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.
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 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.
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.
The most popular social activities in Latino areas usually are dances (bailes) with traditional típico music. Larger towns periodically invite bands to play and gather over two or three days to watch a bullfight or cantadera (a freestyle singing battle) and reconvene at night for a dance. A common way to bring the community together in rural sites 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. In Afro-Antillean areas, dances are also popular, though the styles of music are much more diverse. Probably the most popular date on every Panamanian calendar is Carnaval. Spontaneous gatherings at people’s homes are probably the most common activity. Volunteers are encouraged to spend most of their time in their communities, working and socializing with Panamanians. The Peace Corps attempts to place Volunteers near one another for technical and emotional support. Beautiful beaches are plentiful, and outdoor activities are available almost everywhere. When visiting 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
Wearing proper attire in Panamá helps establish your professional credibility and reflects your respect for the customs and lifestyles of the people with whom you live and work. Dress is less formal in rural areas than in the capital, but it is important to remember that you are a representative of the United States. When doing physical labor, you will need sturdy shoes and clothes that protect you from scratches and insect bites. Shorts may not be worn in professional settings, including the Peace Corps office. While dressy sandals for women are appropriate, men should not wear sandals during professional or formal occasions, in accordance with local custom. Flip-flops should generally not be worn outside the home. Because of Panamanians’ views of tattoos and body piercings, keeping any tattoos and piercings out of sight will allow you to establish host family and counterpart relationships more easily (earrings for women are OK). Men with long hair may be met with suspicion, so it is advisable for male Volunteers to keep their hair relatively short. As a result of the previous U.S. military presence in Panamá, camouflage and military-style apparel are not acceptable and should not be brought in-country.