Panama: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
Panama is a country located on the isthmus of Central America. It is bordered to the north by the Caribbean Sea, the south by the Pacific Ocean, Colombia to the east, and Costa Rica to the west. Panama City is the country’s capital and largest city, which is also home to half of the country’s population. Population is estimated to be at 3.9 million. Panama has the second largest economy and the fastest growing economy in Central America. It is known as the “crossroads of the Americas” and the gateway to South America because of its strategic location between North and South America.
Panama is divided into ten provinces: Bocas del Toro, Coclé, Chiriquí, Colón, Darién, Herrera, Los Santos, Panama, Veraguas, and West Panama. It also has five Comarcas, or designated shires populated by indigenous peoples: Emberá, Guna Yala, Kuna de Madugandí, Kuna de Wargandí, and Ngöbe-Buglé. Chiriquí Province in particular, is where most of Panama’s major tourist attractions are located, like Volcan Barú National Park and The Lost Waterfalls. The terrain is mostly rugged, steep mountains and upland plains. The tropical climate supports a myriad of plant life. There are forests, grasslands, crops, and scrubs. The highest point in the country is Barú Volcano located in Chiriquí Province at 3,475 m (11,401 ft), and the lowest point is the Pacific Ocean at 0 m.
Just less than 9 degrees north of the equator, Panama has a tropical climate: hot, humid, and cloudy, with a prolonged rainy season. The rainy season or winter lasts from May to November, while the dry season or summer is from December to April. Mean temperatures vary between 24°C/75.2°F to 30°C/89.6°F. Rarely does the temperature exceed 32°C/89.6°F. Temperatures are cooler in the highlands such as Boquete, Cerro Punta, and El Valle. Also, the Pacific side of the country has lower temperatures than the Caribbean side. It tends to get breezy especially after dusk. The hottest months are April and May, and the coldest month is November. The best time to visit Panama is from December to March, when humidity is low and there’s little chance for rain to impede travelers. Although thunderstorms are common during the rainy season, Panama is considered outside the hurricane belt.
The capital, Panama City, has been likened to Miami, Florida. It is modern, sophisticated, and well-established in commerce, arts, fashion, and dining. There are plenty of shopping opportunities in the city, with malls ranging from cheap to designer boutiques and high-end retail stores. Restaurants range from authentic traditional Panamanian cuisine to international cuisines such as French haute and Japanese sushi bars.
The government of Panama has strong, friendly ties with the United States—fostering businesses, development, and the tourism industry. The country has the largest expat community in Central America. Panama has a stable and steadily growing economy, a highly developed international banking sector, a strong service-based industry, and a rapidly growing tourism industry. The country’s physical infrastructure and public transportation system including its roads, hospitals, and airports, are more highly developed than other Central American nations. All of these factors make Panama a relatively ideal place to retire to or go to on holiday.
The population in Panama comprises of 65% mestizo (mixed European and native American), followed by mulatto, white, and native American. There are also ethnic groups of different nationalities, plus Afro-Caribbean and Amerindian population. Around 85% of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholics, and up to 25% are evangelical Christians.
Spanish is the official language in Panama and is spoken by more than 93% of the population. However, it sounds different from Costa Rican or Nicaraguan Spanish, and sounds closer to Puerto Rican Spanish. In Panama City, there is a dialect that combines English and Spanish words. Many citizens especially those living near the Panama Canal, can speak English. Surprisingly, English is not commonly spoken throughout the country despite the huge American expat population and connections. Since Panama has a significant portion of indigenous population, indigenous languages are still spoken in some parts of the country. In Guna Yala, the Kuna language is spoken. In Bocas del Toro, Chiriquí, and Ngöbe-Buglé, you will occasionally hear the native Guaymí language. On the north coast, some people speak Emberra. In Darién, you may hear Emberra or Woun Meu.
