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January 15, 2009

Tips for the Traveler to Panama

I started my year off with an amazing trip to Panama with Steve, Mark, and Leo, our incredible hostess. We ate, they drank, and fun was had by all on the beaches, rocks, and streets of Panama. The details of the trip are pictorially documented, more or less, in my pictures of Boquete, David, Panama City, and Bocas del Toro (and a full trip recap is on Leo's blog). I won't divulge more about how awesome it was because that would be bragging. Just know that I was probably having more fun than you between January 2 and 11.

Anyways, I thought I'd scribble down some useful travel tips for anyone going to Panama:

On taxis... Bargain with those drivers! Most drivers will probably try and rip you off, especially if you are touristy looking. Ask how much it's going to cost up front ("Cuanto cuesto?") and than do your negotiating ("Aye senior! Yo soy un estudiante, no tengo mucho dinero!"). It should be about $20-30 from Tocumen to Albrook (a trip I made a few times) and most trips around the city should cost between $3-10. Everyone pays with cash and don't assume the driver will have change. If you don't have singles, make sure to ask if he does ("Tiene cambio?").

On flying within Panama... I flew Panama Air to get to David and Bocas del Toro. Aeroperlas is another airline that goes to these places, also from Albrook. They both have two flights a day to most destinations and both cost the same price. The only difference I could discern from them was that for Panama Air, you turn left at the Albrook entrance and for Aeroperlas, you turn right. I learned three important lessons from my trips with Panama Air:
  1. You can't check in more than an hour before your flight, so it's not worth showing up much earlier than that.
  2. Their website says they enforce a 25lb limit per passenger for checked luggage, but this was not enforced for me on either trip.
  3. You have to pay for your ticket 24 hours before it takes off, regardless of what they tell you on the phone or what confirmation proof you have :) I had reserved a flight online 48 hours before flight and it never asked for payment. Leo called the airlines and they said everything was fine, I could pay the day of, and gave me a confirmation number. When I went to pay before my flight, they said it was too late and I lost the right to my ticket. So make sure to pay for it however possible!
On bugs... bring bug spray. No seriously, bring bug spray. Actually, I survived Panama City, David, and Boquete without much problems, but I got eaten alive on the beaches of Bocas del Toro. I didn't get any vaccines before going to Panama, but it's probably not a bad idea. I personally didn't see any bugs that were especially strange or frightening, but we did come across some XL grasshoppers and spiders. On food... so much to eat, so little time. First, Leo's parents are wizards in the kitchen. Juan is a chef and Lilian is the quintessential mom-cook, so we all ate like royalty during our time in Boquete (Venezuelan specialties, American desserts, and other deliciousness I didn't capture in photos). I could dedicate a whole post to food, but I'd rather spend time making or eating it than writing about it, so I'll just mention three favorites:
  • Raspado. I dare you to find or make something as refreshing and cheap ($0.33) as raspado. It's like a snow cone, but with better flavor (e.g. real coconut juice compared to red dye #9 and sugar) and condensed milk and honey drizzle (evil... maybe, delicious... yes!).
  • Ceviche. In the states, you can typically find shrimp ceviche, but I had all kinds of delicious ceviche around Panama (fish, squid, whatever). You can get awesome ceviche for $1-2 at the fish market (El Mercado de Mariscos) in Panama City. You can also pick a fish and bring it upstairs to a restaurant where they will cook it however you want.
  • Beach food. When I think beach food in the States, I think crappy hot dogs and Good Humor bars. I was very pleasantly surprised at the beach food in Boquete. Delicious and fresh fried fish (cajun rub, not deep fried breading) and patacones.
On holidays... January 9th is Martyr's Day in Panama, which commemorates the 1964 riots over sovereignty of the Panama Canal Zone. The history of the canal is pretty interesting, so I'd recommend visiting the Canal Museum if you do pay a trip to the locks in Panama City. Worth noting for the boozers, most stores and restaurants will not sell alcohol to anyone on Martyr's Day (at least in Bocas del Toro). So if you are a big drinker, plan your vacation and binge purchases wisely. On rock climbing... If you are into rock climbing, you can get a little sport route fix in Boquete. The sport it totally new to the country, but Cesar and Marcos of Boquete Climbing will take you out for a day. I've never seen rock anything like the Gunko in the States, so it's worth a visit just to check it out.

On gentlemen... Men of Panama can be very friendly. If you are a woman and not feeling as social as they are on the streets, "No jodas" should work (thanks to Leo for the tip ;)
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