Accessible Travel

Panama is not wheelchair friendly, though high-end hotels provide some accessible rooms. There are parking spaces for people with mobility issues and some oversized bathroom stalls. Outside the capital, adequate infrastructure is lacking.

Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.

Bargaining

It's OK but not all that common to bargain at markets and street stalls, but educate yourself first by asking around to get an idea of the pricing of different items, particularly handmade goods, and the specific factors that contribute to the quality. Rather than intensive negotiations, just ask for a descuento (discount).

Dangers & Annoyances

  • Crime is a problem in parts of Panama City, though the city’s better districts are safer than in many other capitals.
  • The city of Colón has a high rate of street crime, so consult hotel staff on areas to avoid.
  • When traveling in Darién Province, always register with SENAFRONT (border control) before traveling and go with a guide.
  • There have been cases of drug trafficking on boats traveling the Caribbean from Colombia north to Panama.

Hiking Safety

Though it’s tropical, Panama's weather runs the gamut from hot to cold, and hiking is not always easy here. Always ask local outfitters or rangers about trail conditions before heading out, and ensure you go adequately prepared. Carry plenty of water, even on short journeys, and always bring food, matches and adequate clothing – jungles do get quite a bit colder at night, particularly at higher elevations.

Hikers have been known to get lost in rainforests, even seemingly user-friendly ones such as Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and the Sendero Los Quetzales. Landslides, storms and vegetation growth can make trails difficult to follow. In some cases, even access roads can deteriorate enough for transport to leave you a few kilometers before your intended drop-off point. This is just the reality of the jungle, and there is no official rescue organization to help you here. If you are heading out without a guide, make your plans known at your hotel or hostel and tell them the number of days you expect to be gone.

Never walk in unmarked rainforest; if there’s no trail going in, you can assume that there won’t be one when you decide to turn around and come back out. Always plan your transportation in advance – know where and when the last bus will pass your terminus, or arrange for a taxi pick-up with a responsible, recommended transporter.

Police

Police corruption is not as big a problem in Panama as it is in some other Latin American countries. However, it’s not unheard of for a police officer to stop a motorist for no obvious reason, invent a violation, and levy a fine to be paid on the spot. Showing confusion will sometimes fluster the officer into letting you go, though don't expect much leniency if the police are traveling in pairs. If there has been a violation, suggest you go to the police station to pay.

Some cities in Panama have tourist police – a division created to deal specifically with travelers. Identifiable by armbands on their uniform, officers in this division may be more helpful but it is unlikely.

Swimming Safety

Unfortunately, drownings occur every year in Panamanian waters, about 80% of them caused by rip currents. A rip is a strong current that pulls the swimmer out to sea. It occurs when two currents that move parallel to the shore meet, causing the opposing waters to choose the path of least resistance, which is the path out to sea.

Some tips:

  • If you are caught in a rip, stay calm and swim parallel to the shore to get out of it – rip currents dissipate quickly.
  • Contrary to popular belief, a rip will not pull you down and hold you under the water. A rip simply carries floating objects, including people, out beyond the zone of breaking waves.
  • When the current dissipates, swim back in at a 45-degree angle to the shore to avoid being caught by the rip current again.
  • Do not try to swim directly back in, as you would be swimming against the rip and would only exhaust yourself.
  • If you feel a rip while you are wading, try to come back in sideways, thus offering less body surface to the current. If you cannot make headway, walk parallel to the beach until you get out of the rip.

Thefts & Muggings

Tourist-oriented crime is generally not common in Panama, but it can and does happen.

  • Be smart – avoid carrying all your money in one place and avoid entering areas that appear unsafe. If you look like you don’t have anything of value on you, you’re less likely to interest a mugger.
  • Ask your hotel about spots to avoid, and stay where it’s well lit and populated.
  • Victims of any crime should get a police report as soon as possible. This is a requirement for any insurance claim, although it is unlikely that the police will be able to recover the property. Non-Spanish speakers can ask their embassy for help.
  • Panama has a long history of business-related crime, particularly with regard to real estate. If you want to make local investments, make sure you check them out thoroughly. If a deal seems too good to be true, it almost certainly will be.

Electricity

The electrical current is 110V, 60Hz in Panama. Plugs are two pronged, as in the US and Canada, though occasionally you'll see one with an extra prong for grounding/earthing.

