One funny thing that happened in Panama was how we learned about the local currency. Upon entering the country, you have to purchase a tourist visa (which is a very official-looking piece of paper that no one ever needs to see – it’s just an excuse to get five bucks out of each visitor). Anyway, on the visa it says that it costs 5 dollars or 5 balboas. So I say, “Oh, so the US dollar and Panamanian balboa are at parity.” A little while later, we ask the taxi driver about Panamanian currency, and he says “We use the US dollar.” And we say, “What do you mean? What about the balboa?” and he laughs like crazy and says “That’s just what we call it!” So balboa is basically the Panamanian word for the dollar, though there are Panamanian quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies – they look just like the American ones, except they are stamped (engraved?) differently.
For our third and final Costa Rica visa renewal,* my husband and I went to Panama City for 4 days. Our immediate impression was that it was a lot like Costa Rica, except much, much cheaper. The weather is similar, beaches are similar – although of course Panama has much higher ratio of coastline to inland. Costa Rica is so touristed that prices keep going up, but I guess Panama doesn’t get as many visitors, other than to the canal.
Speaking of which, we did the partial canal cruise – I would have liked to do the full, but it’s only offered twice a month by every single company I checked with, and all pretty much the same days. It’s just as well, as the half day was more than enough. To be honest, I wasn’t all that impressed by the canal. Yes, it’s huge and an amazing feat of engineering and the locks are tremendous, but, well, it’s just not that exciting, you know?
*Upon entering Costa Rica, Americans (I don’t know what it’s like for citizens of other countries) get a stamp in your passport that allows you to stay for three months. You have to leave the country for at least 72 hours to get it renewed, and apparently there are people that have been doing this over and over for years. The government is cracking down a bit though – they say that they start looking at you a little suspiciously the third time you leave and return, but we didn’t have any trouble.