If you follow me on a few of my social media accounts (namely Twitter and Instagram), you might know that a couple of weeks ago I decided to pick up myself and take a trip down to Panama. It wasn’t completely out of the blue; my cousin is interning at the Canal for a few months through her university (you can read her blog about her experience here), and so I thought, “why not?” and “YOLO” and all these things.
It was a big moment for me in a few ways. All of my previous trips abroad up to this point have been exclusively to the States. And even though every state (heck, even towns and cities within one state) can give you a wildly different experience (enough to forget that, yes, America is all one country), it’s so… boring. So since I fancy myself a worldly kind of person (heh), and because I’m interested in seeing as much of the world as I can before it ends (or before I end), I took the first step.
And what a step that was. This trip was the first time I’ve gone somewhere that I could not rely completely upon English (my first language) being the primary language spoken. I’ve studied Spanish up to the CSEC level, and I use a fair amount of Spanish on an on and off basis to keep myself sharp. On top of that, I’ve been refreshing my vocabulary with an app that I never stop raving about, Duolingo. All of this, in combination with literature online that will suggest to you that most Panamanians speak English, I felt as though I would be “totally fine!” Yes, I’ll be able to use my Spanish, but if I get stuck, I can just flip back to English, it’s totally okay! No worries at all.
Complacency is a hell of a thing.
I will say that this whole ‘most Panamanians also speak English’ thing is not true. My cousin is fortunate in that most of the people in her office speak English very well, and thanks to industrialisation and the influx of tourists and expats to Panama City over the past several years, that may also hold for a number of persons out and about in the city. But the further you get away from the City, the less that holds. It’s as if you were to say that most Jamaicans also speak Spanish. I don’t say that to frighten, but just to prepare. I would have been lost if I didn’t at least know a bit of Spanish, and if I did not have someone who was accustomed to the system to guide me when I needed guidance.
Things to Note:
- Good news: Jamaican passport holders don’t need a visa to visit Panama. Flourish!
- Panama uses both US Dollars and their own currency, the Balboa, interchangeably. You will only ever encounter the Balboa in coin form, however.
- Break up your big bills (anything over a $20) whenever you can, before travel if possible. Some places are understandably less inclined to break large bills, and it is more convenient for you to have small notes for use around town, anyway.
- If you are rusty, practise your Spanish. Practise practise practise. If you speak no Spanish, make an effort to learn some key phrases (like “where is…?” “how much is..?” to name a few). No one minds so much if your sentences aren’t perfect, but they will appreciate if you make an effort to meet them halfway. You might wind up miming, or finding a very roundabout way to ask for what you want in the limited Spanish you know (which is fun for everyone, let’s just be real. Yes I’m speaking from experience).
- When you enter a store, taxi, or otherwise approach someone you plan to start talking to, a nice polite way to greet them is with, “Buenas”.
- Agree on the cost to get where you’re going before you actually get into a taxi.
- It is imperative that you try ceviche. Recommended: Ceviche Loko in Mercado de Mariscos; the owner is very helpful,speaks English, plus free Wi-Fi!
- If you’re a young traveler, there are a number of great hostels in Casco Viejo, with vibrant restaurants and bars in the area literally within walking distance.
With that said, I had a fantastic time! Panama is beautiful. There’s something for everyone to enjoy here. Aside from the obvious (the Canal), Panama has great culture, history, shopping, water sports, diving, hiking, food… I could go on. People are incredibly nice and friendly (and especially patient with broken Spanish!), and the countrymen are very proud of their country. It’s great. I think of it as the New York of Central America in some ways, and in other ways like Jamaica, pero con mas español. I miss it already, and I will most certainly be visiting again.