Think of Panama and the first thing to come to mind is probably the famous Panama hat. You probably won’t immediately think of their currency, the balboa. Panama is the only country to use the balboa but they also use the US dollar. The balboa is also pegged to the US dollar so basically one balboa is worth exactly one US dollar. This does at least make it easy in terms of using one currency or the other – you don’t have to work out what one currency is worth in relation to the other.
This is a decimal currency and it has the centesimo as its subunit. There are only a couple of coins valued in centesimos – the one and five centesimo coins. Aside from that you will also see several coins valued in balboas. These are the 1/10, ¼, ½, 1 and 2 balboa coins.
Very unusually there are no banknotes at all in the balboa currency. Instead (as you might guess given what we know so far) US dollars are used. Thus you will see dollars in all the usual denominations for banknotes - $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. There is also a $2 note but the chances of actually see this are virtually non-existent.
The history of this currency goes back more than a century to 1904. This was the point at which Panama achieved independence from Colombia. Before this the Colombian peso was used. When the balboa came in it was introduced at par with the US dollar and has remained so ever since.
This is probably one of the easiest currencies to get hold of in some respects, because you won’t actually need to get it until you arrive in Panama itself. No bureau de change gives out coins: they only supply banknotes. This means you will need to get US dollars instead of notes. The balboa coins are only available in Panama so when you give someone some US dollars in payment you will receive US dollar notes and balboa coins in change. Some have said it would just be easier to get rid of the balboa currency altogether and to use nothing but US dollars. There is a lot of logic to this but it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.
Cash is frequently used in Panama and you shouldn’t have too many problems getting it from a variety of cash machines. The bigger cities have lots of them; however you might have some problems finding cash machines in the smaller more out of the way places so bear this in mind. The moral is if in doubt, get cash ahead of time somewhere nice and easy.
It’s probably wise to forget about the traveller’s cheques as you could spend half your holiday looking for somewhere to cash them. Credit cards may also be a little more challenging to use than you might think. Some places will accept them but they are by no means widespread so it might be best to make sure you have means to pay by cash. It is also good to remember you are better off making sure you can get small bills as these are far easier to change than larger ones. Indeed you might find you struggle to get larger bills above $20 accepted in many places.
This is easy to work out – you just need a currency converter with the US dollar loaded in it! And since the US dollar is the most popular currency (or one of the most popular at least) in the world, you should find it very easily indeed.
There is a website for the Consulate General of Panama in London that is worth visiting if you are thinking about going to the country. You’ll find it at http://www.panamaconsul.co.uk/.
For the most part Panama is a great country to visit and a relatively safe one too. The UK government does advise that any visits to the Darien province are only undertaken as part of a properly organised group of tourists. Even then you should only go to tourist destinations and not travel around the province at will.
While there is crime in Panama you should not be affected by it during your time in the country. The main thing to bear in mind is the threat posed by street crime, such as pickpocketing and petty crime. This can be problematic but to be honest the biggest targets are people who tend to stand out as easy targets. You need to be alert whenever you use a cash machine as some criminals will target people who have just taken out money. Busy areas such as train stations, bus stops and shopping areas can also see a higher incidence of petty crime, so be on alert here as well.
It is also wise to steer clear of quieter areas and back streets you don’t really know. Even though some tourist areas can experience petty crime you don’t want to go off the beaten track. Furthermore be sensible in what you take with you. Keep any jewellery safely tucked away in a safe in your room and don’t carry more cash than is really necessary. In addition some people separate the money they have into different areas, such as in different pockets and so on. This minimises the amount of cash you could lose if someone did dip into one of your pockets.
Central America is home to Panama and in fact it is the country closest to South America. It is a relatively long and curvy country, sharing a border with Costa Rica to the north-west and Colombia to the south east.
The capital is Panama City which can be found fairly central to the country as a whole. One of the highlights here is Casco Viejo, the old quarter of the city. This is a great place to go if you are interested in architecture because there is a good mix of styles in play here. Casco Viejo Street alone is a good example of this, with white-washed buildings alongside others with elegant balconies and the rustic brick of still more buildings right next to them. The old quarter has many churches including the Church and Convent of St Francis of Assisi and the Church of La Merced. You should also take the time to see the Panama Canal Museum which as you might guess from the name focuses on the process of creating this world-famous canal. The canal itself cuts right through the country so if you are keen on seeing it you should make the time to visit a portion of it while you are in Panama.
There are many modern buildings elsewhere in the city, providing a stark contrast to the older architecture of the old quarter. However contrasting once again is the historical area called Panama Viejo. This is the only part of the original Panama City that is still standing and it has rightly been named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is around 500 years old and provides a window back onto the past.
Of course Panama’s location in Central America means there is the potential to see some amazing beaches too. One of the best is an eight mile stretch of land called Playa Las Lajas. It is still relatively untouched by major tourism although some people do know of its existence. It’s a great beach not just for sunbathing but also for water sports if that’s your thing.
Just off the coast from Panama City are three islands. These are connected to the mainland by Amador Causeway and this in itself is well worth a closer look. If you want to enjoy a nice stroll in the sun or even hire a bicycle to ride along the causeway you can do just that. You get great views of Panama City and of course you get the chance to visit the islands at the other end too. The islands are known as Isla Naos, Isla Perico and Isla Flamenco, and they are all connected to each other by roads. They are definitely well worth a visit and you can spend a happy day exploring them all.
Panama is a great place to go and it has a lot to offer tourists too. It’s easy to get ready for a visit since you’ll need US dollars rather than the balboa before you travel, and you can soon get used to the balboa coins once you get there. Their coins are worth the same as US dollar coins of course, and you might even see some of those too. A trip to Panama is eyebrow raising in lots of different ways!