Panama travel guide
Think Panama and what springs to mind? The canal? Cigars? Straw hats? Probably all three. However, for those in the know, this slender Central American nation is much more than that; it is a land of wildlife-rich rainforests and remote indigenous communities; Miami-esque promenades and paradisiacal beaches; verdant volcanoes and the impenetrable wilderness of the Darien Gap.
Firstly, the canal. Though considered to be the star attraction (thousands flock here to watch container ships passing through the locks) the wild landscapes it scythes through are an altogether more exciting prospect. Here you can hike volcanoes, zip-wire over forest canopies, raft down rapids and meet one of the country’s largest indigenous groups, the Kunas, who eke out simple, traditional lives on the sumptuous San Blas Islands.
The Caribbean coastline features another facet of Panamanian culture. Jamaicans and Barbadians, drafted in to build the canal, ended up settling here and an Afro-Caribbean vibe endures to this day. The nearby Bocas del Toro islands, meanwhile, are the definition of Caribbean island ideal with their palm-fringed beaches, limpid lagoons and sleepy eco-lodges.
The wildlife is also spectacular. Whale watching in the Golfo de Chiriquí is a must and you never forget scuba diving or snorkeling alongside turtles in the Coiba National Marine Park. Its birdlife surpasses neighbouring Costa Rica and the most treasured sightings are the iconic harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird, and the endangered great green macaw.
With so much natural beauty to imbibe, it is easy to overlook the bustling capital, Panama City. But don’t. A metropolis divided starkly between the past and present, it is a city where crumbling colonial buildings stand in the shadows of high-rise steel and glass towers. It feels a little bit like Miami and the locals certainly give their US counterparts a run for their money in the hedonism stakes. Come join the party.
75,517 sq km (29,157 sq miles).
3,990,406 (UN estimate 2016).
48.4 per sq km.
President Juan Carlos Varela since 2014.
President Juan Carlos Varela since 2014.
110 volts AC, 60Hz (in Panama City 120 volts). North American-style plugs with two flat pins (with or without third grounding pin) are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Personal attacks, including sexual offences, are rare but there have been some in recent years. You should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as in the UK.
Official crime statistics have shown increased levels of robberies, murders and assault in San Miguelito, El Chorillo and Juan Diaz. Most of these crimes are among members of rival drug gangs, but you should take sensible precautions to protect yourself and your belongings against the risk of street crime. Robberies at restaurants have been on the increase in some of the more popular areas in Panama City like Obarrio, San Francisco and El Cangrejo (Via Argentina).
Don’t carry large sums of cash or valuables in public. Use a hotel safe wherever possible. Be vigilant when using ATMs installed in public places. People have been attacked after withdrawing cash. There have also been instances of devices being inserted in ATMs, which allow cards to be cloned. Beware of pickpockets in busy areas, on buses and at bus stations. Watch out for muggers, particularly in the main shopping areas of Via España and Avenida Central, the area of Calidonia, the old town (Casco Viejo) in Panama City, the old Panama ruins (Panama Viejo), the Madden Dam area – off the main Panama to Colon road and the city of Colon, where unemployment, street crime and drug usage are high.
The area near the border with Colombia is particularly dangerous (east of a line drawn from Punta Carreto in the Comarca de San Blas on the Atlantic coast, to Yaviza in the eastern Darien province, down to Punta Piña on the Pacific coast). Political and criminal violence in Colombia can spill over into Panama. There are regular incursions by Colombian guerrillas and other armed groups. Foreign nationals and Panamanian citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, kidnapping and murder in this area.
Use registered taxi companies. Picking up multiple travellers in Panama is common practice, but you should insist that taxi drivers do not do this.
Be cautious if you are approached by visitors seeking access to your property. Criminal gangs have used this method to enter and then commit burglaries. If you are in any doubt call the police.
If you are travelling to the Darien province, you should do so by air, and only with an organised group to recognised tourist destinations protected by the Panamanian Police. Don’t stray from the protected resort area.
If you’re hiking in the hills of the town of Boquete in the Province of Chiriqui, you should do so with an experienced guide. Don’t go hiking without taking the necessary precautions.
Driving standards are poor. Panama has a reasonably good road system, except in Darien Province where there are very few surfaced roads. Watch out for pot-holes and unfinished repairs. Traffic is very heavy, especially around peak hours, and there are a number of construction works throughout the city that worsens the situation in some areas.
A 2015 survey stated that 70% of all road accidents were as a result of drink driving (which is not strictly monitored) or using a telephone whilst driving. Take extra care when driving.
By law seat belts must be worn by drivers and front seat passengers. Children under 5 must travel in the back in fitted child seats. If you are involved in an accident, Panamanian law requires that you wait with the vehicle until the traffic police (Transito) arrive.
In 2013, the new Metro Bus system replaced old buses, also known as Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) in Panama City. Taxis are generally in poor condition and are responsible for a significant proportion of accidents due to poor maintenance and driving standards.
To drive in Panama, you’ll need a valid photo-card UK driving licence. The Panamanian authorities will not accept paper licences. Foreign driving licences are only valid for 90 days following your entry to the country (make sure you carry a copy of your passport with the date stamp as proof of entry within the allowable period). In order to obtain a local licence, you should bring, from the UK, a legalised certificate of entitlement issued by the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and once in Panama, contact the issuing agency SERTRACEN for further information on the requirements needed.
Swimming and water sports
Take great care when wading swimming or taking part in water sports on Pacific and Caribbean beaches as in some places there are strong currents and undertows. Beaches seldom have signs warning of the dangers and there are a number of drownings every year.
Don’t bathe in the Bay of Panama; it is highly polluted with untreated sewage and industrial waste.
Political demonstrations occur occasionally in Panama City, mainly around Panama University and the main road known as the Transistmica, as well as the main road from Bocas del Toro. Some demonstrations by construction workers, indigenous groups and students have turned violent in the past. Monitor local media and avoid all demonstrations.