I just got back yesterday from being in Panama City for 24 hours on a quick mileage run vacation. This wasn’t my first time to Panama as I went there three years ago on another mileage run. The last time I went, the weather was horrible and all I did was take taxis and stay inside the hotel. This time, the weather was beautiful and I avoided taking taxis by renting a car. Here are 10 things I learned from my recent trip to Panama City.
1. Car Rentals are cheap – Car rentals are as low as $5 a day, but there’s always a catch. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. There is a mandatory $12 daily add-on called SLI (Supplemental Liability Insurance) which is third party insurance. If you have a credit card with rental car insurance, you can decline the $6 daily CDW (Collision Damage Waiver) insurance. That’s a huge increase from that $5 rental car!
2. The currency is the Balboa which is basically the US Dollar – The official currency in Panama is called the Panamanian Balboa which is directly tied to the same exchange rate as the US Dollar. You don’t have to exchange your US Dollars for Balboas. In fact, if you pay in US Dollars, you will get change in US Dollars. There are some exceptions though – such as the $1/$2 Balboa coin and the coin denominations such as half dollar, 25 cents, 10 cents, 5 cents, and 1 cent. You’ll want to make sure you spend the Balboa coins in Panama before leaving the country.
3. There are toll roads on Corredor Sur – There’s one expressway in Panama City and that’s Corredor Sur Highway/Freeway. You cannot pay the toll with cash as it only accepts an electronic card. However, you can buy the electronic card from the toll booth cashier and load it up with money. Panamanian locals can use the Panapass Surexpress toll lanes if they have an electronic sticker placed on the top of their windshield which is like a toll tag in the United States.
4. Everything is expensive in Panama City – First of all, taking a taxi from the airport to the city center will set you back $30-40 USD. That is pretty much highway robbery as taxi fares are fixed prices and taxis aren’t metered in Panama. If you look like a gringo, be prepared to pay higher prices. Panama’s expensiveness correlates with the fact that the US Dollar is tied into the country’s currency. I read online that people can have a nice set meal for $2.00. Good luck finding that.
5. Panamanian Police are corrupted – All throughout Central America, you will find a high police presence in the major cities because of all the drugs and violence that happen in these countries. There is so much police in Panama City, but they aren’t there to protect you. I’ve read cases online where corrupted police will stop someone in the street just to ask for bribe money and it happens to locals and tourists alike. I even had My Own Experience Giving Bribe Money to a Corrupt Police Officer in Panama City.
6. Free parking everywhere – There is no such thing as “Street Sweeping” signs at a certain time in Panama City. There was free parking evidently pretty much everywhere I went. There was free parking all over Casco Viejo, Miraflores Locks in the Panama Canal, and even the Aloft hotel. Cars can even park right in front of a fire hydrant.
7. It’s easy to buy a prepaid SIM Card – You can buy a prepaid SIM card with data right from a vending machine in Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport (PTY) arrivals hall. There was a representative nearby the booth who helped me activate my SIM card on my unlocked iPhone and it worked flawlessly. All airports in the world should have this machine!
8. Free 30-day medical insurance for tourists – I was given a brochure upon landing at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City which said “If you are a tourist and have a medical emergency, Panama gives you free insurance for 30 days.” Inside the pamphlet, coverage even includes Accidental Death which pays out $20,000 and they will fly your corpse in Economy Class for free. I’ll have all the details in a future post.
9. Full Service Gas Stations – I love the fact that full service gas stations exist in Panama. I had the pleasure of experiencing a full service gas station in Israel. It’s awesome that you can just pull up to the gas station and let the gas attendant do their job.
10. A visit to the Panamal Canal is a must – One of the main reasons why I decided to return back to Panama City is to visit the Miraflores Locks in the Panama Canal. I’ve always wanted to see how the whole ship transit process works in person. Here is a video of a Japanese ship crossing the Miraflores Locks returning back empty to Japan after delivering a large shipment of cars: