Cell Phones in Panama
Growing up, I like to think my childhood saw the cell phone's rise to popularity much like my father and his father observed the two World Wars. I consider myself lucky enough to have lived through an era when diamond-studded faceplates and obnoxious ring tones didn't exist; back to a time when mobile phones were the size of small shoeboxes and anybody who owned one was indisputably cool.
At the beginning of all this hype, I was given a cell phone for my fifteenth birthday on the premise that it be only for emergency use. "If you get in a car accident for example" my mother told me. "Or if you've been kidnapped and need to call the police." I considered these hypothetical scenarios for a short moment before playing twelve consecutive hours of a game called Snake in which you try not to get eaten by your tail. The only true emergency with my phone came after reaching round 15 when the battery suddenly ran dry.
Compared to US or even Costa Rica, acquiring a cell phone in Panama is a piece of cake. I remember a time back in college in Virginia, when my cell phone became inoperable one night at a party after I consciously dunked it in a glass of Newcastle Brown Ale.
Upon wandering into my nearest Verizon, it pained me to learn that in order to receive a replacement, seeing as though my contract had not yet expired, I'd have to compensate with my first born child. The woman helping me, Cindy I think her nametag read, had the sense of humor of a mortician. "You could upgrade to the new model" she said, "but for that, we'll require access to your beach house as well as the use of your boat on the weekends." I remember leaving the store a few hundred dollars down with a phone that broke the following month.
In Panama, there are two players in the cell phone game: Moviestar and Cable & Wireless. Both have offices scattered around the city which offer contract and pre-paid options. To buy a cell phone, simply wander into one of these establishments and over to the main desk where, like at a deli, they'll give you a number printed on a scrap of paper. Some people enjoy using the waiting period to catch up on their reading or chat with other people in line. I like to spend it asking repetitively for a pound of cold cuts.
Confused. "We don't sell meat here" the representative might say.
"OK, then let's just go with the cheese for the time being."
Phones range in price from as low as $30 to upwards of $500. If it's simply for a business trip or vacation that you'd like to have some sort of communication, go for one of the simple pre-paid plans and you'll be in and out in about thirty minutes.
If you're looking to activate your phone from home in Panama, chances are you can simply buy a $5 SIM chip and slip it in. These SIM chips will act as your Panama phone number and can most-usefully work on pre-paid plans. They all come with eight-digit phone numbers which is fun to confuse friends at home with. They'll think you're messing with ‘em.
Panamanians are obsessed with cell phones. It's an odd thing really, to see someone who can't afford a proper meal chatting away on a three hundred dollar Razor. It's as if, when forced to make the decision between survival and mobile text messaging, Panamanians shrugged and agreed as a whole that you know, there's always an afterlife.
Wander down a popular street like Via Veneto or Via Argentina and you're bound to come across a small arsenal of cell phone stores who sell the equipment at discounted rates. The guarantees aren't as good at these places, but if it's a simple $20 phone you want, they might be up your alley. Cell phones in Panama are quite a pleasure compared to the mess we have back in the states. You can buy pre-paid cards at almost any convenient store of varying amounts and be fully wired in no time.
Be careful not to talk on your phone while driving as in Panama, it's apparantly OK to be drunk, carry a weapon, or do drugs while behind the wheel but chatting with your mother could get you slapped with a $50 fine.
Join the talking frenzy and experience the thrill I did back when I was a teen. It's a good feeling to have a phone in Panama, as it is almost anywhere in the world; just in case the rare emergency happens, for which you actually might need your phone for a call.