I always imagined Panama City to be a skyscraper packed city, with jungle not far past the outskirts of town. Kind of like Chicago or if you drive 15 minutes outside the city you’ll see cornfields. My perception could not have been more off. The jungle is anywhere that hasn’t been cleaned that week. If you’re not on a road or building, you’re in a small patch of jungle. Panama City has been carved out of the jungle and mother nature is constantly trying to work it’s way back in.
The most obvious thing that I’ve never seen any other city was the abundance of repurposed school busses from the US. Originally painted yellow and designed to shuttle kindergartens to school and 14 year olds to band camp, these busses are getting a second life in Panama. They’re usually painted white, murals are plastered on the side, and elaborate chrome horns/exhaust pipes are added for styling. These busses are packed like a can of sardines and shuttle Panamanians from downtown, to the suburbs.
At first glance, these may seem tacky, but I think this is way cooler than the tacky billboards plastered onto the sides of city busses elsewhere.
The food is Panama is Tropical/Caribbean with few other commonalities from Latin America. The plantain is not a novelty; it is a staple. They are everywhere. They’re much more common than the potato in the United States. Beans, however, are not a staple. If you’re expecting Mexican food, you could not possible be more wrong. Black pepper would be spicy in Panama. Panama is less spicy than St Paul, MN.
Tropical flavored frozen treats are very common; and are popular with both tourists and locals. $1 Coconut ice cream cones are a constant temptation. I did not see a single Starbucks in 12 days. (and that makes me happy) McDonalds is everywhere. It’s not just the most common American fast food chain; it’s the most popular restaurant in the country. The menu is similar to that of the United States, with the addition of fried chicken.
Palm trees for days. Unlike California, these have coconuts. Coconuts here are like pine cones in Alabama.
Everything is green. This is real rain forest. Planted grass that’s you find in suburban US doesn’t exist outside of a couple golf courses.
Mosquitos. I was honestly worried about mosquitos. I knew the history of Malaria in the area, and thought the mosquitos would be horrible. They were not. I had pictured the dragonfly sized mosquitos you fing in the Midwest, but the gentle ones in Panama are the size of fruit flies.
I saw tons of animals that I’d never seen in the wild before. I saw Toucans, Sea Stars, Parakeets, and even Sloths.
Concrete is the major building material. Everything is built of concrete. Park benches, utility poles, roads, houses. Not just the exterior, but every interior wall I found was concrete. I did not find sheetrock in Panama.
In the city, most people live in high-rise buildings. All parking garages are above ground, and below the buildings, with the first usable floor of a 40 story building, usually not starting until the 10th floor or so.
Wheelchair accessibility is extremely scarce. Busses don’t have wheelchair ramps, bathrooms don’t accommodate wheelchairs, and there are scarcely wheelchair ramps on sidewalks. I have not seen many wheelchair bound people in Panama. I hope it is because less people rely on wheelchairs, and not because wheelchair bound people are less capable of getting around in public.
There is a homogeneous mix of North American, European, and Asian manufacturers. Asian Compact and economy cars dominate the taxi industry. Many date back 25 years or so, and are still going strong. Early 90s Sentras and Carollas are a dime a dozen.
With the narrow streets, narrower parking spaces, and crowded intersections, nothing stays new for long. Most cars over a year old had at least a couple of battle scars that proved just how aggressive the drivers were.
The most interesting difference is rim styling. Stylish rims are not specific to any class, neighborhood, or subculture. Probably 2/3rds of all personal cars and taxis had aftermarket rims. Nice new cars, crappy old cars, taxis, rental cars, school busses. Most cars have aftermarket rims.
A solid 5 percent of the vehicles are the old school 125cc Suzuki motorcycles. They’re the most common delivery vehicle.
Unlike the US, here pedestrians yield to cars. Stopping my car at a crosswalk would get a honk from the cars behind me, and skeptical stairs from the pedestrians.
There is no hurry. This tropical paradise has plenty of time, and no winter to prepare for, so why rush? This is an amazing feeling while relaxing at the beach, but incredibly frustrating when waiting on your shuttle to pick you up.
The friendliness you’ll find here is genuine. Your waiter is not going to pretend to be your best friend just to earn a big tip. On the flip side, if you ask someone how have they been, you better have 5 minutes to get caught up.
There is an abundance of cops on foot. They are everywhere. Most are no older than their mid 20s. They are at all the intersections during rush hour. They are constantly in all public spaces. I think the US has something to learn here. If cops were not so outnumbered in the US, the cops would not be under so much pressure. I haven’t seen the slightest sign of danger.
Seatbelts are an afterthought. This doesn’t bother me, because national speed limit is 110 Km/h(66MPH). Most places are much slower. The only safety concern I commonly had was the lack on Man-Hole covers. There were lots of open, or broken utility boxes along the sidewalk, and I could easily see myself rolling an ankle.
I think I’ve seen 1 person smoking in Panama, and he was an American. Food sterility does not seem to be a hugs concern. I didn’t see many people running, but I saw people constantly walking. Obesity is practically nonexistent.
Having grown up in rural Alabama, I know otherwise well intentioned people can be quick to stare at the obscurity of two guys holding hands. Overwhelmingly, this was not the case in Panama. While there is no entertainment scene that caterer to the LGBT community like you could find in Europe or the US, I never felt the slightest bit uncomfortable showing appropriate PDA that would be accepted if my partner were female.
I only found recycling in affluent neighborhoods. Styrofoam, weather for drink cups, take out containers, or beach coolers, is too common. The city is clean, but the island are littered with materials that gets used for just a couple of hours, but will be around for decades.
Staying in the Americas, I found way more commonalities, than traveling to Europe. The country drives on the right. They use the US dollar. All electronics work. Retail tax is added to the final purchase price. Road signs are almost exactly the same.
Things I couldn’t find in Panama
There is no national mail service in Panama. This honestly boggled my mind. There are a few private companies that will deliver things to another town, but there is no such thing as home delivery in Panama. Yelp doesn’t work either. TripAdvisor works, but I’m glad I quickly learned to ignore it. The #1 rated boat tour in the island town of Bocas del Toro cost $450 on TripAdvisor. Some friends and I paid $20/person for an authentic local experience that could not have been beat.
Hot water. I’ve never considered myself high maintenance, and I’m rarely disappointed in inconveniences of other cultures, but heated shower water is an unnecessary luxury here. With temperatures never dropping below the mid 70s there is no need for hot water. You can of course find it in any big hotel, but it I not a guarantee in a typical residence.
There are almost no stray dogs and cats. In every developing country I’ve been to, they seem to run rampant. This is not the case anywhere I visited in Panama.
Fresh fruit is incredible cheap. I bought three pineapples and ten lemons for $2. But meat was about double the price you would find in the US. Any time you are buying labor (taxi, haircut, hand made goods), it’s pretty cheap. Fuel was comparable to the US. Imported goods are expensive. A small bottle of Listerine was $10. Bottom shelf shampoo was $12. These are not convenience store prices. This is what I paid in a generic supermarket. Luckily we never had to pay for accommodations thanks to our friends Juan Carlos and Jacob.
Overall, I was blown away in Panama. It is a beautiful country with a ton of culture. We had awesome weather while we were there. The people could not have been better. Moving to Panama in the next 10 years is not out of the question.
**Written 19 Feb 2018 as a journal to reflect on 2 Feb-14 Feb 2018 trip. There is much more to this amazing country, these are just a few of my observations**