When thinking about your next vacation, the chances are high that eating fresh, local food will be at the front of your mind. After all, there are few better ways to experience the culture of your destination (and get a break from your hometown fare) than by diving tastebuds-first into a sea of exciting new options.
But what if you can’t be exactly sure that you really possess the freedom to indulge wherever, whenever you please? Foreigners to Central America often have, ahem, disagreements with the local fare, which can be due to an entirely different bacterial ecosystem, poor food-handling practices, and often a combination. Traveler’s diarrhea is an unfortunate reality for many.
That said, taking time to understand the risks, as well the steps necessary to reduce those risks, can greatly improve your experience, sense of security, and save you time on vacation that you might otherwise spend attending to your bodily needs. Knowing what those risks are is the first step to a happy and healthy holiday in Panama.
Can you drink the water in Panama?
The answer may surprise you – yes, the tap water in Panama is actually safe to drink in much of the country, especially the larger cities.
So if you were wondering “is tap water safe in Panama?”, you (mostly) needn’t worry. However, there are certainly areas of the country, specifically rural areas, in particular the Carribean coast, where the tap water is not safe to drink (we’re looking at you, Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala). If traveling outside the major cities, you’ll want to follow typical practices for ensuring you are only consuming healthy, treated water. This means: drinking only bottled water, or tap water that has been vigorously boiled for 3 minutes, not consuming beverages made with tap water, and not taking ice in your drinks (which is likely made with tap water). Stick to sealed, bottled beverages which you open yourself. Check out this guide from the CDC on all the ways to disinfect water yourself.
Even though the water in urban areas is treated and generally fine, if you know that you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to err on the side of caution. Buying bottled water or boiling your water may seem like an inconvenience, but it could make your holiday overall much more enjoyable in the long run. Be honest with yourself and the limitations of your body.
Food Safety in Panama
The food in Panama is plentiful and delicious, and there are luckily almost no country-specific cautions to abide by. However, if you’re new to traveling, especially in a country with different food handling regulations or standards than your home country, you’re going to want to develop some common sense and instincts to help you keep you safe. For example, have you ever thought to ask the question, “is it safe to eat fruit in Panama?” The answer: yes, but only the right kind of fruit. In general, follow these tips:
- Only eat fruit that has a peel you can peel yourself, or that has been thoroughly washed in purified water. Contaminants on the outside of many fruits and vegetables are responsible for an alarming number of stomach bugs, so take advantage of nature’s built-in protection – the peel.
- Long lines are your friend. If a restaurant or food stand is popular, that means its food is good, high quality and fresh. You want to find a spot with a lot of food turnover so that you can know you’re not getting something that has been sitting out for who-knows-how-long.
- Spot the tourist traps. Tourist restaurants are only there to get money from tourists who want a hamburger, and they will not have high quality food most of the time (they’re too interested in money to care about hygiene standards). You can learn which restaurants these are pretty easily – they will have English menus, people trying to wave you in, and they will probably be serving standard American fare. Do yourself a favor, and really go for that local food instead!
- Don’t eat anything that has been sitting out in the sun, or meat that wasn’t cooked before your eyes (if you’re at a street stand). Fresh is best, heat kills germs – simple.
- Ceviche will be plentiful, but it’s also….raw fish. Only indulge at trusted establishments by the sea, so you know that fish was as fresh as possible.
- WASH. YOUR. HANDS. No, we’re not your mom, but we do know that unwashed hands can harbor a lot of harmful bacteria that can make you sick just as easily as bad restaurant hygiene practices. Do you?
Knowing what to look out for is most of the battle towards staying safe while you eat your way through Panama – the rest is putting the knowledge to practice. Be vigilant with your personal standards and take care of yourself, and you’re guaranteed a good and delicious time!