Things about Panama that will Make You Scratch Your Head.
Panama is full of oddities that only a Panamanian can understand. I have personally been living in this beautiful country for five years and this country still has me thinking, “what the hell did I get myself into?” I often tell people in order to live here or enjoy your visit you need to be flexible, adaptable and above all else have a sense of humor.
The great thing about Panamanians is that they recognize that their culture is unique. This country up until 1999 was literally a cash cow for the United States. The Panama Canal, banana plantations, pineapple plantations and sugar cane were the focus. Tourism was not even on the radar unlike our neighbor to the North Costa Rica, which has concentrated on tourism for decades.
When you visit or move to Panama be prepared to experience some odd cultural norms. Panama cultural is not homogeneous. There are distinct differences in culture based on where you are visiting. You can literally feel like you are in a totally different country within an hours drive. This makes Panama both fascinating and maddening at the same time. You can also experience the Caribbean, Pacific, Mountain towns and city life all in one day. Where else can you do that?
20 Things to Prepare Yourself for.
- There is no true address system. Forget about receiving mail unless you open an account at a private mail company like MailBox Etc. Be prepared to be robbed if you try to ship with Fedex, UPS or DHL. Shipping an envelope to the USA using Fedex recently cost me $98! You will commonly see expats asking, “who is travelling to the US or Canada that can carry an envelope to mail?”
- Be prepared to use messengers to complete everyday jobs. Do you want to stand in line for hours paying your bills or dealing with the government? Nope, either do I, so enter the messengers. These folks take care of your personal errands for a small fee.
- “Tiene Centavos”, get used to this if you are paying cash. Every time you cash out the clerk will ask you for exact change. Most will give you a stare or an attitude if you say no. Clerks can slow down to a virtual crawl and keep you tied up at the counter for what seems like ages.
- If you can avoid it, never use any bill larger than a $20 Dollar bill when paying. Stores require that every bill is checked and the serial number written down along with your passport number or carnet number. This can greatly delay your check out process.
- Casino tax! I thought I was smart once and tried going to the casino quick to change my $100 Dollar bill. Little did I know that the government enacted a new law that taxes all money won at the casino. I did not know that once the money is in the machines you are taxed. I took the ticket to the window and received less back than I expected. I think the percentage is 5% or 7%.
- Shopping cart back-up dance. When checking out at the grocery store expect to empty your shopping cart and then back it out into the aisle where everyone else is waiting to pay. You will usually find multiple empty carts in your way. They do not, I repeat do not use the same cart to take your groceries to the car. This can turn into chaos when the grocery stores are busy. Efficiency is not something that Panama cares about.
- Asking for directions. So you thought it would be wise to ask a Panamanian for directions? Well, pass the big tree at the corner next to the bus stop, then take a right at the casino, then a left at the broken Diablo Rojo there will be a pink building that has a Chino on the first floor if you go one minute further you will see a mango tree it is right next to the tree. Don’t get upset, adapt!
- You will always get an answer right or wrong. No matter whether a Panamanian knows an answer to a question or not they will give you an answer with conviction. It is very difficult to tell if the person really knows an answer. You have been warned.
- The Changing Requirements. Get used to requirements changing each and every time you visit a government institution, bank, car dealership, customs, or anything requiring papers. You arrive at the office with all the papers you were told to bring and then, “you need a copy of your lease sir”. You didn’t tell me that yesterday, “sorry I am new and forgot to tell you”. You return a day later and the clerk says, “sir we need a copy of some recent bills like cable”. It would be easy to lose your cool, but believe me it does not help anything.
- Juego Vivo! This is one that is very difficult for people from Western cultures to understand. There is very little courtesy on the roads, getting on the subway, getting on the bus everything seems to be a competition. The most apparent is when you are driving. You will be pushed to your limits, don’t give an inch and make sure to have eyes everywhere. You know how you are taught to leave two car lengths between you and the car in front of you? Well, forget about it, Panamanians will see that as an opportunity to get one car ahead and they will seize the opportunity. I call this getting “Juego Vivoed!”.
- The shoulder of the highway is a 3rd lane. So you thought the shoulder of the highway was only for breakdowns? Nope, it is a 3rd lane for drivers of buses and cars to use. Not legally of course but you did not move here because you thought the police had control, did you?
- Boobs, Boobs everywhere! There is a baby boom going on in Panama and it seems every young woman has an infant. If you go to the places local Panamanians go you are likely to see breastfeeding mothers regularly. This is accepted culturally in Panama, so if you have a problem with it I recommend you stay put in your country.
- Public Urination. My wife and I play a game, whenever we see a man urinating in full view I yell out, “Brown Sausage”. Then she cringes and says, “why do I have to see that?”
- 10 Mbps Internet Connection. This is a hot topic among all expats. Internet here is spotty at best. Your speed will fluctuate from day to day and you will rarely achieve what Cable Onda or C&W says you signed up for. If you want reliable internet Panetma is your only option but your pocket book will be much lighter.
