The most famous last words we hear someone say before their vacation goes downhill is, “Look how white I am! I don’t need sunscreen, I need sun!” Let’s put aside long-term skin health concerns and focus on what´s more important; your vacation. There is no way around it: if you do not use sunscreen in Panama you will get burned. People with sunburn cannot enjoy outdoor activities and usually find themselves spending a lot more time in their hotel room than they planned. Buy at least an SPF30 lotion and use it all day every day.
2. Insect Repellent
Insect repellent protects you against bites from insects such as mosquitoes and midges. Insect bites can transmit a number of diseases including malaria, dengue and West Nile Virus. In addition, the bites themselves can be painful and itchy, and scratching the bite can lead to bacterial skin infections. You are traveling to an area where there is a risk of insect-borne disease.
The odds are extremely high that you WILL NOT catch any diseases while you are in Panama, even if you don’t use any insect repellent. However, why take a chance? There are some diseases (like dengue) for which there are no vaccines or treatment and therefore the best method to protect yourself is to prevent insect bites in the first place. Insect repellents are a flexible method to reduce biting wherever you are.
When choosing a repellent, check the label for two key pieces of information: the active ingredient and the concentration. The most commonly available and effective active ingredient is N,N-Diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET). Choose a product that contains at least 20% DEET.
3. Drink Water!
One of the most common problems that can ruin a vacation is dehydration. In the tropics it is important to drink 1-2 liters of water a day or you can run the risk of dehydration and heat-related illness. If it’s hot and you are active, drink more water, rest regularly and stay cool. Don’t wait until you are thirsty before you drink and try to avoid extra salt as it makes dehydration worse.
Diluted fruit juice, isotonic sports’ drinks, tea and low calorie soft drinks are good alternatives, but ordinary soft drinks are too high in sugar to meet your body’s need for water. Alcohol increases urine output making you more dehydrated; it isn’t a healthy thirst quencher.
If you are drinking alcohol, drink water before having any alcohol and make every second drink after that non-alcoholic. Tap water in Panama is completely safe to drink. Don´t be afraid to drink water every chance you get.
USE UBER if you can! While you are safe using taxis, they can to take advantage of tourists and usually leave a bad taste in the mouth of visitors to Panama. Uber works well in Panama and tends to be safer, cleaner, and cheaper than the inflated fares that the taxi drivers offer. If you need to use taxis, they do not have meters, so all fares need to be negotiated. Fares can vary by number of people, time of day, how you look, and more.
Be sure to confirm the price to your destination before you get into the cab. If you are a foreigner, remember that you will be quoted elevated rates, say $10 instead of $2.50, especially if you are wearing your favorite tropical shirt and toting suitcases! You can either accept this as the way things work or play the rate game.
Here’s a tip: A fair price for anywhere in the city is no more than $5, excluding the airport, Amador Caseway, and canal areas. Also, carry small notes as cab driver’s often do not carry change for notes higher than $20.
If your destination requires drivers to enter into high-traffic areas during high-traffic times, for example Avenida Balboa or Calle 50 any weekday daytime hour, forget the easy standard point A to point B approach. As frustrating as this may be, because passage is charged by zone and not metered, your driver would be losing business and wasting gasoline if sitting in traffic for half an hour.
There are ways to increase your odds. Make sure you are always on the side of the street with traffic flowing in the direction you are headed even if you have to cross a street, walk over an avenue, or figure out what direction you are actually headed. If you walk just a half block away from the entrance to your hotel you have a better chance of getting a lower fare. You may only have a split second to yell this out through the rolled-down window but try saying $4, and this might just get you the conciliatory nod.
In addition, beware of the laminated taxi sheets. Many of the guys that have agreements to do transport for the hotels use a laminated fare sheet to show you the prices for various trips around the city. They want you to think that this is the official price sheet and that somehow it being laminated makes it look more legit. These prices are hugely inflated and you can find a much better fare on your own. I have also heard of many of these guys with the laminated price sheets telling people that they are guaranteed to get robbed at gunpoint by the yellow taxis. This is just simply NOT true.
5. Airport Transfers
The cost of transfer from Tocumen Airport to any of the Panama City hotels is controlled by a group of transportation guys that consider the airport their turf. They do what they can to prevent others from providing transportation from the airport. The price they charge is $30 for 2 people and $10 per additional person to central Panama City hotels. Sometimes you can negotiate this price down but its actually a fair price considering the distance.
Make sure you agree on a fare before entering the car, and do not flash cash around while you are at the airport. You can take care of payment when you reach your hotel. If you would like for me to arrange airport transportation let me know and I can probably help you. The price will be more or less the same for small groups but I can probably save you a lot of money if your group is larger than 5 people.
6. Safety Tips
Panama City is a very safe place to visit, but like any other city with 1.5 million people there are some areas that you want to avoid. Casco Viejo is a perfect example of this. Casco Viejo is one of the safest neighborhoods in the city but is surrounded by some pretty bad neighborhoods. Sometimes it is really hard to tell where Casco Viejo ends and the bad areas start, especially since this line moves every year as the safe area expands.
A good indicator is how many people are walking around the street. If you are in an area full of activity you are most likely in a safe area. If you find yourself wandering into an area that looks a little sketchy, pull a u-turn and go back. If you just use basic common sense you will be completely fine during your vacation.
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