Top events in Panama

March
01

The Festival of the Devils and the Africans is the historic recreation of the struggle of good against evil – or, the struggle between the African...

March
05

The biggest event of the year: during the five days preceding Ash Wednesday, the entire capital shuts down, and some serious partying takes place...

April
01

The bulk of Panama’s Easter celebrations take place during Santa Semana, another time when hotel and flight prices rise. Throughout the country,...

Ruins, old town, Panama City
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Ruins, old town, Panama City

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Panama Travel Guide

Key Facts
Area

75,517 sq km (29,157 sq miles).

Population

3.6 million (2013).

Population density

47.1 per sq km.

Capital

Panama City.

Government

Republic. Gained independence from Colombia in 1903.

Head of state

President Ricardo Martinelli since 2009.

Head of government

President Ricardo Martinelli since 2009.

Electricity

120 volts AC, 60Hz. Plugs are the flat two-pin American type (with or without third grounding pin).

Panama is a curious but exhilarating combination of cultural influence. It lies at the centre of the world, a narrow strip constituting the last part of a natural land-bridge between the North and South American continents. A captivating mix of the historical and the modern, the natural and the manmade, Panama is an anomaly of a Latin American country, and visitors will find it fascinating.

Panama’s most famous feature is certainly the mighty Panama Canal, and many flock here throughout the year to travel through it or merely to watch in awe as huge container ships pass through the giant locks. Panamanians are rightfully proud of their canal, and it is shown in a display of glory. But Panama is also full of beautiful wildlife, varied terrains and much to see and do, whether your preference is lying on beaches, trekking through wilderness, sporty activities or exploring cities.

Panama City is divided quite definitively between its shiny new skyscrapers and its colonial Old Town. Crumbling, peeling ghosts of once-grand buildings stand next to gentrified hotels and embassies in the Casco Viejo (old town), allowing a glimpse of a more prosperous past, whereas further north the high-rise chrome-and-glass monsters indicate where the current wealth lies. Panama City is enthralling to wander round, with street markets and local life aplenty on view.

Panama is far from just an urban jungle. One of Panama’s largest indigenous groups, the Kunas, are among the most visited of the tribal peoples of Panama, because they tie in very nicely with another major tourist attraction: the San Blas Islands. Often used as stopovers during an incredible journey by boat en route to Colombia, the San Blas Islands are tiny pieces of tropical paradise which are owned and inhabited by the Kunas. With their traditional way of life, the Kunas provide a fascinating insight into what life in Panama was once like.

Another facet of Panamanian culture is to be found along the Caribbean coast – many towns, islands, cities and villages along this area were settled from Jamaicans and Barbadians, and the region has a definite Caribbean vibe. In particular, the Bocas del Toro islands in the north of Panama are an example of such an area and are popular both for the beach activities and traveller-friendly atmosphere.

Wildlife is spectacular in Panama. The Coiba National Marine Park holds a stunning amount of rare animals, particularly marine-dwellers, and the scuba and snorkelling is excellent. The Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí, likewise, is one of the best places in Central America for whale-watching.

Panama has been a pivotal trade route for 500 years, first under Spanish rule, then as part of independent Gran Colombia and modern Colombia, and in the 20th century, as an independent nation. However, the Panama Canal Zone, completed in 1914, was an American Protectorate for many decades. It was only in 1977 that the Americans agreed to turn over the canal to full Panamanian control by 1999.

Today, Panama is more settled in its own skin and embarking upon ambitious new projects. The Panama Canal traffic volume is constantly rising each year, and the canal itself is to expand substantially by around 2014.

Travel Advice

Last updated: 27 February 2015

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.


Crime

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 border area with Colombia is particularly dangerous (beyond a line drawn from Punta Carreto in the Comarca de San Blas on the Atlantic coast, through Yaviza in the eastern Darien province, 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 yellow 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. 

Local travel

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.

Road Travel

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.

Drink driving is not strictly monitored and road accidents are a frequent occurrence.

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.

As of 15 March 2013, the new Metro Bus system has replaced the old buses, also known as Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) in Panama City. Taxis are generally in poor condition andare responsible for numerous 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. In order to obtain a local licence, you should bring from 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. Drownings occur every year.

Don’t bathe in the Bay of Panama; it is polluted with untreated sewage and industrial waste

Political situation

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.

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