Panamaniacs, tell me about Panama!
March 20, 2008 4:57 PM   Subscribe

My wife-to-be and I are going to Panama for our honeymoon. Following are a whole slew of questions about Panama!

These are leftover questions from my research via the internet, Lonely Planet et al, and a guy we know who is from Panama (who tends to be evasive and inconsistent in his answers). (Some of these have been partially answered in other Asks.)

What's the best/cheapest plastic to take? A credit card (and if so, which one) or our regular debit cards (one is US Bank, one a regional bank)? Since Panama uses US dollars, I assume that there would be no currency exchange fees either way, how about ATM fees, international transaction fees, etc?

Where should we stay in Panama City the first night we get in? We'll be arriving about 10pm on a weeknight, can we wait and find a hotel that late or should we make a reservation ahead of time? We'll probably also stay there the night before we leave, as our flight out leaves at 7:30am. Bonus points for cheap!

Any recommendations on places to stay in or near Los Santos province, and/or near Bocas del Toro? Again bonus for cheap, also for long term, near the beach, and private.

Any "just jump in" sort of missions/social outreach opportunities in late May/early June? Not looking for the typical package deal, just something like a soup kitchen, orphanage, construction (or whatever) where we can simply show up and go to work. We'd prefer something Christian, but other options are great.

Wherever we go from Panama City, should we fly (quick but more expensive) or bus it (cheap but long and possibly cramped)? Or other?

Any cultural things we should know? Tipping, handshaking, whatever.

Any other advice you can give! Thank you hive mind!
posted by attercoppe to Travel & Transportation around Panama (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When going to Bocas del Toro, get yourself there as fast as possible. The mainland is sleazy and nasty. Bocas on the other hand is one of the greatest places on earth, period.

About 10 years ago in Almirante (or maybe it was Changuinola aka Chinga-nola) I was hauled into an alley by soldiers who stuch their shiney new M-16's under my chin and demanded bribes. Not sure how much the area has changed sisnce then, but it would be a miracle. Be prepared to grease some palms up there, but my god was it worth it.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:21 PM on March 20, 2008

Here's a recent question regarding using credit cards internationally. It's focused on Europe, but the same rules apply for other areas, too.
posted by nitsuj at 6:22 PM on March 20, 2008

Rates depend. Check out bankrate's page here. It has a listing of most major cards - for other ones, call and check. Genreally you pay 1-3% on international transactions, and on ATM transactions, a flat rate ($5 for bank of america).

Normally, I just bring US dollars to Central America (not Panama specifically), and change there, and use an ATM card for most things. Ive only used credit cards for really expensive things like hotels and car rental in Central America.

Also, you should let us know how long you ar estaying. And do you speak Spanish?
posted by waylaid at 7:11 PM on March 20, 2008

Best answer: Seconding Pollomacho that Bocas is a pretty great place. It was fascinating to hear Caribbean English, GuaymĂ­ languages and Spanish everywhere, not knowing which one someone was going to speak based on how they looked. At least that was how it seemed in the few days I was there.

I remember going on an adventure to sleep over on a small island called Zapatilla. I think that was what it was called. It was just us, our guide, a gorgeous little island, pelicans and breadfruit.

Ok. Sorry. Didn't really answer any of your questions, but...I just haven't thought about Bocas in a long time.
posted by umbĂș at 7:48 PM on March 20, 2008

Best answer: I was in Panama 8 years ago, so a lot has most likely changed. Here's stuff I remember:

Panama City was fun during the day time...taxis were wildly cheap and easy to find. I sadly can't remember the hotel we stayed at, but at the time, it seemed like we were able to stay in a pretty nice place with a luxurious bathroom for a very reasonable price. Definitely go check out the ruins of Old Panama! I did see a lot of anti-US graffiti while I was there and had a man wielding a saw begin to chase after me on a busy street . We also were warned by taxi drivers and some ladies at a street market to avoid certain parts of town. The 1989 US invasion of Panama City is still fresh in a lot of people's minds, so be sensitive of this and aware of your surroundings. Otherwise, it kind of reminded me of Chicago or New York City.

Bocas del Toro is very nice. We took a boat there with a bunch of other people, but flew out when it was time to leave. We stayed at a rooming house owned by a Canadian ex pat, but there were dozens of places lined up all along the main streets. There was a fun little bar right on the water called the "Wreck Deck" that is build next to part of a wrecked can snorkel right outside the bar. I also remember a little, sort of nice restaurant on the water where you could stop in early in the afternoon, request lobster for dinner, the staff would go catch it and cook it for you that night. You can pay a local person with a boat to take you to the other nearby islands, which are also really beautiful. We rented bikes one day and biked around the island. When I was on Bocas, there were a lot of people living in extreme poverty on the island and surrounding islands, but hopefully this has changed.

My favorite part about Panama was visiting the mountain town of Boquete. If you have a chance, it is worth checking out. It's a scenic little town with gorgeous trees, flowers, little cafes and good coffee. If you are the adventurous, hearty type, you could spend a day climbing the dormant Volcan Baru (outside of Boquete), which is 3,475m and takes about 12-14 hours to ascend and descend. From the top of the summit, you can see both the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans. I did this hike, starting at 6am and made it back to the base by night--it was one of my favorite things I've ever done in my life.

Otherwise, the people are friendly, food is great and other than Bocas del Toro, the vibe was decidedly untouristy. It helps if you know some Spanish, but quite a few people know some English. In the cities, the locals, particularly the women dressed very nicely. When I was there, I kicked myself for not packing more cute dresses to wear.