- Don’t go to Colón it is dangerous. Personally we believe the Province of Colón is a hidden gem of Panama. If you visit or live in Panama and have not experienced the area you are in for a treat. Just make sure to visit with someone who knows the area like us. Do not, I repeat do not visit the city itself.
- Panamanians are not keen on cats.
In Western culture cats are a fixture in our families. Here in Panama they are considered dirty and disease ridden. They stay outside and are rarely kept as pets. We have two cats and our neighbors are not happy when our (fixed) male cat patrols the neighborhood like he still has juevos. It is also a pain in the butt trying to find kitty litter in Panama. If you see some, stock up!
- Don’t Tip 15%. This is part of American and Canadian culture but here in Panama it is overkill. Unlike Western countries everyone who has a job in Panama has a minimum salary. Whether you are a bank teller or a waiter, chances are the salary is similar. Most restaurants where tourists visit also include 10% for tip (propina) on the bill so be safe and tip 5% or less.
- Customer service is fair at best. The most popular discussion among tourists and expats is by far the lack of customer service in Panama. I blame this on the companies since the staff have not been trained. Blame can also be put at the feet of the government with their protectionist laws for employees. The employees have little motivation to excel since the government rewards them when they are fired from a job by forcing employers to pay based on time working there. One interesting game is to ask a Panamanian how many jobs they have had. Changing jobs regularly is par for the course.
- Untreated Sewage. For years the government has been saying that the sewage treatment facility is in progress. Panama City and the surrounding areas have been growing at a break neck pace. This translates into a large amount of human waste being dumped into the Pacific right in front of hotels like the Hilton and the Hard Rock Hotel. Prepare yourself for the assault on your nose!
- Personal Space. When taking public transportation expect to be up close and personal with fellow passengers. I have been taking buses in Panama for years and it is always disconcerting when people push by you or stands next to you with their private areas just inches away from your head! Women have it worse then men. To avoid this sit next to the window.
- Car Mechanics. This one is maddening. Trying to find a decent mechanic, that can be trusted, should be a top priority if you have a car in Panama. We have been through a dozen mechanics and not one has yet to fix our Toyota Rav4 100%. They always seem to only complete the job partially. Stick to the common brands here if you want to avoid some frustration. They are Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Kia. Also, if you can buy a new car for cash every few years that would be best.
- Obey the Traffic Laws 100%. Now I know that it sounds counter intuitive to my discussion about “Juego Vivo” but believe me when it comes to speeding, legally driving, insurance, current license plates you do not want to mess around. I received a speeding ticket for going 1 mph over the speed limit going down a hill on the highway. I never speed because I much prefer money in my wallet than in the bureaucrats hands. Do not test the police. You can buy them a coffee and they might let you go but believe me it is much easier if you follow the rules. Do not talk on your cell phone, drive without a seat belt or speed.
- Always negotiate your taxi fare before getting in the taxi. Now I know many of you will not listen but it is best to know what you are paying before they drive away with you as their fare. The taxis here do not have meters but they are supposed to have a rates sheet. This sheet is rarely visible! Also getting a taxi can be a chore since many do not want to go where you are heading due to traffic etc. Use the MetroBus, Metro Subway and UBER to avoid headaches.
- Somebody was Late to an Appointment. Did you make the mistake of expecting your lawyer, client, driver or Doctor to show up exactly at the scheduled time? Well shame on you, things don’t work like that in Panama. Save the frustration and get pissed off about something else because you are not going to change the culture. I get so annoyed with expats who expect Panamanians to abide by their cultural norms. You want things to be perfect? I am sure your home country would love for you to return.
- Everyone goes to the interior of the country on long weekends. It is a holiday weekend and you were thinking about going to the beaches on the Pacific? Here is a little tip, “leave days early or stay home!” Do you want to be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for hours? I highly recommend you enjoy the Caribbean side of Panama on the holidays.
Panama is Amazing!
Now I know most of you are thinking that Randy is a tour operator and he just told everyone that Panama is horrible. Far from it, I just like to tell it like it is. Too many companies and writers will tell you that Panama is without fault. Supposedly it is the happiest country on Earth. It is also the best place to retire once again. All of this media attention tends to be written by people that do not live here. Then you will have 20 bloggers take the article and rewrite it for their blogs. I believe this does a huge disservice for those of us in the tour industry.
I recently had clients who told me that they liked how I did not sugar coat life in Panama. Let’s be real and let the world know that this country has just as many problems as every other one. When someone moves here and leaves with their tail between their legs after 3 months it is not helping anyone!
All in all moving to Panama is the best decision I have ever made. If you would like to read, “My Panama Story by Randy Hilarski” stop by my personal blog. If you are visiting Panama to scout it for a possible retirement destination feel free to contact us so that we can take you around the country and give you the no nonsense tour of Panama. Make sure to go to the top of the page and join our email list, we would love to have you aboard.