Language & Currency in Panama City and Bocas del Toro
Spanish is all you need to know, although the Native Panamanians have their own dialect. If you are in cities that are common tourist destinations like Panama City or the Bocas region, most people speak enough English for you to get by, but I wouldn’t count on it.
The U.S. dollar and the Panamanian Balboa are used interchangeably, although the only paper money you’ll find is the U.S. dollar. Panamanian banks will often store funds in Balboas and dispense an equivalent dollar amount upon ATM withdrawal. Bocas is primarily run on a cash-only system.
A Word on the ATM’s in Bocas del Toro
Keep in mind that not all Panamanian ATM’s are what they seem. Many ATM’s will run your card, tell you the transaction did not go through, and ask you to swipe again. The second transaction will go through without a problem, and you’ll have the money you requested. Save the receipt, because this typically means that the amount you first requested to withdraw is now sitting in the bank account of a very savvy hacker.
In addition, some ATMs will copy your card information and access your account while you enter your information into the ATM. Again, save every receipt.
Considering that each ATM transaction requires a foreign currency fee and an ATM fee, tourists tend to remove large quantities of cash each time they use an ATM. I think it goes without saying that you want to avoid this if at all possible. Establish with a U.S. credit card or bank that does not charge foreign transaction fees and will reimburse any ATM fees you accrue. Chase Sapphire has a brilliant overseas travel policy, and Charles Schwab also does a great job at protecting your money overseas. Both these companies watch carefully for double-transaction thieves like the one discussed above, and they will often put a hold on one of the transactions until they can confirm with you that it was legitimate. They have always reimbursed us for every cent we were charged in foreign ATM fees, allowing us to save some serious cash. We’ve never lost money from an overseas ATM with either of those companies and are reimbursed, no questions asked, when double charged. I can’t say enough good things about how easy it’s made traveling, and it also allows you to withdraw small amounts of cash at a time, preventing you from becoming easy prey.
I understand that you’re probably wondering why tourists don’t just go straight to a bank teller and request funds in person. That’s a fantastic question with a very frustrating answer. You can’t. We don’t know why. When in Bocas del Toro, we were trying our best to avoid an ATM, but ran out of cash after forgetting to bring extra for a 4-wheeler rental deposit. When we arrived at the bank, an armed guard told us in no uncertain terms that we would not be accessing the bank and to use the ATM on the side of the building. We had no problem with the banks in Panama City, only in Bocas. Just keep your receipts and you’ll be fine.