Since my family and I are moving to Panama this year (intrigued? Read about why we chose Panama), we took a trip last October to learn as much as we could on-location in preparation for our new life. In my last article, I discussed the importance of those little details you can only learn through talking to someone who’s been there, or by exploring a place yourself – tips and insider advice that go unmentioned on most travel websites but which can truly make or break your experience, whether as a visitor or an expatriate.
So without further ado, here are some of the best insights from my last visit to Panama:
On international schools in the Coronado area
From researching education options for my son in the Gorgona/Coronado area (where we will be planting roots), we got the impression that there was exactly ONE school to choose from, the Panama Coast International School. It was the only school mentioned in the travel books, on websites, on search engines, and even by the few realtors we spoke to on the phone.
Much to our surprise, we discovered there is another one. And that was only by accident.
You see, after reading about the famous Woody’s Beach Bar and Grill just down the beach from the resort where we were staying, we made a point of visiting because it is owned by Canadians (see point below).
The owner, Monique Woods, sat and chatted with us one evening and she suddenly mentioned the school in Santa Clara where her little goddaughter attends. It was the first we’d ever heard of it.
Sure enough, about a half hour down the Pan-American highway from the Gorgona school is the quaint little Five Stars Academy.
It is small, only 15 students total, and they don’t advertise – at all. I found it hard to find by Google search – you’d only find their website if you had the actual name. In fact, the school administrator told me they rely solely on word of mouth!
But it is very much a school – accredited, with American and Canadian educators, and at the same reasonable price as the Panama Coast International School. It is located on a large, lovely, landscaped, fully fenced-in property in the heart of Santa Clara.
The 2012-13 school year will be the first time they will be offering Grade 6 (right now it only goes to fifth grade).
We find it comforting to know we now have options for our son.
Woody’s Beach Bar and Grill
Although we had read about Woody’s online before we went, we had no idea how much we would enjoy it. Total Canadiana – on the walls, on the ceiling, behind the bar, in front of the bar.
It really feels like home for nostalgic Canadians who might be homesick and longing for the Montreal Canadiens, Canadian Tire or just some good ol’ down-to-earth Canuck hospitality from the owner, Monique Woods, who is a bona fide Newfie (no, that’s not an insult for any proud Newfoundlander!)
Oh, and it’s worth the trip for the poutine alone. You wouldn’t think you’d be able to find amazing poutine in Panama – but you’re wrong. It is absolutely delicious.
You’ll find Woody’s in the Farallon Beach area.
Home phone lines in Panama
It seems that in Panama, everyone communicates via cell phone! This is something that is fast becoming more prevalent in Canada and the US, but most people I know still have a land line at home.
While cell phones are great for local calling, what about those of us who will be relying on international calls back home on a fairly regular basis? Most expats, we were told, use Magic Jack. Look it up and do your homework. I bought one. And I’ll be bringing it with me. All you need is an internet connection and your long distance bill will only be $20 a year.
But there are other options – Skype phone and Google phone, just to name two. It’s just a matter of figuring out which option works best for you.
Ohhh, the dogs. If you’ve ever travelled off the beaten path in a Latin American country, you may know what I’m talking about.
We rented a beachfront home for a week in Costa Rica last year and everything about it was fantastic – right on this beautiful, quiet beach, private property, huge outdoor space that looked out onto gorgeous sunsets, all the comforts of home. Everything was perfect, except one thing – the dogs.
There was a pack of stray dogs that roamed around and made our front porch their home every night. They were perfectly nice dogs – cute, friendly, tame – but they barked ALL NIGHT. They barked at anything that moved. Even the wind. And right outside our door. You could chase them away, but they’d come right back again. Over and over.
Anyway, I had forgotten about that aspect, until our visit to Coronado, Panama this past fall. Then it all came back. Just as in Costa Rica, they are EVERYWHERE. And they are accepted – or should I say tolerated – everywhere by the locals. In fact, you do not harm dogs in Panama. You can shoo them, but nothing more severe than that.
If you are the absolute antithesis of a dog lover, you may want to consider living in a more developed area, or on a private property. (I can think of one private island in Panama that wouldn’t be so bad :)).
The bus system outside of Panama City
It’s easy to find information about transportation modes in Panama in any travel book or website, and they’re generally positive reviews. But what I didn’t realize is just how great their bus system really is.
In most third- or second-world countries I’ve ever been in, my experience has been that expats and tourists don’t generally use the bus system that locals use. The fear of crime or shoddy (scary) quality of the vehicles is often a deterrent.
Not in Panama. In Panama, expats, tourists and locals alike all take the bus. One rather distinguished-looking American retiree we met who lives in Gorgona uses the bus system regularly. He even makes the seven-hour bus sojourn to Costa Rica every six months to renew his Panamanian visa.
I know people who wouldn’t even go the long haul on a bus in Canada. Um, come to think of it, I’m one of them.
I expect that will change in Panama. The highway buses are constantly making journeys from terminals in Panama City to different destinations along the Pan-American Highway, and back to the terminal. They’re pretty frequent, and the buses will pick you up or drop you off at any point along their route – and most of them are air-conditioned! You’ll see bus shelters everywhere along the highway.
The cost is cheap – about $1 US per hour travelled, sometimes less. The trip to Costa Rica costs $15 US.
An interesting fact we learned: if you see decoratively-painted school buses, they’re called “Red Devils.” These are public transit buses that are gradually being phased out to be replaced by new Volvo buses. These “Red Devils” (“Diablos Rojos” in Spanish) are pretty distinguishable – they’re decorated hippie-style and have VERY loud salsa music playing. You may spot them on the outskirts of Panama City.
They look like fun, but unfortunately there’s a reason the Panamanian government began phasing them out in December 2010 – the Diablos Rojos have seen better days. It’s fun to see remnants of this Panamanian institution, but snap a picture and leave the crazy ride to the locals.