16 Things You Should Know Before Traveling To Panama City Panama


Gleaming showrooms, high-rise condominiums and luxury shopping malls illuminate Panama City’s Financial District – the epicenter of the astounding real estate development of recent years. Panama City is an international banking center and global hub with generous offshore tax structures and strict confidentiality laws.

Since the Noriega years, shady money laundered through real estate has been changing the city’s shoreline. Despite this turbulent past and present, it’s important to remember that as a tourist, you’re very unlikely to be subjected to cartel-related violence.

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It is safe to travel alone. The financial district is well surveilled, at least during the day, and most crimes are of the low-key and opportunistic kind you’ll encounter in any major city. Parts of the city are rough and broken, others are taboo, but most are harmless. You won’t have any problems if you stay alert and follow the rules of the big city.

Here’s what you need to know before traveling to Panama City.

Plan your trip to Panama City

Study a map before deciding where to stay

Each district has its advantages and disadvantages. With cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial architecture, the historic district of Casco Antiguo is the most memorable and romantic part of the city.

It has an abundance of high-end restaurants, luxury lofts, and chic rooftop bars, but a lack of budget-friendly dining options and public transportation links aren’t the best.

The Calidonia neighborhood in the southern part of the city stretches across a grid of streets from Plaza 5 de Mayo to Calle 42 Este. Avenida Central is teeming with market stalls and the streets south are dotted with budget hotels.

The district is close to numerous subways and buses. During the day, when the kitchens are open to local hospital staff and officials, you can shop for cheap street food. After dark, however, Calidonia becomes shady and serene with limited dining options.

East of Calidonia, the so-called banking district is a patchwork of several districts or districts corrections, including modern and up-and-coming neighborhoods that host the lion’s share of high-end accommodation and Airbnb rentals. There are a few hostels and not nearly enough cheap hotels. Plenty of decent restaurants are scattered around the financial district, but not always within walking distance.

If you’re in town to party, the Marbella and Bella Vista neighborhoods have easy access to the bars and clubs of Calle Uruguay. El Cangrejo is an entertainment district with a casino, good metro links on Vía España and a parade of restaurants on Vía Argentina.

Carnival is a vibrant time in Panama City, but unfortunately prices are at their peak too © Rainer Lesniewski / Shutterstock

Plan your visit for budget-friendly deals and great weather

The high season coincides with the dry season from mid-December to early April, when prices are generally higher. The big celebrations of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Carnival and Semana Santa are increasing in the capital, but not as much as the beaches where most city dwellers spend their holidays.

Mid-April to early December is the cheapest time to visit Panama City if you don’t mind getting wet. Most flooding lasts only an hour or two in the afternoon, but the season is becoming wetter over time.

In the depths, skies can be overcast for days, but rains are usually intermittent and cloud cover can bring relief from the unrelenting Panamanian sun.

Get a Metro card

Although a car is good for day trips out of town, don’t plan on driving around town a lot. The one-way system is confusing, city thoroughfares are often congested, and detours are the order of the day.

Instead, use Panama City’s public transit system, which includes a fleet of air-conditioned buses and Central America’s first-ever subway train. Purchase a three-in-one Rapi Pass upon arrival and gain access to subway trains and buses, as well as departure gates at Albrook Bus Station.

Etiquette in Panama City

Dress comfortably but look sharp

Panamanians like to dress up and look good. Eye-catching fashion shows in Obarrio include heeled shoes that somehow survive the onslaught on the city’s sidewalks.

When socializing, casual attire is fine, but avoid wearing shorts and sandals to nice restaurants or social events.

Always keep a supply of low-denomination banknotes on hand

You must identify yourself and sign a register if paying for anything with an invoice greater than $20. Counterfeit money is a problem in the country, so all $50 and $100 bills in Panama are checked.

Don’t smoke in public

Legislation introduced in 2008 bans smoking in public places. People who smoke in undesignated areas are subject to fines ranging from $25 to $100.

An ice cream vendor serves a family from his truck on a quiet cobblestone street in Panama City
Avoid any potential inconvenience or confusion with our guide to tipping your Panama City server © Chrispictures / Shutterstock

Tip hotel cleaning staff

If you are staying in a hotel, tip the person who cleans your room – $2-3 per day is fine. Good restaurants often add a 10% tip, but not always – check the bill before paying.

