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Panama

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Travel Guide Central America Panama

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Introduction

Our Luxury Hut

Our Luxury Hut

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It was Vasco Nuñez de Balboa who became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean in 1513. And it was the thin stretch of land we know as Panama that he crossed to reach it. Panama's geographic location and shape have been strategic elements in its development as a nation: its narrowness prompted the U.S. to build the Panama Canal, allowing passage between the Caribbean and Pacific. Today, the Canal is Panama's best-known attraction, though the land has much more to offer. Few, for example, are aware of its fifteen hundred islands; nor of the lovely alpine town of Boquete, near Volcán Barú. And with its thriving modern capital, Panama City, only a stone's throw away from the ancient ruins at Panamá Viejo, Panama promises visitors a wonderfully varied travel experience.

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Brief History

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples, among whom the largest group were the Cueva (whose specific language affiliation is poorly documented). There is no accurate knowledge of the size of the indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of the European conquest. Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000. Archeological finds as well as testimonials by early European explorers describe diverse native isthmian groups exhibiting cultural variety and suggesting people already conditioned by regular regional routes of commerce.

In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas was the first European to explore the isthmus of Panama sailing along the western coast. A year later Christopher Columbus sailing south and eastward from Central America, explored Bocas del Toro, Veragua, the Chagres River and Porto Belo, which he christened (Beautiful Port). In 1509, authority was granted to Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa, to colonize the territories between the west side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in present-day Honduras. The idea was to create an early unitary administrative organization similar to what later became Nueva España (now Mexico). In 1538 the Real Audiencia de Panama was established, initially with jurisdiction from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. A Real Audiencia (royal audiency) was a judicial district that functioned as an appeals court. When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were replaced by Africans.

Panama, like most of Central America, gained independence from Spain in 1821. In the first eighty years following independence from Spain, Panama was a department of Colombia. The people of the isthmus made several attempts to secede and came close to success in 1831, and again during the Thousand Days War of 1899–1902. In November 1903, Panama proclaimed its independence and concluded the Hay/Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States. The treaty granted rights to the United States "as if it were sovereign" in a zone roughly 10 miles wide and 50 miles long. In that zone, the U.S. would build a canal, then administer, fortify, and defend it "in perpetuity." In 1914, the United States completed the existing 83 kilometres (52 miles) canal.

From 1903 until 1968, Panama was a republic dominated by a commercially-oriented oligarchy. During the 1950s, the Panamanian military began to challenge the oligarchy's political hegemony. The January 9, 1964 Martyrs' Day riots escalated tensions between the country and the U.S. government over its long-term occupation of the Canal Zone. Twenty rioters were killed, and 500 other Panamanians were wounded. On September 7, 1977, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties were signed by the Panamanian head of state as well as U.S. President Jimmy Carter, for the complete transfer of the Canal and the fourteen US army bases from the US to Panama by 1999 apart from granting the US a perpetual right of military intervention. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years.

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Geography

Panama borders both Costa Rica (in the west) and Colombia (in the east), as well as both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. Panama is located on the narrow and low Isthmus of Panama, sometimes only 60 kilometres wide. Panama encompasses approximately 77,000 square kilometres and is a mountainous and tropical country, with vast areas of tropical rainforest, especially in the eastern part called the Darien Gap, which forms a natural (and drug infected!) barrier with South America, preveting people to travel entirely overland along this route. The dominant feature of the country's landform is the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide. The mountain range of the divide is called the Cordillera de Talamanca near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía de Tabasará, and the portion of it closer to the lower saddle of the isthmus, where the canal is located, is often called the Sierra de Veraguas. As a whole, the range between Costa Rica and the canal is generally referred to by geographers as the Cordillera Central. The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú,which rises to 3,475 metres. Many islands are located south as well as north of the mainland, including the popular Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Islands.

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Regions

Administratively, Panama is divided into nine provinces and three provincial-level indigenous territories (comarcas indígenas).

Provinces

  • Bocas del Toro
  • Coclé
  • Colón
  • Chiriquí
  • Darién
  • Herrera
  • Los Santos
  • Panamá
  • Veraguas

Indigenous Territories

  • Emberá
  • Kuna Yala
  • Ngöbe-Buglé

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Sights and Activities

Although its neighbour Costa Rica might be world famous as a popular eco destination, Panama is just as impressive, if not more. On top of that it has some fine beaches and islands which are amongst the most beautiful in the world.

Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro (8)

Bocas del Toro (8)

© All Rights Reserved dontrobus

This is probably the most popular destination in the country. The Bocas del Toro are a chain of islands off the Caribbean coastline in the northwest of the country and are easily reached by one of the many boats between the islands and the mainland. Relaxing, swimming, beachlife, nightlife and snorkelling and diving are the most popular activities here and many people visiting Costa Rica come here for a few days as well, as it is very close to the border and easily reached in half a day or so. Dolphins and reef sharks join you in the water and encountering one is just great. You can also rent bikes and explore some of the islands.