Embassies & Consulates

More than 50 countries have embajadas (embassies) or consulados (consulates) in Panama City. With the exception of those of the USA and France, most embassies are located in the Marbella district of Panama City.

Ireland, Australia and New Zealand have no embassies or consulates in Panama. In all three cases, refer to the relevant nation's legation in Mexico.

Canadian Embassy

Colombian Embassy

Costa Rican Embassy

Costa Rican Consulate

Dutch Consulate

French Embassy

German Embassy

UK Embassy

US Embassy

Emergency & Important Numbers

Panama has no regional dialing codes.

Panama country code507
International operator106
Directory assistance102
Ambulance455 & 107
Police104

Entry & Exit Formalities

Passengers entering Panama by air are less scrutinized than those crossing by land. Upon arrival, most travelers will have to fill out a tourist card.

The most popular overland crossing is from Costa Rica at Paso Canoas. You may be asked to show an onward ticket – a return bus ticket to Costa Rica will suffice. Other land crossings include the low-key border at Sixaola/Guabito and the seldom-used Río Sereno. To/from Colombia by boat, the crossing is at Capurganá.

Customs Regulations

You may bring up to 10 cartons of cigarettes and five bottles of liquor into Panama tax free. If you try to leave Panama with products made from endangered species – such as jaguar teeth, ocelot skin and turtle shell – you’ll face a steep fine and possible jail time.

Passports

Every visitor needs a valid passport and an onward ticket to enter Panama, but further requirements vary by nationality and change occasionally. Anyone planning a trip to Panama is well advised to check online to obtain the latest information on entry requirements. Ticketing agents of airlines that fly to Panama and tour operators can often provide this information.

In the event that you lose your passport while in Panama, you’ll need proof of when you entered the country to be able to leave. That proof, strangely enough, does not come from an immigration office but from the airline you flew in on. You need to go to the airline’s main office in Panama City and request a certification of your entry date (certificación de vuelo). There’s no charge, but you’ll likely be asked to come back the next day to pick it up. When you leave the country, along with your new passport (obtained from your embassy in Panama City), you’ll present your certificación de vuelo to an immigration agent.

Visas

Visas are generally not required for stays of up to 90 days.

Further Information

Visitors from most European countries as well as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa get a 90-day stamp in their passport upon entering Panama.

After 90 days, visas can be extended at migración (immigration) offices. Travelers entering Panama overland will probably be asked to show an onward ticket and potentially proof of sufficient funds (US$500) or a credit card.

Citizens from certain other countries will need to obtain a visa, available at Panamanian embassies or consulates. Contact the one nearest you or call Migración y Naturalización in Panama City.

Onward Tickets

Travelers officially need onward tickets before they are allowed to enter Panama. This requirement is not often checked at Tocumen International Airport, but travelers arriving by land should anticipate a need to show an onward ticket.

If you’re heading to Colombia, Venezuela or another South American country from Panama, you may need an onward or round-trip ticket before you will be allowed entry into that country or even allowed to board the plane if you’re flying. A quick check with the appropriate embassy – easy to do via the internet – will tell you whether the country that you’re heading to has an onward-ticket requirement.

Extensions

Visas are good for 90 days. To extend your stay, you’ll have to go to a Migración y Naturalización office in Panama City, David or Chitré. You must bring your passport and photocopies of the page with your personal information and of the stamp of your most recent entry to Panama. You must also bring two passport-size photos, an onward air or bus ticket and a letter to the director stating your reasons for wishing to extend your visit. You must have proof of funds (US$500) for the remainder of your stay (a credit card will suffice). You will have to fill out a prórroga de turista (tourist extension) and pay a fee. You will then be issued a plastic photo-ID card. Go early in the day as the whole process takes about two hours.

If you have extended your time, you will also need to obtain a permiso de salida (exit permit) to leave the country. For this, bring your passport and a paz y salvo (a certificate stating you don’t owe any back taxes) to the immigration office. Paz y salvos are issued at Ministerios de Economia y Finanzas, found in towns with immigration offices; obtaining one simply requires that you bring in your passport, fill out a form and pay about US$1.

These documents can be obtained in Panama City at the Migración y Naturalización and the Ministerio de Economia y Finanzas, Dirección de Ingresos.

Etiquette

  • Asking for help Say discúlpame to get someone's attention; perdón to say 'excuse me.'
  • Personal space Don't be surprised if locals have fewer boundaries about personal space than what's customary in North America and Europe.
  • Visiting indigenous communities Ask permission to take photos, particularly of children, and dress more modestly than beachwear. Some bargaining may be appropriate for buying crafts but not for lodging and food. The best gifts for children are those that are useful (pens, paper, notebooks, creative games or books), not sweets.
  • Surfing Novice surfers should be aware of 'dropping in' on more experienced surfers and of swimmers in their path.

Insurance

  • Prior to your trip, sign up for a travel-insurance policy to cover theft, loss and medical problems.
  • Read the fine print. Some policies specifically exclude dangerous activities, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling and even trekking.
  • Look into policies that pay doctors or hospitals directly instead of requiring a payment on the spot and a subsequent claim.
  • If you have to claim later, ensure you keep all documentation.
  • Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home.
  • Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Checking insurance quotes…

Internet Access

Public wi-fi access is increasingly common in bus terminals, plazas, libraries and restaurants. Hotels and hostels in more tourist-oriented areas have wi-fi and some computer terminals for use; the Guna Yala and Darién regions are generally exceptions. If desperate, visit the local school – it's often possible to pick up a signal outside.

LGBT Travellers

Panamanians are more out than ever, though this openness is much more prevalent in Panama City than anywhere else. You will probably meet more openly gay locals here than in other parts of Central America, though the culture is generally discreet.

Gay unions are still not legal here, but many think this may change relatively soon. According to locals, discrimination is more prevalent against lesbians than gay men.

Maps

Outside of Panama City, maps are hard to come by.

Canada-based International Travel Maps publishes an excellent 1:300,000 color map of Panama (US$11.95) showing the geographical features, cities, towns, national parks, airports and roads of Panama. Maps are available for purchase online.

At Instituto Geográfico Nacional in Panama City, you can buy topographical maps of selected cities and regions. Various free tourist publications distributed in Panama also have maps, though hiking maps are rarely available at national-park ranger stations.

Money

ATMs are readily available except in the most isolated places. Credit cards are widely accepted at restaurants and upscale hotels but may be problematic elsewhere.

ATMs

Throughout Panama, ATMs are readily available, except in the Darién, on Islas Contadora and Tobago and in the Archipiélago de San Blás. Look for the red ‘Sistema Clave’ sign. Generally speaking, ATMs accept cards on most networks (Plus, Cirrus, MasterCard, Visa, Amex), though a charge is usually levied depending on your issuing bank. The amount that can be withdrawn at one time varies from bank to bank, though it is usually US$500 maximum.

There are several places where it’s essential to show up with cash. Among tourist destinations, the following places have no banks, and it’s a long way to the nearest ATM: Santa Catalina, Santa Fé and Isla de Coiba in Veraguas; Isla Contadora and Isla Tobago in Panamá Province; Isla Grande and Portobelo in Colón; and most of the Darién.

Cash

Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it’s exactly the same bill. People use the terms dólar and balboa interchangeably.

Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US ones, though both are used interchangeably. Coins include one, five, 10, 25 and 50 centavos – 100 centavos equal one balboa (dollar). Most businesses won’t break US$50 and US$100 bills, and those that do may require you to present your passport.

Credit Cards

Although they are widely accepted at travel agencies, upscale hotels and many restaurants, credit cards can present difficulties elsewhere. It is always advisable to carry enough cash to get you to the next bank or ATM.

Always find out if your hotel or restaurant accepts credit in advance to avoid unpleasant surprises.

If charging a big-ticket item, it's best to check in with your bank in advance. Most cards charge a fee (between 3% and 10%) for international use.

Exchange Rates

AustraliaA$1US$0.74
CanadaC$1US$0.76
Euro zone€1US$1.17
Japan¥100US$0.90
New ZealandNZ$1US$0.68
UK£1US$1.32

For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.

Money Changers

The only bank that exchanges foreign currency is the Banco Nacional de Panamá counter at Tocumen International Airport. Outside the airport, only a casa de cambio (exchange house) can change foreign currency for dollars. They are rare outside Panama City.

Tipping

  • Restaurants Tipping should be 10%, but check to see if it's included in the bill.
  • Taxis Tipping is optional, but you can round up a dollar or two, especially at night.
  • Guides It is customary to tip US$7 to US$10 per person for day tours; tip on the high end for naturalist guides.

