I don’t pretend to be a technology expert. In fact, quite often I’m the complete opposite. I was in no rush to go from the tired old flip phone to a Blackberry and was even slower getting to the Smart Phone. I was eventually bitten by that pesky little modern tech bug, and I’m ready to finally admit that not only am I a fan, I’m hooked on these apps. When so much of your life is a big question mark, anything that simplifies things a bit is greatly appreciated.
Back in the days, people would come to Panama with hand drawn maps (seriously, I met an expat couple who’d done this) or venture out of Panama City only with an English-speaking guide.
Now, through the invention of so many phone applications, things like dealing with the dreaded language barrier, finding a ride, communicating with people back home, and even finding out what’s playing in English at the closest movie theater are super easy. All that info and more is available with the push of a button. I want to show you 15 FREE phone apps that could make your life much easier here in Panama.
Some people reading this will be very familiar with some of the apps mentioned in this article, while some will discover something new. Many people reading this may not be comfortable with new technology at all and find Smart Phones to be an alien universe. I’m here to tell you that you will be blown away by how easy it is to download and use these apps and you’ll be just as surprised by how necessary you’ll start to believe them to be.
And getting data on your phone is not nearly as expensive as you’d think here in Panama. I paid over $100 per month back in Ohio, and that was only for some talk time…SOME talk time, plus my minute count ticked away with incoming calls too (that doesn’t happen here, only outgoing calls eat up your talk time).
In Panama, you have many phone options, which should probably be discussed more in a different article, but you might pay as little as $10 per month for data. If you switch to WiFi whenever you’re in a hot spot, you can use all the data you want…for free.
Alright, let’s get to these apps. I didn’t put Google Translate or Google Maps on the list because I think they’re kind of a given and are automatically included on a lot of Smart Phones. Both of those apps do work great.
In addition to the ones that’ll help you out here in Panama, I’ll also throw in a few extra apps that I just appreciate. So really I’ll be telling you about 20 or so different apps.
I’ve mentioned Whatsapp several times on Panama For Real because it truly is a way of life here in Panama. Without Whatsapp, communication as we know it would be lost. Ok, maybe it’s not that drastic, but even with other social media apps available, Whatsapp is still the most widely used in Panama.
What is Whatsapp? It’s an application you download for free (actually I think you pay a one-time $1 fee). Whatsapp then allows you to chat for free (as long as you have a data plan from your cell phone provider or are in a WiFi ready area) with people in your phone address book/contact list who’ve also downloaded the Whatsapp app.
I text message my mom and brother in San Diego, my other brother on the east coast of the U.S., and everyone here in Panama. It makes communicating with friends and loved ones easier than you ever thought imaginable. You can also record little voice messages and send them along, so if I don’t feel like typing, I can hold down the microphone button and send a message from my kids to Grandma Jackie in San Diego in seconds. It’s amazing.
For anyone wanting to take it a step further, Glide works in pretty much the same way Whatsapp does, by accessing people in your contact list who’ve also downloaded the Glide app. With Glide, it’s not just text messaging and voice messaging. Glide allows you to record video messages and send them to whoever’s on the receiving end.
Remember being a kid and seeing movies where people had video discussions? I remember seeing Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future 2 arguing with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ character, Needles, through a wall-mounted TV screen. Isn’t it crazy to think that future has arrived? Well, kind of. I’m still waiting to be able to toss a tiny frozen pizza into a microwave and chow down on a gigantic pie only seconds later.
Anyway, through apps like Glide (and Skype and a few others), video chatting is a great way to talk face to face with your kids back in Tampa or your grandkids in Dallas or your long-distance relationship in Honolulu.
One thing that takes some getting used to in Panama, as least for those moving from the U.S., is the switch over to the metric system. If moving from the U.S., you won’t have an issue with currency conversion since Panama uses the U.S. dollar interchangeably with the Panama balboa (anyone else might need to use the currency converter in the app), but you’ll need to get used to using the metric system and dealing in measurements you’re not so familiar with.
You can still get by using pounds at the deli or butcher, at least for now, but most meats are listed in price per kilogram. Gasoline is sold by the liter, your car gauge will probably list kilometers per hour, and your AC unit will more than likely read back the temperature in Celsius.
For these reasons, a good conversion app can really come in handy. I have the app called Conversion installed on my phone and it works great for me. If you simply type in the word Conversion in the Google Play store you should find the one I’m using. Plenty of other conversion apps are available though, so find the one that works best for you.
