2018 Panama Travel Guide

By Kate Ruddell | Sep 26, 2018, 15:39 PM

Panama, the only country in the world where you can watch the sun rise in the Pacific Ocean and sun set in the Atlantic. This small, but mighty country is regarded as one of the largest melting pots in Central America. From its Spanish colonial roots to the United States' involvement with the Panama Canal, Panamanians have welcomed different cultures with arms wide open for decades.

Helpful Hints for Visiting Panama

  • The majority of tour groups and excursions do not operate on Mondays
  • Most excursions require you to book a ticket at least 24 hours in advance
  • Do not fear a rain storm—activities will continue as the storms pass quickly
  • Download the Google Translate app before your trip—most Panamanians speak Spanish, and the app can work without Wi-Fi or data access
  • The USD is an accepted and popular currency in Panama
  • Uber works in Panama and is much cheaper than taxi services

Getting There

If you are traveling from the U.S. or South America, your flight should be quick and painless. Several of the metropolitan U.S. cities offer nonstop flight options that average around six hours in length. There are several major airlines that fly into Tocumen International Airport in Panama’s capital, Panama City. These airlines include Copa, Delta, United, KLM, and American—most locals prefer to fly Copa.

Packing & Preparation

When it comes to packing, you’ll want to double-check the weather for your trip. Panama’s dry season is from January until April. After April, temperatures heat up and the humidity comes along with it as you enter the wet season. It can rain several times a day during the wet season. Be advised to pack a poncho and umbrella. Panamanians are used to the weather and continue tours unless there is lightning or other threatening weather conditions. Luckily, most of the rain showers don't last long.

Consider bringing clothes that are comfortable and breathable. Tourists seem to be the only people who wear shorts in Panama. If you are looking to blend in, pack some jeans and save your shorts for a beach or pool day. Several of the restaurants have an upscale dress code. Men are expected to wear a collared shirt and women a dress or a nice pair of jeans.

As you prepare to travel to Panama, consider what could happen if you became sick or suffered an injury. Several years ago, Panama offered free medical insurance for tourists. This is no longer available due to the overuse and exploitation of the program, which is why you should consider purchasing a travel medical insurance plan before traveling here. IMG offers several plan options that can protect you in the case of an unexpected medical emergency or evacuation (subject to their terms, limitations and exclusions). IMG’s Patriot plan was designed specifically with the traveler in mind and you can learn more about it here: Patriot Travel Medical Insurance.

Customs

Don't forget to bring your passport or other form of identification to enter the country. The customs procedure when entering Panama is relatively simple. There are two lines: one for global entry passengers or government officials and a line for other visitors. If you're traveling to Panama for a vacation, you will likely use the second line. You are called up to the customs booth and they may ask questions such as “How long are you here?” or "What brings you to Panama?”. Customs workers are not required to speak multiple languages, so you may want to brush up on your Spanish and common phrases to make your entry as smooth as possible.

The airport is approximately 30 minutes from the capital, Panama City. If you're traveling with a group, you may want to contact a transportation company to arrange a bus to and from the airport. Otherwise, as mentioned above, Uber is available and safe to use in Panama.

There are several different geographical areas available for lodging in Panama. If you are looking for city life, El Cangrejo is where you want to be. El Cangrejo is a hub for night clubs, retail, and trendy restaurants. Panama City earned the nickname of “The Manhattan of Central America” from its quick growth and large banking structure. Panama City is home to many sky scrapers and even more banking offices. Just west of downtown Panama City is Casco Viejo. Casco Viejo, which translates to “old quarter,” is the historical district of Panama.

Where to Stay

Founded in 1519, Casco Viejo is the most popular tourist destination in Panama. The Panamanian government headquarters are located here, as well as hundreds of shops,  restaurants, and the popular American Trade Hotel. The city is bursting with colorful buildings and historical ruins all along the same narrow roads. Casco Viejo is known by locals as one of the safest areas of Panama for tourists.

