Six Ways We Prepared for Panama

Our trip to Panama was a success, though there were some things that could have been better. Some of those things were entirely out of our control, for example, the traffic in Panama City. There is not much to do about that other than plan to avoid it. Planning is what it is all about, though we are not the type to plan out every aspect of a trip. Still, we did some things right and here they are.

Brushed Up on Our Spanish

Okay, maybe “brushed up” is a bit of an embellishment because we didn’t have much to start. I didn’t want to spend any money on a language course, so I chose to learn via podcast and settled on “Coffee Break Spanish” from the Radio Lingua Network. My approach was to utilize their podcast via iTunes, but they do have course materials to complement the audio. If you really want to attain a good level of fluency, I’m sure the course materials would be of great help.

One thing about “Coffee Break Spanish” to note, however, is that it teaches Castilian Spanish. In other words, it’s the Spanish you’d hear in Spain. This makes perfect sense when you factor that the course instructor, Mark Pentleton, is Scottish and the nearest place to speak Spanish is actually Spain. By and large, if you cut out the Castilian lisp, nearly everything else is the same when it comes to Latin American Spanish, and Mark points out some differences during the podcast. It was a great resource.

Michael and Amy enjoying the sandbar in the San Blas Islands.

We traveled to Puerto Rico last summer and it is easy to get by using only English. Still, we had a situation there where I needed to communicate with two Spanish-only speakers. We ended up using Google Translate to talk. I did this once in Panama as well, so don’t forget your phone!

It was rare in Panama to encounter someone with English fluency and, contrasting it with Puerto Rico, that makes sense. Personally, getting through the language barrier was one of the most fulfilling aspects of the trip and I am going to make every effort to keep practicing my Spanish skills. I’m still fairly limited to “Español Practical” as one store clerk put it, but got into some pretty good conversations with a guide and others. It was fun.

That leads to an important second piece of preparation. It’s closely related and no less important.

Found an Easy-to-Use Phrasebook

We happened upon Lonely Planet’s “Fast Talk Latin American Spanish” at the book store. It is not a Spanish-English dictionary, that won’t be near as useful. Lonely Planet organized the book according to expected activities, such as “Airport & Transport” and “Sightseeing.” This makes it easy to find what you need. It is also easy to prepare for a conversation where you know what things you need to ask about.

But you have to understand the answers given as well. The verbiage is often similar between questions and answers, and the phrasebook is helpful that way as well. With the podcasts and this book in tow, I felt more than comfortable saying, “Habla un poco Español.

Did Our Homework

There are many ways to research a trip. In this case, we spent considerable time examining the guidebook. We purchased a guide from Moon Handbooks. It had plenty of good information, but was slightly dated. In several instances, the book talked about how inexpensive everything is, particularly food. I’m certain that was true when it was published in 2011, but not anymore. Despite this one drawback, the guide was an excellent source of information on all of the sites we visited.

On the Panama Canal.

Amy contacted some existing companies through the guidebook’s information and recommendations. She did this all via e-mail. She organized our day trip to the San Blas Islands, and, later, while in Panama, managed our adventure to the Gamboa Forest and boat trip on the Panama Canal.

While she worked on those things, I rented a car and arranged accommodations. We stayed on both coasts and the owner of the house we rented on the Caribbean side was also an excellent source of information. He gave us detailed expectations of what we encountered, though we still found a surprise or two.

The short of it is we largely knew what to expect and that’s important, particularly when faced with conditions that may be outside of your life experience.

Involved the Family

Our daughter Molly takes horseback riding lessons and more than anything wanted to go riding in Panama. We found a place that seemed to be ideal: El Valle de Anton, or the Anton Valley. We probably wouldn’t have driven up there without Molly’s input and it was one of the richest experiences we had.

Molly blends with the scenery at the Nispero Zoo, Valle de Anton.

Molly and Amy rode the horses, we visited a butterfly sanctuary, a zoo with a stunning amount of animal life, went to an open air market, and ate what Amy said was “the best pizza I’ve ever had.” All this in a small town set within an ancient, extinct volcano. It is a beautiful setting and I thought it was a similar feeling to being in the Alps.

The point is we made a good choice because Molly was involved. She got more out of it as well, proudly repeating something we had said, “I’m pretty much the horse-riding expert of the family.” If anything draws us back to Panama, it will be the chance to visit El Valle de Anton again.

Learned the Lay of the Land

Depending on your mobile carrier, you may find it prohibitive to pay the costs of operating your phone in international territory. Our journey to Puerto Rico was within the domestic service area of our provider, so this was our first time dealing with this issue.

We were pleased with the arrangement our carrier had for international travel, which essentially amounted to billing in 24-hour increments when the phone was used. Still, we didn’t want to go overboard on costs and tried to keep the phone on airplane mode as much as possible.

This is where knowing a bit of the geography helped. Prior to leaving for Panama, we looked at the maps and saw where we were going, what roads we’d take to get there, and had a rough idea of the time it would take. As it turned out, our guesses on time were very rough.

When we did use the phone, Waze was the best navigation app to use. It had more reliable information on usable roads than Google Maps, which had particular trouble with accuracy in Panama City. Our Caribbean host also clued us in to this and it was important. We put a lot of kilometers on our rental car.

Prepared to Document Our Adventure

Finally, one other way I prepared was a course in basic photography. My big gift this past Christmas was a YI M1 mirrorless camera, capable of taking high-quality digital photos. Well, I didn’t want to have this great camera and not be able to get the most out of it, so I took a course through a local camera store chain.

A Geoffory’s Tamarin eats a banana we provided.

This paid off in many ways. First, the main reason for the trip was research for our book series, Molly and the Magic Suitcase. Improving my photography skills meant I could help Amy find interesting visuals for eventual illustrations. We wouldn’t have to rely on the photos of others to form our impressions.

More important was to recognize the unique visuals a place presents. Panama has wildlife we never encounter here, a terrain that somewhat resembles the California coast, and that oh-so-beautiful turquoise water in areas on the Caribbean coast. There are many, many wonderful photographic opportunities no matter where you go and a little preparation provides richer memories long after your return home. In all, I took more than 1,200 photos.


Those are a few things that made our trip better. We couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out. Wherever you decide to go, apply these ideas generally. It can be the difference between sightseeing and getting to know a place.

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