Difference between revisions of "Panama"
Revision as of 13:59, 26 March 2008
Panama  is a country in Central America with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, with Colombia (and South America) to the southeast and Costa Rica (and North America) to the northwest. It's strategically located on the isthmus that forms the land bridge connecting North and South America. It controls the Panama Canal that links the North Atlantic Ocean via Caribbean Sea with North Pacific Ocean, one of the most important shipping routes in the world.
Ports and harbors
Panama is known as the "Crossroads of the Americas" due to its privileged position between North and South America. The indigenous meaning of the country's name, "abundance of fish", reflects Panama's reputation as a paradise for water sports enthusiasts and eco-tourists alike. Panama is also known for its highly developed international banking sector, with more than 150 banks from 35 countries establishing local branches, including HSBC, Dresdner Bank and Citi Bank. Panama boasts a large expat community; about 25,000 US citizens live in country. It is worth spending some time reading up on Panama and communicating with locals, expats and fellow travelers alike before arriving in the country.
Tropical maritime; hot, humid, cloudy; prolonged rainy season, called winter or invierno (May to January); short dry season, called summer or verano (January to May)
Be sure to be prepared for rain, especially during the Central American winter (May - December). An umbrella is a good thing to have, and they can be bought cheaply in Panama.
Most areas are quite warm, but a few places, such as Boquete, Cerro Punta and El Valle can get a little chilly at night. You definitely want a heavy rain-proof jacket if you're going to the top of Barú since you will be above 3000m for a little while.
Interior mostly steep, rugged mountains and dissected, upland plains; coastal areas largely plains and rolling hills
With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone). The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914.
On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of 1999. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years. The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama by or on 31 December 1999.
International flights arrive at Tocumen International Airport, which lies about 20 miles east of Panama City. You will have to taxi, bus, or rent a car to get to the city. Airport taxis use set rates, and can be shared--the transportation information booth in the lobby will help you make arrangements. There are a couple of hotels near the airport where you can spend the night at relatively high prices (US$60).
If you are short on cash you can catch a bus to the downtown of the city for .25 balboa. Just walk towards the highway and cross the street towards the bus shelter. Make sure you get the bus that says via España.
The country has more private airstrips per square mile than any other country in the world, and it is technically feasible for the adventurous private pilot to fly to one of them, either directly or through country hopping through Central America. Many of the remote interior regions of the country are best accessed by private plane, although combinations of hiking and canoing can get you to most places, too. If you are flying a private aircraft into Panama, it is important to verify where you can clear customs and immigration--not all airstrips are equipped to clear you.
You can drive across at Paso Canoas (Pacific side), but be aware that it is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) and disorganized border crossings in Central America. It is very easy to accidentally drive across the border without realizing it. The various offices at the border are randomly scattered throughout the bordertown, and you can do quite a bit of trekking while finding them, as they don't look distinct from the surrounding buildings in any way. This is one crossing where it is definitely worth your money to hire a tramitator, or helper, to help you through the stations, if you do not speak Spanish.
There are also road crossings at Rio Sereno (Pacific side) and Sixaola/Guabito (Atlantic side). The Rio Sereno crossing sees very little traffic, so make sure all your papers are in order, as police can be very strict.
You will not be allowed to leave the country without your car (i.e. change your mind, abandon the car, and fly home) without getting a stamp on your passport proving that you have paid the proper impuestos (importation taxes) on your vehicle. Expect to be stopped frequently by police, but don't worry, they are usually more curious about seeing a foreign car than interested in a bribe.
If you have car trouble in Panama, you will find dealers with service departments for almost all of the major car manufacturers from the USA (All), Europe (almost all) and Japan (All). Most of them, like in the USA require appointments to service your car. Most of the service personnel in all of the car dealers are manufacturer certify. If you need car repairs and do not want to go to a dealer to save some money or you have an emerency repair, you can find good independent mechanic services/shops in all of the major cities by looking in the yellow pages(paginas amarillas), in addition to towing services. If you need parts for your vehicle, you can find a great number of autoparts stores for all major car manufacturers in the yellow pages (paginas amarillas)too. The use of "shade tree mechanics" and parts from junkyards are the same as in the USA; these options are for doit your self type of persons.
You can't cross from Panama to Colombia by bus--the Darien Gap begins at Yaviza, where the Interamericana runs out.
