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2 years, 3 months
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Up to 12 months
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Living Conditions in Panama

Communications

Mail

As mail and packages can take more than a month to arrive, Trainees are not allowed to receive mail during pre-service training.

Once you have been assigned to a site and sworn in as a Volunteer, you can send your address to friends and family.

Telephones

Volunteers should arrive in Panamá with an unlocked cell phone that does not have a US phone plan and can accept a SIM card (not eSIM). Otherwise, cell phones are widely available and reasonably priced in Panamá. Feature phones start at around $20, and basic smart phones at around $90.
Peace Corps Panamá will provide all Volunteers with a physical SIM card (not eSIM) to facilitate communication. Please be aware that some newer phone models, such as the latest iPhones, have the most issues connecting to local networks. International phone service to and from Panamá is good.

Internet

Internet access in Panamá is spreading rapidly, particularly through smartphones. Some communities have some access to Wi-Fi at the local school or “info plaza”; the Peace Corps office also has Wi-Fi for you to access the Internet. You can also arrange a personal data plan on your smartphone to access Panamá’s LTE network. There are also public hotspots in urban public spaces and many businesses, however, they are not secure connections. Should you choose to bring electronics, it is your responsibility to maintain and insure them.

Housing and site location

It is Peace Corps policy that Volunteers live modestly by the standards of the people they serve, yet not in a manner that would endanger their health or safety. Therefore, like most Panamanians, Volunteers live in simple concrete block houses with cement floors and corrugated tin roofs or wooden huts with dirt floors and palm thatch roofs, depending on the location of their site. Some Volunteers will begin their service living with a host family in their community and others will move directly into a rental home. If you live with a host family, you may move to a rental home after your first three months. Sometimes traveling to and from your community may require a 30–45-minute walk. Most houses in urban and highly populated areas have running water inside or near the house. In some cases, it is necessary to boil water and add chlorine to make it safe to drink. In some rural sites, and in many indigenous communities, water must be obtained from springs or streams. Many homes have a simple pit latrine. Electricity varies depending on the site, but the current is 110 volts, 60 cycles AC (same as the standard in the United States). You must be flexible in your housing and site expectations, and willing to adapt to the challenges that come with living in a new community and culture.

Living allowance and money management

Volunteers receive a monthly allowance in local currency—Balboa— (U.S. dollars are used in Panamá as well). The allowance covers food, housing, household supplies, clothing, transportation to and from work, utilities, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses. Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to live at a level that is comparable with that of their host country counterparts. The Peace Corps discourages Volunteers from supplementing their living allowance with funds from home. During your first 10 weeks in Panamá, you will receive a weekly allowance to cover the limited costs you will incur in your training community. By the time you finish training and are sworn in as a Volunteer, Peace Corps Panamá will open a bank account for you and deposit your monthly living allowance into this account. Note that while Panamá is inexpensive relative to the United States, it is expensive compared with many of its Central American neighbors. Prices in Panama City are comparable to those in the United States.

Food and diet

The Panamanian diet varies according to the region and the ethnic makeup of the population but most often consists of rice, beans, bananas, or plantains, yuca (cassava), and corn. Rice and beans (kidney beans, lentils, black-eyed peas) is the staple dish. Corn is usually ground, boiled, or fried. Sancocho is a traditional dish (somewhere between a soup and a stew) prepared with a variety of vegetables and chicken. An array of fruits is available, including mangoes, papayas, pineapples, avocados, oranges, and guanabanas (soursops). The availability of garden vegetables varies according to the region and the season. Many Volunteers start a garden to supplement what they find in food stores. The most common meats are chicken and beef, which are often deep-fried or stewed. Most larger towns and cities have at least one restaurant that will be familiar, such as McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, or Dairy Queen. Most also have supermarkets where you can buy a wide variety of foods and imported goods. Few rural Panamanians follow strict vegan or vegetarian diets. Volunteers wishing to maintain a specific diet will need to be proactive about finding foods that fulfill their dietary needs and communicating their needs in a culturally sensitive manner. A strict vegan diet may be difficult to maintain.

