in Old School

English Not Spoken Here

Judy, from Miami writes: “Is it true English is spoken everywhere in Panama?”

Sure, if by “everywhere” you mean the expat social. Let me ask you, is it true everyone in Miami has pink flamingos on their lawns? The easy answer to your question is no.

Judy, just because you can order beef burritos from Taco Bell, and like to fantasize about your shirtless Latino gardener, that doesn’t mean you’re ready for Panama. Learn a little Spanish before you leave town.

I suggest “Papi, darme lo que quiero.” would be a good place for you to start.

I read the same propaganda over and over before I arrived in Panama. That it’s easier to live, adapt, and connect with people in Panama because more people speak English. It made sense to me then.

America had a long standing relationship with Panama, so one could expect to hear English spoken. Even Panamanians joke that their city is like Miami except there’s more English spoken. But I’m thinking “English is spoken in Panama” is part of a tourism marketing plan.

Because I’ve been here three years. And (with exception of my travels in Bocas), I can count on one hand the people I’ve met who spoke English. They were mostly professional people: my lawyer, banker, Realtor, doctor, dentist. Not the man on the street.

On the street (taxis, shops and restaurants) I rarely encounter anyone who knows more than a few words of English. Now maybe that’s because they just want to torture poor Cojito; giggle at his primitive Spanish. But I suspect it’s because only the wealthy can afford to learn in Panama.

That’s certainly my girlfriend’s story. She knows thousands of English words. She remembers them from high school and working on an American military base. But after high school she couldn’t continue her education because her family was too poor – eight kids, no house, no money, no dad poor.

Like so many of Panama’s young women, she went right to work doing whatever shit job she could to help the family. While she recalls quite a bit of her schooling, god forbid you actually try to speak any English with her. Her pronunciation sucks.

I encourage her to learn (I also encourage her to wear shorter skirts). But I don’t think anyone should speak English to make my life easier (I do however think my girlfriend should wear shorter skirts). Spanish works for me. I didn’t come to Panama to speak English or chill with gringos. I’m here to learn. I need immersion.

So, should you decide to visit Judy, no worries, Panama’s an international city. At the Hotel California the lobby is often filled with Jews dressed in heavy black suits, and speaking Hebrew. I could easily conjure up Tel Aviv or a diamond market in New York.

There are Indian shops in Central (and Dorado) that might make you think Calcutta (actually, Corundu makes me think of Calcutta). There are many wonderful Chinese markets and shops as well. There’s one around the corner where I buy dried Panda testicles (Don’t ask.).

And yes, there are enough Macdonalds, Wendy’s, and Dunkin Doughnuts with Spanish speaking counter help, so that if you close your eyes Judy, you might really believe you’re back in Miami.


-Cojito @ Panama After Dark.

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Care to Comment?



  1. Cojito, Just discovered your website and I'm enjoying your reflections on Panama. I'm about your age, a biologist and my first time in Panama was 25 years ago when I sailed into Balboa on a commercial tuna purse seiner. What an eye opener for a gringo kid from Philadelphia. I visit Panama about every 6 months and was in the city two weeks ago. Always stay in Bella Vista and like you, power walk everywhere around the city. Is it just me, or are the American and Canadian retirees swarming to Panama right now? I noticed a change from a year ago. What do you think? My sleepy little hang-outs have all been discovered. I like Manolas too by the way. My colombian girlfriend (a picky eater) liked it there and drug me in there many times.

  2. 25 years? heh – maybe you should write this guide Jim. you must have some juicy stories to tell of Panama's dark past. how about the time you were on a pub crawl in Casco Viejo, and a drunken Noriega made a pass at you, then puked on your shoes? or the time you helped Endara's young wife pick out the winning lottery numbers. ooh, that was a lucky win – don't you think? you two must have been psychic. i could go on, but these are your stories Jim.

    seriously, i've been only here 3 years, but i think you're right. already i see a change. my girlfriend tells me the economy tanked after the Americans left and the military bases were closed. but recently things seem to be getting better. there's been an influx of tourists and retirees. for example, the Veneto Casino was built last year, and now Manolos, always popular with the locals, is often swamped with tourists. damn – that means i have to wait for my coffee Jim!

    new buildings are going up everywhere. older buildings are being repainted, repaired. big money's getting invested in Panama. but i don't think Panama's overrun with tourists or retirees yet. to my mind it's still undiscovered.


  3. cojito, sorry to hear about the wait for your coffee. Eventually you'll have to hike over to the Price Smart Club for a Mr. Coffee (o Sr. Cafe?) maker. Yes, I found the incident with Noriega really annoying, and just after I'd bought him a cuba libre! Glad they took my advice and had him removed. I've got more stories that I'll send shortly. muchas suerte.