If you're coming in from Costa Rica, however, things will be a bit easier. There are three possible entry points, the main one being Paso Canoas. Panaline and Ticabus, among others, can get you straight from San Jose, Costa Rica to David or Panama City. The trip from San Jose is quite cheap, but takes about 18 hours. If you want to see things in between, you can also go by local buses, although the trip will take much longer.
If you want to save time yet not pay US$280 or so for a SJO-PTY airplane ticket with COPA or TACA, you could consider taking the bus from San Jose to Changuinola and fly from there to Panama city. That flight takes about one hour and costs US$70 (Jun. 2007). Check the website of Aeroperlas.com for flight schedules.
Keep in mind that Panamanian law requires you to have a return ticket to get into Panama. The border guard may not check, but you never know. A return flight from San Jose, Bogotá or Abu Dhabi won't work. The return ticket has to originate from within Panama. If you run into this problem, you can always buy a return ticket from the bus driver. In general, if you're having a hot-tempered day, it may not be a good day to cross any borders. Some border officials in Central America seem to love being sticklers about their crazy rules if they decide they don't like you.
Citizens of several countries, US citizens included, need tourist cards to enter Panama without a visa. These tourist cards cost US$5, so have a five ready.
Many cruise lines have the Panama Canal on their itineraries. You can make tours on Panama City or Colon City and take part in many packages. Recommendation is to take the Panama Canal Railway from Panama to Colon or vice versa. This train goes back since 1855 and it was the first interoceanic train in the American Continent. It has been rebuilt recently and it has very nice carts.
It is possible to arrange for passage on banana boats traveling from Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, but such passage is recommended only for the truly adventurous, as the boats are often structurally unsound, terribly over-burdened, and are very likely to be smuggling drugs as well.
Small, private sail boats also provide service between Panama and Colombia, with the most common ports-of-call Portobelo on Panama's Caribbean coast, and Cartagena on Colombia's. Fare can vary from US$200-500+, and the trip can take from three to five days, depending if a visit to the San Blas Islands is included (most captains will include a visit if asked). The best way to find a boat is to ask around in hostels in Panama City popular with backpackers. Expect to wait several days to find a boat, if at all. Do note that these boats, particularly when Panama-bound, may also often be carrying contraband.
It is possible to hike across the Darien Gap from Colombia with the help of trained guides, but this route is generally considered one of the most dangerous in the world. A large percentage of attempts have ended with the trekkers dead as victims of Colombian guerrillas or the oppressive jungle environment, which is considered the densest and most difficult to breach in the world. Despite the bravado-filled tales of backpackers who will try to convince you that REAL travellers aren't afraid to cross the Gap, it really is a very dangerous trip and the Panamanian police are not interested in going in to look for you if you get into trouble.
The guidebook "Getting to Know Panama," by Michele Labrut, gives the following advice for surviving in the Darien.
"Do not go naked into the water, some very undesirable protazoans can get into you. Do not drink untreated water. Never stray from the group, you can easily lose your bearings and get lost. If this happens, stay right where you are, do not panic. Shout or scream at intervals.
What to Wear
Panamanians are very image oriented. "Dressing down" in an attempt to not appear ostentatious among poorer locals will not be taken as a sign of solidarity, but as disrespect. They enjoy dressing nicely, and the ones who aren't wearing nice clothes would do so if they had the money. The same goes for hygiene. Locals will look down upon tourists who are dirty.
That being said, there is no need to wear a suit everywhere, either. Just dress conservatively and nice. For men, a clean pair of jeans and ironed collared shirt will do nicely for most excursions, you could dress more casually or more formally depending on the situation. Shorts are considered extremely casual wear suitable only for the beach, although this attitude has begun to change in some areas. Also, the longer Bermuda shorts made of nice fabrics are viewed as appropriate in many places.
Think nice, neat, and clean, and you will already be showing a great deal of respect for locals.
