Panamanians are proud of their nationality. Their country is culturally and ecologically diverse, and has been an important global transit point for centuries. A local saying claims Panama as the “bridge of the world, heart of the universe”. Such a bold statement for a small country speaks to the depth and diversity of what lies within.
Panama is a narrow isthmus connecting Central America to South America, bordered by Costa Rica to the north and Colombia to the south. It is bordered by the Caribbean Sea on its eastern coast, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Its Caribbean coastline is dotted with hundreds of small islands, making up two distinct archipelagos – Guna Yala (San Blas) and Bocas del Toro. The Pacific coast is also endowed with many small islands as well as a few larger ones – namely Isla del Rey and Isla de Coiba. It has an incredible wealth of marine life, particularly in the national parks offshore of the Western Highlands.
Best known for its world famous canal and cosmopolitan Panama City, the country of Panama has a great deal more to offer the adventurous traveler than these two landmarks alone. The locals are as varied as the landscape, which ranges from dense jungle to enormous volcanoes, to high mountains, cool coffee farms, sky-scraping metropolises and sandy beaches.
There is good surfing, vibrant nightlife, fascinating history, and resilient indigenous people clinging to their culture. Opportunities abound for those adventurous enough to dive in, and the rewards are great.
The balboa is Panama’s official currency, though U.S. dollars and coins are also accepted and used interchangeably. One U.S. dollar is equal to one balboa. It can be challenging to exchange money in Panama, so it’s best to bring cash in U.S. dollars when arriving. If this isn’t possible, make your exchanges in Panama City before traveling to other parts of the country, where it can be impossible to do so.
ATMs are available in cities throughout Panama. Major credit cards are accepted in most urban areas, though if traveling to remote districts or to the San Blas Islands, it is recommended to bring cash in small denominations as credit cards may not be accepted. It is wise to have small bills on hand for tipping and small exchanges. Ten percent is an appropriate tip for restaurant bills.
From Miami in the U.S., a nonstop flight to Panama City takes only three hours. There are plenty of options departing from both Miami and other major U.S. hubs, as well as internationally. It is even possible to travel by bus from North America or Central America. The journey will be a long one, but it is the cheapest way to go for those on a budget. To get from Costa Rica to Panama, it is possible to cross the border by car or bus.
To get to South America from Panama, the best (and arguably the only safe) way is by air. It is technically possible to travel by private sailboat from the San Blas archipelago (Guna Yala) to Colombia, though there is plenty of risk involved as the journey can be unpredictably rough and can take 4-5 days. There are no roads between Panama and Colombia, and no trains.
Bus travel within Panama is easy, cheap, convenient, and fairly reliable. Taxis are another good option, and there are plenty of them, especially in Panama City. To travel within a city it should cost only a couple of dollars. Even longer journeys are usually reasonable – just confirm the price beforehand.
Domestic flights are an option to get to some remote areas within Panama, and boat travel is the local means of transportation in the island districts of Guna Yala and Bocas del Toro. Boats are also used along the rivers of the Darién, though some planning or impromptu negotiating may be required as ferry services are limited or nonexistent.
The people of Panama are a mixture of Spanish, African, Caribbean and native indigenous descent, with a growing number of immigrant groups and expats from around the world. There is a sizable Chinese population.
Panamanians are generally a laid back lot who value dignity, respect, courtesy, and family ties. The pace of Panama City can be quite a bit more hectic than other parts of the country. Still, lateness is often tolerated, even expected, and there is a laid back attitude toward punctuality.
Panamanians like to have a good time, as anyone celebrating Carnaval with the locals will attest to. Personal experiences will differ throughout the country, from the densely jungled Darién, to cosmopolitan Panama City, to the Caribbean coast. There are nine provinces in the country, and people often identify themselves with their region of origin. There are five comarcas (semi-autonomous regions) in Panama, where the majority of Panama’s indigenous populations reside.
The main indigenous groups that survive today are the Guna (Kuna), the Ngöbe and Buglé, the Emberá and Wounaan, and the Naso, Bri Bri and Bokoda. The Ngöbe people are the most populous, while the Bri Bri number less than 1,000. Many members of these groups survive by subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing. The Wounaan are renowned for their sought-after hand woven baskets and crafts. Some groups, such as the Guna (or Kuna), are beginning to embrace tourism, while others are more closed off to visitors. In all indigenous communities it is important to behave respectfully and to ask permission before taking photos.
Spanish is the official language of Panama. Several indigenous dialects (eight indigenous languages total) such as Kuna and Ngöbere are also spoken, particularly in the various comarcas (indigenous territories). Panamanian Creole English is spoken by a few groups of people, mostly descendants of immigrants from the West Indies. English is sometimes spoken or understood, though not necessarily pervasively, and even less so in the comarcas. English speaking visitors shouldn’t have much trouble getting around Panama City and some parts of the Caribbean coast, though communication will be more difficult in rural or indigenous areas.
Panama is a relatively clean and hygienic place. Water is generally safe to drink in the cities, though perhaps not in parts of the Darién, Bocas del Toro, or some other areas. Tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever can be transmitted by mosquito, though the rates are not extremely high (risk is much higher in some areas – such as parts of the Darién and parts of the Caribbean coast). Many travelers get by without taking antimalarial medications. Speak with your doctor if you are traveling to a particularly remote area or to a district where malaria prevalence is high, if you are camping outdoors, or staying for a while, to discuss whether preventative measures may be necessary. Otherwise be sure to cover up and use plenty of bug repellent.
Sleep in a tent at night, especially if camping deep in the jungle, to protect yourself from bats and other animals. Yellow fever was once a concern in Panama, but has been all but eradicated since the early 1900’s, and travelers are unlikely to contract it. It is recommended that travelers are up to date with required vaccines, and to check current information about disease and health concerns prior to travel.
Besides mosquitos there are a plethora of other bugs and critters, such as chiggers (mites) and sand flies. Travelers should be aware of poisonous snakes and other potentially dangerous wildlife, especially when trekking. In some places it is wise to travel with an experienced local guide. The Darién is particularly treacherous, and certain parts near the border with Colombia may be off limits due to safety concerns. Check the status before you go, and respect local authorities.
A valid passport (valid for at least 6 months after date of entry) is required. A visa may be required for residents of some countries. Visitors may stay for up to 90 days upon entry.
When to Go
The Panamanian summer or dry season is roughly mid December – mid April. Weather is generally hot and humid. A good time to travel is toward the beginning of the dry season. Weather varies around the country and it can be rainy in some areas, such as the Caribbean coast, throughout the year. The rainy season runs from mid April – mid December. During this time heavy rain can make travel difficult and may muddy roads and hiking trails.
Temperatures can range from very hot (90 degrees F +) in Panama City, to very cold in the highlands. If you want to celebrate Carnaval in Panama (along with the rest of the country), check out the festivities in Las Tablas or Panama City, and plan your trip accordingly.
The weather will most likely be hot and humid when you arrive in Panama, but avoid the temptation to dress overly casual in flip flops and shorts. This will make you stand out as a tourist, as Panamanians of all economic status take pride in their appearance and dress well. Dignidad (dignity) is an important cultural value here, as are respect and courtesy. It’s best to save your beach clothes for the beach (though even then too much skin revealed will leave you exposed to nasty little sand flies called chitras). When traveling in the cities or around the country, dress appropriately.
It will serve you well to cover your legs and arms when hiking or traveling in remote areas, as protection against mosquitos, chiggers, and other creatures. Lightweight clothing of linen or cotton is recommended. Use plenty of bug repellent, and sleep under nets or indoors in certain areas where mosquitos are prevalent.
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