With the one I’m using, you can choose whether you’d like to deal with length/distance, mass/weight, temperature, currency, volume, fuel consumption rate, area, speed, or torque. Then you punch in the measurement you’re familiar with and see what it equals out to in the measurement you’re trying to figure out. It’s super simple and convenient.
You can get by in some areas of Panama, especially here in Panama City, by only speaking English, but at some point, it will be a good idea for you to learn Spanish. I’m still learning the language. I’ve played around with Rosetta Stone and some of the other programs, but I like Duolingo because it’s more like a social media/game app that teaches you Spanish (or whatever language you’re wanting to learn).
It’s free and sends you daily reminder emails to ensure you keep up with your lessons. It’s a lot of fun and from what I’ve seen so far, it does a good job of teaching the basics.
I’m a movie buff and with 4 kids it seems I’m always checking online to find out what movies are playing, where they’re playing, when they’re playing, and whether they’re playing in English. Before downloading this app, I’d always search my phone’s Internet for a theater by name, then go through the motions of getting to the list of movies and show times, only to find out the movie I wanted to see wasn’t playing in English or was only playing in 3D (I’m not a big fan of 3D movies—they give me headaches).
This service may not be as low-cost as it would be to stick out your thumb and grab a passing taxi, but from what I’ve heard it’s a lot more reliable and probably a lot safer. I’ve never personally used TuChofer, but I’ve seen it mentioned in online forums and I do have it downloaded on my phone.
It basically uses GPS to pinpoint your position, then lets you choose whether you’d like a sedan, an SUV, or whatever’s available to pick you up. Looking at my phone right now, from El Cangrejo, it’s telling me the cost is $1.50 at the start, plus $.80 per kilometer/$.25 per minute.
I started using GPS years ago when I needed to learn my way around Chicago and I got so hooked on that device in my car that I’d use it everywhere I went, even to find the nearest Walmart or Long John Silvers. My only complaint with GPS was the fact that it showed me the most direct route to these places, but not always the safest—nothing like driving a family mini-van full of your kids through a very dangerous slum in Chicago.
When I moved to Panama, I was told by employees at several different stores in several different malls that my GPS system could be switched over to work in Panama. I didn’t do it because at that time, I didn’t trust that spending the $100 would be worth it. I didn’t believe a device could show me how to get around Panama. I mean this is a town where most driving directions consist of making turns at certain mini-supers, looking out for giant mango trees, and parking next to the giant rock. These are the types of references you might hear if asking where to go to pick up a date.
Five years later, through the Waze app, everyone in Panama is using GPS. I used mine for the first time recently, when trying to get to an extreme adventure park in Colon (if you haven’t seen the video, check it out HERE). I asked my brother-in-law for directions to the park and he said, “Dude, just trust Waze.”
The problem was, I didn’t trust Waze. Reluctantly, I downloaded it and gave it a try (after getting lost first because I refused to try it in the first place). Within seconds of downloading the app, it zeroed in on my location and led me straight to the park. I’m a big fan now.
Waze can also tell you where there is major traffic or an accident you need to avoid, by allowing users to mark maps and warn other users. That’s pretty cool.
I mention Magic Jack all the time in my budget breakdowns, because it’s a super affordable way to keep in contact with your friends and family members in the U.S. or in Canada or anywhere else in the world if the person is also hooked up to Magic Jack.
Magic Jack lets you pick a U.S. or Canadian phone number, and through your Internet, you can set up a phone that will allow people to call you at that number. So, in essence, you could be living in Brazil with a Magic Jack set up with a Miami phone number and call a buddy living in China with the same set up.
So that was the old news about Magic Jack. Now, Magic Jack is offering a one-year free service for cell phones. So, even if you don’t own an actual Magic Jack device, you can download the app and pick a phone number to use with your cell. Or, if you do already own a device and want to keep the same number, you can do that too. I have the same number installed on a landline and on my cell phone. So, if my dad in Tulsa wants to call me, he dials that Miami number I chose, and it will ring here to my landline phone and my cell phone at the same time.
This is amazing news for expats because you can speak to friends and family members completely free right now (no more phone cards). After the first year, I think the price is going to go up to $7 or $8.
