If you're traveling to Panama, these other two blog posts will help you learn more about the Panamanian culture: Top 10 Things to Know About Panamanian Culture and Integration â Learn the Spanish Language, then the Culture!
While planning your vacation it is very normal to get excited, and it can be very easy to get carried away and overdo it while packing (here for info about what to pack for Boquete and here for what to pack for Bocas del Toro). In addition, if you are visiting a country with a different culture than your own, you're at risk of making a faux-pas or being looked at funny if you don't look the part. After all you don't really know what to expect, or might have a bit of misconception of what life at your destination of choice is like.
In France for instance, not every man wears a beret and eats frog legs, just like not everyone wears the famous Panama hat here in Panama. Panama hats actually come from Ecuador... long story short, they are called Panama hats because back in the 19th century, like many other South American goods, the famous hats were first shipped to the Isthmus of Panama before sailing to their final destinations all over the world, subsequently acquiring a name that reflected their point of international sale, "Panama hats", rather than their place of domestic origin.
Theodore Roosevelt had a Panama hat when the Panama Canal was inaugurated: that might have also popularized calling the hats Panama hats despite they are from Ecuador
Going back to our topic, in order to help you get it right the first time, check out our tips to fit in just fine on your first trip to Panama (some of the advice also applies for travel to other Latin American countries).
1. Mind your wardrobe choices
We know that you are on vacation, but please do not walk around in clothing that scream TOURIST. Avoid Indiana Jones attire, hiking shoes (unless you're on a hike) or sandals with white socks, and/or a flowered shirts. Yes we do live in the tropics, but not in the woods =)
In Bocas del Toro for instance, the local dress code includes flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt or tank top. In Panama City, business casual or street wear. In Boquete any comfortable clothing will do the trick, such as tennis shoes or casual city shoes, jeans and a shirt. If you plan on also hiking in Boquete on one of the many trails (highly recommended), by all means do pack your hiking shoes. Just don't wear them to make a fashion statement (unless that's just you in which case just be yourself!)
Try to blend in with the rest of the people and be a smart traveler. A smart traveler always tries to blend in as much as possible with his/her new environment by living just like the locals do, and will not like to stand out more than absolutely necessary. Attracting attention may be fun, but you may be attracting the wrong kind unintentionally.
Pack smart. Now that we've established that the local dress code is key to blend in, you won't need a huge suit case with many different pairs of shoes. How do I recognize a tourist girl in Bocas del Toro or Boquete? Because she is wearing high heels, which is not very comfortable or convenient at a beach or mountain location. If you are in Panama City however, the opposite rule applies. Pack your heels (specially if you plan on partying... for Bocas' nightlife flip flops are the norm), because in our bustling capital city only tourists wear flip flops =).
2. Don't go topless in Panama, it's illegal
Panama is a rather conservative and religious country, and the "Free the Nipple" movement has not reached our neck of the woods yet. We definitely understand the urge to get rid of those annoying tanning lines, but you will have to restrain yourself in Panama (unless you go to one of Bocas del Toro's many beaches that you can have completely to yourself just like Jessica Perez did for the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition).
You also can't walk around in your bikini on the busiest main street in Bocas del Toro, or any other town. Panamanians are very laid back, but by "tranquilo", they don't mean that you should walk around half naked (obviously younger generations are more open minded). You could even get a fine for walking around in your bikini, and of course people will look at you funny. Try to respect the local customs, and avoid shocking the friendly old lady next door.
3. Don't tip inadequately
In Panama, the norm is to tip 10% at restaurants and some fancy bars. That's about it. If you are from the US, you may have a tendency to over tip or tip where you are not really expected to, such as taxis, hairdressers, or any other services. It's not a bad thing if you do, but it is always good to know the local customs before you do something that makes you stand out. You also want to avoid projecting the false image that you are loaded. Flashing cash everywhere will just perpetuate the perception that tourists are rich (which can also have the undesired trickling effect of making life more expensive for the locals).
If you are European on the other hand, you may "forget" to tip, which is frowned upon. Tips are not always automatically included in restaurants, you should really leave your 10% tip if you were happy with your service (if you weren't don't bother... although some restaurants just add it so check your bill). Servers don't make a lot of money, and unlike in Europe, servers count on their tips to make a living.
4. Don't expect sales clerks to understand English by speaking louder
English is not their first language and raising your voice will not make you more understandable, just more annoying. As a courtesy to the people who are hosting you, it is always nice to make a tiny little effort to speak some Spanish in stores or restaurants. Try to memorize some basic Spanish phrases, such as "buenos dĂas" (good morning pronounced Ëbwenos di.as'), "habla usted inglĂ©s?" (do you speak English pronounced 'AH-blah oos-TEHD een-GLEHS?'), and "gracias" (pronounced 'GRAH-syahs'). Or even better learn Spanish while you are in Panama at one of our Spanish schools in Boquete, Bocas del Toro or Panama City.
5. Don't complain
Be more positive. Don't be an ass When things don't go your way. YES, things go slower here, YES we know you are not used to it, and YES we know it is different in your country. But we are not in your country, are we? Just sit back and relax, take a deep breath and try not to control everything. Life is about the unexpected. Be tolerant, and also, don't forget to smile. If you get frustrated or rude, you won't get anywhere, that's a promise.
6. Don't compare
People who have traveled a lot, try to learn the good things about other cultures and try to understand why things are they way they are in different countries. This makes you wiser and also a better person. Refrain from comparing your lifestyle back home with how Panamanians live and totally avoid making negative comments about it in public. It simply isn't the same, and remember that you are visiting a developing country. Some aspects may be really modern, like the brand new highrise buildings in Panama City for instance, but other aspects are just different. Customer service will in many instances not be anywhere near what you may be used to (there are exceptions of course so allow me to brag a bit, except at Habla Ya of course!). Be understanding and don't judge. This is the beauty of experiencing a new country and culture. Just take it as an adventure, see the positive instead of the negative, and avoid any comments that may make you come over arrogant. You will be happy to realize how proud Panamanians are to show you everything about their local customs when you show some respect and interest.
For now that's it. Hope this helps you experience a one in a lifetime vacation in Panama!
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