Another glorious summer is winding down here in Panama, which means only one thing—the return of rainy season.
Many people new to the tropics think we live in a world of perpetual spring with no seasonal variation, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. We do have seasons, just not the kind to which people in more temperate climates are accustomed. The temperatures may not vary much between seasons, but the climate most certainly does.
For the past three or four months, we have been in Panama’s dry season. What we typically call summer down here. This means exactly what it sounds like—very little, if any, rain, blessedly low humidity, and lots of sun. It’s sometimes windier, too, especially on the coasts. Golfers and others who like to do things outdoors will never have to cancel their plans because of weather during Panama’s dry season.
Beginning this month and lasting until November or so, the rainy season sets in. Average daily temperatures won’t change all that much, but the winds die down a little, and a blanket of humidity—that makes a simple stroll around the block seem like a sweat-soaked tour of duty on a Stairmaster—settles over the country. And there’s rain. It rarely rains all day, but pretty much every afternoon for anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours. And that rain often comes down hard and fast, with little warning.
It sounds inconvenient, but once you learn the patterns and get used to them, then life becomes much less a crapshoot as far as weather is concerned. Knowing that the skies are going to open up at some point in the afternoon means that I do my outside chores in the morning and try to stay within sprinting distance of shelter in the hours between lunch and dinner.
We’re coming up on my third rainy season in Panama, and during that short time I’ve picked up a few other tips for surviving the rainy season down here. Most are common sense—or should be—but some might surprise you.
- Carry an umbrella. Regardless of how lovely the day starts out or what the weather forecasters are saying, always carry an umbrella. The downpours will come fast and furious, and shelter won’t always be convenient, so carry a shelter with you. Make sure it’s plastic, however, and not one with a metal tip. Prancing around with a lightning rod is never a good idea during an electrical storm.
- Wear sensible shoes. Forget about flip-flops or open-toed sandals. Think galoshes or ratty old shoes that can get wet. Streets and sidewalks, especially in the capital, don’t always cope well with the torrents and can flood quickly. Expect your feet to get wet. What I do is carry my indoor shoes in my handbag and change when I get to my destination. Some people I know also keep a go-bag with a spare set of dry clothes and shoes in their car or office, in case they get caught out in the middle of the day and can’t conveniently get home to change.
- Ladies (and men, for that matter) with long hair should have a hair tie handy at all times. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, the humidity is inescapable, and your hair will frizz out like you won’t believe. If you do get caught out and wet, having your hair tied back will also keep it out of your face.
- A good dehumidifier (or a couple of them depending on the size of your house) is your best friend. It may add to your electricity bills, but keep it running full time if you can. It will go a long way toward keeping your interior spaces comfortable and prevent mold and mildew. Try to locate it somewhere where you can run a tube to a drain, because it won’t always be practical to empty the water bin every couple of hours, especially if you are away from the house for extended periods.
- Do not turn off the air conditioning and walk away if you are going to be out of town for a couple days, or you will come back to a jungle. Again, it may not be easy on the electric bill, but it will prevent a lot of headaches later. If you only have window or stand-alone units (few houses in Panama have central air conditioning) consider putting a timer on them.
- Install lights in your closets and leave them on. Buy the kind with clamps if you have to and attach them to the clothing bar. The light and heat goes a long way toward preventing mildew on your clothing. Also leave the closet doors open for maximum airflow.
- At the beginning of the rainy season, be sure to clean your roof gutters and take stock of drainage around the foundation of your home. Leaves, dirt, and debris will have undoubtedly accumulated in them during the dry season, and clogged drains lead to overflow, which leads to roof damage and leaks. Pay attention to the area where the water drains as well—make sure it is diverting away from the house and not puddling around your foundation. Also look for dead tree branches over and around your house that may snap off when weighed down by water or blown around in the wind.
- Buy battery back-ups, known as an uninterrupted power supply or UPS, or at least surge protectors for fragile electronics around the house. The electricity can be more erratic during the rainy season and will almost certainly go out at some point. A UPS will give you time to save the novel you have been writing if you do lose power, and the surge protectors will prevent the electronics from being fried when the power comes back on. To be extra careful, some people I know just unplug everything entirely when an electrical storm is bearing down on them.
- Keep a supply of white vinegar on hand in a spray bottle. If you see the beginnings of mold on leather chairs, belts, and other surfaces, spray them with straight white vinegar and wipe them down with a soft cloth or paper towel. Vinegar has other uses as well. Spraying sweaty clothing with a water-vinegar dilution before you throw them in the washing machine helps remove any lingering smells.
- Slippery surfaces like tile can get downright deadly if you let mildew take hold of them so clean them early and often. Wiping the surfaces down regularly with bleach or hydrogen peroxide will keep them fungus-free.
- When you are packing away clothing for the season, don’t use mothballs. They may keep away bugs, but they won’t do squat for mold and mildew. Instead, pack the clothing with antibacterial soap (preferably scented) that you can put to good use when you unpack the clothes later.
- Many people I know keep a large selection of Tupperware or other airtight containers around the house for storing sensitive paperwork, photographs or electronics. Paper especially deteriorates rapidly in the tropics, not just from mold and mildew but also from insects. Airtight containers will keep both the dampness and the bugs at bay.