Still, for a year of service, that’s awesome. The only thing you’ll need to keep in mind is the amount of data you’ve paid for on your cell phone plan. Data will be used like with any other app. If you’re hooked up to WiFi (I just bought a router for my house for less than $40), you don’t even have to worry about that as long as you’re in a WiFi hotspot.
As I mentioned earlier, Google Translate works very well here, but if you’re looking for an alternative, iTranslate seems to be one of the best translation apps out there. I found it listed on several “Best Apps” web articles.
Like TuChofer, Easy Taxi zeroes in on your location using your phone’s GPS capabilities, and allows you to order a taxi to come pick you up. It also allows you to manually type in your pick up address.
If you’re out on Calle 50 in the middle of the day, you might not need an app like this as cabs are constantly zipping down the street. However, if you live in a small neighborhood like where I live in the Chanis area, being able to easily order a cab to come pick you up is quite convenient.
During your first trip to Panama, you might be reluctant to get on a bus or on the new Metro train. Plus, both of these means of public transportation require riders to have a pay card before boarding, so you’ll need to set yourself up with one of those cards with pre-loaded funds before you can make use of these convenient systems.
However, once you’re here for a little while, you may find that using the new air-conditioned buses and riding the Metro train are both excellent and quite affordable ways of getting around.
I purposely drop my car at the Pueblo Nuevo station and catch the train anytime I need to get to El Cangrejo for a meeting or to Hospital Nacional. I was in traffic just the other day on Via Transistmica and decided to ditch my car and get out of the thick bumper-to-bumper madness. Ten minutes later I was at my destination. How much did it cost? Thirty-five cents.
I tell you all this, because taking taxis all the time can be a costly, and time-consuming, way of maneuvering around your new city. Click HERE to read my article on using the new Metro train to find out more on the subject.
This app didn’t work for me this morning, the first time I actually depended on it, but others find it very useful so it might’ve just been a fluke or downtime with the system. This is similar to MB Panama, but it tells you how much money you have available on your Corredor Norte and Corredor Sur cards (two of the major toll highways here).
Why is this convenient? Well, unless you have the PanaPass (which is a computerized system that automatically deducts funds from your account through a device placed on your car windshield, and allows you to go through an exclusive, quick pass line) you’ll have to choose from one of two lines at the corredor.
You have to have a card to use the corredor (just like the bus and train system). If you need to reload funds (the minimum amount you can reload with is $5), you’ll have to go through the line that says recarga. This is the slowest lane as each driver in line is recharging their card, which means digging through their wallet for a bill and then waiting for change).
If you’re confident you have funds on your card, you can go through one of the faster lines where you just swipe your card and go on through. You don’t want to make the mistake of going through that line without funds on your card as you’ll tick off every driver behind you and will probably get a ticket from the traffic cops on duty.
I don’t use the corredor very often so when I do, I usually can’t remember if I have money on my card. This app, if it works next time, will allow me to check ahead of time.
Ok, so I lied a little. I guess I have 16 Panama related apps. This one is great, but I’m a little weary about using it.
Basically, Taximetro Panama lets you choose your location and your destination, then you choose how many passengers will be in the cab, and whether or not you’re calling for a taxi (can be a little more expensive) or not (which means you’ll be flagging one down on the street). Then it calculates how much you should pay for your ride.
The reason I’m not 100% comfortable with this app is the costs quoted for rides seem way too low to me. In a lot of places in Panama, Panamanians can get from point A to point B for less than $3. However, getting from where I live in Chanis to Albrook Mall would cost quite a bit. I know I had to argue with several drivers at Albrook one time, drivers who wanted to charge me $15-$20 for the ride. I think I finally talked them down to $10.
According to this app, I should’ve only paid $2.80. That seems very low to me, but if you look at the following link, which lists the price charts for taxis here, http://www.transito.gob.pa/tarifas_taxi.php, it seems the $2.80 is accurate, which means I got ripped off, lol.
Still, even with the chart and this app, I think getting a driver to take you from Albrook to Chanis for $2.80 would be nearly impossible, until the authorities start doing undercover cab busts and enforcing those charts they post.
Quick Tip: If you’re ever at a mall, don’t catch a cab at one of the mall doors. Leave the mall, walk out to a regular street, and take a taxi from there. Drivers at Multiplaza tried to charge me $15 to go a short distance. I walked out to Cincuentenario, one of the main streets in the area, and ended up paying $3.
I’ll stop numbering these now as from this point on I’ll just tell you about apps that I think are useful no matter where you’re living.
