ATMs: ATMs, called cajeros automáticos, are widely available in banks and supermarkets, and are identifiable by a red sistema clave sign with a white key. Although ATMs are found primarily in larger towns, you can increasingly find them in of-the-way destinations. Still, if you are visiting remote destinations such as an offshore island, plan to bring extra cash. Remember that you can usually only take up to $500 a day out of an ATM in Panama, so if you need a larger sum of money, start withdrawing a few days in advance.
Business Hours: Hours for service-oriented businesses in Panama are generally 8am to 1pm and 2 to 5pm on weekdays, and 8am to noon on Saturdays. Businesses in Panama City usually don’t close for lunch. Shops open at 9 or 10am and close at 6 or 7pm; shopping malls close around 8pm. Many grocery stores are open 24 hours or from 8am to 8pm.
Drinking 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. If you’re in Panama during an election, liquor sales are prohibited for a 72-hour period until voting is over.
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 on Demetrio Basilio Lakas Avenue in Clayton (tel. 317-5000). The Canadian Embassy is at Torres de las Americas Tower A, 11th floor, in Punta Pacifica (tel. 294-2500). The British Embassy is at Calle 53 Este and Nicanor de Obarrio in Panama City, in the fourth floor of the Humboldt Tower (tel. 297-6550). Australia and New Zealand do not have embassies or consulates in Panama; however, the British Embassy can provide consular assistance to citizens of those countries.
Emergencies: For fire or an ambulance, dial tel. 103; for police, dial tel. 104.
Etiquette & Customs: Panama City professionals 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 such as 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 usually slightly more expensive than in the U.S. In more remote locations, such as Bocas del Toro and the Kuna Yala islands, gas can cost almost twice as much. Taxes are already included in the printed price. One Panama gallon equals 3.8 liters or .83 imperial gallons.
Health: Travelers in Panama should have no problem staying healthy—standards of hygiene are high, and tap water is safe to drink in most areas. The most likely ailment you’ll face in Panama is traveler’s diarrhea from unfamiliar foods or drinks. Even though the water in Panama is perfectly safe to drink almost everywhere, travelers with very delicate stomachs may want to stick to bottled water. Also, those with delicate stomachs may want to stick to moderate and high-end restaurants, and avoid raw vegetables and peeled fruit.
Aside from sunburn, the most common health problems that affect travelers in Panama are mosquito bites. If you’re traveling to the tropical lowlands or jungle areas, be sure to pack plenty of bug repellent with a high percentage of DEET, especially if you’ll be hiking or spending most of your time outdoors. Dengue fever is the last thing you want to ruin your trip. Also, if you’re traveling in the Darién or other heavily forested area, bring light, long-sleeved clothing to avoid bug bites.
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 visiting a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary.
Internet Access: Internet access is plentiful in Panama, except in more remote areas. Nearly every hotel in the country now has Wi-Fi and at least one computer with Internet access (usually in the hotel lobby or business center). Cafes and restaurants usually have a signal too. Internet cafes charge between $2 and $3 per hour, though as Wi-Fi becomes more common, these are disappearing fast.
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.
LGBTQ Travelers: Panama is far less conservative than most other Latin American countries. Panama City has a vibrant gay scene, and the influx of different nationalities around the country has generally moved local populations in the direction of wider acceptance. Still, pockets of discrimination still exist, even in places as cosmopolitan as Panama City. It’s unlikely as a tourist that a gay couple would be openly harassed, though it’s always a possibility.
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. For quick service, send a package via a courier.
Money: The unit of currency in Panama is the U.S. dollar, but the Panamanian balboa, which is pegged to the dollar at a 1:1 ratio, also circulates in denominations of 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, and 50¢ coins. (U.S. coins are in circulation as well.) Balboa coins are sized similarly to their U.S. counterparts, and travelers will have no trouble identifying their value. Travelers with pounds or euros may exchange money at Banco Nacional, which has branches in the airport and across the nation. To save time, you may want to convert your money into dollars before arriving at Panama.
Pharmacies: There are numerous reliable pharmacies in Panama, one of the largest chains being Farmacias Arrocha, found in most large cities; check the website (www.arrocha.com) for the nearest location. Headache, anti-diarrheal, and other common over-the- counter (OTC) medications are readily available at all pharmacies. Many prescription-only drugs in the U.S. are sold OTC in pharmacies.
Senior Travel: Panama is one of the hottest retirement destinations in the world, and most Panama hotels and businesses offer discounts of up to 40% for seniors 60 and older (age varies from business to business). Some claim the discount is for Panamanian seniors and foreigners with a residential visa only; nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to request senior rates or discounts when booking.
Smoking: In 2008, a countryside smoking ban made it illegal to smoke in offices, restaurants, bars, and dance clubs, so smokers will have to take it outside. Smoking isn’t even allowed within outdoor 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.
Telephones: Panama has a seven-digit phone numbering system, and 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. If you need operator assistance when making a call, dial tel. 106.
If you have Web access while traveling, consider a broadband-based telephone service (in technical terms, voice-over internet Protocol, or voiP), such as Skype (www.skype.com), which allows you to make free or inexpensive international calls from your laptop or in a cybercafe.
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 the U.S. Central Time Zone (Chicago, Houston, and others).
Tipping: Tipping in Panama at restaurants is 10%, and restaurants will often sneak in an automatic 10% for service—so check your bill carefully to avoid overtipping. 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.
Toilets: Most bathrooms in Panama have a standard Western toilet, although in some remote rural areas you might find the occasional outhouse.
Police: In large urban areas, such as Panama City or Colón, use common sense, especially in neighborhoods off the tourist path. Don’t flash expensive cameras and jewelry, and don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket. Avoid taking money out of ATMs at night, especially in dark areas. As anywhere, there might be the occasional purse or cellphone snatching, but it’s not frequent.
While hiking, keep an eye out for snakes, such as boa constrictors and fer-de-lances, though on the whole, snakebites are rare. If you encounter a snake, don’t panic or make any sudden movements, and don’t try to handle the snake. Also, avoid swimming in rivers unless you know it is safe or are with a guide who can vouch for the river’s safety. Caimans and crocodiles hide along shorelines, especially in mangrove swamps and river mouths.
Panama law requires that foreigners carry their passport with them at all times, though it’s rarely asked for unless you are pulled over in a car. If you don’t want to risk losing it, carry a photocopy of only the opening pages and entrance stamp or tourist card.
Useful Phone Numbers
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.