Friendly locals. Good food. Fast-paced vibe. Skyscrapers. Honking horns. West meets East via the Panama Canal. If you need tips for traveling to Panama City Panama you have come to the right place.
The capital has been a blur during our 4 day trip to Panama City, Panama. In some ways, I sense a slower pace once you exit the hustle and bustle of chaotic highways. But in other ways, this rapidly growing town feels super duper modernized with ample room for expansion.
I feel way different here versus spending time in capitals like San Jose (Costa Rica) and Managua (Nicaragua). Each seems less developed and more gritty. Panama City feels different. Right off of the bat, I found it easier to converse with locals because Panamanians speak a cleaner, clearer, simpler to understand dialect of Spanish versus other folks in Central America. I never quite understood folks in Nicaragua. Costa Ricans spoke fairly clear but Panamanians reflect the influence of being closer to South America and it’s clearer, more formal espanol.
Being able to communicate freely with locals makes all the difference in the world in a city like this because things move fast. Really fast. At least on the driving side of things.
Panama City greeted me warmly. Kelli and I landed to smiling workers at the airport. We handed over our COVID test. Both got the go-ahead. After checking in with immigration and customs we found a taxi and were whisked off to the apartment overlooking the city. 15 stories up, on a hill, high rise, luxury apartments stand to my east while a small swath of jungle sits to my west.
Tips for Traveling To Panama City Panama
Before you book a ticket to Panama City Panama keep a few things in mind. At the publish date of this post, Panama requires a rapid test before entering the country. Kelli and I received our test in New Jersey, brought the forms and got the OK from the women working the desk. But you can get tested at the airport too for $50. We preferred not to run the risk of testing positive to the tune of a quarantine.
Panama City has a different feel in some regards from the rest of the country but only because Central American capitals deviate quite a bit from other regions in this part of the world. Jungles, highlands and Pacific or Caribbean coastal communities flat out feel way different than a capital in this region.
Know that Panama City is not like a U.S. city in most regards because outside of a few neighborhoods it feels like a very big, very populous town in Central America. First time visitors to any Central American city from the USA particularly note this stark contrast between North American neighbors and the United States.
I observed a few first impressions readily converted into tips for enjoying Panama City.
Check ’em out.
1: Enjoy the Friendly People
Across the board, friendly people meet and greet us. People feel kind here. Engaging and pleasant, we have been shown love since we landed at the airport, from the workers in the terminal, to taxi drivers, to people at the mall, to folks on the street, people have been helpful and quite pleasant. Rare indeed does this quality seem in major cities. People are inherently kind but being cramped in with millions of other humans often triggers fear-pain in city dwellers, closing individuals off from the world.
I found the reverse to be true here. Being together brings people together. Perhaps my spiritual training seems to be yielding stronger results, but Kelli and I have only interacted with good people here. One important note; Kelli is fairly fluent in Spanish and I speak it at least somewhat well, too.
Even if people seem kind you may have difficulties connecting on a deeper level if you do not speak the native tongue. However, locals open up more if you can at least speak passable Spanish, it seems. Either way, open yourself up, leave any tourist-related fears behind and enjoy the friendly people in Panama City, Panama.
Before you proceed, I hand-picked a few helpful resources for traveling to Panama. I also embedded an audio book and eBook of mine for world travelers. Check them out here.
2: Be Prepared for a Fast-Paced City
Panama City moves! Traffic intimidates. I would be Un Gringo Muerto if I tried to cross one of the semi-trafficked roads. Crossing guards with brightly-colored flags help in more pedestrian-heavy areas but other than these spots, you are on your own. Take advantage of pedestrian bridges serving as overpasses. Or find that 3-5 second window to sprint completely across the road or to the center island. Be careful. Walk with your head on a swivel. Drivers may or may not obey traffic laws.
I advise not crossing the road unless you need to. Seriously. A few folks risked getting clipped as I gazed at hapless Froggers outside of the window. Kelli and I made it across a few times but only because I scouted the bends and we sprinted across the entire street. But crossing both sides in one trip seems impossible in most situations.
Note; fast-paced city vibes do seem to slow down indoors places of business. Everyone seemed to take their sweet time at the mall. I dug it. Shop owners or employees served with a friendly smile and slow-paced delivery not entirely unlike one sees in the Deep South, in the USA. For chaotic situations on the road at least life slows down away from the highways and byways.
3: Uber Seems to Be Available Here But Has Not Worked for Us
We downloaded Uber. But the app never seems to work. Various error messages pop up during certain points in the buyer journey. I suspect taxi drivers – or their union-group – put pressure on Uber but my assumption could be way off. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section if you know what seems to be happening.