If you are looking for sun, sand, and ocean for your vacation stay, both Playa Bonita and Playa Estella are great options. Playa Estrella is located on the San Blas islands, off the coast of Panama. While there are not hotel accommodations here, you can choose to camp on the island. Visitors often opt to spend a night or two enjoying the incredible beaches and beautiful blue sea.

Playa Bonita is about a 20 minute drive from Panama City. The resorts overlook the Pacific side of Panama, which offers breathtaking views of the cargo ships waiting overnight to enter the canal. The water isn’t as blue as Playa Estrella, but you truly can't beat the location.

Thinking about staying in the rain-forest? Look no further than Gamboa Resorts, which shares a property with a sloth sanctuary, boat tours, and butterfly conservation in the middle of the rain-forest. Keep in mind, this resort is an hour from the city, but if you are looking for peace and quiet,this is just the spot.

Activities

Gamboa offers several tours for those who want to explore wildlife, but perhaps want to stay closer to the city. They offer activities such as aerial trams that soar through the tree-lined rain-forest and trips to monkey island. The highly recommended Monkey Island Tour is eight hours in length from pick up to drop off.

You cannot visit Panama without seeing what attributes to a third of its country’s wealth: the Panama Canal. Tours are offered daily, and can be taken via boat or on land through the museum.

If you're a history buff, check out Biomuseo, the bio natural history museum of Panama. The building is absolutely stunning and is designed to look like a Macaw parrot with its bright colors and geometric shapes. According to the locals, the museum was a gift from the architect, Frank Gehry, to his Panamanian wife. The land was acquired after the U.S. sold the Panama Canal back to Panama in 1999, and the museum opened in 2014.

Fishing is a huge industry in Panama, and a popular activity with locals. Consider booking your own day trip to fully experience Panamanian fishing with the local experts. Who knows, you may even get lucky and catch a blue marlin!

What to Eat in Panama

Shockingly enough, Panama is not known as a foodie destination—but it should be! Panama has amazing access to fresh local seafood and fruits which make up the majority of food dishes. Sancocho, which translates as "stew," is a flavorful chicken soup and also the national dish of Panama. Another favorite dish is fried yucca root and yucca fries, which are similar to French fries. You also can't go wrong with fresh ceviche, made of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and fresh fish marinated in lime juice. Summers in Panama can get toasty, which makes a Panamanian raspado the perfect way to cool off. Similar to a snow cone with shaved ice, fruit flavored syrup, and condensed milk, raspados are very popular in downtown Casco Viejo.

What to Drink in Panama

You can get a beer in Panama for less than fifty cents! Panama is known for their pale lagers, but you can find local beers everywhere, including in vending machines. Panama is home to four brands, Panama, Soberana, Balboa, and Atlas. In addition to beer, papaya and other tropical juices are also very popular.

Coming Home

When traveling internationally, it's recommended to arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight. Tocumen Airport International is clean and runs efficiently, and offers many upscale shopping opportunities throughout the terminals. Depending on the airline, you may have to go through security a second or third time. Most gates have their own metal detectors and additional baggage X-ray machines. Once you go through this security area, you are not allowed to leave the waiting room. Make sure you grab a snack or use the restrooms before going through this process. The airport offers a free 45-minute window of Wi-Fi access. If you are returning to the states, download the Mobile Passport app to help expedite your reentry through customs by replacing the traditional customs worksheet. If you do not download the app, you may need to wait for a machine to fill out this information before lining up to meet with a customs agent.

If you're still looking for souvenirs to bring back to your loved ones, Panama hats are always a hit. Typically made of straw and ribbon, there are several versions of the origin of the Panama hat. It's rumored that the name came from former president Theodore Roosevelt pointing to his hat and exclaiming “Panama is hot!”—which at the time, was misheard by Panamanians as, “Panama hat!” And the rest is history.

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