You may already have an e-book reader on your phone, but since Amazon’s platform seems to be one of the most widely used, I think it’s pretty cool that there’s a Kindle app for Android (and probably for iPhone too). When I first moved to Panama, I wanted nothing to do with an e-reader device. I loved having an actual book in hand. I still do. But the harsh reality is, it’s not easy finding affordable reading material in English here.
Yes, there are stores that sell books in English and many that sell English-language magazines. However, your selection will be very limited and the cost will be higher than you’re probably wanting to pay. A paperback that might cost $8 on the Costco shelf in the U.S. would probably go for $15 here.
Having a Kindle or Nook or any other e-book reading device means you can shop and immediately read books in an instant. I love sitting on the beach with an actual book in my hand, but Kindle is so convenient that I’m much more likely to download a book and grab my Kindle on the fly. I had mine with me at the Immigration office this morning.
When visiting Panama, or for just living out your daily life, lists can be very handy. I found this app at some technology website a long time ago, and have started to rely on it a lot. Wunderlist is awesome because, unlike the regular phone notepad, it allows you to create lists, put items on your list, and then check them off as you complete them.
I use it for lists of movies I want to see, grocery shopping lists, and daily to-do lists. Keeping up with Panama For Real, especially the pesky site maintenance stuff, is a full-time job, and it’s easy to forget things, so Wunderlist helps a lot. As I complete tasks, I click on them and they move down to a completed tasks area. Then, if I decide that I didn’t quite complete it like I thought, I can tap it again and it’ll move back up into my list. I even used it for Christmas shopping.
Marlene tried it and immediately tossed it to the side because she didn’t like how it makes you sign in using your Facebook or Google account. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me though. It’s kind of the way things are now. Even Pinterest and Amazon and Goodreads ask if you want to log in with your Facebook account.
So, if you have a Panama shopping list or maybe you’re traveling from Panama back to Canada to visit family and you want to put together a list of things to pick up while you’re there (and trust me, live here long enough and you’ll have a list of things you want to bring back with you, like sugar-free Twizzlers. Sorry, that’s on my list, probably not on yours), this app can be helpful.
Have you ever been browsing through Facebook or any other site and saw an article you’d really like to read, but you just didn’t have the time at that moment? This happened to be recently. I saw a Facebook post about a housing development opening up, and I was interested in finding out more, but I was on the go and knew that by the time I got back to Facebook, that article would be buried below everyone else’s posts.
When I got home, I searched and searched and finally figured out who’d posted it in the first place and was able to locate it again. Then, once I clicked on the link and went to the developer’s website, I bookmarked it, which is probably what many of you would do with a web page you like.
Then, I found out about this app called Pocket, which I think is much more convenient. If you ever click on a link and like a page and want to save it, you simply choose to share it on your phone (like when it asks if you want to share it on Facebook or Pinterest or Whatsapp…whatever) and instead of choosing one of those other apps, choose Pocket. It will then save it to a pocket, just like putting money in your pocket for later.
Sometimes, especially in a place like Panama City, where the constant honking of horns and construction noise are a norm, you just need a little bit of R and R. I love this app and I know there are tons of others like it, but this one is good enough for me.
With Relaxing Melodies you can choose from a list of soothing sounds and just kick back and relax. You can either listen to one sound or mix them up and create a symphony of peaceful tunes. I just counted 44 sounds in this app, which includes things like thunderstorm, grandfather clock, monk chant, cat purring, seaside, rain on the roof, humming, campfire, melody, zen, and the list goes on and on.
I’ve used this app to help get the kids to chill out. I can’t use it when I’m writing or I’ll end up with my forehead hitting the keyboard. Not good.
Lastly, sometimes you just need to go a little crazy, like this morning while dealing with the Panama Immigration office, and you’d like nothing more than to turn into a cartoon rage zombie and eat everything in sight.
I don’t play a lot of games. I’m kind of a workaholic, so when I’m not writing something, I’m planning on writing something, or thinking of how I can plan to write something. I saw my daughter playing this game one day and a few minutes later I’d snatched the phone from her hand and had my little green zombies with afro wigs chomping down pedestrians.
I have to warn you though, this game is addictive. Don’t take my word for it. Give it a try.
That’s it for my list of Panama-friendly apps. I hope you find it helpful. If you haven’t already, sign up for our newsletter by putting your email address in the field below the red suitcase logo up at the top right corner of this page.
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