We spent 215 days and drove 5,336 miles (8,587 km) in this tiny little s-shaped country at the bottom of Central America. Our experiences became nearly 60 posts on our travel blog covering everything from falling in love with Casco Viejo, the hippest neighborhood in Panama City, getting into the nitty-gritty about travel to the country’s top beach destination, including where to stay in Bocas del Toro, exploring the Darien Jungle, driving to the end of the road, sailing through the San Blas Islands, surviving Carnival in Las Tablas, revealing Panama’s 12 best hotels from budget to boutique, and giving you the lowdown on how to explore the Panama Canal. As we put the country in our rear view mirror, here are even more Panama travel tips and observations.
Panama travel tips
Panama is not the most foreign place we’ve ever been. English is widely spoken and the country uses the US dollar as its official currency. Social customs and things like architecture and fashion seem familiar too. This is not surprising given the fact that the US had a decades-long presence in Panama during the building of the Panama Canal, even establishing a “Canal Zone” that was administered as US territory. The US even invaded Panama in 1989.
In Panama, “summer” is the dry season (basically January to April) and “winter” is the wet season (basically the rest of the year).
Panama is on US Central Time and they never move the clocks forward or back.
Nearly every town square in Panama, no matter how small, has free Wi-Fi thanks to a national program called internet para todos (internet for everyone).
Some locals call Manuel Noriega, the former dictator with the famously pockmarked complexion who is currently in prison in a jail alongside the Panama Canal, la cara pina or pineapple face.
Republican senator John McCain was born in Panama.
The lowest temperature ever recorded in Panama City is 68 degrees farenheit (20 degree celsius). You don’t want to know what the highest temperature is.
Despite the fact that Panama grows world class coffee in places like Boquete, the stuff you find in the supermarkets sucks. Virtually the only non-instant brand on the shelves is Duran which tastes burned. If you do a coffee tour or visit coffee producing regions stock up there.
You can buy unlocked cell phones pretty easily in Panama, something that was far less common in any other Central American country. Cell phone service was comparatively cheap too. We put US$3 on our +Movil account and it lasted for weeks and every recharge seemed to come with lots of free time.
Cell phone numbers have eight digits. Land line numbers have seven digits.
Public buses in Panama, called diablos rojos, look like they were decorated by a talented gang of spray-paint-wielding 15-year-old boys. Even the wheels are decorated. However, the artistic value of these buses if far better than their value as a form of public transportation. Panama City recently banned all diablos rojos because of safety concerns and pollution issues and replaced them with generic looking (and professionally driven) city buses. We visited the final resting place of Panama City’s diablos rojos as the buses were being taken off the streets of the capital.
Unscientific survey: 3 out 3 can openers in hostel kitchens in Panama (including brand new ones) will not work.
The place is obsessed with and full of fake boobs.
Wine is relatively cheap in supermarkets across Panama. A bottle we’d been paying more or less US$6.50 for in El Salvador and Nicaragua was US$3.95 in Panama for the exact same bottle. Actually, all booze was cheaper and the selection was better in Panama than in other Central American countries because the government doesn’t tax liquor imports, though there is currently talk of re-visiting that policy. For best selection and best prices do your wine and booze shopping at Felipe Mota stores.
Though Panama is one of a handful of countries (along with El Salvador and Ecuador) which uses the US dollar as their official currency, the country also has its own national currency. It’s called the Balboa and you often get coin change in both US currency and local currency. A balboa dollar coin looks a bit like a New York City subway token.
There are a few mass produced beers in Panama including Alta, Balboa, and Soberana. We defy you to find any real taste difference between them. Luckily, there is also a growing microbrew scene in Panama including outstanding brewpubs from La Rana Dorada (below) and an annual craft brew festival in Panama City. Find out more in our story about Central American microbreweries for TheLatinKitchen.
In 2011 Panama launched a program that gave all visitors 30 days of free emergency travel health insurance. Sadly, that innovative program has since been discontinued.
Driving in Panama and Panama road trip tips
For some reason fuel is about 20 cents cheaper per gallon at the two stations in the town of Anton right on the Pan-American Highway. But be warned: the Texaco does NOT take credit cards and when we were at the station there were no signs to that effect. Also, Panama was in the process of switching station signs from gallons to liters. By now we expect that all gas stations will be listing prices in liters.
In general, the price of fuel varied from station to station by as much as 25 cents per gallon so it paid to shop around.
It was nearly impossible to find a car wash that had pressurized water hoses.
The roads are not great in Panama but they’re better than the pot hole festivals that pass for roads in Costa Rica. Though stretches of the Pan-American Highway from the city of David to Panama City came close to Costa Rican lows with tons of potholes, wavy, rough, poorly laid asphalt, and ridge and gap filled concrete.
Thankfully, speed bumps in Panama mostly take the much tamer form of raised reflectors on the road.
Though diesel prices are often listed on gas station signs in the familiar green color, the actual pump handle is sometimes blue with green being used for regular gas. Read the fuel type carefully before you fill up.
Here’s more about travel in Panama