Have a great time! I love Panama and hope you will too.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:34 PM on March 20, 2008

Hotel Marbella
posted by adamvasco at 4:57 AM on March 21, 2008

I have never been to Panama, but it is high on my list of ambitions to stay at Punta Coracol which I've had highly recommended by several people and a couple of newspaper travel sections.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:19 AM on March 21, 2008

Best answer: Wow, it sounds like Bocas and the surrounds has changed immensely since I was there, so maybe you should disregaurd my poorly spelled post above. There was no tourism, there was no flying in or out. There was a lot of haggling over money and tradeable goods and bribing of overweight, leering men in uniforms for little stamps and signatures in your passport that assured you passage to the domain of the next scummy official. When I was there there it was just after an earthquake. There was one "hotel" and "restaurant" (housed in the former banana corporation president's mansion) and a "bar" that was really a dock with a generator where the adults went to get drunk on warm rum after the kids' curfew and the electricity and water were shut off for the night. The mainland was sleezy, sleezy, sleezy scary banana towns, Almirante, Changuinola, Sixaola CR. There were no tourists other than the occasional wealthy Costa Rican down to get cheap Chinese appliances and pirated DVDs in the "free port" or an old washed up American leaving CR for the weekend in order to renew his nonresident visa.

We paid a guy in (warm) rum to take us from Almirante to Bocas in his carved out canoe/boat with a tiny motor. Later, after meeting up with him at the dock/bar he took us island hopping in the night and we watched the manatees playing in the mangroves under the full moonlight through the clear carribean waters. That night he told us that he was over 80 years old and that the boat had been handed down from his grandfather, which explained why it was so huge and yet carved from a single tree.

I have no idea if Bocas is anything like that anymore, but then it was truly magical.

One more recollection, Almirante was this rusted, rotting hulk of a city that litterally looked like something from the set of the horrid movie Waterworld. But, as the bus turned the corner to the harbor, there in this rusted tangle of rotting docks and twisted metal were two massive Dole corporation banana freighters. They were enormous and glimmering pure white. They looked surreal. Here, I'd been on a cramped bus for days bouncing over dirt roads through villages literally full of naked Indians with sticks through their noses and banana leaf umbrellas and I'd been dumped off at the end of the earth set of Pirates of the Carribean (and I have no doubt full of the 20th century reminants of the real Carribean pirates) only to discover these 21st Century gleaming beacons of corporate globalization with their fresh layers of white wash and their clicking little officers in matching pure white uniforms overseeing filthy, sweaty, half naked, bent longshoremen loading bunches on to the docks (they were not singing Day-o to my knowledge).
posted by Pollomacho at 5:24 AM on March 21, 2008

I can't answer all your questions, but I know that the last time I went, we drove (instead of taking a bus or plane) and it was a wonderful drive. I've heard of several stories of people having problems in Panama, but I've been there at least five or so times, sometimes for awhile, and I've never had an issue (except when Noriega was in power). I think the key is to be basically street smart and don't flash the cash. It's a wonderful country.
posted by history is a weapon at 5:50 AM on March 21, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks all, keep it coming! One more question: anyone who has been there semi-recently - would it be helpful to masquerade as Canadian? I've heard of US backpackers through Europe doing this to reduce anti-American sentiment towards them, pluckysparrow's post made me wonder if it might be a good idea in Panama as well.

@waylaid: We'll be there about a month and a half, I do speak some Spanish. I don't consider myself fluent, but I can usually have a conversation (I actually speak it better than I comprehend it spoken to me, what with accents and the speed native speakers usually use).
posted by attercoppe at 7:42 AM on March 21, 2008

Just be sure not to lose her in the turns...
posted by stenseng at 8:25 AM on March 21, 2008

Best answer: My Panamanian landlady is rather fond of Casco Viejo, which has also recently been featured in the Times and on public radio.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:42 AM on March 21, 2008

Response by poster: Hmmm... some of the info on Moon's Casco Viejo page made me think - I have a whole stack of "Hawaiian" shirts (which I regularly wear in the summer) set out to pack for Panama. Maybe that would mark me as a tourist, though...what should I wear to look less touristy? (Maybe just buy a few shirts when I get there and see what everyone else is wearing?)

I love Ask.
posted by attercoppe at 9:57 AM on March 21, 2008

Central Americans (and OK, there's some debate as to whether Panama really belongs culturally with the region) tend to be more formal in dress than you'd expect. There's no way I could completely blend in, but I favored linen pants and breathable, light-colored polo shirts and got along just fine.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:21 AM on March 21, 2008

I don't think you need to masquerade as Canadians, but just try to fit in.

My first day in Panama City, I went out exploring the city in a pair of cargo shorts, a scoop necked t-shirt and tennis shoes. I felt completely conspicuous, and also like an awkward 11 year old boy scout next to all the very fashionable and femininely dressed Panamanian women in Panama City!

For a man, a pair of khakis or chinos and a shirt that is not a t-shirt would be fine.
posted by pluckysparrow at 7:27 PM on March 21, 2008

Agreed with the others - no anti American sentiment in Central America for the most part - i mean, so many Central Americans themselves live in the US.

But yes, please don't dress like an American middle-aged tourist (ie, cargo shorts, fanny pack, hawaiin shirt). Just dress a bit more formally. I rarely wear shorts down there except to go to the beach.
posted by waylaid at 6:08 AM on March 23, 2008

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