I’ve never been so deeply in love all my life. A chance trip to Panama in 2015 would be the start of a lasting love affair – and the honeymoon continues. Panama is ridiculously underrated. An isthmus sitting nicely between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, I couldn’t believe my eyes – the food, nature, the energy and of course, beaches. I was so impressed that I left London and moved there entirely. As with any relationship, however, there are positives and negatives. Even paradise has its problems. If you’re thinking about making the big trip to Panama yourself, here are some good old nuggets of wisdom from someone who’s done just that.
THE PERILS OF PANAMA
Reset your expectations about punctuality and timings
Panama time exists. When someone says “tomorrow”, this means any day but today and not necessarily tomorrow at all. Still with me?
On macho culture
Women will get catcalled. Embrace that fact right now. Once upon a time while buying some street food in Bocas Del Toro, the vendor said, “Seriously, whenever you’re ready for it, just call me” as he looked down towards his nether region. Nauseatingly, he also licked his lips while eyeing me up. All I wanted was an empanada. Taxi drivers will also honk at you to let you know they’re available and also just to call you linda (pretty).
What customer service?
Speaking of cab drivers in Panama, let’s just say they aren’t known for politeness. Expect maniacal driving as well as complaints if you don’t have the right change, don’t tell them the precise address or even breathe too loudly. It’s widely accepted that customer service simply isn’t a thing here.
Count yourself lucky if your restaurant server looks you in the eyes, not to mention mustering a smile. When you call a customer service number, they have no qualms about hanging up on you if they don’t like what you’re saying or they’ll simply stop replying to your customer care emails when they’re over it. I’ve been to restaurants where the staff didn’t even know their own closing time when I inquired. Perhaps it was a secret?
Receiving deliveries is long-winded
There aren’t postcodes in Panama nor is there a consistent mail delivery system. Most people have things sent through a mailbox service like Mailboxes Etc or Miami Express, where your package is posted to their depot in Miami and then brought to Panama where you pay for it by weight. Others rely on traceable courier services like FedEx and DHL, which aren’t wholly reliable either.
Last year my sister sent me a care package via DHL to avoid it getting lost in Panamanian mail purgatory. They left it sitting in their warehouse for days (for reasons unbeknown to anyone). After hounding the staff at their depot, they finally arranged a delivery slot and told me to wait at home for it. Uncertain about their seriousness (read honesty) about the whole thing, phone in hand, I waited in front of my building for the courier to arrive and he did. The thing is, he drove right past and never attempted to come anywhere near my building at all. Another furious call to customer service and I was told, “he rang the doorbell several times and even called me too”, yet there wasn’t a single missed call on my phone. I guess he hoped to deliver the package to me by telepathy.
Needless to say, it does help to speak a bit of Spanish in Panama. You will probably meet people who speak your language among the travelling community and at bars and restaurants. Nevertheless, in order to incorporate yourself into life in Panama in a real way, you’ll need Español. It also generally helps to avoid getting ripped off by taxi drivers. You’ll be able to debate with them confidently when they tell you the price has tripled “because it’s Sunday”.
Luckily there are excellent Spanish schools to spruce up your skills and finally understand the lyrics of Despacito. Casco Antiguo Spanish School in the old town of Panama City has flexible schedules for all levels and even a ‘Spanish for Travellers’ program for those that are short of time. Spanish at Locations has a pretty cool travelling Spanish class covering four locations over four weeks: Bocas del Toro, Panama City, Boquete and Turrialba in Costa Rica. Both offer amazing extra-curricular activities too to help you find community, immerse yourself in the local culture and get to grips with Panamanian slang which deserves its very own curriculum.
Pedestrians be warned
There are actual genuine holes in the ground in some parts so mind the gap. Besides Cinta Costera, the extended walkway along the Bay of Panama, the capital city isn’t too pedestrian friendly.
The weather isn’t always picture perfect
While it’s pretty much warm 365 days a year, there are two seasons: the dry season from December to April, and the rainy season from May through to November. Humidity is torturous in the rainy season. Ladies, your hair will soak up just about every ounce of moisture the air has. If you didn’t want that 80s perm, too bad. You’ve got it now. Oh, and when it rains, it rains.
And now for the good stuff…
PERKS OF PANAMA
A ridiculously modern capital city
Panama City is majorly developed. You’ll find lots of places claiming to be the first, biggest or tallest here: the largest mall in the Americas (Albrook) or the highest pool bar in Central America (Panaviera). After New York and Chicago, Panama City has the most skyscrapers in the western hemisphere. You can drink the tap water too.
Panama City just feels safe – more so than the capital cities of it’s two closest neighbours, Costa Rica and Colombia. The president’s work quarters are situated in the tourist enclave of Casco Viejo, so there’s a strong security presence there. As with anywhere, however, keep your wits about you.
Volcan Barú in Boquete is the only place in the world where you can see the sunrise on the Pacific and set on the Atlantic. You can also catch a glimpse of Humpback Whales between July and October at the Gulf of Chiriqui or on the Pacific coast at Isla de Coiba.
San Blas is an archipelago of 365 breath-taking islands in the northwest of Panama, which are inhabited by the Kuna Indians who have resided there since the 19th century. Its beauty calls for a reality check and the water’s so clear you barely need snorkel gear.
