A quick reference for first time visitors.
Is Panama safe?
I spent most of my time in Panama City. For a major city I found it to be very safe (Colon, not so much). I walked almost everywhere in the city night or day. No problem. That said, crime is on the rise everywhere in Central America. Tourists are often targets. My advice: don’t act like a tourist.
Here’s the U.S Government Website for travel warnings, visa, and passport info.
Departure – There’s a pant-load of cheap flights into Panama. But if you really want cheap, and you’re planning to stay longer than three months, you’ve got a problem. In my experience, a $400-$600 round trip ticket can jump to over $1000 – $1200 if you want to hang in Panama longer than 90 days.
One solution is to buy a one way ticket. When you check in at the airport the airlines might tell you that you need a round trip ticket to get into Panama. Sorry, their hands are tied, they’ll say. I know, I’ve been there. My bus ticket out of Panama wasn’t good enough for them. I had to purchase a refundable return ticket at the counter. Later, after I cleared customs in Panama, I just cashed it in.
Visa runs – If you’re on a tourist visa you must leave the country after three months. both Panaline and Tica bus make runs from Panama City to San Jose Costa Rica.
Cost: $50 round trip. The bus service between Panama and Costa Rica is dependable and cheap. There are modern air-conditioned buses leaving Allbrook station for local trips as well.
Cost: around $100 -$200 round trip to Costa Rica. Nature Air offers daily flights to 15 destinations in Costa Rica and a couple to Bocas del Toro , Panama, and Granada , Nicaragua
Getting around town: As noted, I like walking in Panama City. But taxis are cheap and ubiquitous, except when it rains. Then you’ll have to blackmail a government official if you want a lift. Relax, you’re in Panama – what’s the rush? Hang out under the eves with the locals, and watch the monkeys float past.
I’ve been in hundreds of Panama taxis, and never had a bad experience. The vehicles are mostly crap, but most drivers are honest. Oh sure, you’ll meet some interesting characters. But they’re cool. Don’t be alarmed if your driver stops to pick up a local. If someone’s going in the same general direction the driver will pick them up to make more cash. The taxis aren’t metered, they’re zoned.
Cost: fares run from $1.00 to $3.00 within the City. A trip out to the Amador causeway, or the canal, might cost you a little more. Taxis can also be rented for about $6 – $10 an hour.
Ok, there are emergencies. Like when you’ve just loaded up on groceries at Supermercado Reys, it’s raining, and the chocolate ice cream’s melting. That’s when you pick up the phone and dial. Be prepared to speak Spanish.
America Libre: 223-7342, 800-TAXI
Radio Taxi America: 223-7694, 223-1928, 223-7534
Radio Taxi El Golf: 220-0229, 266-0842
Many visitors leaving Toucamen Airport catch a cab. It’s best not to commit yourself to a rental car unless you’re sure you ready to leave the city. It’s about a thirty minute ride from the airport.
Cost: about $25.
Public buses: sadly, they’re no more chickens running round. The beautifully painted, but murderous Diablo Rojos have been put down. Replaced by a more modern air-conditoned fleet.
Cost : $1.
Renting a car: is doable from the usual suspects. You can find them at the airport and all over the P-city. Like most things in Panama, car rentals are cheap compared to the U.S.
For some, a frenetic drive up and down Panama’s streets would qualify as an extreme sport. Beware, most Panamanians are crazy drivers, and the others just suck. Traffic can get heavy. Stay off the roads after 3:30 pm until 6:30 pm unless you’re outside the city. You can drive with your foreign license. Just remember to carry your passport with you. Panama’s roads are some of the best in Central America.
Cost: a little piece of your soul.
Cheap hotel: try the hotel California. Last time I checked you could stay the month for about $500. Rooms feature air, cable tv, hot showers, room service. They’ve got a good restaurant below and friendly staff.
Tip: stay on the top floor, on the back side, to lesson the sounds of traffic bellowing up and down Via Espania.
Banks: don’t believe the hype about privacy and secrecy. Your assets are always at risk in Panama. Keep most of your money at home. Use ATM’s. Open an account only if you’re going to stay, and only keep enough on hand to pay bills. Use online banking to pay bills back home.
