Life in Bocas del Toro: Dollars and Sense

Read Article 1: Life in Bocas del Toro: Defining Paradise
Read Article 2: Life in Bocas del Toro: What Price Paradise?
Read Article 3: Life in Bocas del Toro: The Panama Journey Within

A few years ago I was invited to join some friends on a trip to explore the Panama Canal. I love Panama but I’m just not excited by “Looking”. I’m a “Doing” girl. Sure I get it that the Canal is a “Seven Wonders” thing but I don’t even get excited at a fireworks display. Get me a nice cool glass of wine, a good dance partner and some great music where I feel like “Dancing with the Stars”; now that’s exciting. But I’m always up for adventure, so after a short ride from Panama City I found myself in a grandstand overlooking some of the canal locks. I have to admit, it was impressive watching how they managed getting a huge ship through the series of locks and water gates. I was “Dancing with the Ships” and I can certainly appreciate the magnitude of the project more fully now. It is completely understandable that one of the things giving Panama world-wide notoriety is the Panama Canal. I recommend seeing the canal close up at least once as part of your Panama Experience.

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal”, by David McCullough is a fascinating story about the construction of this engineering marvel and is a good read for anybody.

The building of the Panama Canal is one reason why, if English is your first language, it is easy to travel and live in Panama and the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro with little or no knowledge of the Spanish language. Another reason that English is spoken by many of the inhabitants of Bocas del Toro is because huge banana and cacao plantations were operated on the islands and surrounding mainland by US companies in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

These US American connections are also contributing factors as to why this country uses the US dollar as its primary currency. Although Panama does have its own legal currency, the Balboa, it is standardized to be equal to the value of the dollar so only the coins are minted in Panama. For convenience, these exactly match the US coins in size weight and value so everything is interchangeable in Panama. The only difference is the fifty-cent piece and the dollar coin which both are distantly Panamanian Balboa. Bottom line is that I truly enjoy not having to deal with an exchange rate every time I do any transactions while living and traveling throughout Panama.

So what to expect in while shopping or visiting in Panama and especially in Bocas del Toro? Well, as always, cash is King. Expect to make most of your daily transactions with cash. That does not mean that it is smart to carry large amounts of cash on you at all times. Carry only what you think you need for the day and certainly never drag out large wads of cash in public. Common sense prevails here as it does any other place on the planet. Many places in the larger cities take your US credit cards. However, check with your bank at home before you leave to see if they charge “overseas” transaction fees. It is a good idea as well to alert them that you will be traveling so your account will not be flagged when an unusual charge from a foreign country tries to process. You will probably be using your card at ATM machines to get more cash so alert them to that possibility and the dates you expect to be in the country. As a word of advice, if you plan to use the ATM to get cash in Bocas del Toro, be aware that there is only one bank with only two ATM machines. During certain times, the lines can get long and the machines often run low on cash so try to be early and plan ahead.

As a traveler, you are allowed to carry up to $10,000 dollars on or person or in your luggage. Anything larger, you must declare and be prepared to defend your legitimate and legal intentions. Wiring money back and forth is easy and straight-forward with the same rules applying. Nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine is a good number to remember.

The United States is the only country in the world that taxes income made in a foreign country by a citizen of the country. The good news is that there are exemptions and in some cases incentives for Foreign Investments in Panama. Always check with your tax expert and make sure they are up-to-date on tax laws both foreign and domestic and are comfortable helping make certain you are in compliance if you intend to have a business in Panama.

For awhile, the pressure on the international banking industry from the US banks and regulatory agencies made it difficult if not impossible to open a bank account in Panama as a foreign national. Now that clear rules have been established, it is relatively easy to set up a bank account in Panama. However, it is not a one day, one hour process like in the US. It is best to check with the bank where you want to establish an account as to exactly what their requirements are and get a list to that effect. You will probably need a couple of US bank references where your bankers will verify your history as a customer. In most cases, you will also need a letter of reference from a Panamanian citizen that you can present to the Panamanian banker. Everything must initially be done in person. Plan on three to four weeks to have everything in place.


Once established, a bank account differs little from the US model. It becomes a tool of convenience when you can manage your account online and have a debit card that is recognized and generally accepted throughout the county.

Ok, Ok, enough about serious stuff for now. Let’s talk about some of the fun things to do in Panama like fishing, surfing, and beach hoping, bar hoping, music and holidays. Enjoy beautiful and exotic wildlife? Panama is for you! Stay tuned, I will be back with more about the alluring island life of Bocas del Toro.

Article by: Anne Michelle Wand, United Country Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro Travel News Living in Bocas del Toro

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