If you’re in Panama City, it’s easy to get by on just English. The more urban the area, the more English that is spoken. Panama is a Spanish-speaking country, so the formal language is Spanish.
Being in Panama and not knowing Spanish is just like being in Arizona and having people working for me there who have been in the United States for 25 years but didn’t speak English. To me, that’s an atrocity. My Spanish isn’t great, but it’s certainly serviceable, and I get by pretty well. I don’t speak it correctly or conjugate perfectly, but it’s important that you speak the native language.
In general, people here in Panama don’t really mind that you’re butchering their language. They are actually happy that you’re trying, and it’s a real door opener. They’ll tell you, “Wow, you speak Spanish, so you’re not a gringo.”
The closest area for a large city where I live is David. David has an international airport, etc. I go to David for certain things. Invariably, if you go up from David, you’ll see Boquete on one side of the mountain, and Volcán on the other side . If you go further for another 25-30 minutes, you’ll reach the Costa Rican border.
I went into a store in David, and since I’m obviously a gringo at 6’2” tall with white hair, the locals said, “Ah, you live in Boquete.” I told them I didn’t live in Boquete, and that not every gringo lives in Boquete. I told them, “I’m a Panamanian. I grow plantains and bananas, and I have pigs.” And they said, “Great! You’re not a foreigner. You’re one of us.”
It makes a world of difference if you can stumble through some Spanish and break that stereotype in which everybody thinks that every person who lives in this area who’s white lives in a gated community in Boquete and has servants. I’m not that kind of person and I don’t want to be a part of that stereotype. That stereotype is really not well received here in Panama, and if you can get out of that stereotype and be one of the locals, your life will get so much easier.
(Organic garden of Finca Cazador, near Volcan, Panama, pictured.)