Things to Know That Can Make or Break your Panama Vacation

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"Things to Know That Can Make or Break your Panama Vacation".

Search our blog about all things Panama! From must dos, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, in our blog you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 15 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


🌎 🌍 🌏 CODE RED FOR HUMANITY!!! ❌ ❌ ❌

50% DISCOUNT OFF ONLINE PRIVATE LESSONS and 25% OFF ONLINE GROUP LESSONS when you submit your payment by FRIDAY NOVEMBER 12TH, the last day of COP26.

CLAIM DISCOUNT HERE!

Or find out more about ONLINE SPANISH LESSONS HERE...

🦠 Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic we're currently only offering ✅ Online Spanish Lessons and ✅ Spanish classes in a TRAVELING CLASSROOM instead of at the school, delivering a teacher directly to you in a COVID safe way wherever you are, be it your hotel, home, park, on tour, at the beach or in any other place where social distancing is comfortably and safely possible. CONTACT US TODAY!

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Things to Know That Can Make or Break your Panama Vacation

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When I first arrived in Panama City, I expected it to be a booming metropolis full of English speakers. I expected to have to order all the products that I’m used to using from the U.S. rather than buy them right here. I had a long list of expectations and assumptions, which the city continues to defy.

Whether you’re coming to Panama to study Spanish with Habla Ya, relocate (like me), or just have a vacation, here are some things you should know:

Country Background: History and People

Panama is a small country of only about 4 million people. It was once part of Colombia but seceded in 1903. In 1977 after several generational struggles and with the U.S. military unsuccessfully trying to quell riots around the country in the decade before, Panama regained its sovereignty and obtained the right to manage and operate the Panama Canal; the complete transfer was completed in 1999. However, Panama maintains close ties to the U.S. and I have yet to feel any animosity towards Americans per se.

Badoo

Panamanians welcome foreigners to come here, become part of Panama, respect the laws, and work side by side with the local people for a better Panama. There are many opportunities here to collaborate with talented and creative people and use your own skills to help improve society and the local quality of life.

The influx of expats brings a responsibility to not just be a element that raises the cost of living for everyone else, but to contribute to making Panama a better place for Panamanians as well as those who have come to live in this beautiful country.

There are a growing and influential number of Venezuelan, Spanish and Colombian immigrants in Panama. Panama is truly diverse with a large mestizo, African, Asian, and indigenous population. Unlike many other parts of the region, here many indigenous groups maintain their autonomy, culture, and languages. Many Afro-Panamanian communities originate from the West Indies and will speak English or a form of patois unique to Panama referred to as guari-guari. It is also geographically diverse, meaning you can be in the jungle, mountains, city, or the beach within hours.

For a more in depth analysis about Panamanian culture check out this other post...

Panama is a melting pot of races from all over the world. Referring to someone by the color of their skin (or amount of weight they're carrying or not) is not a crime over here.
Panama is a melting pot of races from all over the world. Referring to someone by the color of their skin (or amount of weight they're carrying or not) is not a crime over here.

Panama continues to function on the U.S. dollar, making it quite straight forward to visit and it's definitively cheaper to have a vacation or live here than neighboring Costa Rica. The US dollar also keeps the country's inflation from going up too fast and the country has maintained an active and growing economy during the last 20 years.

What to Bring

Panama has two seasons which I’d describe as hot and humid (summer) or Noah’s Ark rain (winter), though specific weather patterns vary between the Pacific (Panama City and Boquete) and the Caribbean (Bocas del Toro).

Here’s what you should bring:

  • Sunscreen (something eco-friendly and that will protect you for real - there are many products out there that don't really do the job and can in fact give you skin cancer)
  • Any medicines prescription medicines you'll need
  • Sunshades
  • Small backpack for daily walking around and such
  • Summer clothing
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Small umbrella (rain is unpredictable)
  • At least once nice outfit and dress shoes for events like happy hours, dinner, or parties
  • A camera

Here you can find even more detailed info about what to bring to Bocas and/or Boquete.

The Day to Day

There are certain cultural differences, and learning to accept and understand them, will save you from many uncomfortable situations, rants and will help you keep your expectations in check.