Boquete and surroudings

Boquete is located in the northwest of the country, in a moutainous area. It is located on an elevtion of about 1,000 metres above sea level and as a result its climate is cooler than the lowlands in Panama. It has become more and more popular as an escape from the heat but its surroundings are just as impressive and nice among eco tourists. The nearby Volcan Baru is a popular destinations and Boquete is famous for one of the best coffee in the world, so it is said.

Darien Gap

The Darien Gap is one big undeveloped area forming a natural bridge between Central and South America and is notorious for drug traffic as well. Still, the Darien National Park contains an extremely rich biodiversity with varieties of habitats, like beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, and lowland and upland tropical forests containing remarkable wildlife. On top of that, indigenous tribes (mainly Indians) live here as well. As a result it is on the Unesco World Heritage List. Although much of the Darien is impassable and dangerous, there are some parts that can be visited, although travelling by yourself limits your opportunities to get the most out of your trip. Try and go for one of the organised tours which mostly leave from Panama City and include flights.

Other sights and activities

San Blas islands

San Blas islands

© All Rights Reserved sskauai

  • Panama Canal - the most famous canal in the world.
  • Pearl Islands - just south of the capital.
  • San Blas Islands - tribes and beaches.
  • Isla Grande - fantastic island in the Caribbean Sea, north of Portobelo
  • El Valle - absolutely stunning valley of mountains and towns formed from the 2nd-largest volcano crater in the world. West of Coronado

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Weather

Panama has a tropical climate with the temperature varying between 27 °C and 33 °C. Typical to tropical climates, Panama has two seasons, a dry one and a wet one. The dry season, considered summertime, lasts from January to March and the wet season is from April through December, with the wettest months being October and November where average rainfall is above 2,000mm. Typically the other wet months see an average rainfall of between 8 and 15 centimetres with April and December falling on the low end. During the wet season there is not necessarily non stop rain for days on end, but it usually rains at least once a day.

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Getting there

Plane

Copa Airlines is the national carrier of Panama with its base at Tocumen International Airport (PTY) near the capital Panama City. It operates services to most major cities in Central and South America, including a few in the United States. Other destinations to and from Panama are Toronto, Montreal, Madrid and from March 2008 a direct flight from Amsterdam with KLM. Air Caraibes flies to Guadeloupe and Martinique. From Enrique Malek International Airport in David, there are international flights to and from San José in Costa Rica.

By Train

There are no international rail links with Panama.

By Car

Although Panama borders both Costa Rica and Colombia, only the first one can be reached by car along relatively good roads. Paso Canoas along the Panamerican highway is the most used crossing. Others include border crossings at Guabito-Sixaola near the Caribbean coast and Río Sereno at the terminus of the La Concepción Vacán road.

By Bus

International bus connections are only possible to and from Costa Rica. Check Ticabus for options between Panama City and San José, Costa Rica.

By Boat

The most popular boat connections travellers take is between Colón and Cartagena in Colombia. Although there is no regular scheduled boat services, cargo ships and yachts might take you or you can go on an organised trip, which usually stop in the San Blas Islands as well.

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Getting around

Plane

Aero Perlas offers flights to about 15 domestic destinations, including Bocas del Toro and David. Air Panama offers about the same, but focuses on the San Blas Islands as well.

By Train

Panamá Canal Railway Company has a scenic train route between Panama City and Colon.

By Car

Roads are generally in a good conditions and both the Panamericana from west to east as the The Trans-Isthman Highway between Panama City and Colon are well paved. Other roads are mainly paved but some have potholes. Renting a car is a good option, especially in the central and western parts of the country. You have to be at least 23 years of age to rent a car, which are mostly available at the airport, Panama City and David.

By Bus

There are buses to most places in Panama, linking Panama City to Colon, David, Boquete and the western edge of the Darien Gap. Other routes are travelled less frequent and some buses are slow and unrelibable. For an overview of schedules and connections, also international ones, see thebussschedule.com.

By Boat

Several islands off the coast are reachable by boat, including the Pearl Islands south of Panama City and the Bocas del Toro in the northwest of the country. At the San Blas coast, there are boats carying passengers between Colón and Puerto Obaldía.

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Red Tape

You will generally be given a 90-day stamp in your passport when you enter Panama. This means you are allowed to remain in Panama for 90 days and after those 90 days visas and tourist cards can be extended at immigration offices.

Citizens from the following countries need to show only their passports to enter Panama: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Egypt, El Salvador, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Holland, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, the UK, Uruguay and Wales.

People from the following countries need a passport and a tourist card: Antigua, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Granada, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, San Marino, South Korea, Suriname, Sweden, Taiwan, Tobago, Trinidad, the USA and Venezuela.

All other nationalities need to obtain a visa, available at Panamanian embassies or consulates.