There are two kinds of buses in Panama. The ones you find on the highway, and "city buses". The highway buses are constantly making journeys from terminals in Panama city to different destinations along the Pan American Highway, and back to the terminals. They're pretty frequent, and the buses will pick you up or drop you off at any point along their route, and most of them are air conditioned. The roughly linear shape of the country makes it ideal for a bus system, so ideal in fact that you don't really need to rent a car to get around most areas. Take a bus to the intersection on the Pan American highway that you want. You can get on a bus any place on the Pan American highway going towards Panama City, but all trips originating from within the city require a ticket. The Grand Terminal in the city is large and modern, and will remind you of an American shopping mall or airport (it actually is a shopping mall, Albrook Mall, too).
If you want to get on a bus, stand by the side of the road, hold you out your arm and make obvious pointing motions toward the ground. If you're on the bus and want to get off, yell "parada!" You'll get the hang of it pretty quick. The locals are very helpful with tourists on buses, and may offer help.
The highway buses are very cheap, count on a fare of about US$1 per hour traveled, sometimes less. One exception is fares from Tocumen airport, which both buses and taxis charge through the roof for (by Panamanian standards), simply because they can.
Citybuses are different. They are crowded, decoratively painted school buses, often unairconditioned, with a flat rate of 25 cents to any location in Panama City. They can be fun, but have a reputation for being dangerous, both in driving and the likelihood of encountering criminals. They can be fun to take a couple of times, but once you've done it, best to take a taxi, which won't be that much more expensive anyways. They definitely have a particular style apart from other Central American countries. They look as if a bunch of 60's hippies decided to drive as far south as they could go in school buses, and when they could go no further, they stopped and started a bus company. If you like Salsa Music, you'll be happy as a clam on these buses. Most locals aren't.
If your destination actually happens to lie far off the bus route, or if you just want to be lazy, taxis are also a decent way to get around in Panama. They're not expensive at all, usually US$1.50 per ride within most of the city; and unlike the urban taxis you may be used to, they can take you way out into the country. A taxi ride from Tocumen airport to Panama City, at a minimum of US$20, can easily exceed your taxi fares for the rest of your trip combined. If you share a taxi ride with other passengers going from the airport to the city, your fare per person can be cheaper, at around US$12. You can save quite a bit of money by taking the bus to the Gran Terminal, but even the bus fares will be higher than normal.
You can rent a car and drive it around the country quite easily. Panama City is no more difficult to navigate than any big city in the United States, although people can be more casual about traffic laws. The Pan American Highway is paved for the entire length of the country, and has many roads which branch off to towns off the highway, most of which are paved, and most of the rest are still easily navigable in a sedan.
Road engineering standards are fairly low, however, be on the lookout for off camber turns, potholes, and sharp turns with no warning. In general though, if you keep your wits about you and expect the unexpected, driving in Panama need not be any more dangerous than driving in more developed Western countries.
It is important to note that if you are in a traffic accident in Panama, you are required by law to remain with your vehicle until a policeman arrives. Or you might just hire a professional driver from Panamataxi Turismo, S.A. with excellent cars and good service.
If you cross the border from Costa Rica into Panama, you will notice a large change in the dialect. True to its Caribbean orientation, Panamanian Spanish sounds much closer to Puerto Rican than Tico or Nicaraguan Spanish. For students of Mexican or European Spanish, it may take a little getting used to. The biggest thing you will notice is that half of the S's go missing, specifically at the end of words or before other consonants. You will hear nosotroh ehtamoh instead of nosotros estamos. Also some of the d's and r's go missing. While you're in Panama, see if you can find where they hid all their consonants.
This dialect is most pronounced in the country [aka. interior]. It can be funny when you talk to locals there, but try to avoid using this "country Spanish" when you´re in the city. Most city people view it as an uneducated dialect, and will give you funny looks if you drop your S's.
If you're from the United States, avoid referring to yourself as "American." Panamanians consider themselves American too (Central Americans) although they never refer to each other as Americans. While you may have been taught in school to refer to yourself as American "estadounidense," the most common catch-all for US and Canadian citizens is "Norteamericano/a."
There is some debate over the use of "norteamericano/a." "Americans" actually living in Panama never hear a Panamanian refer to themselves as American. Nor do they ever hear a Canadian referring to themselves as an "American."
Visitors may be very confused by the Panamanian sense of humor, which finds great hilarity in all forms of slapstick, and often doesn't get irony at all.
