within an hour or two of the capital. What this means for you is that you can stay in one place and move around your neighborhood all day. Trust us: Not having to change hotels means you’ll have plenty of time to see the sights.
A day trip is impractical if you want to visit places far away like Boquete, Bocas del Toro, Pearl Islands or San Blas. Sure, you could fly there for a quick visit, but why? They deserve more than one day though!
5. Panama’s tap water is safe to drink
You don’t have to worry about the local tap water in Panama. It is chlorinated and completely safe. Feel free to shower, brush your teeth, and drink heartily.
That said, water can be questionable in more remote villages. If you’re traveling over a damaged track, it’s best to play it safe and rely on bottled water.
6. You can’t go to Colombia from Panama
The infamous Darien Gap is on the border with Colombia and is almost impossible to cross. Not only is it a 60-mile stretch of impenetrable forest and swamp, it’s also a favorite hangout for people you’d never want to meet.
So since the Pan-American Highway doesn’t extend to this part of the world, if you want to go south, you have to fly or take a boat.
7. Panama has a good transportation system
Panama’s infrastructure is pretty good, and getting around is easy. The capital city has local buses as well as a new subway system. To get out of the city, the country also has an extensive bus system, with cheap long-distance buses that go to most parts of the country. The main bus terminal is next to Albrook Mall.
Panama City has two international airports:
- Tocumen International Airport (PTY) – where most international flights arrive. It is a modern airport that seems to be expanding all the time.
- Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport (PAC), often called Albrook Airport – is served by Air Panama to Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala, as well as San Jose (Costa Rica), and Medellin (Colombia).
Panama City’s two airports are located at opposite ends of the city. Ground transportation is available between airports, but flight schedules are erratic and coordinating flight times rarely works. It’s a good idea to plan to spend some time in Panama City before heading out of town.
8. Not everyone speaks English
Despite more than 100 years of US presence, English speakers are hard to find in many parts of the country. The national language of Panama is Spanish, and if you try to speak a few phrases, you’ll love it.
Similarly, Panamanians like to practice their English with visitors. Many can speak English, especially in the capital and Boquet.
Seriously though, if you just need to talk to someone who speaks Spanish, don’t worry. With just sign language and the Google Translate app you’ll get by much better.
9. Panama has amazing weather
As a tropical country, Panama has a warm climate throughout the year. Its wet season lasts from May to November, but heavy rainfall is common during the dry season between December and April. Most tourists visit during the dry season.
Panama is the best destination if you want to avoid hurricanes, because the country is so far south. Panama is outside the hurricane belt and has never been affected by these storms.
10. Panama is more than a tropical beach vacation
Sure, Panama has man-made canals, plenty of idyllic beaches and islands with resorts, cocktail bars and spas. There is more to the country than that.
Panama City has everything from colonial ruins to traffic and skyscrapers, but not too far away, you can swim with sharks on Isla Coiba, laze in a hammock on the San Blas Islands, or kick back at Bocas Cocktail Bar.
Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can go deep into the Darien jungle and see what Panama was like before they built the canal.
11. Panama is safe
According to the 2020 Global Peace Index of 163 countries, Panama is the fourth safest country in the Western Hemisphere and the 56th safest country in the world. In the Western Hemisphere, only Canada, Uruguay and Chile are considered safer.
Family and solo female travel in Panama is completely safe. Just remember to follow general safety precautions.
12. Panama produces the best coffee in the world
Panama is known worldwide for its coffee. It is so good that people drink it around the clock, not just for breakfast.
The country’s best soybean crop is grown around Boquete in Chiriqui province. While growers produce many varieties, the most iconic is the Geisha coffee bean. It is one of the most sought-after varieties on the planet, so much so that auction prices have reached $1,000 per pound.
13. There is no such thing as personal space.
The concept of personal space is unknown in Panama. To a Panamanian, “Are you married?” and “How old are you?” Asking such personal questions. Shows a friendly interest in you as a person.
And forget about being politically correct. Our American expectation of “all are created equal” may offend, but in Panama, they see no problem charging foreigners high prices.
14. Panama has two Independence Days
Panama gained independence twice: first from Spain and then from Colombia. Both events took place in November, so the country celebrates its separation from Spain on the 3rd and Independence Day from Colombia on the 28th.
Panamanians enjoy festivals and often celebrate with fireworks and parades. And if you’re not around in November, there’s also the Panamanian Carnival to look forward to.
15. You must pack for the weather
Whichever month you travel, Panama is hot. Be sure to pack light clothing and a pair of durable sandals. You will also need a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen.
If you decide to go trekking, a good pair of hiking shoes will make your experience more enjoyable.
Always bring a jacket too! Even if you don’t plan to visit mountain destinations like Boquete, El Valle de Antón, and Santa Fe, the air conditioning can be very cold.
16. Taxis can be expensive.
In our experience, it’s best to use Uber instead of taxis to get around whenever possible. For one thing, you can be sure that you’ve communicated your destination correctly. For another, Panamanian taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists.
If you want to take a taxi, agree on the price before you get in. Taxis are not metered, so drivers can charge whatever they want.
17. Panama has amazing wildlife
As a land bridge between North and South America, Panama is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, with 125 animal species found nowhere else in the world.
While staying in the country we were overwhelmed by the variety of wildlife. From howler monkeys to poison dart frogs, sloths, blue morpho butterflies and coatimundis, Panama is a land made for nature lovers. and bird watchers. It is considered one of the best birding spots in the world, with over 940 bird species, including rare birds like the quetzal and harpy eagle.