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Money

See also: Money Matters

Officially Panama uses the Balboa and the US Dollar as its currencies at 1:1 rate. In reality the Balboas only exist as coins that and there no 1, 5, 10, 20, or 100 Balboa bills, only US Dollar bills are used.
The US Dollars, or "greenback" may be called Balboas as well, but the US Dollar has been the official currency since 1904.

One dollar consists of 100 cents. Frequently used coins are the penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢) and quarter (25¢). 50¢ and $1 coins also exist, but are rarely used. Frequently used banknotes are the $1, $5, $10 and $20 notes. $2, $50 and $100 notes can also be found, but are rarely used.

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Language

Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

Spanish is the official language of Panama.

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Sleep

Here are a few of the top rated hostels in Panama:

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Health

See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Panama. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Panama) where that disease is widely prevalent. A yellow fever is recommended anyway if travelling to the provinces of Comarca Emberá, Darien and Kuna Yala and parts of the provinces of Colon and Panama east of the Panama Canal. West of the the Canal, Panama City, Boquette, Bocas del Toro and the rest are all safe regarding yellow fever.

It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Panama. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, tuberculosis, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Malaria is prevalent in most of the country (including San Blas Islands, Bocas del Toro and the Darien Gap!) and it is recommended to take malaria pills and take other normal anti-mosquito precautions as well. Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also Travel Safety

In general Panama is a safe country to travel in. The exception though is the infamous Darien Gap, where drug trafficking means that it is very wise to prevent travelling here, unless you are visiting with a guide and visiting the few excessible areas, which are in fact great for nature lovers. Whatever you do: don't try to make your way overland to Colombia!
Another slightly unsafe place is Colon. Be careful and listen to local advise!

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet cafes can be found in cities and most major towns. Wifi is on the rise though with many hotels, restaurants and bars offering this services, especially in the major tourist areas like Panama City, Bocas del Toro and Boquete. Some mountainous or off the beaten track areas might not have any internet services at all.

Phone

See also International Telephone Calls

Panama's country code is 507. All cellular numbers start with the number 6 and have 8 digits. Land line phone numbers have 7 digits. 911 is the general emergency phone number.

Calls to the USA and Europe are between 4 and 10 cents a minute. The best way to make international calls from Panama is to buy prepaid telephone cards that are sold at every corner. The most popular is the TeleChip card. If you bring your cellphone, you can choose to buy a local simcard, instead of paying high charges for internet use through your home provider.

Post

Correos y Telegrafos is the national postal company of Panama. It provides a wide range of services though you usually have to use the post offices for both sending and receiving mail and packages, including buying stamps. Post offices can be found in many cities and towns and are open from 6:30am to 5:45pm Monday to Friday and 7:00am to 5:00pm on Saturday. Domestic mail takes several days but to the USA and Europe for example it can take anywhere from 5 to over 10 days depending on the country. For sending larger packages, you might also consider using companies like FedEx, TNT, UPS or DHL, as they offer fast, reliable and competitively priced services as well.

Quick Facts

Panama flag

Map of Panama

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Capital
Panama City
Population
2,961,000
Government
Constitutional Democracy
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant)
Languages
Spanish, English
Calling Code
+507
Nationality
Panamanian
Local name
Panamá

Contributors

as well as Peter (9%), pables21 (2%), dr.pepper (2%), Sam I Am (2%), Herr Bert (1%), Lavafalls (1%), boreal2673 (1%), Sander (1%)

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Panama Travel Helpers

  • adosuarez

    Currently, I am working as Spanish teacher for foreigners and I had worked also as analyst of external trade. I like to help all people who wants to visit Panama, because I would like to receive same attention when I travel.
    Panama is more than you can expect...

    Ask adosuarez a question about Panama
  • i c e

    I'm 19. I just drove the panamerican highway With my family, to panama and back and spent good time in each country. If you would like any help or reliable info just ask!! Love this part of the world!! Speak Spanish! Been all over the world!

    Glad to help in any way!!

    Josh

    Ask i c e a question about Panama
  • casco spanish

    We are a Spanish School for foreigners located at Panama City, Panama.
    If you need a help or information about courses, contact us please.
    Thanks
    Casco Antiguo Spanish School.
    Panama.

    Ask casco spanish a question about Panama
  • pables21

    I visited Panama during Spring Break and had a wonderful experience. If you are planning on going to Panama City, Coronado, El Valle, Portobelo and/or Isla Grande, feel free to ask me any questions you would like. I can give tips on transportation, language help, sightseeing, local customs and other tidbits of information. Panama is an amazing destination and I urge you to visit!

    Ask pables21 a question about Panama
  • mchighdale

    I live with my husband and two little girls in Panama since two years now and would love to give advice on where to go to, how to go and what to do here. Please feel free to ask for tips and tricks. For me it took a while before knowing my way around to the real good stuff.

    Ask mchighdale a question about Panama

Accommodation in Panama

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