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Panama No-Nonsense Vacation Guide

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 01 September 2009 06:38
Panama GuideComing to Panama for the first time? Don't bother with outdated guidebooks. So much has changed in Panama since the last one was written that their existence is something of a disservice to the traveler looking for honest and up-to-date insight. Here's the real dirt - in a The Panama Report special - on what to do, ask where to go, and how to about not looking like a tool for your upcoming Panama vacation.  WHAT TO BRING
Bring clothes for the beach, the rainforest, sneakers, and formalwear (including closed toed shoes for men) for a night on the town. Arrive with your passport, US dollars, a tourist visa, mosquito repellant, sun block, rain gear (seasonal), an ATM check/debit card, some useful phrases in Spanish, a good book and relatively few expectations. Do not bring swine flu or negative attitudes: those can be checked at the door. If you forget anything, almost everything can be purchased in Panama for the same price or cheaper than at home.

WHEN TO GO
There are two distinct times to visit Panama. The rainy or "low" season lasts from June until December and the dry season is December to May (fringe months unpredictable). The low season offers good hotel discounts and plenty of rain (though generally not enough to ruin a vacation). The high season boasts perfect weather and heightened tourist rates.

LOCAL CUSTOMS
Panamanians drink a lot, party a lot, and work only as much as is needed to finance the aforementioned. On average, they live with their parents until they get married, eat lots of rice, are pretty religious, enjoy sarcasm, dance, wear formal clothes often, play the lottery, have tons of holidays, and listen to music of high pitched shrieks - an art form known intimately as tipico. To blend in, visitors should introduce themselves with a kiss (except when a man meets a man in which case that would be considered gay). As a fact, foreigners are received warmly by locals.

HEALTH
You don't need any special shots to visit Panama nor should you bring malaria medicine unless you plan on researching the mating habits of female mosquitoes in the Darien basin. Hospitals are located throughout the country with the top (the only Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital outside of the United States) located in Panama City. Medical tourism is on the rise, annual HIV/AIDS deaths are fewer than 500, and prescriptions in omnipresent drug stores are usually optional. Cases of tropical disease such as leishmanisis and dengue are extremely rare and although the economy still grows at unprecedented rates, the ambulances used in Panama are embarrassingly outdated.

SOCIETY & CULTURE
Panama has a tremendously rich history but learning about it can be savengerhuntesque. Try to visit on a holiday or festival date for intense societal enrichment: where small towns transform into celebratory hubs. Visit an indigenous tribe (a truly unique experience) or catch a show at Casco Antiguo's national theater. The lack of museums, art galleries, and state-run visitor centers is sure to disappoint so the best window into culture is the interior province of Los Santos (heart of Panamanian folklore). Robust national pride is manifested on car windshields and in small towns: there is not a Panamanian who does not celebrate carnaval (the world's second largest behind Brasil).

WOMEN TRAVELERS
No matter what you look like, prepare to be hooted and hollered at if you have breasts and are below the age of 50. Many foreigner females living in Panama City choose to drive (not walk) places for this annoyance alone. Construction sites are particularly vulnerable.
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DANGERS & ANNOYANCES
With increases in tourism, petty crime is increasing in Panama but is still at very low levels. Increasing too is the presence of narco-related activity (which rarely headlines anyone not directly involved in the drug trade). Most people interpret Panama (quite accurately) to have a very safe feel.  If anything is dangerous in Panama, it's driving: keep an eye out for drunk drivers, careless diablo rojos, and mudslides. Mosquitoes (most specifically in rainy season and on the Caribbean coast) can be annoying as can navigating (few signs exist), strong ocean currents (no lifeguards), and lack of customer service. Despite Panama City's high-rise condo infatuation, the capital's firemen are armed with equipment capable of fire treatment 100 feet or less leaving those in higher stories unrescuable.  

THINGS TO SEE & DO
Panama City is cool enough to arrive in and depart from, but other than that, it is an unremarkable travel destination. When there, visit exclusively The Panama Canal, Casco Antiguo, Cerro Ancon, YMCA Artisan warehouse, the Causeway, and the fish market. Most other sites including (but not limited to) Panama Viejo, malls and Las Tinajas are overrated and boring. When venturing out of Panama City, look forward to indigenous indians, rare wildlife, unspoiled beaches/rainforests, smiling locals, and the sensation of being one of the few foreigners in town. Do not expect many tour agencies or organized displays of culture because they do not exist. Do not expect proper customer service because it rarely exists either.

