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Monday, January 6, 2014

Monday Q and A - Traveling around Panama, contacting home, best places to visit, and much more.

Happy New Year!

Can you believe it's 2014 already, the year President Martinelli plans to finish up everything? Seriously, living in Panama, it seems the answer to every challenge and every new project is, "It will be completed in 2014." 

At El Panama Hotel

So hopefully this year means an end to our traffic woes (with the new Metro train station due to be completed by the end of this year). I hope you all had the chance to see our New Year video. I posted it on our Panama For Real Facebook page and on our Youtube channel, but incase you missed it, here's the link to that video. I tried to embed it, but for some reason it's not working right now. So here's that link:

We had a great time at El Panama Hotel with Orquesta Zafiro, Samy y Sandra Sandoval, and Aldo Ranks all performing until very early the next morning. I think the music stopped at 6am. I retired to the hotel room with the boys at about 1am. They passed out right away. Marlene and the girls partied until about 4am. It was a lot of fun.

The boys made it 'till just after midnight, then passed out

So, I took a brief holiday break to spend time with the family, but I'm back now, and ready to get today's Monday Q and A going. We've got a lot of information to cover as I've been receiving lots of emails over the past two weeks. As always, I invite you to add to my answers in the comments section. So many people have so much great info to offer, so let's all share. Okay, here we go.

Les wrote (via email): 

"Just read your article on taking the bus and being scammed for baggage charges. My wife and I will arive in Panama mid January and plan to travel around the country a fair bit. We're from Canada, currently in Ecuador for 3 months, and now realizing we packed way too heavy. We have two large 50-pound suitcases and two smaller ones about 25-pounds each. I think it would be reasonable for the bus company to charge us for extra baggage, but wondering if you have any info to share on that point? Also, the security of bags checked under the bus, how is that monitored? Thanks in advance for any info or advice you can share with us."

Chris replied:

"Hi Les,

"You'll be glad to know there are a lot of Canadians here. There's even a Canadian Report every Wednesday from my friend Michael Drouillard on Cool 89.3 FM. If you haven't seen Michael's site, you should definitely check it out at He has a lot of great info on his site and he's a really nice guy. 

"As far as I know, you shouldn't be charged any extra for bags. I've been told that no one pays extra for bags. I know when you're just here visiting, and have all your vacation cash, an extra $5 doesn't seem like much, so if it's mentioned and you're okay with that, then go ahead and pay it. I don't think it'll even be mentioned though. I just happened to run into a crook. I've been here a long time and I don't have the money I had when I first arrived. I live like a local and definitely notice when someone is price gouging me, so every $5 counts, lol.

On the Coaster bus from Pedasi to Las Tablas

"Depending on what kind of bus you're taking, and this depends a lot on where you're traveling, you may find your bags on top of a Coaster-style bus or in the bottom compartment of a nice Greyhoud-style bus. To be honest with you, there's no real security system in place for your bag. But I suppose it's no different from having your bag thrown into the bottom of a bus in the U.S. or anyplace else. Once it's in, it's in. I'd just hang around and watch them stow it away. Then get off the bus quickly enough and wait for your bag. If you don't, they will just sit it out on the curb until you get there (that's probably the biggest security risk). 

"Keep anything valuable on you or in a carry-on just in case. I've never had anything taken out of my bags while riding the bus and I've ridden quite a few. Hope this helps. Thanks for checking out the site and for your email."

Dan wrote (via email):

"Do Telechip International cards only work from pay phones, as I've read, or from cell phones and private phones as well? Enjoyed the travelogue about Penonomé, but it doesn't seem to be a place we'd like. Thanks anyway because the towns/areas and cities that are not to our liking are useful information also."

Chris replied:

"Hi Dan,

"I've never used a Telechip International card on a payphone. I use mine from a regular landline phone. I've never tried on a cell phone. I've called the U.S. from a cell phone here, with the regular prepaid minutes cards. It works fine that way, it just eats up your minutes really fast. When I first moved here, before discovering the Telechip International cards, I'd just buy a $5 or $10 Movistar card (I have my cell phone set up with Movistar), put the minutes into the phone, then call family just as I usually would on any phone. I know I was able to have at least one fairly long conversation. So if you're only calling every once in awhile, that can be an option too, but the Telechip International cards work great and allow more talk time.

"By the way, in order to use your foreign cell phone here in Panama, you'll need to take it to one of the cell phone shops, like the one in the photo below, and have it unlocked. This usually costs about $30, but can vary depending on your phone. An iPhone will probably cost more than one of the old free Nokias. Once it's unlocked, you'll be able to put the chip in from one of Panama's cell phone providers, and use it like a local, with a Panama phone number.

Get your foreign cell phone unlocked for use in Panama
at small cell phone shops like this

"Thanks for checking out the Penonomé report. Even if you don't imagine living in some of the places we report on, they could still make excellent mini-vacations once you're here."

For anyone wanting to check out the Penonomé written report, click here.