Incredible biodiversity and nature
10% of all the world’s butterflies live in Panama and it has over 976 bird species, more than Canada and the U.S. combined. Pay a visit to the Frank Gehry-designed Biomuseum in Panama City to marvel at the impact Panama has on the world ecologically. Hikers are in for a treat pretty much anywhere in the country. Panama City, however, is the only capital in the world that has a rainforest within the city limits (Cerro Ancon). The brisk 30-minute hike to the top results in an impeccable 360 view of the city and perhaps, a toucan or two.
I won’t lie; the beaches might have something to do with my fondness of Panama. There are powdery-white sand beaches and spellbinding archipelagos like the Pearl Islands and Bocas del Toro, which you might have heard of.
ABOUT BOCAS DEL TORO
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro deserves it’s own chapter but for the purpose of this article, I’ll tell you that there are nine islands and each one has a paradise beach with your name on it. Bocas is the country’s most popular beach destination with good reason. You can visit bat caves, spot dolphins, snorkel, hike, surf, dive (there are diving schools littered all over the place) or feel like Tom Hanks in Cast Away on your own uninhabited island on the Zapatilla Cays.
Bocas brings a new meaning to island hopping, as boats are your main mode of inter-island transport. What’s not to love about travelling by water from one tropical beach to yet another?
Where to stay
The main island of Colon is where the bulk of Bocas’ hotels, restaurants and shops are located along the main street which is also called “main street”. Just off the main street is Hotel Limbo on the Sea which has amazing sea view rooms (ask for room 17 or 18). There’s also an outpost of Selinas, a popular hostel chain which can be found all over Latin America.
Further afield on Bastimentos Island, there’s Azul Paradise for anyone looking to fulfil their dreams of staying in an over-the-water bungalow. This eco-resort is nestled on a private beach and is committed to improving the lives of the locals in the nearby Salt Creek village. The rooms are so ridiculous, you might never want to leave, which would be a crime given the gorgeous surroundings.
Where to go for sunsets and beaching
Starfish beach on Colon Island, the name says it all, doesn’t it? Paunch Beach, also on Colon, is where you’ll find the surfers. On Carenero Island, there are decks stretched out onto the water and many say it’s more picturesque than Colon as it “looks more like paradise”.
Almost anywhere is great for sunset gazing in Bocas but Mamallena’s on Colon and Aqua Lounge on Carenero fight for the crown.
Where to eat
Do not leave Bocas without visiting Bibi’s on the Beach on Carenero for their legendary seafood and happy hour. Also, while it may not look like it, Munchies on Colon is the best place for burgers in all of Bocas.
ABOUT PANAMA CITY
Where to go
The Panama Canal might be the country’s biggest international export, however, there’s much more to Panama City than this feat of engineering. Visit Panama Viejo, the archaeological original site of Panama City before it was destroyed by pirates in the 1670s. The old town of Casco Viejo is undoubtedly my favourite part of the city. You’ve probably seen photos of its crumbling buildings alongside chic new structures and colonial balconies overlooking cobbled floors. Without a doubt, it’s the best place to get lost and simply wander around.
For shopping, head to the aforementioned Albrook mall or Multiplaza, which is slightly more upscale. Mementoes, postcards and Panama hats should be bought in Casco where souvenir shops are a dime a dozen.
Where to eat
In the financial district in “new Panama”, head to the Bristol Hotel’s Salsipuedes restaurant to try Sancocho, Panama’s national dish. The most Panamanian restaurant ever is El Trapiche, which has branches all over the city, and the staff actually wear traditional Panamanian attire. In Casco, you can’t sneeze without stumbling upon a great restaurant or cute café. Fonda Paraiso, Nomada Eatery, Benissimo, Bajareque Coffee House, and Casa Sucre will all do the job. Café Unido in the American Trade Hotel is my favourite place to sit, sip my tea and write. For seafood naturally, you’ll have to dine alfresco at the Mercado de Mariscos (fish market).
My entire social scene in Panama was kick-started by going on the Panama Bar Crawl on my own one evening. I met the owners who became exceptionally good friends and we would even go on to live together, expanding our community as we went along. One of the crawl’s stops is Tantalo, the most popular (and international) rooftop bar in the area.
Casco Viejo’s rooftop bar game is strong. Gatto Blanco, Casa Casco, Capital Bistro Panamá and 360 Rooftop will all make for a glittery time in the sky. Lazotea is my favourite – there’s a pool.
Panamanians know how to party and take enjoying life very seriously. When Panama qualified for their first ever world cup last year, the president called a public holiday the following day and the entire city was on a party gridlock.
When you live in Panama City, your weekend getaways are amazing journeys in themselves. You can be diving in Bocas del Toro after a 50-minute flight, surfing in Coronado after an hour’s drive; Taboga Island is a 30-minute ferry ride away and the incredible Cojones de Chame formation is just 90 minutes from the city.
There is just so much to love about Panama. Go see for yourself!
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit Panama. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Panama City, Panama:
- The Bristol Hotel
- W Panama
- Le Meridien Panama
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