What makes Panama a unique country to travel to?
Panama is a constitutional democracy with an executive branch led by a president who is elected to a 5-year term, a unicameral legislature, and judicial branch. The country is divided into 9 provinces and three indigenous territories known as comarcas. It became independent from Colombia on November 3, 1903. Panama has a rapidly developing economy but also faces problems of corruption and has a weak, non-transparent judiciary. Outside the Panama City area, which has many first-class hotels and restaurants, tourist facilities vary in quality. The U.S. dollar is the paper currency of Panama, and is also referred to as the Panama Balboa. Panama mints its own coinage, though U.S. coins are also accepted. It is important to note the national and regional holidays of Panama as the government and many businesses are closed on these days, and may create delays in some activities in Panama.
Panama remains relatively safe when compared to other Central American countries, yet crime rates are still higher than one would encounter in most of the United States. Violent crime in Panama started to rise in 2007. However, new efforts by Panama’s National Police (PNP) to combat this trend appear to have made an impact. Starting in June 2010, the number of homicides in the country declined and continued a downward trend through 2012. Unfortunately, the rate of simple theft was up, with "Blackberry"-type smart phones being a particular target. The three provinces with the largest cities also had the highest overall crime rates: Panama, Colon, and Chiriqui. The entire city of Colon is a high crime area; travelers should use extreme caution anywhere in Colon.
Police continue to conduct vehicle check points at key intersections in the city in an effort to raise their visibility and hamper criminals’ movements. The high crime areas in and around Panama City are El Chorrillo, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Santa Librada, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Panama Viejo, and the Madden Dam Overlook.
Crimes are typical of those that plague metropolitan areas and include shootings, rapes, armed robberies, muggings, purse-snatchings, thefts from locked autos by breaking windows for entry, thefts of unsecured items, petty theft, and occasionally "express kidnappings" from ATM banking facilities, in which the victim is briefly kidnapped and robbed after withdrawing cash from an ATM. There has also been a recent spike in the number of credit card and ATM card fraud reports. Criminals are capturing credit and ATM card information to clone and create fraudulent cards. Kidnappings have been on the rise of late, including in Panama City. Many of the kidnappings appear related to drug or criminal activity.
There has also been a recent increase of thefts from cars. We encourage travelers and residents to take all valuables out of their cars and place them in their trunks before they get to their destinations. Drivers should keep their windows up while the car is in motion or stopped in traffic, at traffic lights, or at their destinations to prevent items being stolen while driving.
Taxis are a very helpful way to maneuver around Panama; however use caution when getting into a taxi. Check to see that the number on the side of the taxi matches the number of the license plate. Ensuring the car is a registered taxi with a number on the side is a quick way to help prevent any incidences. Regular taxis are yellow in color. Also, never get into a taxi which already has a passenger and instruct the driver not to pick up any additional fares while en route to your destination. Many hotels also have “tourist taxis” that are not yellow but only pick up passengers in front of well-known hotels.
U.S. citizens are advised to never let a “helpful” stranger direct you to a particular taxi or taxi stand, and always negotiate the fare before getting in to ensure a fixed price.
In regards to non-drug related crime, the use of weapons (handguns and knives) in the commission of street robberies is common; however, gratuitous violence is uncommon as long as the victim complies and hands over the property. In 2013, there was an increase in violence during theft. Home burglaries and, more worrying, home-invasion robberies do appear to be on the rise, especially in the more affluent neighborhoods. Panama City has a curfew for those younger than 18 years of age that is generally from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The times are subject to change depending on your location within Panama. If you are concerned about the exact time you may contact local police. This curfew applies to both Panamanian and foreign citizens. Under the law, students attending night classes must have a “carnet” or permit, issued by the school or, if employed, a Certificate of Employment. Minors who are picked up for a curfew violation are subject to detention at a police station until parents or legal guardians can arrange for them to be released into their custody. Parents or legal guardians may be fined up to U.S. $50 for the first violation.
Panamanian customs authorities may enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Panama of items such as firearms and ammunition, cultural property, endangered wildlife species, narcotics, biological material, and food products. Contact the Embassy of Panama in Washington or one of Panama's Consulates in the United States for specific information regarding customs requirements.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law.
While you are traveling in Panama, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you.
Driving under the influence can land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. For example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods.
Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States, as is commercial sex with a person under the age of 18.
If you break local laws in Panama, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution, and the embassy cannot get you out of jail or prison. Keep in mind, if you are arrested you must be sentenced before you can be repatriated to the United States. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Persons violating Panamanian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Panama are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
If you are arrested in Panama, authorities of Panama are required to alert the U.S. Embassy of your arrest. If you are concerned the Department of State may not be aware of your situation, you should request that the police notify the U.S. Embassy of your arrest.
Spanish is the official language although many Panamanians in business and the professions speak English.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Panama City has some very good hospitals and clinics, but medical facilities outside of the capital are limited. Hospitals in Panama are either private hospitals or government-run public hospitals.
Many foreign doctors and hospitals require payment in cash prior to providing service. Medical evacuation to the U.S. may cost well in excess of $50,000. In Panama, most hospitals accept credit cards for hospital charges, but not for doctors' fees.
Except for antibiotics and narcotics, most medications are available without a prescription.
The 911 call center also provides ambulance service. However, an ambulance may not always be available and, given difficulties with traffic jams and poor road conditions, there may be a significant delay in response. There are also private ambulance services available on a subscription basis.
Panama is actively promoting medical tourism, and many companies are now offering vacation packages bundled with medical consultations for assisted reproduction technology treatments, dental procedures, and a wide range of plastic surgery. While there are advantages, like affordable costs, quality health care, and a chance to recuperate while vacationing, there are also risks.
Individuals considering plastic surgery should always make sure that emergency medical facilities are available in or near the facility where the surgery will be performed. Some “boutique” plastic surgery operations offer luxurious facilities but are not hospitals and are therefore unable to deal with unforeseen emergencies.
Dengue and Malaria: Prevention of mosquito bites is the best way to avoid these illnesses. Use of topical repellants and wearing long sleeves and pants are recommended in areas affected.
Dengue fever outbreaks have been occurring annually in Panama in both urban and rural areas, this is a mosquito borne virus that can cause fever, severe headache and body aches, it can also cause severe disease with bleeding and even death. Dengue carrying mosquitoes are different than those carrying malaria and bite during the day and frequently live in homes and hotel rooms.
Malaria, also mosquito borne, occurs in rural areas of Panama. Malaria in Panama is almost exclusively P. vivax (P. falciparum transmission is minimal and limited to areas east of the Canal Zone). Transmission occurs throughout the year.
Malaria Chemoprophylaxis is recommended for all travelers: throughout the provinces and comarcas of Darién, Kuna Yala (including the San Blas Islands), Kuna de Madugandi, Kuna de Wargandi, and –Emberá.
Protective measures: Evening and nighttime insect precautions are essential in areas with any level of malaria transmission. Atovaquone/proguanil (Malarone or generic), doxycycline, and mefloquine are protective east of the Canal Zone. For the exceptional case of a vulnerable traveler with underlying medical conditions and/or the potential for an especially adverse outcome from malaria, chloroquine and other antimalarials (atovaquone/proguanil, doxycycline, and mefloquine) are protective west of the Canal Zone. Drug choice should be discussed with your medical provider before travel.
Traveler's Diarrhea: Moderate risk exists even in deluxe accommodations; high risk exists elsewhere. Food and beverage precautions are essential to reduce the likelihood of illness. Diarrhea risk can be minimized by avoiding fresh fruit and vegetables that cannot be peeled or are not cooked and served hot. Tap water is not safe to drink in many areas of Panama, and visitors should use bottled water. Traveling with antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin or levofloxacin and the antimotility agent loperamide in case of diarrhea should be considered.
You can find detailed information on vaccinations and other health precautions on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the World Health Organization (WHO) website, which contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
Tuberculosis is significantly more common in Panama than in the US. Although no particular precautions are recommended those with extended stays (more than 3 months) or extensive contact with disadvantaged populations should discuss with their medical provider TB testing before and after their travel to Panama.
Safety and Security
Avoid travel to remote areas of the Darien Province off of the Pan American Highway. U.S. Embassy personnel are allowed to travel to the restricted border areas of the Darien and San Blas Provinces only on official business and with prior approval of the Embassy’s Regional Security Officer and Deputy Chief of Mission. This restricted area encompasses the Darien National Park as well as some privately owned nature reserves and tourist resorts. The general remoteness of the region contributes to the potential hazards.
Due to scarcity of roads, most travel is by river or by foot path. This, combined with spotty medical infrastructure outside of major towns, makes travel there potentially hazardous. While the number of actual incidents remains low, U.S. citizens, other foreign nationals, and Panamanian citizens are potentially at risk of violent crime, kidnapping, and murder in this general area.
Moreover, the presence of Colombian terrorist groups, drug traffickers, and other criminals is common throughout the Panama-Colombia border area, increasing the danger to travelers. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operates in the remote areas of Panama’s Darien Province. Note: The Secretary of State has designated the FARC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Similarly, U.S. citizens should not travel to the area of Panama referred to as the “Mosquito Coast,” an extremely remote and inaccessible area along the Panamanian north coast bounded by Boca de Rio Chiriquí on the west and Coclé Del Norte on the east and stretching inward from the coast for five kilometers. Embassy personnel are allowed to travel to this area only on official business and with prior approval of senior Embassy management. Access to the region is almost exclusively by boat and/or aircraft. The area may also have a few unimproved roads and/or paths which are not marked on maps. This may be particularly true in the mining area along the Petaquilla River. Sections of this coastline are frequently used for narco-trafficking and other illegal activities.
From time to time, there may be demonstrations to protest internal Panamanian issues or, more rarely, manifestations of anti-American sentiment by small but vociferous groups. While most demonstrations are non-violent, it is nonetheless a good security practice to avoid demonstrations. The Panamanian National Police have used tear gas and/or riot control munitions in response to demonstrations, particularly when roadways have been blocked or aggression has been used against the police. Demonstrations and marches can and do occur in many locations around the country, to include areas along the PanAmerican highway. U.S. citizens should exercise caution near the campus of the University of Panama, the Presidential Palace, and the National Assembly, which have been the scenes of protests.
Protestors have blocked remote roadways and the Pan American Highway on an intermittent basis since February 2012. Longer duration protests can last for several days, sometimes trapping travelers on the roads without access to food and water. During these extended road closures the security situation can be tense and the potential for violence between Panamanian authorities and protestors is a real possibility. U.S. citizens traveling by road outside Panama City should travel with full fuel tanks, keep extra potable water and food in their vehicles, and ensure cell phones are charged during their travel. For the most recent information on possible road closures, the Embassy advises U.S. citizens to monitor local news and consult local police.
Visitors should be cautious when swimming or wading at the beach. Some beaches, especially those on the Pacific Ocean and those in Bocas del Toro Province, have dangerous currents that cause drowning deaths every year. These beaches are seldom posted with warning signs or monitored by lifeguards.
On the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, boaters should be wary of vessels that may be transporting narcotics, illicit materials, and illegal immigrants to and from Colombia. Bales and specially wrapped packages containing narcotics have been found floating in the ocean or lying on remote beaches. Boaters and beachgoers are warned to steer clear of these items, to not pick up or move these packages and to immediately report their location to the Panamanian authorities.
Special permission is needed from the National Environment Authority to visit the National Park on Coiba Island. The island is an abandoned penal colony, although on occasion, prisoners are sent there to care for the animals. Boaters should avoid the southeastern coast of Kuna Yala Comarca (San Blas Islands), south of Punta Carreto, on the Atlantic Coast.
Local maritime search and rescue capabilities are limited and well below U.S. standards. However, if you are experiencing an emergency at sea or know of someone who is experiencing an emergency off the coast of Panama, please contact the Embassy immediately which can contact Panamanian authorities.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Panama, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
The information below concerning Panama is provided for general reference only, and may not be applicable for a particular location or circumstance. Travelers should carry identification with them at all times and be prepared to stop for unannounced checkpoints throughout the country, especially at night.
While U.S. citizen tourists are permitted to stay in Panama for up to 180 days without a visa, current Panamanian law allows foreigners to drive in Panama using their valid foreign driver’s license for a period of only 90 days. Driving without a valid driver’s license is illegal in all areas of Panama. Drivers stopped for driving while intoxicated may face the loss of their driver’s license, a monetary penalty, and vehicle impoundment. Talking on a cell phone or drinking an alcoholic beverage while driving also carry fines.
Panama's roads, traffic and transportation systems are generally safe, but frequently traffic lights do not exist, even at busy intersections. Traffic in Panama moves on the right, as in the U.S., and Panamanian law requires that drivers and passengers wear seat belts.
Driving in Panama is often hazardous and difficult due to heavy traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets and a shortage of effective signs and traffic signals. On roads where poor lighting and driving conditions prevail, night driving is difficult and should be approached with caution. Night driving is particularly hazardous on the old Panama City – Colon highway. Riding your bicycle in the streets is not recommended, but there are a number of parks throughout the country where riding is permitted and safe.
Traffic roundabouts are common in Panama, and extreme care should be taken when entering and exiting them. Generally speaking, vehicles already in the roundabout have right-of-way over those entering, but demanding your right-of-way may result in an accident. Most roundabouts have two lanes all the way around, so it is a good idea to plan your exit and get in the proper lane so that you do not have to cut across traffic to exit. Be especially careful of taxis, as the drivers can be very assertive.
Buses and taxis are not always maintained in a safe operating condition due to lack of regulatory enforcement. Public transportation should be used with caution, especially the local city buses found in Panama City called Diablos Rojos or "Red Devils." A modern public transit infrastructure, using modern buses, is being rolled out and the Diablos Rojos are being retired, but as yet the security of the new transit system cannot be evaluated.
Third party liability auto insurance is mandatory, but many drivers are uninsured. If an accident occurs, a recent law requires that the vehicles be moved off the roadway; failure to do so could result in a fine. Individuals involved in non-injury accidents should take a photo of both cars and then pull their vehicle off the roadway. Exchange information with the other driver and wait for the police to arrive. Emergency response in Panama is not regularly reliable. Police may take hours to respond to routine accidents, though response is often quicker for serious accidents. Ambulances will take all injured persons to a public hospital for treatment unless proof of health insurance is provided at the time of arrival.
Road travel is more dangerous during the rainy season (April to December) due to flooding. Rainy season occasionally makes city streets impassible and washes out some roads in the interior of the country. In addition, roads in rural areas are often poorly maintained and lack illumination at night. Such roads are generally less traveled and the availability of emergency roadside assistance is very limited. Heavier road traffic during Carnival through Easter Sunday makes road travel in the interior provinces more difficult and dangerous. Carnival starts the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday and goes on for four days. If you are interested in receiving real time weather, earthquake, and high seas information from the Panamanian Government, please visit their website or follow @SINAPROC_PANAMAon Twitter.
There is often construction at night on Panama's portion of the Pan American highway. There are few signs alerting drivers to construction, and the highway is not well lit at night. When traveling on the highway, travelers should be aware of possible roadblocks. The Pan American Highway ends at Yaviza in the Darien Province of Panama and does not continue through to Colombia.
The Panama Metro is currently under construction throughout Panama City. This public transportation project includes the construction of 13 stations, of which eight will be underground and five aboveground. There are ongoing traffic pattern changes and additional traffic delays, particularly during rush hour, due to the project.