What follows—in no particular order—are a few tips for planning and enjoying your visit to Panama City. You'll come home with a few of your own discoveries, but these will start you in the direction of an affordable trip.
Beware of Strangers Offering Guide Services
This situation is not unique to Panama City, but some travelers have encountered it in the Casco Viejo area. A guide claiming he or she is an expert on area history and attractions offers to show you around the neighborhood. A simple "no thank you" might not suffice. A few of these so-called guides will continue to follow you, pointing out items as if you are already on their tour. If this continues for any length of time, they can become quite aggressive about collecting a fee for their "tour." If the first "no thank you" doesn't take, be more firm the second time and walk away swiftly. Once these touts see that you won't be easily manipulated, they'll move along to the next person of opportunity.
Take a Taboga Island Day Trip
Taboga Island, just a few miles off the Panamanian mainland, has an interesting history and also offers some fine beaches. There are excellent cycling and hiking options on land, and the waters just off the island are favorites for underwater explorers. It's known as the Island of Flowers, and you'll enjoy exploring the landscapes, weather and architecture in an environment that's far less chaotic than nearby Panama City.
Boat trips to Taboga are priced according to speed. A faster ride will cost $20 round trip per person, while a slower trip on the tourist-oriented Calypso King is $14 round-trip. The ship leaves the marina about 8:30 a.m. but check for current schedules.
Don't Expect Fast Service
In Panama City and many other parts of the world, dining out is an occasion to be savored over several hours with friends. Servers are trained to be attentive and friendly, but speed doesn't always enter into the equation. Plan ahead. Don't book a non-refundable tour immediately after a stop for lunch without building in a time cushion. More importantly, it's nice to savor the experience of dining in a new place. Allow yourself that luxury.
The U.S. Dollar Is Accepted Everywhere
The good news here is you will pay nothing for exchanging money. You'll avoid one of travel's most unrewarding expenses. The bad news is that you'll never benefit in times when the U.S. dollar is strong. Panama does not produce paper money, but there is Panamanian coinage sized in a similar fashion to U.S. coinage. Try to spend these coins in Panama. Technically, it's not legal to use them in U.S. vending machines.
Shop at the Artisan Market at the YMCA in Balboa
Near the intersection of Avenida Arnulfo Arias Madrid and Amador Causeway, you'll find a YMCA building that hosts a rather large market for native artisans. Candidly, not all of it is art. But you should be able to distinguish between the tourist junk and the worthwhile buys. Among the most coveted souvenirs from Panama are Molas, a highly ornate and colorful tapestry created by Kuna and Emberá indigenous artists.
Not far from the YMCA market is the Kuna Cooperative, exclusively featuring Kuna handicrafts.
You Don't Need to Pay the Big Bucks for a First-Class View
In most cities, a gorgeous view while dining requires an expensive tab in an upscale restaurant. But the MultiCentro Mall might offer one of the nicest views from a shopping center food court. The dining options are fast food with prices to match. But after picking up your order, walk over to the dining area. It offers a glass wall with sweeping views of the Panama City waterfront.
Negotiate Taxi Fares Before Departure
In most areas, taxi cabs do not come equipped with meters. Drivers tend to price your ride according to travel time and distance, but there is much variation in those prices. For that reason, you must negotiate a price prior to departure. It need not be a lengthy negotiation but don't be afraid to move to another driver if the price is too high. Keep in mind that most city rides come in at less than $10 USD, but it is common for drivers to charge more if they think their passengers are unfamiliar with the going rates.
Know Which Airport You're Flying From
Time is money on a vacation, and missed flights can be expensive, too. So avoid a common mishap among Panama City tourists bound for the airport. Be certain your taxi driver understands which of the city's airports is your final destination. Tocumen Airport (PTY) is large and serves international routes. Albrook Airport (PAC), a former U.S. air base, is smaller and serves routes to other destinations in Panama. They are on opposite sides of the city. Confusion can cost quite a bit of time.