Panama is famous for its kind and welcoming culture. But like any new city, it helps to know how things work. Whether you want to see the sights, or soak up the culture, some insider knowledge always helps. Using your smartphone, in a smart way, can make your trip to Panama City both easier and more cost-effective. Downloading a few useful apps before you go can help you hit the ground running, and steer you to the best bargains in the city with the minimum of fuss.
For example, a typical tour to the historic Casco Viejo section will cost you at least $100. My wife and I did it for 85 cents.
Twenty-five cents for the new modern bus line (no more need to use the “Red Devil” converted school busses, which are colorful, but uncomfortable), and then 60 cents for the subway. After that, it was a 20-minute walk to Plaza Simón Bolívar. We spent the day there and then treated ourselves to a cab home for $10. We also had a four-course meal cooked by a well-known local chef for $10, while other groups were paying around $20 for a single item in nearby restaurants. The trick is to have good insider tips in hand—and there are a few easy ways to use your smartphone to make sure you do.
Download Offline Maps
Preparing for a trip to Panama City and arriving with ease starts right in your smartphone. Just make sure you have the essentials loaded before you leave home.
Google has some apps for a worry-free start to your trip. You can use Google Maps on both Android and iPhone. The “Offline Maps” feature allows you to use Maps like a GPS device. Here’s how to set it up:
Do a search in Maps for Panama City, Panama. Zoom in and include the Canal region and some of the northern city edges on the screen. Then go to the menu, select the “Offline Maps” option, and then “select your own map.” Once you’ve done that, just hit the download button and you have a map on your phone that will give you all the essential aids.
Then you can check bus schedules and get direct access to Uber and Cabify, along with all the local suggestions and reviews. I hit the Discover and Cafe buttons on Google Maps, and a place named Rene’s came up, hidden beside the police building. All the other expensive restaurants are along the souvenir shop streets. That’s how we found that $10 meal.
Google Maps can be a vital part of a successful visit here. Many buildings only have names, so giving instructions to your driver is difficult. But showing your destination on your phone gives him instant directions in this confusing mix of one-way streets.
The “walking direction” feature is also useful. A chef friend of mine told me that a famous restaurant, Intimo, was nearby. I was glad I had the Google Maps walking guide, because when we reached our destination, there was no restaurant to be seen. We were about to start circling the area when a young man pointed to a closed-up shop and told us to go to the backyard. There, at the back patio, was a door with a little sign above it. We’d found the famous restaurant. And yes, the dinner was worth it.
Use Google Translate and Trips
Google Translate is another essential. Panama City is mostly Spanish speaking. So type in what you are trying to say before you begin your conversation; you then have a backup when things get confusing.
Try out your Spanish, though. People here love it when you give their language a try.
The Google Trips app lets you download all your reservations and travel information. You can use it on an iPhone, too, or use Apple’s similar Wallet app. Having the app on your phone means you don’t have to worry about a connection when you need that info fast.
Buy a Local SIM Card
Before you leave for Panama, get your phone unlocked. Take out your SIM card before you arrive, and keep it safe. Your cellphone carrier’s international daily packages are a waste of money unless you absolutely need to keep your phone number. A local SIM card only costs about $1, and a good basic package costs about $10. Many shops sell SIM chips but don’t have a vendor decal on the door. I got mine at a little convenience shop. I just asked and he hauled out a fistful of cards from all the networks. I’ve seen the them at newsagents as well. Don’t buy the expensive ones at the airport. Buy a SIM card and basic package. Recharge your plan online as needed.
Panama City has installed the free WIGO WiFi network. It’s secure and there are hotspots all over the city, so you can use your apps without draining your phone plan’s data. There is no auto-connect as you move from hotspot to hotspot so you will need to connect to it manually, but the saving in data usage is worth hitting the connect button a few times during your day.
The free messaging service WhatsApp (Whatsapp.com) is what almost everyone here uses. It’s the texting equivalent of Skype; it allows you to send messages, video, or make calls to other WhatsApp users. Add it to your downloaded apps and connect with your friends and family before leaving home. It’s free to use (video, voice, text) on WiFi, and the carriers offer free bonuses in their packages.
Editor’s note: Panama is safe, modern and incredibly affordable. And wherever you look, from its sunny beaches to its rolling green mountainsides, it’s gorgeous. This diverse landscape means that no matter what kind of retirement spot you’re searching for, you can find it in Panama. If you want to learn more about moving to Panama join us at our upcoming Fast Track Panama Conference book your place now