  4. This is truly a PRIMO website. You need to write a book.

    PS. The people at the airport American and Delta counters and gates speak excellent English. Unfortunately that's when you are leaving Panama. Coming in is a different story. But once you get outside you can ask for an English-speaking cab driver and there is a chance you will get one. I have run into a few cabbies who were former canal zone workers and they speak very good English. I recommend Carlos Vasquez, cell phone 6506-4544. He will drive you areound all day for $8 per hour and his English is better than mine!

  5. hey, thanks man. that's kind of you to say. i'm hoping there's a book in here somewhere. maybe by this time next year i'll have enough written to cobble something together. hmmm, how does "Cojito's Gonzo Guide To Panama" sound? i could put a picture of a three legged dog drinking Flor de Cana Rum from a bowl on the cover.


  6. No doubt the dog's name would be Tripod. He should probably be drinking Abuelo since that is Panamanian and Flor is Nica. Abuelo is good and it's cheap — I bought a LITER yesterday at Reba Smith for $6.25.

    …Actually, the cocodrilo with the guy up the tree would be a good cover. Maybe the croc could be holding a bottle of Abuelo in one…er…what do you call a crocodile's "hand?"

  7. A crocodile has front and hind feet. Abuelo viejo is not a bad choice. Flor de Cana is very smooth. I heard it was distilled in Nicaragua by one of the Bacardi family members. I agree, the croc chasing the guy up the tree is a great cover shot. Good luck

  8. hmmm, i think in espanol the croc has patas (paws). when i refer to my girlfriend's feet i call them patas. that always makes her laugh. but i think the guy in the tree should be holding the rum. is Abuelo good straight up? or is it better with coke?

  9. Ron Abuelo is very good, straight up, on the rocks, or with a soda. It's not quite as smooth as aged flor de cana but when in rome. have you ever tried the seco? now that's an interesting bebida – mix it with anything or shoot it! watch out for the following day!!!!!

  10. Rapidly approaching retirement age and with little to show for a life professionally playing around on boats I've been exploring expat locations south of the border. Panama is definately the front runner. That's how I found your blog.

    I especially relate to your comment that "I didn’t come to Panama to speak English or chill with gringos."

    I feel exactly the same way. I was very lucky to have had a dream job overseas. It was presented to me as: "How would you like to live in France for six months or so?" Well, did I really have something more pressing to do than to live on a million and a half dollar custom-built sailboat on the French Riviera?

    I had been taking a conversational Spanish course when this opportunity arose, lol. All I could do in French was to count to ten and tell someone that my aunt's pen was on my uncle's desk.

    For the first six months I really didn't make much of an effort to learn the language or interact with the French very much. But as the job lengthened with no end in sight for the next couple of years, that changed.

    I got a French girlfriend who spoke hardly any English and I was forced to learn.

    And a remarkable thing happened…I became part of the community. The number of Gringos, Brits and other English speaker I interacted with on a daily basis diminished to less than a half dozen.

    At first French was nothing but noise…blah,blah,blah, blah.

    Then a WORD would jump out of the static and I'd look it up in my plastic-covered Harrap's pocket dictionary. And it seemed as though there had been a meeting of all the French-speaking people the night before and they had agreed they would teach me THAT word today because everywhere I went all day long people were using that word.

    Having learned the language and actually living with the French, I got to do to see and do things that the mono-tongued people who hung out at the expat bars never got to do or see.

    After 3 years there I wouldn't, by any stretch of the imagination, say that I became FLUENT in French. Instead I became very PROFICIENT in the language. I could understand nearly everything I saw on TV or at the movies, and I could hold wonderful conversations with people. I was proficient to the point that when talking to someone in French I THOUGHT in French. I no longer thought in English and do a translation into French. I even DREAMED in French.

    I have encountered the same xenophobia while on extended cruising in Mexico and Guatemala. Gringos rarely venturing away from the marinas where they couldn't speak English. If you're going to go abroad and associate with no one else but other Gringos, why the hell didn't you just stay home and watch the Travel Channel?

    When I go somewhere outside the States I LOOK FOR where the natives hang out. THAT'S where the fun is.

  11. Just came back from my first trip to Panama City.Was fed the hype that most people spoke English. Not true. Plan on learning Spanish, even little by little, to enjoy this amazing place with friendliest folks. It is very cosmopolitatan place where people of various ethinic mix speak their native language(chinese, hebrew, gujrati, etc) and spanish. But no english

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  13. Great site also. I first went to Panama in 2005 and fell in love with it. I agree about the English, but have to say that I met a waitress/bartender in a area bankarea bar that spoke great English. We are now married and spend time in the US and Panama. I found quite a few people that knew some English. Certainly more than I can count on one hand.

  14. Hey Cojito,

    Funny blog. Question, is Flor de Cana as available in Panama as it is in Nicaragua? Headed down there next week. I sure hope so.