So: You Want to Travel in 2022?
I graduated college and ran as fast as I could to another country. I’d spent my whole young life living in a country where two-thirds of the people don’t even have a passport, much less use it. The US is a big place, but there are simply experiences you can’t have without traveling abroad and being immersed in a place you have no sense of belonging to. It’s enlightening and challenging and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you find a new place where you might belong.
I never moved back to the US after leaving, instead embracing the kind of vagabond existence which has allowed me to see quite a few countries (I won’t do that tired thing of advertising the number) and have quite a lot less marriages and houses and children than my old high school friends. In all that time, I’ve picked up quite a few travel tips, both philosophical and practical, but haven’t really been able to share them with friends and family back in the country of my birth. They don’t really share my embrace of what they sometimes only-half-jokingly refer to as “a Peter Pan lifestyle”.
So when my older sister finally bought a plane ticket to come visit me, I rejoiced at getting to not only see her, but help her with the small but important question she had innocently texted me:
“What do I need to know?”
She has never truly travelled abroad (a cruise to the Bahamas doesn’t count, sorry) and I don’t think has ever even gotten on a plane by herself. Coming to visit me in Panama, a country where she doesn’t speak the language, is a big deal. There were a lot of things to consider, to help her have a fun, safe time with minimal difficulties. I promised her I’d write down some tips…and this is that letter:
I’m so glad you’re coming! This is going to be awesome. I’m clearing the week, so it’ll really be up to you how much you want to do. So, “what do you need to know?” In broad strokes, here’s what I’d recommend:
- It kind of depends on what you figure out your individual travel style is, balancing between “seeing the country” and enjoying your vacation. I’d recommend booking like one big thing for each day. I can set them up for you, if you want. So in Panama City, that means knowing that like, “Okay, Monday we’re taking a boat in the lake with the wild monkeys and into the Panama Canal. Tuesday we’re going to see the old colony. Wednesday we’re going to the art museum and walking around the old town there…” etc. You can go out for lunch or dinner each day accordingly, and we’ll have time to just chill and have a couple movie nights, too.
- Most cities around the world involve using a car far less than in the US. This means public transport and walking in addition to taxis/ride-share. This means being on your feet a lot more than a lot of Americans are used to. In the heat and humidity. I’ve seen it before where people spend a sizable part of their vacation just being tired and saying “I just want to sit down!” They spend all their time looking for the next cafe or bar because they don’t have any stamina. And look, you can totally hit a lot of cafes and bars in some places, but you don’t want to spend your time there sweaty and exhausted. So: get your steps in! Train up for a vacation like it’s a physical event. Longer walks, more carrying backpacks and stuff around the house. Stretch!
- A lot of people don’t budget well for trips to Central and South America. They assume that the countries are poor countries and everything is going to be cheap. Well it’s true that there is a lot of income disparity in many of these countries. And if you stay where these people stay and eat where they eat, yeah, it’s cheaper. But anyplace where any tourist goes is going to cost more. That’s hotels and restaurants, bars and shops. Things in Panama City are not that much cheaper than in the US, particularly if you want to check out many of the very cool fusion restaurants or rooftop bars and so on. Those are catering to tourists, and all that stuff costs money to set up, money which they intend to get back with their pricing. Whatever you’d spend eating out and traveling around in a day in the US, figure on budgeting that much per day here. Just to be safe.
- The trip itself…ugh. US airports are rubbish. They’re really dehumanizing, so many people treat you rudely and make demands in the name of “safety” when it’s been proven time and again that the TSA is horrible at this and there are far better ways of doing it (like at Ben Gurion airport). On the Panama side, do not expect half the hassle as in the US: Immigration moves quickly, Customs gives you a cursory glance, maybe a sniff from a dog, and you probably won’t have to remove your shoes or belt at the X-ray point for your bag. But on the US side, prepare for everyone to treat you like a parent who’s already told their child three times. There are a million signs everywhere, so much so that people just start ignoring them. Just don’t be on your phone: pay attention to everyone else and follow along. I don’t wear anything metal and have on comfortable shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Dress in layers because you will probably be super hot until you got on the frigid airplane. They usually charge for blankets now.
- Clothes… a lot of people don’t actually look up the climate they’re packing for. They think they need to bring two of everything, when in fact they’ll never wear that coat, never need those heels, etc. Panama City is about 90% humidity, about 85 degrees F, just about year round. It’s slightly cooler right now due to being the rainy season, but when the sun’s out it’ll basically feel like 100 degrees. That means wearing lots of breathable, light materials. It doesn’t honestly get all that much cooler at night, so maybe just something to protect from wind is fine.
