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Panama 101 (Free With Purchase)

Panama Letter Editor Chris Powers has just completed an updated and expanded new edition of the special report we publish called “Panama 101–101 Things You’ll Wish Someone Had Told You About Panama.” We make this report available free to all new subscribers of the Panama Letter (along with 6 other Panama-specific special reports).

It’s the most practical, real-deal, nuts-and-bolts guide to real life in Panama that I know, detailing 101 things that we expats living in this country really do wish someone had told us before we arrived on the scene.

I thought I’d share a few of the tips from the new edition, out this week:

Panama Tip #1: Taxis

Taxis are plentiful in Panama City but sometimes impossible to hail. When you give the driver your destination, it’s not uncommon for him to reply, “No voy,” or “Nope, not going there.” It is illegal for a taxi driver to refuse to take you to a destination, but that doesn’t stop most of them from doing just that…all the time.

The best way to hail a taxi is to stand on a corner where cars pass in numerous directions. Hotels are also a good place to find a taxi. Don’t enlist the help of hotel staff, though, or you’ll pay an inflated “hotel fare.”

When you do find a driver willing to take you where you want to go, don’t pay more than US$2 for the trip if you’re traveling within the downtown area. A trip to Casco Viejo should cost about US$5, a trip to the Causeway US$7. A taxi to or from the airport will set you back about US$30.

In Panama’s interior towns, taxis are easy to come by, and a ride anywhere within any particular town shouldn’t cost more than US$1.50.

Panama City taxi fares were formalized in 2008, when a fare chart was published. Officially, fares are now figured on a zone basis.

Still, an unscrupulous taxi driver (there’s no shortage of them) will immediately realize that you are unfamiliar with the city and try to charge you as much as US$5 (or more) just to take you around the block. Have an idea of the distance to your destination from your current location before you set out to hail a cab. And know what the trip should cost.

Our advice: Don’t ask what the fare will be before you get in the cab. Know what the fare should be and, when you’ve arrived at your destination, pay that amount to the driver as you get out.

Panama Tip #2: Cell Phones

Four companies currently offer cellular phone service in Panama: MasMovil (part of Cable & Wireless), Movistar, Claro, and Digicel, meaning rates, packages, and services are very competitive. In general, cell phone service in Panama is quite reliable, and you can buy pay-as-you-go cards just about anywhere.

In fact, you can get your phone free. Phone companies sell phones for US$20 that come with a US$20 airtime credit. Occasionally, you can even find a cell phone for sale for US$5…again, including US$5 worth of airtime credit.

Rates per minute to another cell phone range from 10 to 30 cents. Long-distance rates are a bit more…as much as 60 cents per minute.

The various providers offer promotions regularly. Depending on the offer, you can triple or quadruple the minutes you purchase. That means a US$5 phone card can be worth US$15 or US$20.

Prepaid phone cards have an expiry date, so check the wrapper of the prepaid card to see how long the minutes are valid. You must recharge your phone balance before the expiry date to make sure you don’t lose your previous balance.

All of the cell phone companies also offer monthly plans, ranging from US$15/month for 150 minutes to US$100/month for 1,500 minutes.

Cellular phone numbers in Panama contain eight digits, and the sequence usually begins with a 6.

Panama Tip #3: Renting A Car

Here is the most important thing you need to know about renting a car in this country: Reserve well in advance…and then call the day before you’re scheduled to pick up your car to confirm not only the fact of the rental but also the type of car they’re setting aside for you. It’s not uncommon these days, with so many people renting cars, to show up to collect your car only to be told that, sorry…we don’t have it. Wouldn’t you be just as happy with this little Nissan sedan instead? Friends have reserved four-wheel-drive SUVs for weekends in the interior only to be offered Kia hatchbacks (for example) when they show up to collect their rentals.

Which leads to the second point about renting cars in this country: Don’t rent a compact to travel to the interior. For travel outside Panama City, you need a four-wheel-drive SUV.

Panama Tip #4: Finding Your Way Around

Decent road maps of Panama are hard to come by, and some maps of this country in circulation are just plain wrong. The most accurate maps are generally available form car rental agencies.

International Travel Maps and Books prints one of the most accurate Panama road maps. You can purchase it online at www.itmb.com for about US$11.

A GPS is a good idea in this country. Digital maps of Panama can be downloaded for car navigation units and handheld GPS devices for US$30.

Panama Tip #5: Tourist Visas

In the past, upon entering Panama, North Americans (E.U. passport holders didn’t pay this fee) were required to obtain a tourist visa (at a cost of US$5). These were available for puchase from the airline you were flying or upon arrival at Panama’s Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. You were required to carry your tourist visa and a photo ID with you at all times while in the country.

This is no longer the case. Now, the stamp in your passport serves as your tourist visa. There’s no extra US$5 charge upon entering the country. It’s all wrapped up in your airline ticket. You should, however, keep your passport (or a paper copy of your passport, including a copy of the page with your entry stamp) with you at all times.

Technically, the tourist visa is valid for 90 days and cannot be renewed. However, because Panama’s immigration department is so overwhelmed with applications for visas of all kinds, it has been decreed that a tourist visa is currently valid for up to 180 days. If you contact immigration, they may tell you, no, it’s 90 days. Or they may say 180. What matters is what the immigration guy at the airport thinks when you show him your passport on your way out of the country.

If you plan to stay in Panama longer than the period allowed by the tourist visa (be it 90 or 180 days), you can do the border run (that is, leave the country for at least 72 hours, then return on a new tourist visa…most people in this situation travel to Costa Rica for a long weekend every three months). Understand, though, that Panamanian authorities don’t condone this and don’t like it.

If you happen to overstay your tourist visa by even a couple of days, you will have to go to the immigration office in Santiago, Veraguas, or Panama City to explain your situation. The fine for overstaying your visa is US$50/month and must be paid before you will be allowed to leave the country. Once you have paid your fine, you have nine days to exit.

Panama Tip #6: Property Tax Exemption

The 20-year property tax exemption that this country had been offering for many years ended Dec. 31, 2011. However, at the time of this report, Panama’s Legislative Assembly is in the process of reconsidering the property tax exemption with the intention, we understand, to extend it further. We’ll report on the outcome of the current discussions as soon as they are finalized.

Panama Tip #7: Panama City Nightlife

Panama City’s premier nighttime hotspot is Calle Uruguay in the Banking District. The street is lined with bars, clubs, and restaurants. It is a great place to spend an evening out, but not the best place to look for hotel accommodation unless you don’t mind being kept awake until the wee hours of the morning every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.

Another good place to go for nightlife (bars, restaurants, and clubs) is the Amador Causeway. Casco Viejo, or the Colonial Quarter, is perhaps the coolest current nighttime hangout, with musical comedy restaurant, lounge bars, and live music venues.

A law passed last November mandates that bars must now close by 2 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Panama tips #8 through #101 are available free with a subscription to my Panama Letter.

Kathleen Peddicord

French Course Online

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