Panama City is a fantastic travel destination but there are a few things you need to know before going there!
Short on time? Here is a quick summary of what to know before traveling to Panama City ⬇️
Make sure you have proof you will be leaving the country
Don't buy mobile data at the airport
Metro and Uber are great ways to get around the city
The best area to stay in - El Cangrejo
The best time to visit is from January to April, during the dry season
Be ready for sudden weather changes and rain showers
Probably one of the safest cities in the whole of Central and South America
Panama is quite expensive
Panama has adopted the tipping culture
Great place for remote working
Let's cover the above in a bit more detail!
Although Panama is quite lean with entry requirements, one thing you definitely need is proof you will be leaving the country. They won't even let you on the plane to Panama if you don't have it!
There are no specific vaccines required to enter Panama, so you do not need a yellow fever vaccine to travel to Panama.
On January 2023, I wasn't even asked for a Covid certificate at any point.
It is quite common to fill in a health declaration form when entering countries in South America, but Panama also does not require that.
Panama in general is very welcoming to tourists and remote workers as you can stay 180 days in the country without any special visas (if you are from the USA, Canada, EU, or Australia) whereas most countries in South and Central America allow only 90 days.
Do not buy mobile data at the airport! The only offers there are for international SIMs they sell for around $60.00. Complete rip-off! Get to the city center first and buy data there, you can get a sim with credit and data for around $10.00. There are many places to get one, starting from the 2 big companies, like T-movil and Claro, to little China shops. I know you might say, you need data to order Uber or do other transportation arrangments BUT most probably you will fly into the Panama Tocumen Airport which is the main airport in Panama, located in the capital - Panama City, and there you can get wifi 30 minutes for free, so enough to order an Uber. Worst case, an extra hour of wifi will cost you only $3.00.
I don't think we got the best deal but we went to the actual T-movil shop and got a SIM with a 30-day plan that gives 1.5GB. Then we can top-up data online if needed. They also had an offer - 10 days of unlimited internet for $30.00 which I think is ideal if you only coming to visit for a week or 10 days.
Getting around the city
Metro is very clean, organized, and easy to use. There are only 2 lines so you can't get everywhere with the metro but it will get you quickly around the main parts of the city. To use the metro, you will need to purchase a metro card ($2), and then top it up with credit. Each ride costs only around $0.30. You can’t eat or drink while on the metro! They are very, very strict about it.
The most comfortable way to get around the city is Uber. It is very cheap in Panama and definitely a better choice than the local taxis as the local taxi drivers tend to rip you off, especially if they see that you are a tourist. But even locals have told me that they have been charged more by local taxis than Uber.
Do not stay in Casco Viejo
I see so many people recommending Casco Viejo as the best area to stay, so I really want to emphasize this point in this blog - consider other areas!
First, the area is very expensive. Everything is overpriced because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don't get me wrong, the area is beautiful but not worth it to stay there. You can easily get an Uber for $3.00 from more or less anywhere in the city and spend a day there without overpaying for accommodation.
Even if you decide that ok, the price is worth it, every time you go out for lunch and dinner, you will overpay. It will end up being a very expensive stay. There are so many areas you can get much more value from your money - accommodation and food wise.
Also, one of the most dangerous areas in the city is next to Casco Viejo, and there is no obvious 'separation' between them. As a tourist, you wander around Casco Viejo, and the next moment you are on these very dangerous streets, so unless you know the area very well you can get in trouble, especially if walking during the late hours.
So what is the alternative then? I have 2 for you! El Cangrejo area or Punta Pacifica.
Punta Pacifica will be similar prices as Casco Viejo but you will get so much more out of your money as you can stay in these really nice hotels with incredible views. Also from there starts the promenade along the shore up to the fish market which is next to Casco Viejo. It is an amazing place to go for a walk and see more of the city vibe. Also a fairly safe area.
My personal favorite area is El Cangrejo. If you are a foodie you will love it. In this area, you will find some of the best-rated restaurants and they vary from sushi bars to local Panamenine food places. Beer gardens, food courts, coffee shops, amazing breakfast places - all this and for much better prices than in Casco Viejo! Also a safe area. I stayed there for 4 weeks and was walking alone in the late hours with my phone out and felt completely safe.
Best time to visit
The best time to visit is during the dry season which is from January to April. The rest of the year it tends to rain a lot!
Said that I do have to warn you that even during the dry season you can get sudden rain showers. They are very short, around 10 minutes but they come from nowhere! At 1pm it will be a clear blue sky and at 1.30pm it rains!
Also, I have to warn you about the heat! It is extremely hot in Panama. I highly recommend doing all tours at 7am and after 4pm, because from 9am until 4pm it is unbearable to walk around. I was sweating from merely standing during the day.
Panama is probably the safest country so far I have been to in Central and South America. Of course, there are always areas you need to know about and avoid as a tourist but the safe areas are actually safe. Panama is the first country where if I am in an area I know at late hours I am not worried to walk alone or have valuables with me.
Panama is quite expensive
I didn't expect this, but Panama has turned out to be more expensive than I thought. I guess now after spending 4 weeks in Panama I realize how good the quality of life is here so I understand that also the cost of living is higher.
But yes I just want to warn you that some places have American or European-level prices... Once I bought a coffee for $6.00!
Panama has the tipping culture
I am actually adding this in due to my previous point. This might be irrelevant to my American readers but as a European, I expect to pay what is on the bill. In Panama, they have adopted the American way and everything always ends up being more expensive than you expect due to the tips and extra added taxes.
The standard in Panama is to add from 10% to 20% in a tip!
Also, ATMs that usually don't charge a fee, charge you in Panama for taking out money!
Great place for remote working
Panama is an excellent place for remote workers. No wonder, there are so many ex-pats living in Panama! The infrastructure is there - you can get really good wifi in most places, and it is easy to arrange things, like data and co-working spaces. Local food is great but having a variety of cuisines and options when you live in one place for months is amazing. Also, loads of vegetarian-friendly restaurants and some vegan places. Most people speak English, so you can actually connect with the local community quite easily. Amazing gyms haha....I know for tourists this might be an irrelevant point, but for all my fellow remote workers - Panama is an excellent choice. Just make sure you have good air-con!