- Packing. Take out everything you think you might possibly want to bring, and lay it on the bed in front of you. That includes earplugs, some basic emergency medicine like anti-diarrheals, aspirin, allergy meds, sunscreen, earbuds, neck pillow, I mean everything. Then get rid of 2/3s of it. Throw things out like you’re on a sinking hot-air balloon and need to cut weight. People always bring way too much non-essential stuff. You spend half your vacation unpacking and repacking and trying to find that one thing you know you brought and being tired and sweaty from hauling around baggage. Cut, cut, cut. Anything you truly need, you can buy here, and it becomes a souvenir. Leave room in your bag to bring back more than you come with.
- There has become a sort of default suitcase these days that’s a generic hard clamshell with roller wheels. They’re great for cities, but if you’re going somewhere without dependable sidewalks (like here) then you are now limited by how far you can carry that thing, or you have to take taxis and shuttles everywhere. Probably not a big deal for you, since you’re staying at my place the whole trip, though. You will want to consider what to do about locking your bag. Honestly, in the US, the TSA is the biggest enemy. If they want to search your bag, they have the right to cut off any locks to do so. Or you can buy TSA-approved locks, and they’ll use their key, but who are you locking them against? The TSA are the biggest thieves out there (I’ve had stuff stolen by them, and it’s pretty common), so I almost think just leaving valuables at home and not locking anything is the way to go. Locks draw attention to you having something valuable. You will want a luggage tag, though.
- Arriving in any new country is, I find, the time when things are most likely to go wrong. While you’re getting the lay of the land, local people are looking for a way to put food on their table. As a doe-eyed tourist, you represent their best shot, and they will for sure be better at sniffing out weakness then you are at hiding it. Almost universally, everything in airports is a ripoff. Buy everything in the city. Change money in the city (though Panama uses dollars anyway). Eat in the city. Get a cheap sim card in the city (the airport has free wifi). Taxis at an airport will be the most expensive you ever take, and the most likely to rip you off. Sure, you can negotiate in Panama, but it’s way easier to book transport in advance (about $25/person) or even just Uber. I’ll pick you up, so we may just take the bus to the metro train. It’s less than $2 and super easy, you just need a metro card.
- Health and safety is not too much of an issue these days. Before going to the airport, you’ll need to fill out the Panama Declaration of Health (here’s a link) with your travel and personal details. When you arrive in Panama, you’ll have to show this (saving it on your phone is fine) as well as your vaccination card. You don’t need a COVID test anymore. You do need to show your departure flight. US citizens get a visa on arrival of up to 6 months from their entrance. Easy peasy. Getting back into the US is harder. You’ll need to take a test the day before you leave, I think. I know a good, fast place nearby.
Once in the city, the mask mandate has been lifted for the public except on public transport or in some private businesses. They also have the option to require your vax card, though I haven’t run into this. The population is highly-vaxxed and lots of people voluntarily wear masks still. It’s a very safe place, even though there are some shady-looking parts to the city. Like I said: lots of income disparity. Panama is one of those countries that fights this by having what seems like a third of its population be police or soldiers. They’re on practically every corner, just chilling with some firearms. Honestly, they direct traffic more than anything, but if you get freaked out by some homeless person in a downtown area, know that you are never far from protection. Violence is basically a non-issue for anyone who pays attention to their environment. Just don’t wear flashy valuables or leave your phone sitting on a table.
- That’s about it! I can tell you more details later, or when you get here, but maybe consider any big things you want to experience. If you wanted, we could even do a brief trip inland to a more mountainous, temperate area like Boquete. Besides the Canal though, Panama isn’t so much a big place of sights to see, so much as a vibe to experience. Rooftop bars, rum on a patio, fresh ceviche from the market, fried plantains and geisha coffee for breakfast. It’s a place to just soak up, with lots of little food trucks and cafes, colonial buildings and new skyscrapers. I know you’ll have a great time here, so get ready!
There are details I could add for other travelers who aren’t my sister. Some are specific to Panama, but honestly it applies to most cities around the world these days. Considering Air B’nB (I rent one) versus a hotel or one of the few meager hostels here that survived the pandemic. Navigating transportation (taxis are safe and cheap, Ubers are plentiful, the bus and train are great). Going on Google Maps and checking out some of the highly-rated restaurants and bars in areas around where you’re staying is a great way to end up not just going to the same places as every other tourist. Joining Air BnB “experiences” or taking a GuruWalk is a good way to meet other travelers.
Most importantly for Panama: get out of Casco Viejo! It’s a tiny area of the city specifically being renovated for tourists, and it’s hardly the first or last word on a Panamanian experience. There are lots of other great neighborhoods to check out, like Obarrio or San Francisco, Cangrejo or Carmen. If you’re coming to Panama City, let me know and I can at least throw you one good local recommendation. Happy traveling!