Transportation

Most sites are served by regular public transportation, but Volunteers assigned to indigenous or very rural communities may also travel by chiva (minibus or truck), or foot. Chiva transportation is generally reliable in the dry season but may be more limited in the rainy season. When muddy road conditions limit access by chiva, some Volunteers may have to walk for 30-45 minutes to get to their communities. For recreational travel, bus service is available from Panama City to almost all domestic destinations and places to the north through Costa Rica. However, no roads pass south from Panamá to Colombia due to the heavily forested Darien Gap. Tourist destinations in Panamá that are not reachable by bus are accessible by plane. International flights leave from Panama City and David.

Social activities

Common daily activities in Panama vary depending on the size and cultural makeup of the community, as well as distance from larger cities. During the school year (March – November) many children attend school on weekday mornings. Adults in the community will work, whether in their fields, in the home, in a small tienda or other income generating activity. Visting neighbors (paseando) is a common weekday activity with an opportunity to say hello and catch up with the latest tales and stories.

On the weekends, the social activities generally increase with popular activities including dances (bailes) with traditional típico music or other styles; a Bingo game to raise money for a community project or a fair (feria) with vendors, games, dances, and shows. Larger towns periodically invite bands to play and gather over two or three days to watch a bullfight or cantandera (a freestyle singing battle) and reconvene at night for a dance. A common way to bring the community together in rural communities is a junta in which people complete an activity such as building a bamboo house or harvesting rice. Food and drinks are provided for the participants, and festivities can last well into the night.

Probably the most popular date on every Panamanian calendar is Carnaval, in February or March, and fiestas patrias (the national holidays) in November.

While Volunteers are encouraged to spend most of their time in their communities, working and socializing with Panamanians, it is also important to explore and appreciate all that Panama has to offer. Beautiful beaches are plentiful, and outdoor activities are available almost everywhere. When visiting larger regional capital cities, including Panama City, Volunteers have numerous opportunities for diversion, such as movie theaters, coffee bars, restaurants, public basketball courts, and dance clubs.

Professionalism, dress, and behavior

Professionalism in the Peace Corps requires an awareness of the host community workplace culture, community values, and your self-presentation. To maintain a positive, culturally appropriate professional standing within a host community or workplace, Volunteers may need to adjust their style of dress, hair style, facial hair, make-up, piercings, manner of greeting others, etc. to demonstrate respect for local culture and customs. How you present yourself, in both informal and professional settings, reflects you as an individual and of you as a representative of Peace Corps and the United States. In the U.S., dress (and other elements of personal appearance) may be seen as an expression of personal freedom and identity. In many host countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, the way you dress and present yourself may be interpreted as an expression of regard – or disregard – for those host community members around you.

Volunteers are encouraged to spend time in their communities, to develop their language skills, and to get to know the individual members of their community to better understand their traditions, culture, and local norms. As mutual trust is established over time, there may be opportunities for Volunteers to adjust their personal appearance and dress outside of the local standards. Volunteers are encouraged to discuss these potential adjustments with staff and other cultural mentors.

When it comes to appearance, in Peace Corps Panama, Volunteers are expected to:

  • Maintain a high level of personal hygiene, being especially aware of what may be needed to control body odor.
  • Maintain hair, beards, and mustaches to be clean, neat, and well-groomed.
  • Wear clothing and shoes that are clean and in good condition, without large holes or tears.

To participate fully in professional contexts, Volunteers are recommended to cover tattoos and/or remove earrings or piercings (except those in the earlobe). This especially applies to work environments in ministries, churches, schools, embassies, agencies, and the community where these may be viewed as inappropriate.

Further dress code and personal appearance guidelines will be shared during onboarding and orientation.