While Central America has long been hailed as a vacation haven for adventurous travelers, with tourist hotspots such as Costa Rica and Nicaragua, we believe that Panama may just be a secret weapon for the perfect getaway. Panama is the up and coming destination for travelers seeking the best of both worlds: cities steeped in history and tropical islands filled with opportunity for adventure. With nine provinces that each offer a distinct culture and take on life, Panama has far more to offer than the Panama Canal. Our Panama Guide has Top 5’s for our two favorite provinces: the Panamá region, where you will find the urban and multifaceted Panama City, and Bocas del Toro, where gorgeous beaches and rainforest hikes await you. We recommend taking two weeks in order to visit both locations, while a week’s vacation in either Province would still make a fabulous getaway. The Panamanian people are generous, social, and excited to show what their country has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.
For first time travelers to Panama city, here’s the low down:
Geography: Panama is the southernmost country in Central America, bordered to the north by Costa Rica and to the south by Columbia. A narrow isthmus forms in the center of the country that borders the Caribbean sea and the Pacific Ocean, where the famous Panama Canal allows ships to pass through.
Religion: The predominant religion in Panama is Christianity, mostly Roman Catholic and some Evangelical.
Population: Approximately 3.5 million people. Panama is extremely ethnically diverse, due largely to Panama’s history in commerce. There are seven indigenous tribes: the Ngäbe, Kuna (Guna), Emberá, Buglé, Wounaan, Naso Tjerdi (Teribe), and Bri Bri. The majority of Panamanians are “Mestizo,” which describes Panamanians of mixed origin, usually Indigenous (Amerindian) and white. Descendents of Africans who arrived in the Colonial Era, and Chinese immigrants who built the Panama Railroad also have significant representations in the population.
Language: Spanish. A small portion of the population (less than 10%) speak English, but you will find more English speakers in the major cities.
Currency: Panama uses the U.S. Dollar for paper currency, though it’s national currency is officially the Balboa. You may receive Balboa coins as change when you use U.S. dollars, just be sure to use them up before you leave!
- Taxis: Always know how much your taxi should cost to avoid getting upcharged. Drivers don’t use meters, they use zone maps, so don’t be afraid to ask to see how much getting from point A to point B should cost. Also, negotiate the price with the driver before you get into the taxi. You may have to let a few go before you get one who agrees on the proper price, but it’s worth it.
- An important tip: never allow a hotel to hail a taxi for you. It will always be at least twice the price of what you’ll get on the street. Walk a few blocks; there are taxis everywhere. Again, don’t be afraid to ask to see the zone map.
- Money: Carry small bills for taxis, tipping, and making purchases at small vendors. It’s easier to negotiate if you have the right amount.
- Electricity: They use North American sockets (110-120 Volts) or 220 V, but we visited several hotels that conserve energy by using lower (as low as 12 V) sockets. Make sure you ask if your laptops and phones are compatible before you plug in.
- Time: Panama is on EST (UTC-5).
- Airports: There are two of them. You will probably fly in to Tocumen International Airport (PTY). Expect to pay $25-$35 to get to your hotel from the airport. Allbrook Airport is mostly domestic, you’ll fly to and from Allbrook if you decide to go from Panama City to Bocas del Toro via air. Taxis to Panama City should be $4-5 from the line of taxis outside the airport, but if you cross the street it will be cheaper.
- Word of Mouth: Learn a few Spanish phrases before you go. People tend to be far more helpful (and taxis are much cheaper!) if you speak Spanish.
- Hello: Hola or Buenas
- Goodbye: Chao! (pronounced like the Italian “Caio.”) You probably have heard people use adiós, but it is pretty formal and only used when you won’t see someone for a long time.
- How much does this cost? ¿Cuánto cuesta?
- Thank you: Gracias
- Nice to meet you: Mucho gusto
Luxury travel options are thriving in Panama. A trip to the country wouldn’t be complete without a few days on a private island. And let us tell you, there are quite a few in Panama. Our favorite is Isla Palenque, on the gulf of Chiriqui. It’s a 5-hour drive east from Panama City. You can also fly from Panama City to the airport in David (the main city in Chiriqui) and Isla Palenque will arrange a staff member to pick you up at the airport, or at a dock (if you’re driving.)
The privately-owned eco-resort is perfect for honeymooners, with many activities to do: hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming. The hotel offers guided tours (by a wonderful staff), where you can be surrounded by wild animals in beautiful rainforests. Meals served at Isla Palenque are delectably prepared from their very own organic garden. We highly recommend enjoying their tasting menu, relish on every dish paired with a tasty cocktail. Gastronomy well arrives at Isla Palenque’s romance and peaceful getaway.
Just an hour away from Panama City is an old Spanish fishing town – Portobelo. As a sleepy port town located in the Colon Province, it was used as a center for silver exporting before the mid-18th century. Portobelo is ideal for a relaxing retreat. It can be reached by car or a metrobus that runs from Panama City.
We highly recommend spending a few nights at El Otro Lado boutique hotel. There’s something incredibly charming about being secluded from the rest of the world and immerse yourself in a mini staycation at a four-bungalow hotel. Each is custom designed and decorated with local artisan crafts. Located near a National Park, in midst of a tropical forest, El Otro Lado even offers activities guests can do to integrate within the local community, such as: visiting the Portobelo Bay Foundation, Rhythm School, Carpentry Workshops, Cong Arts Centre, Community-focused Hotelito Rayo Verde!
JST’S PANAMA LOOKBOOK: