Panamá’s Panamá City (Ciudad de Panamá) is a great place to enjoy some relaxing, fun, interesting Latin American culture, and it’s generally safe and inexpensive. Popular excursions include Monkey Island, the Panamá Canal, and several nice beaches. If you plan on visiting some day, following are my top 10 tips:
1. Pack light.
The weather is always the same, every day and throughout the year: it’s hot, humid, and rainy (especially in the rainy season). If you bring some cool clothes and some rain gear, you’re set. You may also want to bring some sunscreen and bug spray. Panamá uses the same power outlets as in the U.S., so remember to bring a power converter for your electronics if you’re not from North America.
2. Have U.S. $1 and $5 bills handy.
Panama uses U.S. dollars. It’s challenging to get small bills, which come in handy throughout Panamá. Tipping 1-2 dollars for helpful service is greatly appreciated, and tipping 10% for good service at restaurants is expected.
3. Prepare for transportation from the airport.
Following are the 3 main options for getting to your hotel from the airport. You could also rent a car, but the streets are confusing, and the other drivers are not very safe.
- Arrange transportation via your hotel. You can book high-end hotels, such as the Waldorf Astoria, Hilton Panama, or the Sheraton Grand for under $130/night. If you request it, they will arrange comfortable and safe transportation from the airport to the hotel, usually for $38 (+$2 tip if good service). Someone will meet you at the airport by holding a sign with your name on it. They’ll take your luggage and drive you to your destination in a nice comfortable, safe vehicle.
- Use a taxi. As soon as you leave baggage claim, taxi drivers are happy to help you into a taxi. The first thing you may want to demand is that your vehicle have seat belts. Most of the taxi drivers and attendants do not speak English, so it may be challenging to ensure this without simply just looking inside the vehicle before you allow them to take your luggage. Also, ensure that your rate is the standard rate of $30 to get to downtown Panamá City. If you’re sharing the taxi with another person, your rate should be $15-20.
- Use Uber. This is a good option because Uber cars are much nicer, and the drivers are much safer than taxis (See Tip #4 below for more details.) However, it can be challenging unless you have a SIM card that works in Panama. One option is that you could use the airport’s Wi-Fi (by signing in with your email address). Usually the rate is $28.
4. Use Uber to get around the city.
Uber is the most convenient, most economical, and safest way to get around the city. Download and set up the app on your mobile phone before you go. Reasons:
- The streets and the drivers are crazy, so renting a car and driving would be stressful and risky.
- Taxis are awful. Taxi drivers generally don’t know the city well, don’t drive safely, don’t speak English. Also there are usually no seatbelts in their car; plus you would need to negotiate a rate up front, or they will over-charge you. ( As you walk around the city, taxis will constantly honk at you to seek your business. Taxis honk at people and other cars all day and night, and it’s quite annoying.)
- You can get most anywhere around the main areas of the city for $2-3 per ride. You never have to wait more than a few minutes for a pick-up, wherever you are. The drivers always have GPS installed in their vehicle, which tells them exactly where to take you, so any language barrier isn’t an issue.
5. Take advantage of inexpensive services and drinks.
- You can get massages and haircuts for under $20 throughout the city. At the high-end, a 60-minute deep-tissue massage is $60 at the Waldorf Astoria in Panama City.
- Local beers, Balboa (a lager) and Atlas, taste great, and convenience stores sell it for about 60 cents per can. One of the best deals, though, is the high quality aged rum. (The wine is average-priced, and mostly just from Argentina and Chile).
6. Learn some Spanish.
Speaking Spanish isn’t mandatory, but knowing some basic vocabulary is helpful. Most Panamanians speak little to no English. In most hotels, the front desk staff will have basic English knowledge, but housekeeping, maintenance, and other staff members will likely only speak Spanish.
It’s especially important to memorize phrases that will help you with food allergies and important preferences. For example:
- “No cebollas, por favor” = No onions, please.
- “Soy vegetariano/vegetariana.” = I am a vegetarian.
It’s fun to practice Spanish in Panama City, and most people are happy to help improve you with vocabulary and pronunciation. My favorite app for learning Spanish (and other languages) is Duolingo. Also, I suggest downloading the Google Translate app, which has excellent voice recognition, and you can use it offline.
7. Stay safe.
- There are a variety of neighborhoods in Panama, and some neighborhoods require more caution. Don’t show flashy jewelry, handbags, etc., and don’t go out by yourself after dark. There are armed guards standing outside of most buildings in Panamá City.
- Use a tour guide. Hotels can usually help you find a bilingual tour guide that can show you around and help ensure you stay in the safest areas.
- Be extra cautious when crossing the street. Drivers are often erratic and don’t pay enough attention to pedestrians.
- The sidewalks are often broken with holes in them, so be extra careful when walking around the city.
8. Go shopping.
There are several large shopping malls around Panama City, such as MultiPlaza and MultiCentro. You can find most standard international stores, as well as some boutique shops. You can find some nice bargains, and it’s an interesting experience.
9. Eat well, and inexpensively.
In many restaurants around downtown, there are many cafeteria-style restaurants where you can eat for $2-3/meal. There are also more expensive options in the more expensive areas of the city, some of which are worth it. As a vegetarian, it’s challenging to find restaurants that have good cruelty-free options, but my favorites are: The Loving Hut ($), Jardin Vegetariano ($), Avatar ($$), Chin Chin ($$$), and Thai Garden ($$$). Most importantly, try the fruit, which is amazing! The mango, melons, plums, and pineapple are super sweet and juicy. I also enjoyed many local fruits that aren’t available anywhere else in the world!
10. Explore, and have fun!
Check out TripAdvisor’s Top Things to Do in Panama City for ideas. The most popular attraction is the Panama Canal, but there are plenty of museums, casinos, boat rides, nature visits, etc.
Do you have a question, or can I help you further with tips for visiting Panama City? Please use the Comments section below. Thank you!