Opening Hours

Opening hours vary throughout the year. The following are high-season hours.

Banks 8am–3pm Monday to Friday, 9am–noon Saturday

Bars and clubs Bars from 9pm; clubs 11pm–3am or 4am

Government offices 8am–4pm Monday to Friday

Malls and shops 10am–9pm or 10pm

Offices 8am–noon and 1:30–5pm Monday to Friday

Restaurants 7–10am, noon–3pm and 6–10pm (later in Panama City); often closed Sunday

Supermarkets 8am–9pm; some open 24 hours

Photography

Panamanians may be relaxed about having their photo taken, but it is always best to ask before doing so. General landscape scenes that include locals are usually fine. Flash equipment is forbidden in Panama’s churches and museums.

In general, indigenous people should not be photographed without their permission; in the Comarca de Guna Yala, photographing locals is considered rude. Those who will pose may attach a price tag – usually US$1 per photo.

Those honing their skills should consult Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography.

Post

Correos Panamá operates Panama's mail service; check its website for locations. In theory, airmail to the USA takes five to 10 days; to Europe and Australia, 10 days. Panama has neither vending machines for stamps nor drop-off boxes for mail. You may be able to buy stamps and send mail from an upscale hotel to avoid going to the post office and standing in line. To mail packages, bring all packing materials yourself.

Public Holidays

Días feriados (national holidays) are taken very seriously in Panama, and banks, public offices and many stores close. Public transportation tends to be tight on all holidays and the days immediately preceding or following them – book tickets in advance.

There is no bus service at all on the Thursday afternoon and Friday before Easter, and many businesses are closed for the entire Semana Santa (Holy Week; the week before Easter). From Thursday to Easter Sunday, all bars are closed, and alcohol sales are prohibited. Beach hotels are usually booked several weeks in advance for Semana Santa, though a limited choice of rooms is often available.

The week between Christmas and New Year, along with the first week of the year, tends to be an unofficial holiday. In addition, various towns have celebrations for their own particular days throughout the year. These other holidays and special events are not official holidays, and businesses remain open.

Most national holidays are celebrated on Monday to create long weekends. When holidays fall on a Thursday or Friday, they are celebrated on the following Monday; holidays that happen to fall on Tuesday or Wednesday are usually celebrated the prior Monday.

New Year’s Day (Año Nuevo) January 1

Martyrs’ Day (Día de los Mártires) January 9

Good Friday (Viernes Santo) March/April

Labor Day (Día del Trabajo) May 1

Founding of Old Panama (Aniversario de Panamá La Vieja; Panama City only) August 15

Independence Day (Día de la Independencia) November 3

First Call for Independence (Primer Grito de la Independencia) November 10

Independence from Spain (Independencia de Panamá de España) November 28

Mothers’ Day (Día de la Madre) December 8

Christmas Day (Día de la Navidad) December 25

Smoking

  • Smoking Since 2005, smoking has been prohibited in all indoor public places, indoor workplaces and on public transportation; in 2013 Panama banned all advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.

Taxes & Refunds

A tax of 10% is added to the price of hotel rooms. When you inquire about a hotel, ask whether the quoted price includes the tax.

A 5% sales tax is levied on all nonfood products.

Telephone

Panama’s country code is 507. To call Panama from abroad, dial the international access code (usually 00 but 011 in the USA) then 507 (Panama's country code) and the seven-digit (landline) or eight-digit (cell/mobile) Panamanian telephone number. There are no local area codes in Panama.

Pay phones have been replaced with internet calling services. If you are traveling for an extended period, it may be useful to get a SIM card (US$5) if you have an unlocked cell phone. Otherwise, kiosks in malls and most chinitos (Chinese-run convenience stores) sell pay-per-use phones from US$20, and many come with minutes loaded. Having a phone can be invaluable for last-minute reservations or directions, especially since some lodgings are unresponsive to emails.

International Calls

Travelers wishing to make international calls can do so via public wi-fi connection. Some cafes provide headphones for internet calls.

Connecting to an international operator from a landline is easy. To connect with a local international operator, simply dial 106. For an international operator in the USA, dial 109 (AT&T). To reach a Costa Rican operator, dial 107; for a Colombian operator, dial 116.

