Panama City Stories and Tips

Panama - Little Tips to Lessen the Surprises

The Bank Photo, El Valle, Panama

• The surest way to scream, "I’m a tourist!" is to wear shorts. Locals wear pants. If you are a girl Capri pants are fine. Lord Vader and I ended up really loving our cargo pants as they seemed to work best in the environment, especially when hiking.

• Be aware that in small towns, ATMs can run out of money and it may take several days before the cash is replenished. We ran into this situation in El Valle where there is only one ATM in the town and it was out of cash, so we had to drive out of town to find another ATM.

• There are a lot of stray dogs and stray packs of dogs that roam around just about everywhere, but especially on the beaches. They were completely harmless, but try not to make my mistake and read Island of the Blue Dolphins while you are on the trip so you remain jumpy whenever the pack of wild dogs pass by. There were also quite a few stray cats. Some were exceedingly friendly and others were not. The dogs didn’t really bother with each other, but there were some cat fights, literally.

• If hot water is precious to you, you may want to conduct some further investigations before locking down a place to stay. We encountered two accommodations that did not have hot water even though they said they did. Since we didn’t really stay in either for that long, complaining seemed pointless.

• Not every accommodation offers you those free little soaps and shampoos so make sure you bring your own toiletries. Also there were a couple of places that did not have washcloths or puffy sponges or anything like that to wash yourself with so you may want to pack some durable quick drying washcloths just to be on the safe side.

• There is quite a lot of litter in Panama, especially at the beach. It was a bit depressing to be lolling in the crystal blue water and have a juice box or a potato chip bag float past. Like me, if you come from a background where you were taught to "give a hoot and don’t pollute" you may be playing litter patrol during some of your trip.

• Like most Latin American countries dinner is eaten late at night and something we found interesting, the malls close fairly early. I assume so everyone can go home and eat dinner with their family and friends. You also have to remember to ask for your bill when you want to leave a restaurant. "La cuenta, por favor," is what you need to say to request it. It’s a nice custom and I enjoyed not feeling rushed through my meals, but I must admit it took one long and awkward dinner waiting for about an hour wondering if the waiter was ever going to bring the check, to learn about this little detail.

• You do not need to be fluent in Spanish to travel in Panama, but you should be familiar with common phrases and words, especially words that have to do with driving and directions and food. Almost everyone we came across spoke English, and spoke it first to us without asking what language we spoke (I am very pale, freckled and blue eyed, so I guess they just assumed). You will have to read the occasional menu (although many were in Spanish and English), street sign or tourist sight plaque. With ipods and websites, it is incredibly easy to learn another language, plus it makes it easier to eaves drop at restaurants and other people watching sights.

• Casco Viejo was the name used in all of the guide books and on the websites I visited for the old, but not oldest part of Panama City. During the entire time we were in Panama and specifically in Panama City not one local referred to that area as Casco Viejo, everyone we met still calls it San Felipe.

• Yes the driving in Panama is crazy, but that experience deserves a journal all its own.

• We found Panama to be a very safe country and everyone was helpful and friendly to visitors. The only irritating situation we encountered was in Portobello. I had read about the local children offering to "watch" your car while you roam around the forts, so I was already prepared for the exchange. When we stopped at the first fort, as expected, a boy approached and asked if he could watch our car. We said sure and then walked around. When we returned to the parking lot he ran up to us with a whole group of friends tagging along behind. We gave him the customary five dollars, but then all of his eight or so friends started insisting that they ALL watched the car and they each deserved five dollars. We refused, and started making our way to our car. They kept yelling at us and running around us and holding out their hands insisting that they all should be paid. They even tried to block us from entering our car, but we sort of just ignored them and got into the car and drove away while they were still yelling and banging on the car. After we exited the parking lot, they moved on to harass someone else.

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