There are many stories about the origin of the name “Panama”. One of the most popular is that “Panama” was once the name of a small indigenous fishing town which became a Spanish settlement post during the sixteenth century. In indigenous culture, the meaning of the name “Panama” means “abundance of fish”, but Panamanians in general believe the name to mean “an abundance of fish, trees, and butterflies”. This meaning is fitting for Panama’s current reputation for being a water sports paradise and eco-tourism destination. The flora and fauna in the country are plentiful and diverse. There are 900 different bird species alone in Panama. Various indigenous tribes still thrive all over the country, and live as near as they can to the old ways of their ancestors. These tribes make Panama’s cultural fabric rich and diverse.
Panama has been using the U.S. Dollar as its official currency since its independence in 1903. The locals call it balboa. The only thing that’s different is the coins. Panama mints its own coins with the same size and weight as U.S. coins, but with Panamanian stampings. They are interchangeable with standard U.S. coinage. Many businesses do not accept $50 and $100 bills because of instances of counterfeiting. Those that accept will ask to see your passport and list the serial numbers of your dollar notes. Major cities accept the use of credit cards, but using them outside the capital may be difficult.
Panama’s strongest attraction is its diversity. Tourists can explore the beaches, the mountains, the jungle, and the modern cities of Panama within a few days. Activities include bird watching, boarding, boating, community visits, hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, rock climbing, scuba diving, snorkeling, sport fishing, trekking, whitewater rafting, zip lining, and viewing ancient ruins.
Panamanian culture is a hybrid of Native American and African with European culture. Dance and music is a huge part of the lives of Panamanians. Salsa music is one of the highlights and seems to permeate especially in the very Latin areas of the country. Reggaeton originated in Panama and is known locally as Plena. Cities and towns host reggaeton, reggae en español, salsa, blues, jazz, reggae, and rock music performances. Panamanians love their fiestas and are fond of sharing a good time with family and friends, dancing, drinking, and conversing. Carnaval is the biggest celebration in the country and is held 40 days before the Holy Week, starting on a weekend and ending on Ash Wednesday. During this time there are parades, musical and dance performances, fireworks, contests, and lots of food and drinks.
In the big cities, you can find a variety of international cuisines, but outside the major cities, it’s mostly Panamanian food with a focus on fresh seafood and beef. There is an abundance of fishing in the coastal areas and cattle farms in the countryside. Panamanian food is generally mildly flavored and not spicy. Panamanian cuisine is influenced by several cultures—Afro-Caribbean, Native American, and Spanish. A typical dish of meat or fish is served with coconut rice, squash or other native vegetables, and plantains. Locals are fond of patacones—fried green plantains, and chichas—a drink made of fruit, water, and sugar. When in Panama, try local fruits like mango, maracuya (passionfruit), papaya, and tamarind. Other popular drinks are jugo de caña—sugar cane juice, and agua de pipa—young green coconut juice.
Most of Panama is safe compared to other Central American countries. People both in the cities and rural areas are generally warm, friendly, helpful, and respectful. There are still a few dangerous neighborhoods which are mostly crime-ridden and poor areas like Curundu, El Chorillo, and El Marañón. The border region separating Panama and Colombia has a reputation for being extremely dangerous due to drug traffickers and Colombian rebel groups. It is still best to exercise caution wherever one is, especially at nighttime.
Getting around Panama
You can get around Panama by bus or taxi. There are two kinds of buses: city buses and highway buses. The city bus is the regulated public bus system in Panama, called the MetroBus. Passengers need to buy a Metrobus card with a flat rate of 45 cents, which can take one anywhere within Panama City. The highway bus, on the other hand, is a bus one can simply flag down from the side of the road. They travel from different terminals in Panama City to various destinations outside the city and within the Pan American Highway. Highway buses travel frequently, have air condition, and will pick you up or drop you off at any point along their routes. To get off a highway bus, just yell “parada” or tell the driver in advance.
Taxi rates within Panama City go by a zone system. However, rates are not set in stone since what typically happens is, fares are negotiated depending on location or destination, time of day, and even how well the passenger can speak Spanish. Short taxi rides range from $1.25 to $2.50. Going across the town usually takes $5, but the taxi driver might ask for a higher rate especially if you failed to negotiate a price before getting in. It is recommended then to negotiate a rate before getting into a taxi, especially with taxis from the airport.
Rental cars are also available.