Mobile Phones

Local SIM cards can be used in unlocked phones. Choose your carrier (eg Más Móvil, Digicel, Movistar) carefully, as only certain operators have coverage in the San Blás Islands and Darién Province.

Time

Panama observes Eastern Standard Time (GMT/UTC minus five hours). From late October to early April, Panama's clocks coincide with Eastern Standard Time (EST). The rest of the year the country is one hour behind EST as Panama does not observe daylight-saving time.

Toilets

Most bathrooms have signs requesting users to place used toilet paper in trash bins instead of flushing it because the narrow piping may clog up.

Be advised that in parts of Guna Yala and Bocas del Toro, whatever you flush goes straight out to sea. While you certainly can’t stop nature from calling, be sure not to flush anything else that doesn’t belong in the water.

Public toilets are found mainly in bus terminals, airports and restaurants. In Spanish, restrooms are called baños and are often marked caballeros (gentlemen) and damas (ladies). Outside the cities, toilet paper is not always provided in public toilets, so consider carrying a personal supply or at least some tissues.

Tourist Information

Autoridad de Turismo Panamá is the national tourism agency. Outside the flagship Panama City office, ATP runs offices in Bocas del Toro, Boquete, David, Paso Canoas, Portobelo, Santiago, El Valle and Pedasí. There are smaller information counters in both Tocumen International Airport and Albrook domestic airport.

ATP has a few useful maps and brochures but often has a problem keeping enough in stock for distribution to tourists. Most offices are staffed with people who speak only Spanish. A few employees really try to help, but the majority are just passing the time. As a general rule, you will get more useful information if you have specific questions.

Travel with Children

Panama is a family oriented culture and is generally very accommodating to travelers with children. The same can’t be said of many businesses owned by expats, who very clearly state the age requirements of their guests.

Most of Panama is quite safe to travel with children, though dengue fever and, less so, malaria are present in some limited areas. Bring good insect repellent and light long-sleeved tops and long pants.

A number of tours, some low intensity, are an enjoyable way for you and your children to see Panama’s lush environment. Look for agencies with tailored family outings.

For more ideas about making the most of your family travels, look for Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.

Practicalities

High chairs in restaurants are a rarity in Panama, but safety seats in rental cars are available on request. For diapers (nappies), creams and other supplies, stock up in Panama City. Generally speaking, the supermarkets are excellent in Panama, and you can find just about any product you’d find in the USA in them.

Volunteering

Volunteering opportunities are few in Panama, so potential volunteers should look for programs run by reputable, well-known NGOs such as the Grupo de Conservación de Tortugas de Jaqué in Darién. Many of the expat-run hostels employ volunteers on a casual basis in exchange for room and board.

Weights & Measures

  • Weights & Measures Panama uses the metric system, but occasionally weights and distances are given in pounds and miles.

Women Travellers

Female travelers usually find Panama safe. A minority of Panamanian men may make flirtatious comments, hiss, honk their horn or stare, even if you’re accompanied. Don’t take it as a challenge. A kind of hormonal babble, this behavior is as much about male bonding as the female passerby. The best response is to follow the lead of Panamanian women: give these men a wide berth, ignore their comments and look away.

While locals might get away with skimpy, stretchy clothing, travelers will naturally attract less attention with a more conservative approach. In the interior, dress is more formal, with skirts and nice sandals the norm. It is not legal to go topless, even in beach towns – for both men and women.

Women traveling solo will get more attention than those traveling in pairs or groups. Although assault and rape of foreign travelers is rare, avoid placing yourself in risky scenarios. In bars, do not take drinks from strangers. In general, don’t walk alone in isolated places, don’t hitchhike and always pay particular attention to your surroundings.

If you are taking a long-distance bus, sit next to a woman or a family if you are nervous about being approached. Be picky about your taxis: though shared taxis (between unknown parties) are common, avoid those with more than one man. If the driver tries to pick up another fare, you can offer to pay more to travel alone.

Work

It’s difficult for foreigners to find work in Panama. The government prefers to give jobs to Panamanians, and labor laws reflect this sentiment (eg Uber drivers must be Panamanian citizens). Foreigners legally employed in Panama generally have their own businesses, possess skills not found in Panama, or work for companies that have special agreements with the Panamanian government.