Reckon a basic daily budget of US$35, or US$50 with the occasional treat.
Crime and personal safety
Panama has something of an unjust reputation as a dangerous place to travel. Although violent crime does occasionally occur, it is usually in particular city areas, as in most countries, and Panama is far safer than most other countries in Central America. Nonetheless, you should take special care in Colón and some districts in Panama City, and more generally late at night in cities, or when carrying luggage; take a taxi. Outside these two cities, the only other area where there is any particular danger is near the Colombian border in Darién and Guna Yala. This frontier has long been frequented by guerrillas, bandits and cocaine traffickers, and several travellers attempting to cross overland to Colombia have been kidnapped or killed – or have simply disappeared. It is possible to visit some areas of Darién safely, including parts of the national park, but always seek advice from the Darién National Park office in Yaviza (Mon–Fri 8am–4pm; t299 4495) before travel. Note, too, that some of the boats that ply the coast may be involved in smuggling.
If you become the victim of a crime, report it immediately to the local police station, particularly if you will later be making an insurance claim. In Panama City and Colón the tourist police (policía de turismo) are better prepared to deal with foreign travellers and more likely to speak some English – in Panama City they wear white armbands.
Although by law you are required to carry your passport at all times, you will rarely be asked to present it except when in transit; the tourist police recommend that when walking around the towns and cities it’s better to carry a copy of your passport (including the page with the entry stamp).
Ambulance 225 1436 or 228 2187 (Cruz Roja) or 269 9778
Tourist Police (Casco Viejo, Panama City) 270 3365
Travellers from Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK or the US do not require a visa to enter Panama. Passports are generally stamped for three or six months and extensions cannot be granted unless applying for a different kind of visa, such as a residency permit.
Medical care in Panama is best sought in the two largest cities: Panama City and David. Panama City has a handful of top-notch hospitals with many US- and European-trained doctors and English-speaking staff. As most doctors and hospitals expect payment up front, frequently in cash, check your health insurance plan or buy supplementary travel insurance before you leave home. Note, too, that tourists entering the country via Tocumen International Airport are entitled to a new free health insurance policy, which is valid for thirty days. Ask for the brochure at the ATP information booth on arrival.
Pharmacies are numerous and often stay open late; in addition, 24hour supermarkets Rey, Romero and Super 99 usually have 24hour pharmacies. Hospitals and occasionally health clinics have pharmacies on site, and many types of medicines are available over the counter, without a prescription.
Information and maps
Good, impartial information about Panama is hard to come by once you’re in the country. The biggest network of information is the Panamanian Tourist Institute (visitpanama.com) or the Autoridad de Turismo Panamá (ATP atp.gob.pa), which has its main office in Panama City and many provincial branches; their ATP offices offer flyers and pamphlets but the quality of information varies enormously and staff rarely speak English. The Visitor/El Visitante (thevisitorpanama.com), a free, weekly tourist promotion magazine in English and Spanish, is available online and at ATP offices and tourist venues throughout Panama, and lists attractions and upcoming events. Several tour operators based in Panama City can give you advice on the rest of the country, in the hope of selling you a tour.
Panama’s national parks and other protected areas are administered by the National Environment Agency, ANAM (anam.gob.pa). Their regional offices are often very helpful – though again you’ll need some Spanish – and are an essential stop before visiting areas where permission is needed, or if you want to spend the night in a refugio and/or hire a guide.
The best maps of Panama are the International Travel Map of Panama and the National Geographic one (both available online). In the country, large-scale maps are available at the Instituto Geográfico Nacional Tommy Guardia (Mon–Fri 8.30am–4pm) on Avenida Simón Bolívar, opposite the entrance to the university in Panama City. The Rutas de Aventuras series of maps, covering most cities and tourist areas in Panama, are widely available in bookshops and souvenir stores throughout the country for around US$4.
You should be able to find an internet café almost anywhere you go; rates are normally US$1/hour. Wi-fi is commonly available and free in hostels and most hotels, especially in Panama City.
Letters posted with the Correo Nacional (COTEL) cost US$0.45 (US$0.35 for postcards) to both the US and Europe, and should reach their destination within a couple of weeks. Even though post offices can be found in most small towns, it’s best to post mail in Panama City.
Money and banks
Panama adopted US dollars (referred to interchangeably as dólares or balboas) as its currency in 1904, and has not printed any paper currency since. The country does, however, mint its own coinage: 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 centavo pieces which are used alongside US coins, plus a new US$1 coin. Both US$100 and US$50 bills are often difficult to spend, so try to carry nothing larger than a US$20 bill. It is difficult to change foreign currency in Panama – change any cash into US dollars as soon as you can. Foreign banks will generally change their own currencies.
Travellers’ cheques are impossible to change, so you’re better off with a credit card, and a debit card for ATM withdrawals. The three major banks are Banco Nacional, Banco General and HSBC. Almost all branches have ATMs, as do many large supermarkets; all ATMs demand a US$3 levy on every transaction. Major credit cards are accepted in most hotels and restaurants in Panama City and the larger provincial towns, though hardly anywhere in Bocas del Toro. Visa is the most widely accepted, followed by MasterCard. Some shops will charge an extra five percent if you pay by credit card.
Opening hours vary, but generally businesses and government offices are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm. Post offices are open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm, and Sat 8am to noon, while the major banks are generally open from 8am to 3pm Monday to Friday, and from 9am to noon on Saturday. Shops are usually open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm.
Panama has several national public holidays, when most government offices, businesses and shops close. Panama City and Colón also each have their own public holiday, and there is one public holiday for government employees only. When the public holidays fall near a weekend many Panamanians take a long weekend (known as a puente) and head to the beach or the countryside – it can be difficult to find hotel rooms during these times. Public holidays that fall midweek are sometimes moved to a Monday or Friday to avoid disrupting the working week. Several of these public holidays also coincide with national fiestas that continue for several days.
Jan 1 New Year’s Day
Jan 9 Martyrs’ Day
Feb/March (date varies) Carnaval
March/April Good Friday
May 1 Labour Day
Aug 15 Foundation of Panama City (Panama City only)
Nov 2 All Souls’ Day
Nov 3 Independence Day
Nov 4 Flag Day (government holiday only)
Nov 5 National Day (Colón only)
Nov 10 First Cry of Independence
Nov 28 Emancipation Day
Dec 8 Mother’s Day
Dec 25 Christmas
Panama’s privatized telephone company is owned by Cable & Wireless. Local calls are cheap, and there’s a wide network of payphones that take phonecards sold in shops and street stalls; a Telechip card allows you to make both local and international calls. Local numbers should have seven digits; local mobile numbers have eight digits and begin with a “6” or a “5”. Many internet cafés also provide international phone calls for between US$0.05–10/minute to North America or Europe. You can make international reverse charge calls from payphones via the international operator (t106).
Mobile phone coverage is growing, and even covers remote stretches of the Darién and Guna Yala, with the Móvil and Digicel networks having the best coverage outside of the capital. It’s easy to buy a local SIM card in Panama City (around US$3) and replace the card in your own phone with it, although you may need a “hacker” to unlock your phone for use of the Panamanian networks.