Panama is an isthmus — a thin strip of land with sea on either side. It is the narrowest and southernmost country in Central America, and is slightly smaller than South Carolina. While you’re here you’ll see more rainforests than roads, and a mix of indigenous and immigrant cultures. Although it’s most famed for its canal, Panama’s islands, intense biodiversity, and native people are what make it a memorable destination.
Each of Panama’s regions has its own scenery and culture. You’ll also find very different types of activities and tours.
Most travelers will fly into the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. This airport is modern and easy to navigate, and will be your jumping-off point for visits to the rest of the country. Travelling in Panama is uncomplicated due to efficient, well-maintained roads and a scattering of domestic airports.
Clean water is available throughout most of the country. This is largely the legacy of the Panama Canal Company, which had a strict policy of hygiene during the construction of the canal. The one place where clean water isn’t widely available is Bocas del Toro. The food in Panama is straightforward and nourishing, and visitors don’t need to worry about getting sick while eating in restaurants.
Panama’s currency, the balboa (PAB), is tied to the U.S. dollar. One balboa equals one dollar. Since Panama does not print its own paper currency, the U.S. dollar is legal tender in Panama. Panamanian coins are the same weight and size as U.S. coins, but have different images printed on them. They are used interchangeably with U.S coins. Despite the fact that Panama is a world banking capital of the world, it’s tough to exchange foreign currencies in most places – that said, we recommend bringing U.S. dollars if possible. ATMs are widely available and are by far the easiest way to get cash. Hotels, tours, and restaurants will list their prices in dollars. The cost of traveling in Panama is relatively low – a typical meal will cost $2-5.
Panama covers 29,157 square miles (75,517 sq km ) and borders Costa Rica and Colombia. At the canal, the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are just 50 miles (80 km) apart. East to west, however, the country stretches some 1,865 miles (3,000 km).
Panama’s largest mountain range is the Cordillera Central. This range runs through the western half of the country and contains Panama’s highest mountain, Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano that stands some 11,400 feet (3,475 m) tall. Another prominent mountain range extends along the eastern Caribbean coast, from the Comarca de Guna Yala to the Colombian border.
A quarter of the country is protected wilderness, with more biodiversity per square meter than the Amazon. There are 972 bird species, 200 mammal species, 200 reptile species, almost 200 amphibian species, and more than 10,000 species of plants. A third of Panama’s remaining forests are humid tropical forests, and there is a mixture of other ecosystems, including cloud forests, mangroves, coral reefs, islands, and even a man-made desert.
Panama’s climate is tropical, and temperatures remain consistently warm throughout the year. The lowlands tend to be warmer than the highlands, and the humidity is high year-round. Most of Panama experiences rainy and dry seasons — the dry season typically lasts from mid-December to mid-April. Some areas of the country (most notably Bocas del Toro) have microclimates that vary somewhat from typical weather patterns.
The 2010 census reported the Panamanian population as 3,322,576. More than two-thirds of these people live in urban areas including Panama City, the Canal Zone, and Colón. The rest of the population lives primarily in the isthmus’ central provinces. Culturally, Panamanians often identify themselves by the province that they are from, each of which has its own beliefs, traditions, and stereotypes.
Panama’s population is remarkably diverse — because it serves as a transit point for international commerce, the gene pool here has roots in Spain, Africa, China, and India, as well as the Middle East, Central Europe and North America. That said, the majority of Panamanians are of Spanish descent. The family unit is extremely important in Panama, and people here place a high priority on taking care of their families. Family events (birthdays, baptisms, etc.) are fundamental to the culture and it’s not uncommon to see whole families traveling together.
The average life expectancy is 75 years, although nearly one-third of the population is younger than 14 years of age. Women tend to outlive men by nearly five years. Education is important in Panama and a primary school education is mandatory. Due to this policy Panama has a literacy rate of over 93 percent.
Panama has a constitutional democracy. There is a president and vice president, both of which are elected to single five-year terms. Voting rights are extended to all Panamanian citizens and voting is compulsory.
Panama has a booming economy that depends mainly on its services sector. In 2009, the GDP was US $24.75 billion, a third of which came from service-related industries (the Panama Canal, tourism, ports, the Colón Free Zone, etc.). Agriculture makes up less than 7 percent of the GDP. Exports include coffee, rice, bananas, and sugarcane, and its largest trading partner is the United States.
In recent years, Panama has had one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas, with an annual GDP growth that averages over 7 percent. Aside from the services sector, this growth is also largely driven by construction. A huge influx of foreigners have created a demand for new hotels, apartments, resorts and restaurants, not to mention the multi-billion dollar canal expansion that began in 2014.
Yes. There is a departure tax of US$40, but it is included in the price of a flight.
The weather in Panama is extremely variable. There are two main seasons, rainy and dry. The rainy season typically lasts from mid-April through mid-December, while the dry season lasts from mid-December until mid-April. These seasons, however, are not set in stone and much is dependent upon where you are. For example, the Pacific side of Panama is generally hot and dry and follows the seasonal patterns. During the rainy season, that usually means sunshine in the morning and rain in the afternoon. The Caribbean coast, however, has less rigid weather patterns. It tends to be warm and fairly humid throughout the year and can see rain in any month — this includes the Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala archipelagos. The mountainous parts of Panama – including Boquete and El Valle – typically experience cooler temperatures and misty conditions throughout the year.The temperature in Panama is fairly constant. In the lowlands, the temperature ranges between 21°C (70°F) and 32°C (90°F). The highlands tend to be much cooler, and can even get below freezing at some points of the year.