In simple local restaurants you can leave some small change for the server. Taxi drivers do not expect tips unless they are helping with luggage.

Don’t use drugs

Although Panama City is steeped in narco dollars, Panamanian society frowns on drug use and the law does not tolerate it. If the police find you in possession of even small amounts of marijuana, you could spend several years in a Panamanian prison.

Don’t expect people to speak English

Panama City Spanish is Caribbean Spanish, extremely fast paced and heavily loaded with jerga (Slang). If Spanish isn’t your first language, you may have trouble learning it.

Don’t expect to come across many English speakers in your day-to-day transactions. English is widely spoken in the business world, but not much outside of it, and mastering a few basic Spanish phrases will help you get by.

Health and Safety in Panama City

Don’t be afraid to drink the tap water

The tap water in Panama City is perfectly drinkable. Cut down on plastic waste by refilling water bottles at a faucet. If you prefer purified water, you can refill the 20 liter tank garraphone in most hotel lobbies.

Prepare for environmental hazards

Panama City is an urban hothouse scraped out of the jungle. The elements are fierce – humidity is often 100%. You should take a day or two to relax and get used to the heat if you are coming from a cold weather country.

Always put on sunscreen before going outside and have an adequate supply of water on hand. Wear light clothing and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Bring a sturdy umbrella if you come during the rainy season.

Panama City suffers from flash flooding during heavy downpours. If you get caught in a storm, you could end up wading through deep puddles. Traffic is generally heavy and many parts of the city are not pedestrian friendly. People with asthma may find that fumes make their symptoms worse.

The Bay of Panama is a dumping ground for industrial and raw sewage, so the Malecón by the sea sometimes stinks.

Dodge scammers

Scammers operate in all major cities and some target tourists. Be wary of strangers who tell unhappy and serious stories that end with them asking for money. If it smells fishy, ​​it probably is.

Watch out for fake tour guides who ask for prepayment and then set you up. Old-school taxi scams, driving around houses to inflate the fare, can happen anywhere in the world. But in Panama City, it’s common for taxis to just overcharge.

There are no meters in the cabins. Tariffs are said to be zone-based, but in practice this is rarely the case. If you look strange, taxi drivers will increase the fare. It is best to negotiate the price beforehand.

Two women in colorful traditional costumes and headscarves pose for the camera in Panama City
Panama City is a relatively safe place for women to visit alone © Chrispictures / Shutterstock

Panama City is safe for solo female travelers

Panama City is usually safe for solo female travelers to visit, but it’s best not to go alone in Casco Antiguo, Santa Ana, or Calidonia at night.

Women can get attention from talkative men on subways or buses. If a man won’t leave you alone, ask an older woman nearby for help.

Stay away from seedy neighborhoods

Thirty years ago, Casco Antiguo was hot. Things have improved somewhat today, but there are still corners of the old neighborhood where you should exercise caution.

If you’re staying in Casco Antiguo, the 20-minute walk from the nearest metro station, 5 de Mayo, is risky at night. Use a taxi or an Uber instead. West of Casco Antiguo, the neighboring neighborhood of El Chorrillo is very dangerous and neglected. You should avoid this neighborhood entirely.

The district of Santa Ana, north of Casco Antiguo, is bisected by the pedestrian zone peatonal, a busy shopping street that is safe to walk during the day; Stay alert in the crowd. The side streets east of the peatonal are sketchy, and you shouldn’t wander around them.

At its northern end, the Peatonal connects to Plaza 5 de Mayo, the National Assembly, a metro station, a bus station, and a filthy confluence of streets and overpasses. The area is lively into the evening, but stay alert and use a vehicle after 11pm.

North of 5 de Mayo, Avenida Central meets the street vendors and hustle and bustle of Calidonia. It’s fine to explore during the day, but don’t flaunt expensive gear or jewelry. Caledonia is spooky and seedy after dark. Avoid derelict or poorly lit streets.

Keep your documents handy

In Panama, everyone is required by law to carry photo identification with them at all times in public. Tourists should carry their passport or a photocopy of their passport with the photo page and entry stamp.

LGBTIQ+ travelers are welcome

Settings in rural Panama are somewhat conservative, but less so in Panama City. LGBTIQ+ travelers are unlikely to encounter prejudice, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is prohibited under Panamanian law. There is a lively gay scene in Casco Antiguo and El Cangrejo.


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