PLACES TO EAT
In Panama City, pick from one of about ten noteworthy restaurants or choose blindly from the thousands of other non-descript joints that serve generic food. In the interior, anticipate basic meals of rice/beans/salad/meat but don't plan on spending more than $2. There are semi-progressive alternatives in towns like Bocas, Boquete, and El Valle but nothing that would impress a true foodie. Experience roadside stands and street vendors for inexpensive Panamanian treats like grilled meat on a stick, snow cones, fresh fruit, and tamales. Unlike rural Mexican tacos or Argentinean beef, Panamanian food is comparatively soulless.  The tap water in Panama however is of very high quality. That, and you can eat the lettuce.

NIGHT LIFE
When in the city, plan on visiting Calle Uruguay: the pulsating grid of clubs, bars and restaurants where formal attire is required, reggaeton/electronic music blasts, and good looking people flock. Try Casco Viejo for a small collection of indie haunts or one of the stand-alone lounges elsewhere in less-famous neighborhoods of the City. When outside of Panama City (with one or two provincial exceptions) plan on going to bed around 10.   

EXCURSIONS
Thanks to the country's small size, short trips are easy and plentiful in Panama. Beyond the traditional hotspots of Boquete, Bocas, El Valle and Coronado, the places you should not claim to know Panama without visiting are: San Blas, Coiba, Pedasi, Santa Catalina, Lago Bayano, Cambutal, Boca Chica and Santa Fe. Domestic flights range from $60-$200/roundtrip but are the most efficient way to traverse the country. Car rentals are inexpensive and, thanks to decent traffic infrastructure, ideal for casual road trips. Visitors should combine organized tourism (rainforest ziplines, surfing, hiking, rafting, birding) with a healthy dose of exploring off the beaten path. Visitors should also expect to do most of the planning for these excursions on their own; the best experiences in Panama offered outside the country's narrow tourism infrastructure.

We are still a huge proponent of the Panama vacation. While a lot has changed in this country over the past few years, a lot of it still stays charmingly the same. The happiest and most suitable visitors to Panama are those who arrive with no expectations - who are then surprised and delighted to uncover wonderful facets of the country. The least successful tourists arrive anticipating something that Panama is not as is detailed in our piece, Panama: Underpromising and Overdelivering.

Image: ahorrotributario.org/images/noticias/Panama%20canal.jpg

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Boca Chica
written by chicagotraveler , September 02, 2009
Great, I’ve added some stuff:
This a great overview of Panama. I love when people mention Boca Chica which is a gateway to the Gulf of Chiriqui and all it has to offer, including G of C National Marine Park and Coiba – and some of the greatest sportfishing in the world! Flights are pretty inexpensive from Panama City as is a car rental for the 50 minute drive from the airport in David to Boca Chica. It’s quiet and remote; undiscovered by the mainstream crowds. There are also some nice little inns there, like Cala Mia and Seagull Cove Lodge. It is definitely worth the bit of effort to see one of the most beautiful areas in the Pacific.
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Super List
written by Marcel , September 03, 2009
Great work Matt! People get so hyped up about panama city and are usually disappointed with no real places to shop or walk around. Would also suggest trying the local taxis (cheap and fun if you have the courage). Everything you mention is dead on.
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Let me rewrite...
written by Sue Kamacock , January 17, 2010
Coming to Panama for the first time? Don't bother
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So much has changed???
written by Gerrit Ryit Upye , February 22, 2010
Uh? What has changed deep down below the surface? Nothing. Bocas: still a dump. Kuna: still undeveloped (and a highway). PC: a few pointless buildings (funded, like the banks, "uniquely"). Coranado: (vomits). Nothing has changed. Nothing.
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Panama Sounds Like a Great Spot
written by Aaron Webb , March 22, 2011
This place sounds spectacular. One of my classmates from hight school is from Panama and she said it is nice!Hopefully one day I will be able to go here but my online business site offers discount packages and a way to earn cash. It is only a $250.00 one-time fee and you are all good to go.

Visit How to Make Money and Travel

AND FOR VIDEO COVERAGE: Awebbamazing
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