American Express -- American Express Travel Services has an office on Avenida Balboa (tel. 207-1100, or for 24-hour service in the United States, 800/111-0006). This office issues traveler's checks and replacement cards, along with other standard services. To report lost or stolen traveler's checks within Panama, call the numbers above, or try tel. 207-1111.
Business Hours -- Hours for service-oriented businesses in Panama are generally 8am to 1:30pm and 3 to 5pm on weekdays, and 8am to noon on Saturdays. Shops open at 9 or 10am and close at 6 or 7pm; shopping malls close around 8pm. Grocery stores are open 24 hours or 8am to 8pm.
Electricity -- Electrical plugs are the same as in the U.S., as is Panama's voltage, 110 AC.
Embassies & Consulates -- The United States Embassy is located in Panama City at Avenida Balboa and Calle 38 Este (tel. 207-7030). The Canadian Embassy is at 53 Este and Nicanor de Obarrio in Panama City (tel. 264-7115). The British Embassy is at Calle 53 Este and Nicanor de Obarrio, Panama City (tel. 269-0866). Australia and New Zealand do not have an embassy or consulate in Panama; however, the British Embassy can provide consular assistance to citizens of those countries.
Emergencies -- For fire, dial tel. 103; for an ambulance, dial Seguro Social at tel. 229-1133, or Cruz Roja at tel. 228-2187.
Etiquette & Customs -- Denizens of Panama City dress well in spite of the heat, meaning no flip-flops, shorts, or tank tops -- so bring at least one nice outfit with you. Many better restaurants will not serve patrons in shorts, women included. In resort or beach areas, and in smaller towns with a large expat presence like Boquete, casual wear is okay.
Panamanians usually greet each other with a light kiss on the right cheek, but they are accustomed to North American habits and most likely will greet you with a handshake if they know you're a gringo or if you are in a business environment. Punctuality is appreciated in business settings, but don't be surprised if your Panamanian guest shows up 30 or 45 minutes late for a dinner party. Many Panamanians do not like to be bothered on Sunday, so reconsider if calling on this day. In business settings, always begin a conversation with light talk before getting to the point. In contrast to North America, the do-it-yourself spirit is not very esteemed in Panama; rather, your ability to hire help to do it for you is what people value. Live-in and daily maids are very common in Panama, meaning as a guest you are not expected to make your bed or help out around the house. When entering a room, you are expected to greet everyone either individually or as a group.
In the San Blas Islands, Kuna Indians frequently request money to have their photo taken.
Gasoline (Petrol) -- Because Panama has no petroleum distilleries, gas is even more expensive than in the U.S. When this guide was published, 1 gallon of gas in Panama cost about $4.60. In more remote locations, such as Bocas del Toro and the Kuna Yala Islands, gas is as high as $5.50 per gallon. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One Panama gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons.
Insurance -- For travel overseas, most U.S. health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services upfront and reimburse you only after you return home.
As a safety net, you may want to buy travel medical insurance, particularly if you're traveling to a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary. If you require additional medical insurance, try MEDEX Assistance (tel. 410/453-6300; www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828; www.travelassistance.com; for general information on services, call the company's Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., at tel. 800/777-8710).
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated overseas.
Travelers from the U.K. should carry their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which replaced the E111 form as proof of entitlement to free/reduced cost medical treatment abroad (tel. 0845 606 2030; www.ehic.org.uk). Note, however, that the EHIC only covers "necessary medical treatment'," and for repatriation costs, lost money, baggage, or cancellation, travel insurance from a reputable company should always be sought (www.travelinsuranceweb.com).
Travel Insurance -- The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you're taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information, for prices from more than a dozen companies.
U.K. citizens and their families who make more than one trip abroad per year may find an annual travel insurance policy works out cheaper. Check www.moneysupermarket.com, which compares prices across a wide range of providers for single-and multi-trip policies.
Most big travel agents offer their own insurance and will probably try to sell you their package when you book a holiday. Think before you sign. Britain's Consumers' Association recommends that you insist on seeing the policy and reading the fine print before buying travel insurance. The Association of British Insurers (tel. 020/7600-3333; www.abi.org.uk) gives advice by phone and publishes Holiday Insurance, a free guide to policy provisions and prices. You might also shop around for better deals: Try Columbus Direct tel. 0870/033-9988; www.columbusdirect.net).