Conventional wisdom says you need two letters of introduction to open a bank account in Panama. I haven’t found that to be accurate. Just have your bank in the U.S contact them with a letter of intro and that should suffice. If you have a problem go to another bank.
Taxes: file your U.S. income tax online. As an incentive to buy here, there’s a 10 -20 year tax exemption for some newly built real estate in Panama. Check with your lawyer before you buy. For older apartments or homes valued under $30k there’s no tax. Over $30k you need to pay 1.75% from $30,000 to $50,000; plus 1.95% from $50,000 to $75,000; and 2.10% on values above $75,000. There’s also a capital gains tax for sellers.
Real Estate: the markets hot. Prices were cheap compared to the U.S and Costa Rica a while back, but no longer. Don’t buy at the top. Are we there yet? Some think the market’s overheated and due for an adjustment. Be careful about buying pre-construction. Some of those projects don’t work out. And sometimes they’ll sell your unit out from under you if they can get a better price.
Always have a lawyer on hand. You can look for a reputable lawyer here. I recommend buying older, titled properties in decent condition. Their prices are lower. In many cases they were built better, are cheaper to maintain, and they’re more resilient to a real estate crash. You can always customize them to suit your tastes. Workers are cheap down here.
Cable/TV/internet: service is excellent in Panama City. Outside the city you could be on a dish and the service can be spotty.
Cost of living: Not too bad. Cheap, if you want to live like a cholo. A couple of examples: a gallon of Breyers vanilla ice cream is over $7, but the local brand is $2. I bought a cool new jacket (brand name Bodyglove) yesterday for $7. A shirt for $5. I normally pay $15- $18 when eating out with my girlfriend. If you want to live cheaply you can, if you want to live like a king, you can. I lived on about $1200-$1500 a month while I was there (2 people).
What to bring: cash, an ATM card, credit card, passport, and books. Travel light. You never know when a bus will drop you in the casa del culo (middle of nowhere/house of the ass). You don’t want to be hiking for miles in the equatorial heat loaded down with gear. You can find everything you need in Panama City anyway. Everything, except a good selection of reasonably priced English language books.
Crime: Panama’s a reasonably safe country. That said, it’s best to fly under the radar, Don’t present yourself as a target, live modestly, and use common sense in urban areas.
Currency: Panama uses the Balboa, based on the dollar. There’s an interesting article here about the monetary system of Panama. The author claims that Panama’s inflation is lower than the U.S., and that their market driven system is wildly stable. He writes: “Panama is the only country in Latin America that has not experienced a financial collapse or currency crisis.”
Weather: hot, and humid in Panama City. Cool in the mountains. No major storms. Oh sure, we get the occasional earthquake. But who doesn’t love a good shake now and again?
The people: multi-racial, fun loving, easy going, well dressed, respectful, decent. The men are handsome, the women stunning.
The siesta: a midday nap may explain why the people are so chill. A new study shows that taking a siesta lowers the risk of heart attacks, and lowers stress.
Health insurance: cheap. A couple of examples I found over on the Panama forum. British/American offer coverage in Panama. For two healthy people over 40 a premium is about $100/month.
An even cheaper option might be a health plan, or HMO, from Hospital Chiriqui. There are rumors they will be offering care in Panama City soon. Here another very cheap plan from the Hospital Santa Fe.
Condo insurance: you may want to buy an individual unit owner policy which will cover the roof walls and floor of your unit – about $70 a year.
Tipping: cleaners, waitresses, bag boys etc., are all struggling to survive. A modest tip goes a long way down here.
Panama’s upside: there’s huge money being invested in Panama right now, a construction boom, excellent climate, wonderful people, an international, first world city, no standing army, good infrastructure, canal modernization, stable currency, protected parks, good hospitals.
Panama’s downside: dengue-like humidity in low areas. Massive public debt. An over-heated building boom fueled by speculation and Colombian drug money. A corrupt government that doesn’t invest enough money in schools and training for the poor. Judiciary is slow moving and corrupt. The rich and well connected get out of jail free. Assets and investments are not safe. The press is not free to write the truth. Pollution runs into the bay of Panama.
This list is ongoing. Feel free to add your contributions in the comments section below.