Panama’s currency is the balboa. The balboa’s rate of exchange has always been tied to the dollar, with one dollar equal to one balboa. In fact, Panama does not print paper money, so the U.S. dollar is legal tender in Panama.
Panamanian coins (1-, 5-, 10-, 25-, and 50-cent pieces) are the same size, weight, and color as the U.S. ones and are used interchangeably with them. The only difference is what is printed on the faces; except for the one-centavo coin and special-edition coins, heads is always a portrait of Balboa and tails is always the shield of Panama. The one-centavo coin has Urracá, a fierce indigenous chief who won many battles against the conquistadors. You may see prices quoted with either a “B/” or “$” before them. Both mean the same thing.
Despite Panama’s status as a world banking capital, it’s tough to exchange foreign currencies almost everywhere in Panama. Try to bring only dollars to Panama.
Those who can’t avoid changing money in Panama have only a few options, and most are in Panama City. Changing money at the border is difficult to impossible except at Tocumen International Airport and Paso Canoa, on the Costa Rican border. Even there options are limited.
Banks are generally open 8 a.m.–2 or 3 p.m. Monday–Friday and 9 a.m.–noon Saturday. ATMs are located throughout Panama and are by far the easiest way to access cash; look for red signs that read Sistema Clave. Some find service at the state-run Banco Nacional de Panamá (BNP) to be slower and more bureaucratic than at private banks, but BNP is sometimes the only option in more remote areas.
Panama’s extensive financial services sector is focused on offshore banking, not serving short-term visitors. Try not to get involved with bank transfers and such during your stay, as it’ll most likely be an expensive exercise in bureaucratic frustration. For those who must wire money to or from Panama, the best option is to use Western Union or Moneygram, which have many outlets throughout the country.
Travelers checks are difficult to cash in Panama. Merchants are reluctant to accept them since banks treat them as foreign checks and put a 45-day hold on them before the merchants’ accounts get credited. Travelers checks are generally more nuisance than they are worth. Often banks are the only place to cash them, and some banks have begun to refuse them. Trying to cash anything other than American Express checks is even more difficult. Given the ubiquity of ATMs, it’s better to rely on cash cards than travelers checks in Panama. It’s still a good idea, however, to bring some travelers checks as a backup, or as way to prove economic solvency when crossing borders.
Credit cards are widely accepted in the cities, especially in the more upscale hotels and restaurants and most stores of any size. Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted. Other cards can generally only be used in the most cosmopolitan establishments, such as five-star hotels. Simpler hotels and restaurants are often cash only, as are most personal services (taxis, tour guides, small outfitters, etc).
The farther away one gets from an urban center, the less likely it is credit cards will be accepted. Bring lots of small bills to more remote parts of Panama, such as the Comarca de Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands), where credit cards are not accepted and larger denominations are hard to break. Casinos can be a good place to break larger bills. Some businesses in Bocas del Toro still impose a surcharge on credit-card purchases; ask ahead of time.
Taxes and Tipping
A 10 percent tourism tax is added to hotel room bills. Room prices quoted in this book include the tax unless specified. Panama sales tax is 7 percent. The airport departure tax for those leaving the country is US$40; it is now generally included in the price of the air ticket.
It’s customary to tip 10 percent in restaurants. Bellhops, porters, and others who perform special services should be tipped. How much to tip depends on the service and the discretion of the tipper. Anywhere from US$0.25 to US$1 should do it for minor services. Porters at the international airport expect a buck a bag. Taxi drivers do not expect a tip.
In rural areas, park rangers and other workers sometimes provide guide services, cook food, tote luggage, etc., for campers and hikers. It’s good karma to tip at least US$5 a day for these services on top of the camping or transportation fees.
Bargaining and Discounts
Haggling is not the norm in Panama. It’s sometimes possible to get a slight break on major purchases, such as expensive electronics, or on handicrafts, such as molas (blouses), but don’t expect much. Crafts sellers will sometimes start out with an inflated price but they quickly come down to a firm offer and are unlikely to budge.
It’s always worth asking if there’s some kind of descuento (discount), though. There may be a price break for buying more than one item; those willing to buy two or more molas, for instance, can sometimes get a break.
Senior and student discounts are generally only available to Panamanians and resident expatriates, not visitors. In fact, in some places, such as the national parks, there is a two-tier system of fees, with foreigners expected to pay more than residents. It may be possible to get a student or senior discount at museums and the like, though the entrance fee is usually so small to begin with it’s probably not worth bothering with.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition