Travel Guide Central America Panama

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Introduction

canale di panama passaggio nave

canale di panama passaggio nave

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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.

Canons

Canons

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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 1840-1841, 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 16 kilometres wide and 80 kilometres 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 kilometers 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. On December 1989, the military dictatorship was over with the Just Cause Operation. Nowadays, Panama is a full democracy with every five year term presidential period and a growing economy in the region.

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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 in the north and Pacific Ocean in the south. Panama is located on the narrow and low Isthmus of Panama, sometimes only 60 kilometres wide. Panama encompasses approximately 75,517 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, preventing 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 islands and the San Blas Islands.

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Regions

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

Provinces

  • Bocas del Toro - popular with travellers, located in the northwest of the country and including the famous tropical archipelago with the same name
  • Coclé - this province is located in the middle of Panama.
  • Colón - central north of the country; at the northern end of the Panama Canal
  • Chiriquí - Western province of Panama.
  • Darién - the east of Panama, including the famous Darien Gap, bordering Colombia
  • Herrera
  • Los Santos
  • Panamá - the main province of the republic.
  • Panamá Oeste
  • Veraguas

Indigenous Territories

  • Emberá-Wounaan
  • Kuna Yala
  • Ngöbe-Buglé
  • Madugandí
  • Wargandí

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Cities

  • Panama City - the capital with 3 districts of interest: the new city, the old city, and the colonial city;
  • Colón - harbour city in the north; has a relatively bad reputation;
  • Balboa - during the American administration of the Canal Zone it was a city. Nowadays, it is part of Panama City;
  • Boquete - coffee growing capital of Panama in the Chiriquí Highlands;
  • Yaviza - in the east
  • El Porvenir - gateway to Kuna Yala
  • David - largest city in the west of the country, gateway to Boquete;
  • San Miguelito - special district and neighborhood of Panama City.
  • Tocumen - location of the international airport
  • Santiago - the main city of the province of Veraguas, gateway to the famous Santa Catalina surf beach.
  • Las Tablas - the main city of the province of Los Santos. Its famous and luxurious Carnival is the best attraction.
  • La Chorrera -
  • Penonomé - the main city of the province of Coclé;
  • El Valle - a beautiful village located in an ancient volcano crater with a nice climate, tourism, history and hot springs.
  • Chitré - considered one of the best locations for living in Panama.
  • Portobelo - historic Spanish Forts, boats to Colombia, and dive centers.

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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

Bocas del Toro 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.

Coiba National Park

Coiba National Park is a national park which covers the whole Island of Coiba. It is the largest island in Central America, with an area of 503 km2, off the Pacific coast of the Panamanian province of Veraguas. It is part of the Montijo District of that province. The island was declared a national park in 1992 and in July 2005, Unesco declared the entire Coiba National Park a World Heritage Site.

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 flight.

La Amistad International Park

La Amistad International Park is a Transboundary Protected Area in Central America, management of which is shared between Costa Rica (Caribbean La Amistad and Pacific La Amistad Conservation Areas) and Panama, following a recommendation by UNESCO after the park's inclusion in the World Heritage Site list.

Panama Canal

Gatun Locks

Gatun Locks

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The Panama Canal is a 77-kilometre ship canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean. The canal cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. There are locks at each end to lift ships up to Gatun Lake, an artificial lake created to reduce the amount of excavation work required for the canal, 26 metres above sea level. The current locks are 33.5 metres wide. A third, wider lane of locks opened in 2016.

San Blas Islands

The San Blas Islands are an archipelago comprising approximately 365 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited. They lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, east of the Panama Canal. A part of the comarca (district) Kuna Yala along the Caribbean coast of Panama, they are home to the Kuna Indians. The area is popular for sailing, as it is known for its beauty and lack of hurricanes.

Other sights and activities

San Blas islands

San Blas islands

© All Rights Reserved sskauai

  • Pearl Islands - just south of the capital.
  • 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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Events and Festivals

Chiriqui Highlands Flower and Coffee Festival

After full bloom and a fresh harvest, you will be treated to glorious sights and smells at this ten day festival held every January. It is held in and around the town of Boquete.

Carnaval

This festival is held 40 days before Easter, the start of lent, and would coincide with other ‘Mardi Gras’ celebrations held around the world. The Panamanian carnival is special as every day has a theme: Friday is the grand opening, Saturday is international day, Sunday is ‘Pollera’ day, Monday is costume day, and Tuesday is the Queens day. Wednesday is the final day where the ceremonial act of Entierro de la Sardina (The Sardine Burial) takes place. The carnival is best enjoyed in Panama City or the town of Las Tablas.

Boquete Jazz and Blues festival

The mountainside town and coffee-growing region is home to this annual music festival held in March. It has grown in recent years, and is now on the map for international touring artists who play jazz and blues music. The town of Boquete provides an ambient feel.

Sobresaltos Dance Festival

Dance! It’s the name of the game. This is a funky urban music festival held in Panama City, in the old district of the city called Casco Antiguo. It is an outdoor festival and features contemporary performances and art installations around the district. It is held in December every year.

Semana Santa

Held during Easter week, this festival is celebrated all over Panama. During this time you will see spectacular parades through the streets telling the biblical story. Depending on the town or city, the festival lasts up to five days, finishing on Good Friday or Easter Sunday.

Bocas Del Toro Sea Fair

Held for four days in September every year, the “Feria del Mar” (Sea Fair) in Bocas del Toro is a spectacular event that celebrates the archipelago’s fishing traditions. There is plenty of music and dancing, and also a showcase for traditional handicraft products. The festival is held on Ismito beach near Bocas town.

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Weather

Panama has a tropical climate with the temperature varying between 22 °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 centimeters with April and December falling on the low end. During the wet season there is not necessarily nonstop rain for days on end, but it usually rains at least once a day.

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Getting there

Plane

Tocumen International Airport (PTY), 23 kilometres east from the capital Panama City is the main airport of the country. Copa Airlines, the national carrier of Panama and others operate flights to most major cities in North, Central and South America and direct flights to Amsterdam, Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt and Istanbul. There are also flights to David, Chiriquí. About twenty three airlines have flights to Panama City.

From Panama Albrook Marcos Gelabert International Airport (PAC), Air Panama has flights to Medellin-Cordova, Armenia (both Colombia) and San José, Costa Rica. From Enrique Malek International Airport at David, there are international flights to and from San José in Costa Rica. The new Scarlett Martinez Airport at Rio Hato has charter flights from Canada. Panama Pacifico Airport (former Howard Air Base) receives flights from Bogota, Cali, Medellin and San Jose. From Bocas del Toro Airport there is a daily small flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

By Train

There are no international rail links with Panama.

By Car

From Costa Rica, you can drive across at Paso Canoas (Pacific side) which closes at 11PM (Panama side) or 10PM (Costa Rica side); however, it is one of the busiest and most disorganized border crossings in Central America. It is very easy to accidentally drive across the border without realizing it. The various offices at the border are randomly scattered throughout the bordertown, and you can do quite a bit of trekking while finding them, as they don't look distinct from the surrounding buildings in any way. This is one crossing where it is definitely worth your money to hire a "tramitator", or helper, to assist you through the stations, if you do not speak Spanish.

There are also road crossings at Rio Sereno (Pacific side) and Sixaola/Guabito (Atlantic side). The Rio Sereno crossing sees very little traffic, so make sure all your papers are in order, as police can be very strict.

There are no roads connecting Panama and Colombia. The Darien Gap that physically connects the two countries has little to no infrastructure and is dominated by paramilitaries and drug cartels.

You will not be allowed to leave the country without your car (i.e., change your mind, abandon the car, and fly home) without getting a stamp on your passport proving that you have paid the proper impuestos (importation taxes) on your vehicle. Expect to be stopped frequently by police, but don't worry, they are usually more curious about seeing a foreign car than interested in a bribe.

If you have car trouble in Panama, you will find dealers with service departments for almost all of the major car manufacturers from the USA (all), Europe (almost all) and Japan (all). Most of them, like in the USA require appointments to service your car. Most of the service personnel in all of the car dealers are manufacturer certify. If you need car repairs and do not want to go to a dealer to save some money or you have an emergency repair, you can find good independent mechanic services/shops in all of the major cities by looking in the yellow pages (paginas amarillas), in addition to towing services. If you need parts for your vehicle, you can find a great number of autopart stores for all major car manufacturers in the yellow pages too.

The use of "shade tree mechanics" and parts from junkyards are the same as in the USA: these options are for do-it-yourself type of people.

By Bus

You can't cross from Panama to Colombia by bus--the Darien Gap begins at Yaviza, where the Interamericana runs out.

If you're coming in from Costa Rica, however, things will be a bit easier. There are three possible entry points, the main one being Paso Canoas closing at 11PM (Panama time) or 10PM (Costa Rica time). Panaline and Ticabus, among others, can get you straight from San Jose, Costa Rica to David or Panama City. The trip from San Jose is quite cheap, but takes about 18 hours. If you want to see things in between, you can also go by local buses, although the trip will take much longer.

Panamanian law requires you to have a return ticket to get into Panama. The border guard may not check, but you never know. A return flight from San Jose, Bogotá or Abu Dhabi won't work. The return ticket has to originate from within Panama. If you run into this problem, you can always buy a return ticket from the bus driver. In general, if you're having a hot-tempered day, it may not be a good day to cross any borders. Some border officials in Central America seem to love being sticklers about their crazy rules if they decide they don't like you.

By Boat

Many cruise lines have the Panama Canal on their itineraries. You can make tours in Panama City or Colón City and take part in many packages.

It is possible to arrange for passage on banana boats traveling from Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, but such passage is recommended only for the truly adventurous, as the boats are often structurally unsound, terribly over-burdened, and are very likely to be smuggling drugs as well.

Private sail boats also provide service between Panama and Cartagena in Colombia. Fare can vary from US$400-500, and the trip takes usually four nights/five days including a two-day stopover in San Blas Islands (Carti Islands). The best way to find a boat is to ask around in hostels in Panama City or Portobelo popular with backpackers.

The cheapest way to reach Panama by boat from Colombia is by ferry from Turbo to Capurganá (COP$ 55,000, daily around 8AM) and by small boat from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldia (COP$ 25,000, daily around 7AM). From there by plane to Panama City (US$95) or by boat to Colon and Carti Islands.

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Getting around

Plane

Air Panama offers flights to about 20 domestic destinations, including Bocas del Toro and David. Copa Airlines offers flights between Panama City (Tocumen) and David.

By Train

Panamá Canal Railway Company has a scenic train route between Panama City and Colon. The first train made this trip in 1855 (though the line has since been abandoned and rebuilt in standard gauge) and it was the first interoceanic railway in the Americas, predating the transcontinental railroad in the US by a decade and a half. While the primary purpose of the railroad is the cargo business, a passenger train runs once per day and direction and is very much marketed as a luxury train, trying to justify the $25 one way fare.

By Car

Panama is in the south of Central America and can easily be discovered independently. The road system of Panama is in very good condition (for Central and South American standards). You can rent a car and drive it around the country if you are an excellent defensive driver. While traveling by car you can discover attractions that are hard or impossible to reach with public transportation.

Panama City is more difficult to navigate than any big city in the United States, with terrible traffic jams at rush hours, few signs for names of streets, poor street design, and a lack of traffic lights at busy intersections. You must be aggressive about positioning your car to get anywhere, yet highly alert to erratic and irrational behavior by others. Drivers have little respect for or even knowledge of traffic laws, and drivers from North America or Western Europe will be stunned by their recklessness. In the rest of the country, driving is mostly stress-free.

The Pan American Highway is paved for the entire length of the country, and has many roads which branch off to towns off the highway, most of which are paved, and most of the rest are still easily navigable in a sedan. However, road engineering standards are low, so be on the lookout for off camber turns, deep potholes, and sharp turns with no warning. It is highly recommended to drive well informed about your route. Use the detailed information which cochera andina provides on its site when planning your trip and check out road conditions, distances and travel times. On the road, don’t forget to take also a good road map with you.

For driving in Panama you need the driver’s license of your country but to avoid trouble at police controls it is better to have an international driver's license with you as well. The traffic rules are almost the same as in Europe or the U.S. Road signs are frequent. The speed limits are 40 km/h within cities, 80 km/h outside and 100 km/h on the highways. You will find gas stations all over Panama. A lot of stations are open around the clock. Three types of gasoline are available: unleaded, super and diesel.

By Bus

There are two kinds of buses in Panama: the ones you find on the highway, and "city buses" (Metrobuses, which replaced the Diablos Rojos (Red Devils).

The highway buses are constantly making journeys from terminals in Panama city to different destinations along the Pan American Highway, and back to the terminal. They're pretty frequent, and the buses will pick you up or drop you off at any point along their route, and most of them are air conditioned. The roughly linear shape of the country makes it ideal for a bus system, so ideal in fact that you don't really need to rent a car to get around most areas. Take a bus to the intersection on the Pan American highway that you want. You can get on a bus any place on the Pan American highway going towards Panama City, but all trips originating from within the city require a ticket. The Grand Terminal in the city is large and modern, and will remind you of an American shopping mall or airport (it actually is a shopping mall, Albrook Mall, too). Schedules for all Panama are listed at HorarioDeBuses.com/pa.

The highway buses are very cheap, count on a fare of about US$1 per hour traveled, sometimes less. One exception is fares from Tocumen airport, which both buses and taxis charge through the roof for (by Panamanian standards), simply because they can.

If you want to get on a bus, stand by the side of the road, hold you out your arm and make obvious pointing motions toward the ground. If you're on the bus and want to get off, yell "parada!" or tell the driver in advance. You'll get the hang of it pretty quick. The locals are very helpful with tourists on buses, and may offer help.

Never ask for the fare in the bus, the bus drivers will most certainly always round up numbers in that case. Instead, know the fare beforehand (by asking the locals) and give the exact change. Or give a round number and look as if you expect change or demand it holding your hand forward, pretending to know the right fare.

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

Citizens from the following countries do not need a visa to enter Panama because their countries hold treaties with Panama that entitle their citizens to visit for up to 180 days without a visa, having a passport valid for at least 6 months upon entry: Andorra, Angola, Antigua y Barbuda, Arabia Saudi, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Belarus, Belgium, Botswana, Bhutan, Brazil, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei Darussalam, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Cambodia, Canada, Czech Republic, Chile, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Egypt, Fiji, Estonia, Finland, France, Gabon, Germany, Georgia, Gibraltar, Granada, Greece, Guatemala, Guyana, Holland, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Jamaica, Kenia, Kiribati, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Kuwait, Letonia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, Namibia, Nauru, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, North Korea, North Macedonia, Norway, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Saint Kitts y Nevis, Saint Lucia, Solomon Islands, Samoa, São Tomé and Príncipe, San Marino, Serbia, Seychelles, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tonga, The Vatican, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Tuvalu, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Vanuatu and Vietnam.

This usually also applies to people of other nationalities (India, for example), if they have a residence permit issued by any of the above countries. For example, an Indian living in the USA will be able to enter Panama without any visa. However, it is advisable to check with closest representation of Panama embassy near your place of residence.

Citizens from these countries can apply for an extension for up to another 30, 60 or 90 days. Petitions are approved or denied on a case-by-case basis. Immigration recommends you apply at least a week before your time is up. For more information about extending your stay in Panama please read on or click here.

They can always also leave the country for 30 days (Costa Rica is right next to Bocas del Toro and Boquete so it's easily done) and then come back and get 180 days more.

Citizens of China with a endorsed "public of affairs" passport do not require a visa for 180 days also. Holders of diplomatic, official or service passports of China, Cuba, Haiti and Philippines do not require a visa.

General entry requirements are proof of:

  • a return ticket out of Panama
  • possession of US$500 in cash or travelers' checks
  • Recommended vaccination for yellow fever - only if coming from a country where yellow fever occurs (includes most of South America and Africa but not USA).

In practice, border officials may be lax about checking these requirements for travelers coming from the EU, US or other developed countries.

Also, because your tourist visa will be stamped in your passport, it is important to carry at least a photocopy/picture of the ID page and the page with the tourist visa stamp at all times.

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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. Frequently used banknotes are the $1, $5, $10 and $20 notes. $2, $50 and $100 notes can also be found, but are less used.

Many businesses do not accept US$50 or US$100 bills at all. Most of those that do will ask for your passport and store your data/serial numbers of your notes in a special book. The reason is that many US$50 and US$100 bills have been counterfeited.

You can typically use a credit card at all hotels in the capital, and in medium-sized regional cities (David, Las Tablas, Colon, Santiago, Bocas del Toro, etc.) Restaurants, grocery stores, and department stores in major cities will also usually take credit, or even debit cards. However, outside the capital using your card could be difficult.

Though Panamanian ATMs function on the Cirrus/Plus system, they may not take cards with the Interlink symbol. Make sure you're carrying a lot of cash (especially small bills) and understand how to take cash advances out on your credit card. Travelers checks are not widely used. There is generally a withdrawal fee of $5.25 for withdrawing cash from ATMs with a (Visa) credit cards. Hence, it makes sense to withdraw larger amounts to keep the fees low.

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Study

Panama offers many universities and high schools that are bilingual and world class. There's an ongoing project called City of Knowledge that consists of several educational programmes in the old installations of a former US military base (Clayton). There is also a school at Justo Arosemena who teaches mainly to German speaking people, but it might be worth a glance at the UDI-Universidad del Istmo. There's also a Florida State University branch, as many other alternatives.

Universidad Tecnológica de Panama (Technological University of Panama, the best University in Panama in Engineering and Logistics programs) has a Language Center where you can learn Spanish, English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Italian and many other languages. You can find people from these countries teaching in this Center.

In the western part of the country, such as in Bocas del Toro and in Boquete, there are other well reputed Spanish language schools which cater to university students and young professionals traveling to study abroad.

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Language

Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

Spanish is the official language of Panama. Many Panamanians are bilingual though. Panama City has a different dialect in which they mix English words with Spanish. Although educated Panamanians try to speak proper Spanish, they are very proud of their dialect and would rather use it unless it is a formal conversation or public speaking.

Much of the Caribbean Coast of Panama was settled by people from Jamaica and Barbados. More recently, the descendants of those settlers seem to be speaking more Spanish, but a lot of them still speak English, albeit a very Caribbean variety, called Guari Guari. Until only a few years ago, the canal was controlled by the USA. The US has given the canal back to Panama, but many people in Panama City and other areas near the canal still speak English as a first or second language. Surprisingly, English is not as common as you would think for how long the Americans spent in the country. It's not so common for people working in shops or people in the street to speak English. There are a number of English News and Blog sites to help with your travels.

Panama has a lot more indigenous culture than some neighboring countries. In Kuna Yala you will hear the native Kuna language spoken. In the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, as well as in Chiriqui or Bocas del Toro, you might hear the native Ngöbe-Buglé (Guaymí) language, although the Ngöbe and the Buglé are very quiet around foreigners. If you ask directions from one of them, you will probably just get a hand or lips pointed wordlessly in the right direction.

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Eat

In the larger cities you can find all types of food ranging from the French haute cuisine to the freshest sushi. There are Arabic restaurants, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican... whatever you're in the mood for.

Outside of the cities, the selection is largely Panamánian with bountiful seafood and beef due to the abundance of cattle farms and the fantastic fishing in the area. Panamanian cuisine is a mix of several cultures. Reminiscent of the country's Afro-Caribbean, French and Spanish influences, the dishes take on a complete character of their own. If you get tired of eating beans or gallo pinto in the rest of Central America, you might want to head towards Panama. Since Panama has a little more Caribbean influence than other Central American countries, you'll see a lot more plaintain than beans here. Most dishes are served with coconut rice and a type of squash or other native vegetable. If Panamanian food has to be summed up in one word, that word would be culantro, which is a local plant that tastes like cilantro, except that it has a much stronger flavor.

A typical plate in a humble, family restaurant can range from $1.25 to $5.00, including your choice of meat: mondongo (beef stomach), fried or baked chicken, pork, beef and sometimes fried fish; rice, beans, salad: cabbage, carrot & mayonnaise; beet salad; green salad; potato or macaroni salad; and patacones (fried green plantains). The Panamanians also enjoy their "chichas" (fruit, water & sugar), of which there is always a selection, ranging from tamarindo, maracuya (passionfruit), mango, papaya, jugo de caña (sugar cane juice), or agua de pipa (juice from young green coconuts). If you like your food picante, Panama may not be the place for you. They definitely have several hot sauces, but the emphasis is not on the heat.

