A tourist in Panama is confronted with its peculiarities, which range from puzzling to enraging. Generally speaking, it’s a great and interesting country. However, they just sometimes like to do things their own way.
This post presents a list of pitfalls you may encounter, but I will not go into their whys and wherefores. Because from a practical standpoint, it doesn’t matter why. You have to accept it and deal with it. Additionally, I assume it’s your first time in Panama and that your Spanish is weak. (If you speak Spanish fluently, you will have few problems and can stop reading this.) OK, let’s begin.
Update 2019: Since Panama is developing very quickly, some problems described in this post have already been fixed. The changes are shown in italics in the text.
1. Street Addresses
There are no street numbers in Panama. As you can imagine, that may cause problems in a big metropolis like Panama City (around two million people). So how do you explain where you want to go (e.g. to a taxi driver)? Good question! Addresses generally have the following format (color-coded here for your convenience):
- Building and/or landmark name
- Street name (or cross streets)
- Apartment/suite/floor number
- Neighborhood (district, suburb) name
And here are a few examples of real addresses.
- Bank: Torre Banistmo, Calle 50, Panamá.
- Bank: Vía España, Edificio Prosperidad 127, Panamá.
- Office: Complejo Business Park, Torre Norte, Planta Baja, Costa del Este, Ciudad de Panamá.
- Private: Edificio Cali, Apartamento XX, Avenida Federico Boyd, Cangrejo, Panamá.
To summarize, the landmark name is the best to use. The street name is second best (some of the streets are very long though). Tip: put the address you have into Google Maps or Waze. If the app can find it you are good!
How do they deliver mail? Another good question! The mail service in Panama is notoriously unreliable, so do not use it. Letters get lost or stolen. Instead, locals use businesses such as Mail Boxes, Etc. If you are the kind that sends postcards from every trip, good luck to you!
Taxis do not have meters. So how do you know how much to pay? The charge depends on the distance to your destination, and not on the ride time. You are just supposed to know the fare. The good news is that this removes the incentive for the driver to drive you in circles (a common occurrence in other cities).
You can ask the price up front, but it’s a sign of weakness and encourages them to apply “Yankee tax” to you (i.e. overcharge). At the same time, the taxi fares are dirt cheap – a couple of bucks for a ride across town. You pay cash, so always have a few single dollars with you. $20 bills are a no-no!
Taxis may refuse to accept the ride. This is illegal but common. Therefore, it’s better to start with your destination, and if they say no – just move on.
Needless to say that the Uber service is heaven-sent for a tourist in Panama. Not only you know up front the time and cost of your ride, but you do not have to worry about payment. Uber is slightly more expensive than taxis, but also more reliable. If you have never used Uber before, load their app and try the service in your hometown first.
5. Public Transportation Tickets
Public transportation in Panama City consists of buses and the Metro. They are clean and air-conditioned. Multi-use magnetic cards serve as tickets. The same card (pictured on the left) works for the city buses and the Metro. You buy the card from a machine and pre-load it with a couple of bucks.
Unfortunately, the only places where you can buy or recharge the card are Metro stations. That works fine for the Metro, but not for the buses. You have to buy them before you need a ride, so you need some foresight.
There is another card (pictured on the right) that is only sold at the big Albrook Terminal. (Some supermarkets also sell them, but good luck finding them!) Works the same way and is equivalent to the metro card described above. Additionally, it works on turnstiles at the Albrook (departure areas of long-distance buses and restrooms).
It’s a hassle to obtain. You can buy it at only one window, which is served by a cashier (no machines sell it), and they make a big deal over it (e.g. ask for your ID). There is usually a long line leading to the window. Once you have the card, you can recharge it at many locations.
Panama City has the only Metro in Latin America! It’s modern and convenient. Single fare is 37 cents. In short, Metro doesn’t have any drawbacks, except there is only a single line.
Update 2019: The second Metro line is now operating. It goes to the airport, removing a major hassle for visitors.
7. Buses (aka Metro Bus)
City buses do not accept cash, only take the magnetic cards. You enter a bus through the door next to the driver and tap your card to go through a turnstile. In other words, if you don’t have the card – you are out of luck! What do you do? Simply offer 1-2 bucks to your fellow passengers to swipe their card for you. Most will be happy to oblige. Single bus fare is 25 cents ($1.25 for express lines).
You exit the bus through the rear door. It also has a turnstile. If you tap your card on exit you can transfer to another line for free (within 40 minutes). Surely, it is a very civilized arrangement. If you don’t transfer, no need to tap.
Buses do not have numbers. Instead, they display a route in the front window, e.g. “Cinta Costera – Panama Viejo”. That isn’t helpful unless you know the city really well. Bus stops are not always well marked. Consequently, if you see a group of people waiting around, it may be a bus stop.
Update 2019: City buses do have numbers now and there is an Android app with bus routes: MiBus Maps Panamá.
8. Diablos Rojos
Diablos Rojos (red devils) are beat-up buses that look like old US school buses. They are individually owned and accept cash only. These gaudily painted contraptions belch smoke and blare music. Do not get in unless you are fluent in Spanish!
Update 2019: Diablos Rojos are phased out by the city. As a result, some have already disappeared. The remaining ones have toned down gaudy paintings. My recommendation now is: take a ride in one before they are gone.
9. Rental Cars
Car rental presents a trap for unwary visitors. It is Panapass – a sticker that is read by toll booths. (You have no option to pay the road toll with cash.) It is important to make sure that the car rental agency preloaded it with a few dollars. Trying to use a toll road with zero balance in Panapass leads to a very stressful experience.
10. Essential Apps
- WhatsApp – it is very popular and therefore very useful in Panama, everybody is using it: from taxi drivers to hairdressers to bankers to lawyers
- Waze (or other navigational apps)
- Google Translate
- Uber – already mentioned
- MiBus Maps Panamá – if you use public transportation
- Airbnb – useful if you arrange your lodging yourself, as it is very competitive with hotels
11. Cellphone Use
The country code for Panama is 507. Cellphone numbers in Panama have 8 digits, while landline numbers have 7 digits, so you can tell them apart. For example, a landline number looks like this: +507 555 1234.
Notably, there is a gotcha for tourists from the US and Canada: you cannot omit the plus sign! If you dial: 507 555 1234, your phone will by default add +1 (the US and Canada country code) and send: +1 507 555 1234. So now you are calling some poor soul in Minnesota! Owing to the fact that there is area code 507 in Minnesota.
Cellphone service in Panama is good, there is decent coverage and the prices for prepaid data plans are much better than in the US. (Please check my post on the subject.)
Bonus Tip. How to Fold a Panama Hat
Please see the included video. This is an essential skill for every gentleman. (Not really, but it’s fun!)