For the Penonomé video report, click here

Ariel wrote (via email):

"I'm seeking out expatriate communities because it's been my dream to buy a house (someday) in Panama. I'm starting with visiting for spring break. I may join a school or research team, but if not, I want to travel safely as a single female. 

"Funny side note, I'm pretty racially ambiguous and even in Vietnam I melted into the crowd easily. I do speak some Spanish but not fluently. I mostly understand it. I'm studying to be an ESL teacher among other subjects.

"So my question is, where are my best resources for connecting to young non-retired communities?"

Chris replied:

"Hi Ariel,

"Are you wanting to live in Panama City or in the interior? If you're looking for young, non-retired folks, you'll probably need to stay in Panama City for the most part. At least start your adventure there. 

A little late, but...Yep's New Year's Eve event

"My best contact for young expats (and to all the readers, like myself, I know we're all young, right?) would be Skyler, who runs Young Expats in Panama (YEP). The link to the facebook page is below. They're constantly having cool hangouts, meet-and-greets, and fun parties.

"I think your best bet, since you're not here yet, would be to get involved in some of the Panama Facebook groups and meet people. I see young expats on these pages all the time. Some of the good ones to know are:

Playa Community

Expats in Panama

Tropical Cowboys and Cowgirls

Panama, land of my heart

Where? When? How? Panama!

"There are others, of course, bust those are just a few to get you started, if you haven't done that already. If any readers have additional info for helping Ariel get in touch with young expats, please tell us in the comments below."

Dave wrote (via email): 

"Hi Chris, I'm going to be in Panama in February. What places do you suggest for a 2-3 area experience in your adopted country. I love golf, beaches, yoga, and I love to dance. I'm not a heavy partier but enjoy beautiful, healthy women." 

Chris replied:

"Hey Dave. Are you planning to move here eventually or you just want 2-3 beach destinations worth visiting? 

"If you're just coming for vacation and want the cool places to hang out, I'd say:

Bocas del Toro
Isla Grande
San Blas

"If you're thinking of living here, and are scoping out where you might want to eventually base yourself, I'd say:

Coronado (beach area with most expats)

Coronado from a condo balcony

Pedasi (best beach area for surfers, expats from all over the world live here, it's a small town)

Best beaches for surfing in Pedasi

Bocas del Toro (popular beach area, I hear people looking to move here mention it all the time)

"Some other cool places to visit: 

El Valle de Anton (mountain area, but has horse/ATV rentals, ziplining, great fruit/vegetable and souvenir market for tourists)

Amazing sunsets in El Valle de Anton

Casco Viejo (great place to visit in the city, full of jazz bars, hip restaurants and clubs, old fashioned architecture, etc.)

Close up on Casco Viejo

Portobelo (on the Caribbean side near Isla Grande, has cool pirate history, still has canons set up and everything)

Awesome pirate history in Portobelo

Amador Causeway (in the city, has nice restaurants on the water, can rent a bike and cruise up and down the strip)

Go for lunch, for a jog, or for a bike ride on the causeway

"If you want to stay at a resort:

Nitro City (plenty of activities, like windsurfing, surfing...just check out the website)

Gamboa Resort (all kinds of rainforest activities)

Playa Blanca (all inclusive beach resort)

Hotel Decameron (all inclusive beach resort)

"That's all I can think of right now. Everyone has his or her favorite resort in Panama, so maybe others will chime in in the comments section and let you know about some other great places to visit."

Allison wrote (via email):

"Happy New Year! I wanted to "pick your brain" and was wondering if you have any ideas for restaurants to try and dine at next week when Ray and I are in Panama City. We are staying at the Courtyard Marriott at Multiplaza Mall. We have not stayed in the city before, so I don't know the layout so to speak. Are there any good restaurants you would recommend near our hotel, or in the mall? They can be Americanized restaurants or not, doesn't matter."

Chris replied:

"Hey Allison and Ray!!!

"I'm glad to hear you're still moving forward with your move. You're gonna be in a great spot at the hotel because you have everything nearby. There's a lot of construction going on right there, but that's usually during the day so it shouldn't bother you much.

"As far as restaurants, at the mall alone you have Fridays, Benihanas, Tony Romas, and a handful of other great restaurants. In the food court you'll find one of my favorite places to eat, Leños y Carbon (you have to try the Pollo Gratinado, butterflied chicken breast covered in melted cheese, and if you'd rather have steak, my wife likes the Punta Palomilla). I know there was a Ruby Tuesday opening up, but I don't think it has yet. And Multiplaza has a movie theater too, just make sure any movie you want to watch is Subtitulada (in English with Spanish subtitles).

"If you like sushi, my favorite seafood/sushi restaurant is right next to the mall. Just look for the 3 big towers next to the mall parking lot, called Torre de Las Americas. The restaurant is called Sake and is located inside the main tower. Just walk out of your hotel, walk through the mall to the opposite end, cross the parking lot, enter the main tower and you'll find it inside the main door on the left hand side. Their website is

"Oh and a good website to know, if you ever want to check restaurant reviews here in Panama is I think it's mostly in Spanish, but at least you can see how many stars the restaurant you're curious about has earned. Hope some of this helps."

