Things to Know and Places to Go While in Panama

There are several things you should know about Panama before going there.

First – a little about the geography. Most people know that Panama is a long thin country but most don’t realize that it is about 300 miles long from east to west and only averages about 40 miles wide from north to south. If you take a tour through the canal you will travel north to south or vise-versa.  There are many wonderful areas and things to see. After spending six months there, the one thing I appreciate most about Panama are the incredibly beautiful, long empty beaches. Miles and miles of them with no other foot prints but your own.

Second – Panama is heavily invested in banking and there is much money laundering going on so be careful where you go and what you do. It is a good idea to make copies of your passport and other identification and always keep the originals in the hotel safe. Take travelers cheques as they are the safest and do not turn your back on any of your luggage when you travel. Do not go into Colón or the Darién. They are dangerous places due to lots of drug trafficking from Columbia. Staying out of these areas is easy because there is so much to see in the rest of the country. The currency there is the Balboa and the US Dollar. Panama circulates its own coinage but uses the US dollar for all its paper money.

OK now, on to the fun stuff. Go to as many places as you can because there is much to see and do. Bear in mind, when you are in the smaller towns and villages don’t try to window shop. Look where you are walking. Many of the sidewalks there are in bad shape and can cause a serious injury. Panama has the most incredible produce so definitely check out the local open air markets. There is a local drink found in many places made from corn that is delicious so, definitely find it and try it. You will find the food to be rather bland in most areas, perhaps because you would try to relate it to Mexican food. It is not, so be prepared to eat at the restaurants in some of the big hotels occasionally, just to maintain your culinary sanity.

The jungles there are spectacular but are real deal jungles so be careful and take the more reputable tours. Yes, there are crocodiles, yes, they are quite large and while they are exciting to see in the wild they are just that – wild…and large. The ocean is wonderful and very warm. Some of the best snorkeling and diving in that part of the world is along the north western coast. Check it out.

There is a very tall volcano called Volcan Baru that stands an impressive 11,000 feet.

OK here are several places that are must sees;

Boqette – about 35 kilometers north of the town of David on the western end. This idyllic little village sits at the base of Volcan Baru in the heart of coffee country. If you drink coffee you will really appreciate the local brands sold here. Also if you like white water rafting there is a great run out of here with daily schedules on the Chiriquí River.

Bocas Del Toro – a beautiful island and resort on the northwestern coast. Wonderful warm Caribbean waters bless this place.

Torio Resort – A truly wonderful and small resort that everyone should visit. Find them at It is owned by a young couple from Spain. They are very accommodating and both are excellent chefs.

There is also terrific sportfishing for Sailfish, snook and tarpon almost anywhere along the Pacific coast and the tributaries emptying into it.

No visit to Panama is complete without a tour of old Panama City and the Panama Canal. Again be careful and you will be fine, but stay out of Colón.

Here are a couple of interesting things to know:

Transportation is very unique in Panama. There are few places Taxis don’t or won’t go and they are cheap.

Cheaper still are buses. They don’t go quite as many places but, they are very prevalent. I was always amazed while driving down a winding, small rut of a road when I’d round a corner or break through the undergrowth and find six people standing, waiting for a bus. The short range buses are old, small and sometimes slightly dilapidated. Just what you would expect in the jungle. The long range buses however are very nice, new, large buses with movies and drink service (almost as nice as flying first class). Transportation is kind of a non-issue there so take advantage of it.

No matter where you go (except the more dangerous areas) you will find wonderful scenery, accommodating people and lots of sun and fun, so enjoy yourself. Go to Panama!

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Tom Samworth
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Posted on Jun 6, 2010