You can get excellent food really cheap if you look around. A quick and cheap lunch can be found at the so-called Fondas, which are small eateries located near schools, sports stadiums and in industrial areas where workers and students will have their afternoon meal. There are often several of these Fondas clustered together so just look for the one with the longest line and you can count on it having the best food for the money. A full plate of rice and beans with a large piece of chicken and a small salad will cost around $2-$2.50 plus the cost of a Coke (Squirt is very popular with lunch). If you choose to eat your food at the Fonda you will be given a real plate and actual silverware as well as a glass bottle of soda with a straw (be sure to return the empty bottle). The local food is far more tasty than the typical Subway sandwich, Whopper or KFC meal and a lot cheaper. If you eat at the same location often enough you will move from the status of a crazy gringo who must have gotten lost on the way to the Burger King to just another one of the locals enjoying lunch and casual conversation (in an industrial area the patrons will be mostly men and the subject of conversation mostly football and women).

The equivalent of a 5-star meal with drinks can be $8-30 in some places.

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Sleep

Panama’s hotel accommodations are as diverse as its geography. Panama City has as much glamour and glitz as New York City, without the high price tag. You can find 5 star high rise hotels in the heart of downtown; or you can venture out to the smaller neighborhoods, where old Canal military barracks have been converted into B&B’s. In terms of an authentic Panama experience, the historic district of Casco Viejo provides the charm of yester-year with modern amenities of today. Because tourism is so new to the district, lodging accommodations are largely limited to the fleet of short term apartment rentals at Los Cuatro Tulipanes

Bocas del Toro has your typical island cabanas and small hotels, some literally right on the water (similar to the cabanas in Bali). The Chiriqui Province, in the western lowlands, has small hotels on some of the outer islands, and an Eco-Preserve in Chorcha where you can spend the night in Jungle Hammocks with the monkeys. In the western highlands, around Boquete, there are hostels for $5 a night, and 5 star hotels for $300+ a night. No high rises here, but small very artsy boutique hotels and casitas. Recently, David Panama, Capitol of the Chiriqui Province has become a destination as well as a hub for backpackers criss-crossing from Panama City to Bocas Del Toro and Costa Rica.

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

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Drink

National beers are produced (Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, Panamá). Balboa is probably the best of the domestic brands, however, Atlas is the most commonly purchased.

Carta Vieja and Ron Abuelo are the main domestically produced rum. Seco, a very raw white rum, is the national liquor. Seco con leche (with milk) is a common drink in the countryside.

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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 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 accessible 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 (the city and neighborhoods). Be careful and listen to local advise!

Some neighborhoods in Panama City are a bit sketchy, in particular El Chorrillo, Curundu and parts of Calidonia, poor and crime-ridden areas. The old colonial quarter, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe) had a bad reputation among travelers and some Panamanians, but is gentrifying rapidly. During the daytime, San Felipe is perfectly safe for foreigners. At night, the main streets and plazas, as well as the district of bars and restaurants toward the point, are also safe, but visitors should exercise caution whens they move north along Avenida Central towards El Chorillo.

In Panama City the downtown area is safe to go to restaurants, cinema or other activities. In the main cities of the provinces you must ask information about the dangerous areas, but in general, most places are safe.

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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.

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Quick Facts

Panama flag

Map of Panama

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Capital
Panama City
Population
3,864,170.
Government
Constitutional Democracy
Religions
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant)
Languages
Spanish, English
Calling Code
+507
Nationality
Panamanian
Local name
Panamá

Contributors

as well as adosuarez (8%), Peter (1%), dr.pepper (1%), Sam I Am (<1%), Lavafalls (<1%), Roberto C (<1%), pables21 (<1%)

Panama Travel Helpers

  • adosuarez

    I worked as Spanish teacher for foreigners. Now, I return to work as analyst of foreign trade.
    I like to help all people who wants to visit Panama, because I would like to receive same attention when I travel.
    Welcome. 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
  • Piña Colada

    Where to stay if someone prefer to rent a vacational apartment or room, where to eat, How to go to the Canal, shipping, etc.

    Ask Piña Colada 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
  • Cholerica

    Recently been there, fresh information, tips and insights

    Ask Cholerica a question about Panama

Accommodation in Panama

Use our map of places to stay in Panama to explore your accommodation options and to compare prices across the country at a glance. To narrow the results down by budget category, use the links below.

Community Activity

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