Trip Cancellation Insurance -- Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and State Department advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the "any-reason" cancellation coverage -- which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won't get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you'll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233; www.travelsafe.com) offers both types of coverage. Expedia.com also offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages. For details, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com); Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com); Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com); and Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com).
Internet Access -- Internet access is plentiful in Panama, except in more remote areas. Nearly every hotel has at least one computer with Internet access; some have dataports or Wi-Fi (usually in the hotel lobby or business center). Most Internet cafes charge between $2 and $3 per hour.
Language -- Spanish is the official language in Panama, though English is widely spoken in the tourism industry, and many hotel owners are native English-speakers themselves. Panama's seven indigenous groups speak their own languages in their communities, and in some isolated areas indigenous groups do not speak Spanish fluently. On the Caribbean coast, creoles speak a patois called Guari-Guari or Wari-Wari, a mix of English, Spanish, and Ngöbe-Buglé.
Liquor Laws -- Panama's legal drinking age is 18, though it is rarely enforced. Beer, wine, and liquor can be purchased at any supermarket or liquor store, although only until 11pm.
Lost & Found -- Be sure to tell all of your credit card companies the minute you discover your wallet has been lost or stolen, and file a report at the nearest police precinct. Your credit card company or insurer may require a police-report number or record of the loss. Most credit card companies have an emergency toll-free number to call if your card is lost or stolen; they may be able to wire you a cash advance immediately or deliver an emergency credit card in a day or two. Visa's emergency number is tel. 800/847-2911 toll-free in the U.S., or call 410/902-8022 collect from Panama. American Express cardholders and traveler's check holders should call tel. 207-1100 in Panama, or their 24-hour service in the United States at 800/111-0006. MasterCard holders should call tel. 800/307-7309, or make a collect call to 636/722-7111.
If you need emergency cash over the weekend when all banks and American Express offices are closed, you can have money wired to you via Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com).
Mail -- Panama has no stamp vending machines or post boxes, so you'll have to head to the post office to send a postcard, or ask your hotel if they can do it for you. A letter sent regular mail to the U.S. will arrive in 5 to 10 days; the cost, at press time, is 35¢ for a letter and 25¢ for a postcard.
Newspapers & Magazines -- Panama's principal daily newspaper is La Prensa; the five other dailies include La Panamá América, Crítica Libre, El Universal, and La Estrella. La Prensa publishes a weekend guide supplement on Thursdays, and is the best paper for event listings. The English-language Panama News, once available in print, is available online at www.thepanamanews.com. The Panama Visitor is in Spanish and English and is a free, bimonthly publication for tourists. You can find copies of the Miami Herald in English at supermarkets and at the Gran Morrison chain.
Passports -- The websites listed provide downloadable passport applications as well as the current fees for processing applications. For an up-to-date, country-by-country listing of passport requirements around the world, go to the "International Travel" tab of the U.S. State Department at http://travel.state.gov.
Allow plenty of time before your trip to apply for a passport; processing normally takes 3 weeks but can take longer during busy periods (especially spring). And keep in mind that if you need a passport in a hurry, you'll pay a higher processing fee.
For Residents of Australia -- You can pick up an application from your local post office or any branch of Passports Australia, but you must schedule an interview at the passport office to present your application materials. Call the Australian Passport Information Service at tel. 131-232, or visit the government website at www.passports.gov.au.
For Residents of Canada -- Passport applications are available at travel agencies throughout Canada or from the central Passport Office, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, ON K1A 0G3 (tel. 800/567-6868; www.ppt.gc.ca).
For Residents of Ireland -- You can apply for a 10-year passport at the Passport Office, Setanta Centre, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 (tel. 01/671-1633; www.irlgov.ie/iveagh). Those under 18 and over 65 must apply for a €12 3-year passport. You can also apply at 1A South Mall, Cork (tel. 021/272-525) or at most main post offices.
For Residents of New Zealand -- You can pick up a passport application at any New Zealand Passports Office or download it from their website. Contact the Passports Office at tel. 0800/225-050 in New Zealand or 04/474-8100, or log on to www.passports.govt.nz.