Honestly; the frequency of rides, fair prices and pleasant demeanors of drivers we used makes Uber obsolete here, anyway, if you only need to get around locally. $3 or $4 USD for a 10-15 minute ride from drivers who pass every few seconds to minutes? I will take that.
Kelli downloaded the app but we see error messages at various times during the process of booking a ride. Oh well; we will rent a car to drive to Pedasi and to get around that region of Panama. Taxis it will be for the remainder of our city trip.
Do you have any tips for traveling to Panama City Panama in terms of getting around town? Do share in the comments section below. I felt as if this is a taxi town, first and foremost, by the sheer volume of the taxi pool. Impressive!
4: High Level of Development Compared to Most Central American Capitals
Save Mexico City, all Central American capitals seem lesser developed. Do not expect to see towering skyscrapers, modern-looking highways and an overall glamorous feel to capitals in this region. Each capital has its charm. Some boast higher end neighborhoods. But most capitals are not tourist spots because beaches, jungles and highlands prove to be most in-demand for tourists and locals alike.
Panama City has some gritty areas – like every major city – but boasts a cosmopolitan air about it. Observe the apartment we rented for 3 days via Air Bnb. 30 stories high, others trump this tower. More towers sit in the distance.
Panama City is the sole Central American capital with a clearly-recognizable skyline. That alone makes it stand out from other capitals in the region.
We visited the 550 store Albrook Mall in Panama City. I completed my cardio for the day without genuinely exploring the place; Albrook is listed in the top 15 malls on earth in terms of its gargantuan size. The mall sits on an old US Air Force base vacated long ago. Make a trip there; it is worth experiencing. Plus los batidos – fruit shakes – in the food court are to die for. Kelli and I enjoyed 2 banana shakes for $6.
5: Small Town Charm in a Big City
For hustle, bustle and glam factors, Panama City has small town charm in its little neighborhoods and through its engaging, polite people. Most travelers probably cannot see a city in such fashion. For me, small town charm is more about the smaller hoods and the general warmth of Panamanians in the city.
From the helpful individual working the gate at our apartment, to the patient taxi driver taking the time to find the apartment at 3 AM, after becoming lost, to the people we engaged on the street, at the mall and at the park, I sense great warmth, kindness and a village mentality, amid the seemingly chaotic facade of Panama City.
6: Honest and Warm Taxi Drivers
Each taxi driver we used was warm, kind, chatty and honest. Fares were $3 to $4 USD for rides spanning 10-15 minutes. Not bad at all. Never once did a driver high ball us. Nor did any driver seem put off by our presence, as is the case with drivers in some foreign lands.
We even received some Spanish lessons from one driver. I thanked him for taking me to school – in a fun way – and he warmly expressed his pleasure. Never mind how taxi’s seem to be everywhere. We did not wait for 1-2 minutes before a yellow would cruise by with a few honks of the horn, asking if we needed a ride.
From my decade of circling the globe, few places boast as solid a taxi system. Convenient, fair, honest pricing, kind drivers and ample availability make for a solid system from my limited time in the city.
7: Visit the Metropolitan Natural Park
Imagine a jungle on the outskirts of a bustling city? Sloths, monkeys, tropical parrots and other wildlife so appear from time to time. Kelli and I heard a monkey, saw a little mammal – I could not identify – and also observed quite a few exotic birds in the canopy. We enjoyed a breathtaking view of the city skyline while getting in some mean cardio. Be prepared to climb a moderate hill in hot, humid climes.
Anyway, save the initial ascent, the rest of the hike feels fairly easy. Dense jungle greets you in all directions. Enjoy the benefits of a convenient path to avoid muddy conditions after storms.
Price of admission: $4 per person. The gentleman at the window offers you a guide but for such a small park it feels better to go it solo. However, guides spot hiding animals with ease. Do what works for you. Per publish date, they take your temperature – wrist swipe – for COVID regulations.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Panama uses USD as currency in addition to the Panamanian Balboa via a 1:1 ratio; no need to do currency exchange calculations
- Per publishing date, visitors to Panama need to show proof of a rapid COVID test to enter the country
- Speaking at least a little bit of Spanish allows you to connect more deeply with locals; learn a few words to gain access to help with greater ease
- Ten cuidado crossing the street in Panama City; be careful because traffic never seems to end and most locals work off of the rule that motor vehicles have the right of way
- Visit Albrook Mall; this semi wonder of the world mall is worth a visit
We only traveled through over the course of 4 days but felt good vibes during our trip.
Be open to visiting this growing city. As convenience mixes more deeply with culture a quick stop in Panama City proves to be a fascinating experience for anyone willing to embrace the sometimes hectic pace of this capital.
What tips for traveling to Panama City Panama can you add to this list?
What were your impressions of the place?
Was it not your speed?
Did you like it?