Panama has a lot more indigenous culture than some neighboring countries. In Kuna Yala you will hear the native Kuna language spoken. In the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, as well as in Chiriqui or Bocas del Toro, you might hear the native Ngöbe-Buglé (Guaymí) language, although the Ngöbe and the Buglé are very quiet around foreigners. If you ask directions from one of them, you will probably just get a hand or lips pointed wordlessly in the right direction.
Much of the Caribbean Coast of Panama was settled by Jamaicans. More recently, the descendants of those settlers seem to be speaking more Spanish, but a lot of them still speak English, albeit a very Caribbean variety.
Only a few years ago, the canal used to be controlled by the USA. The US has given the canal back to Panama, but many people in Panama City and other areas near the canal still speak English as a second language.
Panama is home to the hemisphere's largest free trade zone, the Colon Free Zone. There are also a number of large, American-style malls, such as Multicentro, Albrook Mall, and Multiplaza Pacific. However, prices vary widely from mall to mall--Albrook is quite cheap, while Multiplaza is home to designer boutiques and very high prices. Generally Panama is a good place to buy consumer electronics, clothing and cosmetics.
Traditional Panamanian crafts can be found most cheaply at artesania markets. In Panama City, the best are found at the market in Balboa, with the Panama Viejo market coming in as a close second. Panama's best-known craft is the mola, intricate reverse-applique handwork made by the Kuna. Molas can be bought at either of these craft markets, or from vendors on the seawall in Casco Viejo. Other Panamanian crafts include carved tagua nuts, cocobolo carvings of animals, and woven palm-fiber baskets. There is a smaller craft market in El Valle, which specializes in soapstone carvings and other central Panamanian crafts.
Panama uses the Balboa and the US Dollar as its currencies. The balboa is equivalent to the US dollar and has exactly the same value, but in reality the Balboas only exist as coins that are equivalent to the US coins. There are no 1, 5, 10, 20, or 100 Balboa bills because the US Dollar bills are used freely in Panama in that role. If you're traveling on US Dollars, which is a very good idea in Central America, it will be very easy to pay with US dollars in Panama. The US Dollars may be called Balboas as a denomination, but the US Dollar has been the official currency since 1904.
If you're from the US, one oddity about Panama will be change. Panama mints its own coins in the same weights and sizes as US coinage, but with Panamanian stampings. Because a legal treay (1904) between US and Panama the Panamanian coinage is completely interchangeable with standard US coinage in Panama. You may get a handful of change back with a conquistador on the quarter and an Indian on one of your pennies, but Lincoln on the other penny and Roosevelt on the dime. Panama also still mints half dollars. You may hear these half dollars called pesos, so don't think you've accidentally ended up in Mexico. Some Panama's coins are made by the US Mint.
Incidentally, if you run short on change in the United States, Panamanian coins work in parking meters, payphones, vending machines, etc.
You can typically use a credit card at all hotels in the capital, as well as medium-sized regional cities (David, Las Tablas, Colon, Santiago, Bocas del Toro, etc.). Restaurants, grocery stores, and department stores in major cities will also usually take credit, or even debit cards. However, outside the capital using your card could be difficult.
US ATM cards worked in Panama up through the first part of this year, but some banks' cards are no longer functioning. Though Panamanian ATMs function on the Cirrus/Plus system, they may not take cards with the Interlink symbol. Make sure you're carrying a lot of cash (especially small bills) and understand how to take cash advances out on your credit card. Traveller's checks are not widely used.
Many businesses do not accept US$50 or US$100 bills at all. Most of those that do will ask for your passport and store your data/serial numbers of your notes in a special book. The reason is that many US$50 and US$100 bills have been counterfeited.
If Panamanian food has to be summed up in one word, that word would be culantro, which is a local plant that tastes like cilantro, except that it has a much stronger flavor. But there are a variety of restaurants to choose from. If you are looking for spicy, there is indian, or restaurants that serve "picante de la casa", which will probably blow smoke through your ears. There are Arabic restaurants, Italian, Chinese, Mexican... whatever you're in the mood for.
If you get tired of eating beans or gallo pinto in the rest of Central America, you might want to head towards Panama. Since Panama has a little more Caribbean influence than other Central American countries, you'll see a lot more plaintain than beans here.
If you like your food picante, Panama may not be the place for you. They definitely have several hot sauces, but most brands range from weak to really weak. Instead, look for homemade ones which are for the most part as hot as any Mexican or Caribbean sauce. You will really impress Panamanians when you down their fieriest stuff without flinching.
