The urban jungle in Central America makes Panama one of the most popular destinations in the world with full of things to see and must-do’s. Just in case you’re too lazy to flip through a guidebook, here’s a quick rundown of etiquette, Wifi info, cash exchange, SIM cards…and more!
5 things to avoid:
- Don’t hail a cab near a hotel, your fair will most likely be more expensive than if you walked a few blocks away from a hotel.
- Avoid drinking tap water. Better be safe than sorry.
- Always carry large bills. Even $20 bills is considered too large if you want taxi drivers or boutiques to give you back change.
- Don’t forget your bug spray. You’ll be in the tropics, there will be bugs and insects that you’ve never seen before.
- Time and punctuality isn’t as respected as other countries (unless in business.) Lunch and dinner will be long. So be patient and enjoy the relaxing vibe.
Prepare for tropical weather with lots of humidity and spontaneous thunderstorms. Throughout the year, temperatures in Panama normally ranges from 24°C to 32°C and is rarely below 23°C or above 34°C.
Warm season typically starts from mid-March to end of May with an average daily high temperature above 32°C. The hottest period in a year is mid-April, with an average high of 32°C and low of 25°C.
Cold season starts from mid-October to end of November with an average daily high temperature below 30°C. The coldest period in a year is mid-December with an average low of 24°C and high of 29°C.
Local time is EST, Eastern Standard Time, which is UTC/GMT -5 hours.
All travelers need a passport valid for at least 90 days following your departure date from panama. It’s highly recommended that you travel with 6 months validity on your passport at all times.
Tourist visas are not required if you’re staying less than 180 days. If you stay more than 180 days (with a US passport), expect a fine of USD $50/month for overstay.
Be sure your passport has blank visa pages, for any necessary stamps upon arrival and departure. Leaving at least 2 free pages in your passport is a smart idea.
Panama divides tourists into two groups: travelers who need a tourist visa, and travelers who only need a passport. The lists below may change, check with your embassy prior to your trip to double check.
You only need a passport if you’re from: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States.
You’ll need a “stamped visa” if you travel through Panama several times in a year. You can only attain these visas through a Panamanian embassy or consulate. You’re usually given 30 days per visit. Citizens of these countries are required to have a stamped visa: Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Georgia, Peru, Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
You’ll need an “authorized visa” if you’re from:Bangladesh, Cuba, Haiti, India, Pakistan, China, and South Africa. You can only receive an authorized visa through a Panamanian embassy or consulate. Prepare one month for processing your visa, and get these documents ready:
- A completed application form
- A valid passport
- A copy of the passport (including the pages that show entry and exit stamps)
- A letter from a local Panamanian sponsor. The sponsor must also present a recent bank statement and utility bill. This letter can come from a Panamanian guide company or tour operator.
- A copy of your ID or residence card from your home country
- A copy of your most recent Panama visa, if applicable
- Two passport-size photographs
- Some consulates will ask for proof of a round-trip ticket.
If you’re stopping by Panama for a connecting flight, check with your airline if you need a transit visa. Sometimes, it’s stated in your confirmation e-ticket.
Here are a few phrases you should know:
- Hello = Hola (o-la)
- Goodbye = Adiós (a-dyos)
- How are you? = ¿Qué tal? (ke tal)
- Fine, thanks = Bien, gracias (byen gra-syas)
- Excuse me = Perdón (per-don)
- Sorry = Lo Siento (lo syen-to)
- Please = Por favor (por fa-vor)
- Thank you = Gracias (gra-syas)
- You are welcome = De nada (de na-da)
- Yes = Sí (see)
- No = No (no)
- My Name is… = Me llamo… (me ya-mo…)
- What’s your name? = ¿Cómo se llama usted? (ko-mo se ya-ma oo-ste) / ¿Cómo te llamas?(ko-mo te ya-mas)
- Do you speak English? = ¿Habla ingles? (a-bla een-gles) / ¿Hablas ingles? (a-blas een-gles)
- I don’t understand = Yo no entiendo (yo no en-tyen-do)
Here are a few things to remember:
- Say “Buenas” whenever you’re entering a shop.
- In a meeting, say “Buenos días” (Good morning) or “Buenas tardes” (Good afternoon/evening).
- Men shake hands while women hug or kiss on the cheeks.
- Panamanians don’t touch as much as most Latin Americans while speaking to each other.
- When introducing people, use Don for men or Doña for women, followed by the last/family name.
- Whistles and catcalls from men on the street will happen, so don’t be shocked.
Most of Panama is considerably safe with locals in rural areas being incredibly helpful and friendly. Some areas in Panama City to watch out for, especially at night, include: El Chorrillo, Curundu and El Marañón. You’ll most likely be visiting Casco Viejo, which can be dangerous late at night but safe during the day.
Although Panama has its own money: Panamanian Balboa, Panama uses US dollars and the two currencies have the exact exchange rate.
The only thing confusing is that Panama uses its own coins and change, which is also completely interchangeable with US coins. When you get change back at a shop, don’t be surprised if you get a mixture of Panamanian and US coins.
Look for casas de cambio (exchange offices) to change money. Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca have the best exchange rates, while in the Oriente exchanging currency will prove difficult. Other places to exchange money include at most border crossing and banks.
Panamanian ATMs don’t not take cards with Interlink symbol, so be sure to carry a lot of cash. Forget about traveler’s checks, they’re not popular in Panama. Make sure to ask your bank how you can get cash out of your card in Panama if their machines do not take your card.
Most hotels, large to mid-size restaurants, and large shops accept both credit and debit cards. But outside of Panama City, your card may not be accepted. A good reminder is to always carry small bills with you.
Mobile phone & SIM card:
Local cell phone’s dialing format is: 011 507 6xxx xxxx.
Roaming can get expensive, so if you know you’ll be making phone calls, be sure to buy a SIM card to activate your mobile phone (as long as it’s not locked.) Local electronic stores sell SIM cards for $15 each. The three main providers in Panama include: + Movil / Cable & Wireless, Movistar, and Digicel.
In general, internet is available everywhere in Panama, especially in most hotels and restaurants. There are small internet cafes in every town and in most tourist areas. Many coffee shops and restaurants provide internet as well.
Panama uses the same electrical plug and outlet as U.S./Canada: 110-120 volts.
Tap water is considered safe to drink but it’s still highly recommended that you drink from bottled water when possible.
When in restaurants, tips are expected to be 10%.
Tipping in taxis is not necessary.
Before getting inside a taxi, make sure to ask about or negotiate the rate first. Step away from a hotel or a tourist area to get a better rate. Taxis in Panama should never cost more than $10. If you’re getting around the city, $4 – $6 per ride is a good base to work with.
Uber is now available in Panama. If you’re ever waiting too long for a taxi to stop, Uber is a great option.
If you’re looking for a guided tour in Panama, here are some that we highly recommend: Barefoot Panama offers a wide variety of tours, from Panama Canal to adventurous tours. Our favorite are their eco tours. Rudy’s Panama Tours is ideal for smaller groups with a private guide in Panama City.