July 05, 2015

10 Aspects about Panama Life and Its People

NOTE: This article pertains to our experiences in Panama City only and not other areas of Panama.
 

1. Panamanians call Panama City just “Panama”, so if you are in David or Las Tablas and they are referring back to the big City of Panama they’ll just say, “Over there in Panama”.  It took a few conversations with the Panamanians to understand what they meant when they said “in Panama you can find…”
 

2. The main sport in Panama is not soccer; it is baseball! So you’ll find they love to talk about everything related to the sport; Panama’s baseball team ranks 13th in the world. They also play soccer but it is not the rage like it is in Ecuador and other Latin American countries. SOURCE
 

3. There are very few stray dogs roaming around on the streets in Panama City, at least during the day time. In fact, on two different occasions we spotted dog catcher’s trucks. However, when we ventured away from Panama City and into smaller towns there were plenty of malnourished dogs roaming the streets, so clearly this is just a Panama City thing.
 

4. Panama City has lots of traffic and they honk their horns more than in Ecuador, if you can believe that! Sometimes someone will get so irritated with the way someone is driving they will press down on the honker and not let up for a full thirty seconds. Drivers in Panama City are no different than any other Latin culture; it is erratic and seemingly unorganized.  And another thing, very few street signs with street names exist in the city of Panama, which makes the city confusing for drivers who are new to the city.
 

5. There does seem to be more intimidating police presence. You’ll often see a road block, stopping vehicles at random, checking ID’s. We do not drive anymore (yaaay) so we cannot say anything personally about bribes but we’ve heard through the grapevine that cops can be overly assertive in this arena. 

Doing some research we find that it is a common practice in Latin America. All over on the Internet you’ll read gringo stories of how corrupt police officers are accepting payments in lieu of a ticket but the gringos are just as corrupt for facilitating such bribes by breaking foreign traffic laws in the first place.
 

Headlines read, “Tourists Paying Off Corrupt Traffic Cop in Panama” and “My Experience Giving Bribe Money to a Corrupt Police Officer in Panama City”; however, when tourists give the cops money they are “playing the game” too and therefore should not be labeling the cops as being corrupt because it takes two to tango. On top of that, almost all gringos we’ve personally talked to and some we read about always overpay on a bribe, so then, how is that not tempting the policeman?  There’s more to say about this but not in this article.
 

When we take the time to look at it through their eyes, it’s actually quite generous of a police officer/government to allow gringos to pay ‘small’ fines upfront for minor traffic violations rather than having them go through the whole process of being given a ticket and having to navigate a foreign process.  However, on the other hand, if you’re drinking and driving or driving recklessly, then you deserve to go to a Panamanian jail.
 

6. Garbage littering the streets is a problem in Panama City. On several occasions we personally witnessed people littering, throwing garbage under buses, over fences and next to where other garbage is, even though there are garbage baskets on almost every corner, and they’re empty. The other problem is bags of garbage just sitting on the side of the road rotting.
This spot had garbage littering the street every day that we walked by...
Believe us when we say, it doesn’t take but a few hours in hot, humid weather for garbage to start stinking and reeking. Panama City is a nice city with some great services but sadly an organized garbage pickup is not one of them. 

Ok, it is time to compare, I cannot help myself. In Cuenca the garbage pickup service is excellent and prompt three times a week. Panama City is not perfect but no city is, right?
 

7. The people of Panama are helpful, friendly and non-confrontational. They would rather tell you something positive than tell you “no” or something negative.  For an example, the Internet was not working in our hotel room and so we asked the lady behind the desk to please reboot the modem as we know that works. She proceeded to inform us that the modem was located in the locked office and the manager of the hotel was gone and she is the only one who has access.
 

Now understand, this was on a Sunday and to top it off it was Father’s Day.  But the wonderful lady behind the hotel desk would rather tell us the manager will be coming in soon, that very same day to reboot the modem than tell us something we do not want to hear, such as the manager really is not coming in until the next day at mid morning!  Having lived in Ecuador and understanding the culture, we both knew the modem would not get rebooted until Monday sometime, so we simply accepted it and spent most of the day out. 
 

The point is, bless her heart, she didn’t want to tell us anything negative, and so every time we asked her about the Internet she would say with a smile, “Soon the manager will be in to reboot the modem”.  Sure enough the manager did come in just when we thought, mid morning on Monday a full day without internet!
 

8. About taking taxis in Panama City: Taxis are not metered and many times the driver will ask you, “What do you want to pay?” or “How much have you been charged from other taxis?” Now understand, this is a question he is asking you because some foreigners pay big fares and he wants that from you too, otherwise why he would even ask you what you’ve paid rather than just quote the price?
 

A normal taxi fare, within the city limits of Panama City will cost anywhere between $2.50 and $4.00, depending on how far you’re going. Taxis are generally fair and will not try and overcharge unless you are “coming out from”, or “going to” the airport, bus terminal, Mall, or tourist attraction/event, or if you simply let them overcharge you. Now you know what the going rate is.  

We’ve written a lot about taxis and how to handle them in the DIY Cuenca Landing Guide, and we left this subject in the guide intact so that foreigners could use the information in countries other than Ecuador where taxis have been ‘metered’.
 

Most taxi drivers are gregarious in Panama, much more so than Ecuador. They will talk your ears off if they know you understand Spanish. This is good because Frank always like to strike up conversations with the locals about crime in certain neighborhoods, where are the bad areas, where is a good place to go eat for a good price, and where to get “hard to find” food items, etc, etc.  After awhile of doing this you begin to see a consistency in what the local folks are saying, and well, it provides us with a clearer picture of local life in Panama.
 

9.  Crime and Safety in a nutshell: 1 out of 2 Panamanians walk around with their iphones or ipads in Panama City. It is so prevalent in Panama that I’m surprised they do not trip on the bad sidewalks. We also noticed in restaurants people leave their purses, cell phones, etc just sitting at the empty table while they order or use the restroom. We saw this over and over again. Coming from Ecuador, where you have to keep a close eye/grasp on your things, this was a big eye-opener.
 

While traveling in the country of Panama City on the inter-state buses, the locals put their stuff in the overhead bins. Buses stop for a 30-minute lunch break and people leave their back-packs, carry-on luggage, etc on the bus while they go eat; some people stay on the bus. This observation is a clear sign which shows us there is less threat of pick-pockets and snatch and grabs in Panama. 
 

Bottom Line: From what we witnessed day in and day out from the locals is, PETTY crime (overall) in Panama is much safer from pick-pockets and personal robberies than Ecuador.  But that doesn’t mean there’s no crime in Panama City. Violent crimes in the bad neighborhoods can be a problem. But we never are out at night so we miss all the action. Just remember: you can make yourself a target anywhere in South or Central America.
 

10.  Typical working man’s (executive) almuerzo cost $4.50, touristy areas $6.  It is a big lunch which usually consists of 2 pieces of chicken, rice with beans or rice with peas, potato salad or coleslaw, and a couple slices of plantain. 
$4.50 almuerzo in Panama City, Panama
We're an Expat Family of Five, Living Frugal, Healthy and Happy in Cuenca Ecuador! Enjoy the Discover Cuenca Ecuador blog!

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