As with other parts of Central America, the favorite meat seems to be chicken, although it doesn't seem quite as ubiquitous as it does in Costa Rica.
The food of Bocas del Toro is even more Caribbean than the rest of Panama. Many of the dishes contain coconut, unlike in the more Latin parts of Panama.
You can get excellent food really cheap if you look around. The equivalent of a 5-star meal with drinks can be US$8-30 in some places.
National beers are produced (Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, Goldbest, Panamá), but don't measure up to a good import. Balboa is the best of the domestic brands. Many women favor Soberana. Beer can cost as low as 35 cents a 12 oz. can.
Carta Vieja is the main domestically produced rum. Seco, a very raw white rum, is the national liquor. Seco con leche (with milk) is a common drink in the countryside.
Music is definitely one of the highlights of Panama. Salsa music seems to permeate everything in the Latin parts of the country. Reggaeton originated in Panama and is also very popular. In Bocas del Toro, you will hear a lot of Reggae with Spanish lyrics. Check out the summer music festival in Las Tablas.
Many discos and bars plague the Capital City. The area known as "Calle Uruguay" has probably a dozen or so nice discos and bars within a 2 block radius, and is the best place for partying. Great spot for "bar hopping". There are also very nice discos and bars on the "Causeway" or "El Amador".
Older Clubs (Some of these have been replaced, or closed.)
Panama offers many universities and high schools that are bi-lingual and world class. There's a project ongoing called City of Knowledge, that consists on several educational programmes in the old installations of a former US military base (Clayton), including a Spanish language school. There is also a school at Justo Arosemena who teaches mainly to German speaking people, but it might be worth a glance at the UDI-Universidad del Istmo
There's also a Florida State University branch, as many other alternatives.
Most of Panama is very safe. People in rural areas are generally extremely friendly and very helpful. If you want to visit Latin America, but are paranoid about security, Panama might be a good place to cut your teeth.
However, as with most countries, there are a few spots that warrant some caution. Most of the city of Colon is considered dangerous, and some neighborhoods in Panama City are a bit sketchy, in particular El Chorrillo, Curundu and El Marañón, poor and crime-ridden areas. The old colonial quarter, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe) has a lingering bad reputation among travellers and some Panamanians, but is gentrifying rapidly. During the daytime, San Felipe is perfectly safe for foreigners. At night, the main streets and plazas, as well as the district of bars and restaurants toward the point, are also safe, but visitors should exercise caution as they move north along Avenida Central towards Chorillo.
Telephone and Internet
Panama has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America. this is due to the fact that most major submarine fiber cables cross the Panama Canal, either by land or water. Calls to the USA and Europe are between 4 and 10 cents a minute. The best way to make international calls from Panama is to buy prepaid telephone cards that are sold at every corner. The most popular is the ClaroCOM card. These cards work from everywhere and they even work from the USA, Mexico, Europe, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia etc.
Panamas Country Code is 507 all celular numbers start with the number 6 and have 8 digits.
Yellow fever vaccination is recommended for all visitors over 9 months of age travelling to the provinces of Darien, Kunayala (San Blas) and Panama, excluding the Canal Zone. Most countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination before permitting travellers to enter from Panama.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control  state that risk of malaria exists in rural areas of Bocas del Toro, Darién, and San Blas provinces; no risk in Panama City or in the former Canal Zone. NB: Chloroquine is no longer effective for San Blas Province.
Dengue fever is endemic, particularly in Bocas del Toro.
Tap water is safe in virtually all cities and towns, with the exception of Bocas del Toro, where bottled water is recommended.
Female travellers should be aware that the moisture and heat of the tropics can encourage yeast infections. 3-day and 5-day treatment courses are available in pharmacies, but must be purchased from the pharmacist.
There are many hospitals that can give tourists first class attention. Many can take international insurance policies, though your insurance company may require you to pre-pay and submit a claim form. Verify with your company prior to travel what the requirements are for filing a foreign claim, as you will not typically be provided with a detailed receipt (one that includes diagnosis and treatment codes) unless you ask for it. Here are some of the best ones in Panama City:
Farmacia Arrocha, a drugstore chain, has branches throughout the country. Gran Morrison department stores also often operate pharmacies.