Panama is the southernmost, easternmost country in Central America. It is bordered by Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, and connects North America with South America. The country is shaped like the letter S and borders both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
The Panamanian landscape is a mixture of forests and mountains, beaches and wetlands, plains and pastures. Within this small country exists a wide sampling of terrain — from the towering primary forests of the Darién to the sunny Pacific coast beaches - there is a little bit of everything in Panama. Several mountain ranges run down the center of the country and separate the Pacific side from the Caribbean. One mountain range contains the country’s tallest peak, Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano that reaches up to 3,475 meters (11,400 ft.). Panama has seen periods of significant deforestation, but there are still solid sections of primary and secondary forest in much of the country.Along the Pacific coast, rivers run towards the ocean and form estuaries. Mangrove forests are common, especially in the Gulf of Chiriquí. The beaches come in every color – white, grey and black – and merge into a warm portion of the Pacific Ocean. Rugged islands off the coast are fairly normal.
The Caribbean side of Panama is marshier and less developed. There are two fantastic archipelagos along this side of the country: Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala. The islands in these archipelagos are postcard perfect, with pristine beaches and warm, crystal-clear waters.
Panama has an area of 75,517 square kilometers (29,157 square miles), which makes it slightly smaller than Ireland and the U.S. state of South Carolina. Combined together, the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines of Panama measure some 2,857 kilometers (1,775 miles). The border with Costa Rica is 330 kilometers (205 miles), while the border with Colombia is 225 kilometers (140 miles). The 80-kilometer (50-mile) Panama Canal cuts the country roughly in half.Aside from the Caribbean coast and most parts of the Darién, Panama is well connected by roads. Most roads are in good condition and traverse a variety of environments, including mountains, plains, and beaches. In some places, you can drive from the coast to the highlands in an hour. Panama may be small, but it packs a lot into its borders.
Most tourists are allowed to stay in Panama for at least 30 days. The upper limit is usually 90 days.Travelers who want to extend their visit beyond what was initially authorized must apply for a tourist extension (prórroga de turista) at an immigration office in Panama. Getting an extension can be a hassle and involves an extensive application. Tourists can get up to 60 additional days if their application is extended, although the number of days granted is the decision of the immigration authorities.
Anytime is a great time to travel to Panama. The country has a wealth of places to visit and all kinds of activities – including hiking, rafting, snorkeling, surfing and more – for visitors to enjoy throughout the year. That said, many people do prefer to come during the dry season, which runs roughly from mid-December through mid-April. During this time, areas along the Pacific are usually dry and warm. The Caribbean coast (which includes the Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala archipelagos) has less predictable weather patterns and tends to be wetter than the Pacific side. The driest months in Bocas are from September–October and February–March. The rainy season typically sees sunshine in the morning and rain during the afternoon.Not surprisingly, the largest numbers of tourists come to Panama during the dry season. Accordingly, prices at hotels can be more expensive. Other times of the year that may see price hikes (due to increased demand from both locals and foreigners) include Christmas, New Years and Semana Santa/Easter.
Panama is a very family focused country—the family is the central social unit, and there is great importance placed on remaining close with relatives. Partially because of this, traveling as a family in Panama is safe and fun. Many hotels have family-style accommodations (for example, extra single beds or outdoor playgrounds) and there is a wealth of activities for everyone to enjoy. During your trip you can hike in the rainforest, search for birds and other wildlife, go zip-lining or horseback riding, snorkel, swim, and become acquainted with Panamanian culture. Panama offers itself with open arms to the young and old alike.
Panama is south of the hurricane zone and does not experience this type of tropical storm. Most parts of the country do not experience significant earthquakes, although western Panama is more seismically active and has seen a few major quakes.
To enter Panama, all foreign nationals will need a passport that is valid for at least six months from their date of entry. Tourists will also need proof of having at least US$500 (a bank statement, credit card, or travelers checks will work) and a return/onward ticket out of Panama.Citizens of the following countries only need a passport (and not a visa) to enter Panama: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore, Taiwan, and the United States.
Citizens of other countries will need a visa to enter Panama. There are two types of visas, “stamped visas” and “authorized visas.” Stamped visas allow travelers to enter Panama multiple times over the course of a year. They are only available through a Panamanian consulate or embassy, and the length of stay is usually 30 days per visit. Citizens of the following countries are required to have a stamped visa: the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Georgia, Peru, Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
Citizens of some countries are required to get an authorized visa. This kind of visa is more restrictive than stamped visas and are only available through a Panamanian consulate or embassy. Countries in the Middle East, Africa, eastern Europe, and Asia may need this type of visa.
All of these lists, however, can change, so it’s best to check with your embassy for current requirements.
Panama is in the Eastern Standard Time (EST) zone and five hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT-5). There is no daylight savings in Panama, so the time difference with U.S. destinations changes by an hour during daylight savings. Panama is also always one hour ahead of Costa Rica.