Paseo Urbano. #Panama #ptylife #cascoviejo @paseourbanopty

A photo posted by pty life (@ptylife) on

  • Panama is still a developing country despite the high-rises and growing economy. Anticipate that you may spent at least 30 minutes in traffic in the city during traffic hours (fortunately Habla Ya Panama City is only a 10 minute walk from the subway and close to loads of hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc), that on certain days you may or may not have hot water or air conditioning, and the power many go out (and the internet). Life will go on, however.
  • No one is ever in a hurry in Panama. Printed times can often be a suggestion for things like shows or boat departures. This is important to stress if you tend to be “type A” or used to the concept that your time should be valuable to others. Things move at their own pace in Panama and people are likely to stop to chat or catch the end-tail of a soccer game on the TV in a bodega when you’d like them to hurry up. Just relax. Things will get done.
  • Although few people speak English, assume that almost everyone will understand some English. Thus, don’t try to bad mouth someone in English. It won’t end well for you.
  • You’re expected to say hello, good afternoon, and good evening to people, especially before you make a request. You’ll be considered rude if you simply launch into “how much does this cost” without properly greeting someone and asking “¿como estás?” first. Luckily, the word “Buenas” can be used in general to cover all three greetings. If you don’t speak Spanish, download Google Translate to get you through the day to day of ordering food, giving directions, etc.
  • Taxis in Panama are unmetered and known for trying to overcharge foreigners or refuse to go to certain places. Download Uber if you want to avoid the hassle.
  • Panamanian men have perfected the art of catcalling. If you're a woman, expect that men will catcall you at all times in the city more out of habit than out of malice, even if they’re with another woman. However, no one will/should physically harass you.
  • Panamanian Spanish is filled with slang and U.S. influences. Like everywhere in Latin America, you need to know the local slang.
  • Panamanians are usually quite friendly, patient, and happy to talk to tourists and new people. You will be asked “where are you from” at least twice a day. The person will then engage in a conversation with you about any points of common interest.
  • If you don’t understand something someone is telling you, simply ask “¿por qué?” (why) as a stalling tactic. Panamanians love a captive audience and will be happy to explain it to you again, allowing you time to process what they’re saying to you before responding.
  • Anyone older than you will likely refer to you as “joven” (youth) at any point in time if they don’t know your name. If you hear someone yelling out “joven”, they’re likely trying to get your attention.
  • The concept of “personal space” and “political correctness” do no exist in Panama. Keep in mind that it’s unlikely that someone will purposely try to make you uncomfortable, but you can always let them know if you prefer not to engage on a particular topic.
  • Never take photos of people without asking, especially photos of people’s children. Imagine if someone just pointed a camera in your face without saying a word…
  • Always have your I.D. on you or a copy of your passport is preferable.
  • You can find almost anything in Panama that you would in the U.S. or Europe. However, cheap things may end up costing you a lot in the long run. Employ the same level of discernment here in Panama that you would when shopping in your own country.

Helpful Spanish phrases you should know:

  • Hello = ¡Hola!
  • How are you? = ¿Cómo estás?
  • Good. Thank you. And yourself? = Bien gracias, ¿y tú?
  • What's your name? = ¿Cómo te llamas?
  • My name is... = Me llamo...
  • Where are you from? = ¿De dónde eres?
  • I'm from... = Soy de...
  • I don't know = No sé
  • Excuse me= ¡Perdón!
  • How much is this? = ¿Cuánto cuesta?
  • Sorry = ¡Perdón!
  • Thank you = Gracias
  • You are welcome = De nada
  • Where's the toilet? = ¿Dónde está el baño?
  • Help!= ¡Ayúdame!
  • Leave me alone = ¡Déjame en paz!

For even more useful Spanish phrases for traveling in Latin America click here...

Most common slang words you should know in Panama:

  • Fren (frin) = friend
  • Pritti (pri-ti) = cool, awesome
  • Offi (o-fi)= definitely
  • Ta cool (ta cool) = It’s cool, it’s ok
  • Qué sopá = what’s up
  • Joven= young person

We've written a couple of other times about slang and idioms in Panama so feel free to read more about it here, here and here...

What other things should a visitor or tourist expect from Panama? Feel free to add your own advice and leave a comment...

FIND MORE ABOUT LEARNING SPANISH IN PANAMA... »

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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3 Responses to "Things to Know That Can Make or Break your Panama Vacation"

  1. Drew Iman

    Knowing some Spanish and local slang, understanding and respecting the local culture, knowing the weather patterns and what to pack, can help you enjoy Panama MORE!

  2. Leana Scachette

    Knowing some Spanish and local slang, understanding and respecting the local culture, knowing the weather patterns and what to pack, can help you enjoy Panama MORE!


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