Paul wrote (via comments on PFR site): 

"Chris, thank you sooo much for getting this project going! I came across your blog, which in turn led me here (PFR site), after searching for info on putting kids in school in Panama. 

"Originally from Seattle, after 10+ years building a life, family, and business in Bolivia, my wife and I feel it's time to leave here, but the States is not very appealing to my wife. We took a short vacation to Panama a couple of months ago on a whim and LOVED it, and the idea has been getting on us ever since to relocate there.

"Your site will undoubtedly help us save a lot of time in doing initial research before we make a trip back to see in person where might be the best fit for us. Best of luck with your endeavor/adventure, and just a side note--have you considered a donation option so people who benefit from your site and would like to could be able to contribute?"

Chris replied:

"Hi Paul. Wow...Bolivia. I hope some of the info on the site helps you guys with your decision. To answer your question, I did recently (like a week ago) put a donation button in the right sidebar of the website. It just says something like, "All this info is free, but if you'd like to buy us a coffee or a beer, you can do so by clicking here." It goes to my Paypal account. So far no donations, but of course any is seriously appreciated. Right now all of the money for traveling (and everything else) is coming out of my pocket. Thanks for mentioning it and thanks again for making use of the site and for participating with your comments. That's what it's all about!"

Kevin wrote (via comments on PFR site):

"Hi Chris, thank you for your efforts to inform us of life in Panama. I will be traveling from the U.K. to Panama in February. To avoid driving through Panama City, I plan to stay the night in the city and get the bus to Penonomé the following day, where I intend to hire a car to continue my journey to David, Las Tablas, etc. If you can remember, are the car rental places you mention in the Penonomé article anywhere near where you get off the bus from the city? Thanks in advance. Cheers."

Chris replied:

"Hi Kevin,

"I don't blame you for wanting to avoid the drive through Panama City. Sadly, neither of the car rental places are super close to the bus stop, but it's kind of funny because once you reach Penonomé, you'll see that people start calling out "Parada!" to stop at regular bus stops along the way. By the time I reached the final stop, there were only maybe 5 of us still on the bus.

Dollar in Penonomé

"So, if you speak any Spanish at all, you can probably tell the driver or his assistant that you want to get off at the Dollar Rent-A-Car. The Dollar is on the right hand side as you enter Penonomé, before the bus veers right to make its way through the old part of town and to the final stop. Both car rental places are on the Pan-American Highway. The other place I mentioned in the Penonomé article, Express, is closer to the McDonald's and Super 99, farther down the highway (you won't pass it on the way to the final stop). 

Express in Penonomé

"If you're not comfortable getting off early, you'll find plenty of taxis at the final stop. It'd probably only cost you $1.50-$2 to catch a taxi to one of the car rental places. Also, if you're traveling with heavy bags that will need to either be placed under the bus or on top of it, they might not be too fond of unloading alongside the highway outside the Dollar Rent-A-Car. Good luck." 

Mike wrote (via comments on PFR site):

"Thinking Chitre might be a decent size town in the lowlands/interior to do such an expose' over. Thanks again for all this inspiration, you're a busy man with this site."

Chris replied:

"Hi Mike,

"Thanks for commenting. Yes, Chitre is definitely worth visiting and reporting on. I've been to Chitre before and I like it a lot. I love how Chitre has a mall, small movie theater, and large supermarkets, while all the areas around it don't. So it's kind of an escape for those living in Las Tablas and Pedasi, but it's still small town enough that you don't feel like you're stuck in the city.

Chitre is a really cool town

"Plus, it's the only place around to eat American fast food. So if you get a craving for McDonald's or KFC, Chitre is your place. If you plan to live there you might want to get out of town during Carnaval though as Chitre and Las Tablas are the most popular Carnaval party spots and things get really wild. 

"I'll be hitting Chitre this year for sure. I can't wait to get it all done. 2014 will be a very busy year!"

Kevin wrote:

"Hi Chris, thought I would let you know of my experience getting a bus from Albrook Mall to David last November. I don't speak a word of Spanish and the ticket person didn't speak any English. He was very patient with me and I eventually managed to get my ticket. I knew nothing about the RapiPass card, so I had a bit of a problem when I had to go through the turnstile. The attendant at the turnstile saw my confusion and with a smile, let me through a gate at the side of the turnstile. So in contrast to the rip off artist you encountered, all the people I met were more than helpful."

Chris replied:

"Hey Kevin, good to hear from you again. I'm glad you had a much easier time with the bus. Sounds like you had good luck all around. I've traveled to the interior by bus on many occasions and that one bad trip as the first time I've been hassled. Thanks for sharing your experience. It's important that people realize it's not a Panama thing, but an asshole ticket counter guy kinda thing."

Well, that's it for this Q and A session. Thanks for reading and I hope some of this helped.   

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