For Residents of the United Kingdom -- To pick up an application for a standard 10-year passport (5-year passport for children under 16), visit your nearest passport office, major post office, or travel agency, or contact the United Kingdom Passport Service at tel. 0870/521-0410. Or search its website at www.ukpa.gov.uk.
For Residents of the United States -- Whether you're applying in person or by mail, you can download passport applications from the U.S. State Department website at http://travel.state.gov. To find your regional passport office, either check the U.S. State Department website or call the National Passport Information Center toll-free number (tel. 877/487-2778) for automated information.
Police -- For police, dial tel. 104 or 316-0080.
Restrooms -- It's rare to find a public restroom in Panama -- you'll generally have to rely on hotel lobbies or restaurants. For the most part, they are clean, with modern septic systems. In some remote areas or beach locations, an outhouse-style restroom or a toilet that requires flushing with a bucket of water is more the norm. Restrooms are called baños, and are marked hombres or caballeros for men, and damas or mujeres for women.
Smoking -- All restaurants, bars, and dance clubs have recently gone non-smoking, so smokers will have to take it outside. Smoking isn't even allowed in outside dining areas or balconies.
Taxes -- All hotels charge 10% tax. Restaurants charge 5% on the total cost of the bill, and often sneak in an automatic 10% for service -- check your bill carefully to avoid overtipping.
Telephones -- Panama has a seven-digit phone numbering system, and there are no city or area codes. The country code for Panama is 507, which you use only when dialing from outside the country. Cellphones are prefixed by 6; in this guide, telephone numbers include this prefix because most businesses' published phone numbers include the prefix.
The cheapest way to phone is to use a prepaid phone card, available in kiosks, supermarkets, and pharmacies in quantities of $5, $10, and $20 -- however, these cards have a life span of 15 to 30 days. ClaroCOM has the best rates with 5¢ per minute for national and international calls to the U.S. and the U.K., and 35¢ per minute to cellular phones. Cable and wireless Telechip cards are less value at 15¢ per minute for national calls and 25¢ per minute for international calls. The cards have an access phone number and a scratch-off code, as well as bilingual service. Remember that hotels charge a connection fee even if the connection number is a toll-free number.
For Directory Assistance -- For a number within Panama, dial tel. 102. For assistance with finding an international number, dial tel. 106 for an operator who can connect you with international directory assistance.
For Operator Assistance -- If you need operator assistance when making a call, dial tel. 106. For an international operator in the U.S., dial tel. 109 (AT&T), 108 (MCI), or 115 (Sprint).
To Call Panama from Outside the Country -- First dial the international access code -- 011 from the U.S.; 00 from the U.K., Ireland, or New Zealand; or 0011 from Australia. Then dial the country code (507) followed by the number.
To Make International Calls from Within Panama -- First dial 00 and then the country code (U.S. or Canada 1, U.K. 44, Ireland 353, Australia 61, and New Zealand 64). Next dial the area code and number. For example, if you want to call the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., dial tel. 00-1-202-588-7800.
Toll-free Numbers -- In Panama, numbers beginning with 800 are toll-free, but calling an "800" number in the States from Panama is not toll-free. In fact, it costs the same as an overseas call.
Time Zone -- Panama is 5 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and 1 hour ahead of Costa Rica. Panama does not observe daylight saving, so from the first Sunday in November to the second Sunday in March, the time in Panama is the same as that in the U.S. Eastern Time Zone (New York, Miami, and others); from mid-March to early November, it's the same as that in U.S. Central Time Zone (Chicago, Houston, and others).
Tipping -- Tipping in Panama at restaurants is 10%. Taxi drivers do not expect tips, but you might consider it if you've rented a taxi for the day. Porters and bellhops should be tipped $2 to $5 depending on the caliber of the hotel.
Useful Phone Numbers -- U.S. Dept. of State Travel Advisory: tel. 202/647-5225 (staffed 24 hr.); U.S. Passport Agency: tel. 202/647-0518; U.S. Centers for Disease Control International Traveler's Hot Line: tel. 404/332-4559.
Water -- The water in most of Panama's major cities and tourist destinations is safe to drink, except in Bocas del Toro. Many travelers' stomachs react adversely to water in foreign countries, however, so it might be a good idea to drink bottled water outside of major hotels and restaurants.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.