I want to learn Spanish before beginning a long-term trip around South America. In an effort to immerse myself, I’ve flown to Panama City as a staging ground. Panama’s canal is the “crossroads of the world” so it seemed like a fitting place to begin my adventures (and to geek out over one of Earth’s engineering marvels).
It’s my first time backpacking and I’ve already had a number of hard-earned lessons. I’m documenting them here for posterity though more experienced travellers will likely find some things redundant.
Image from the Hostel Los Mostros website.
All of the staff are incredibly friendly and always willing to help out if you have questions. They're constantly cleaning everything, with seemingly 3x daily mopping of the floors and regular sweeping of the pool. Everyone in the staff seems equally invested in Los Mostros which makes for a really warm feeling to the place.
I've been staying at Los Mostros for about a week now, with another week extended ahead of me. The travellers that come through have mostly been from Europe or South America so far and nearly all are remarkably friendly. Given that I don't speak Spanish there are a few travellers that I can't connect with that well, but I'm working on it.
The one downside that I can think of is that it does get abnormally warm during the day due to the lack of breezes into the property, but this is more of a reflection on the weather in Panama than anything else.
During my stay in Panama City I've focused my Spanish studies completely on playing Duolingo as an experiment. Overall I'll say that it has certainly helped me to build my vocabulary, but the priorities that Duolingo has seem somewhat misguided for gaining practical Spanish abilities.
For example, I've learned over 500 words now but have yet to get to a lesson that teaches numbers, something that I've needed more than a few times so far (cabs, food, hotels). My comprehension of the language has certainly gone up, though, and I've been able to start asking basic questions and understand a few responses (gesturing helps).
I'll continue playing Duolingo because it's free and I'm competing with Laurence, but I'll definitely need to supplement it with some proper lessons soon.
What not to do: use the ATMs.
What to do: go inside and speak with a teller directly. Bring your passport.
The first time I tried to take cash ($200) out of an ATM I was surprised to have my transaction seemingly "canceled" right at the last second. Thinking this to be a fluke, I attempted another transaction with the same results. I had notified my bank of my travel plans so my card shouldn't have been getting blocked. After going to another bank and experiencing the same problem I decided to go back to my hostel and figure out what was going on.
Apparently I wasn't the first to experience this problem. Case #1, Case #2. Sure enough, when I checked my Bank of America account transactions I saw three successful withdrawals for $200 each; $600 had evaporated from my bank account.
I called BoA immediately to let them know what had happened and they told me I had to wait for the transactions to process. The next day I checked my account again and the three transactions had "cleared", along with three new $5 "fee" transactions issued by the ATMs. Thankfully after a quick call to BoA they said they'd file a claim and I'd have my money back within 48 hours.
I also attempted to take cash out with my CIBC account. They required a complete cancellation of my card in order to file the fraud report. This definitely wasn't as convenient, so I'd have to wait until I figure out a place where I'll be a few weeks ahead of time.
After talking with BoA I decided to find a bank and try to speak with a teller directly. My ability to speak spanish was non-existent so I used the Google Translate app (which uses Nimbus, by the way!) to translate a bunch of key phrases and save them to my phone.
Inside the bank I was able to tell the teller that mi transacción fue cancelada and ask ¿puedo retirar dinero?, after which they took my passport, asked how much I wanted to take out, and then gave me the cash and a receipt.
What not to do: plug the SIM in and wait.
What to do: connect to the wifi, turn off the phone, replace the SIM, then reboot and re-activate the phone through Apple.
I went to a cell phone shop called Claro's near the Los Mostros hostel to get a SIM card. They were friendly, spoke English, and quickly got me a SIM card to test in my phone. After putting the SIM card in, however, the phone didn't seem to be finding the network. My phone was unlocked so it should have been connecting, but the staff didn't know what the problem was.
Turns out SIM card activation on unlocked phones has to be done through Apple and this requires a wifi connection to the internet. Once we connected to the store's wifi the activation was quick and painless. Learning this required a walk back home, a call to Verizon, and them informing me of the process.
The data plans here give you unlimited data for under $1 a day.