Panama is one of the safest countries in Central America. Of course, it is also one of the most economically viable — with the geographical advantage of the Panama Canal, it is considered a world center. It thrives on shipping, banking, commerce, and tourism. This does not mean Panama is free of struggles. Its economy has seen ebbing and flowing over the years, but soon it will be high tide thanks to the completion of the massive canal expansion. Wealth has historically been unevenly distributed in the country, with one-fourth of the population living in poverty.
Though relatively safe, and certainly beautiful, if you are traveling to Panama then you must take certain basic precautions to maintain your health and safety during your trip. You will enjoy Panama's friendly and diverse people and culture, but socioeconomic issues will require you to keep your wits about you. Nations with a significant disparity in living conditions often see higher rates of crime, and Panama is no different, with the homicide rate rising to 800 per 100,000 people in 2009. Less violent crimes like theft are currently at a rate of 7.2 per 100,000 people. Efforts have been made to curb these issues, and have succeeded somewhat — the homicide rate has steadily declined since 2010. Other types of crime occur mainly in provinces with large cities such as Panama City, Colón, and Chiriquí.
Long-process kidnappings, in which the criminals try to gain ransom money through the victim’s relatives, are decreasing, but “express kidnappings” are on the rise. Express kidnappings involve criminals temporarily abducting a victim, and releasing them once they’ve forced them to hand over valuables. In these types of kidnappings, the robber may also drive the victim to an ATM machine and force them to withdraw cash. These types of crimes are estimated to go 90 percent unreported in Panama, due to fear of retaliation.
Drug trafficking has increased in Panama over the past decade for two reasons. The first is the country’s lack of control over its airfields and coastlines, which allows for narcotics to be transported easily to the USA. The second is the presence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia’s refugee soldiers. In Colombia, coca farmers (often settlers from other parts of the country displaced by the political violence of the 1950s) are persecuted by the government. The Colombian government links coca farming to the revolutionaries, creating what some political theorists call “narcoguerrillas.” Panama has seen a measurable increase in drug trafficking since the arrival of the RAFC.
The United States doesn’t just provide the demand for much of Panama’s illicit drug shipments, it has also created the circumstances that encouraged the formation of street gangs in Panama. Street gangs didn’t surface in the little world center until the 1980s, and didn’t become hugely problematic until the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989. When the Panamanian Army was disbanded, many soldiers filtered into gangs. Today, many of these gangs have members between the ages of 13 and 15 — over 1,600 kids, in fact — driven to gang life by poverty and drugs.
Considering these factors, it makes sense that minors perpetrate most of the thefts and kidnappings in Panama. A curfew for anyone under 18 has been put in place, and in metropolitan areas the curfew is strictly enforced: even students taking night classes are required to carry permits, and minors caught out without their legal guardians can be jailed until the appropriate adult comes and collects them.
Panama was founded in 1519, but some Panamanians consider the modern country to be only 13 years old, having become a fully independent country only after the U.S. relinquished power. In so few years, Panama City has grown to look more and more world-class, boasting skyscrapers and even a microbrewery. All things considered, Panama City is considered a very safe destination, popular for travelers ranging from families with children to bachelor parties.
Still, it is important to abide by the recommendations in the list below while enjoying Panama City.
Avoid neighborhoods that are unfamiliar or known to be dangerous (such as El Chorillo, Santa Ana, Curundu and San Miguel). Neighborhoods like El Chorillo are dangerous due to gang violence, but tourists are rarely the victims of violent crime in the city. Tourist areas, however, such as the historic Casco Viejo and the ruins of Panama la Vieja, are notorious for tourist-targeted theft. To avoid becoming the victim of theft or an express kidnapping, do not wander away from the main attractions without a guide.
It is best to avoid Colón unless you visit with a tour group. Colón is a port town considered dangerous (with the exception of cruise ship zones) by Panamanians and travelers alike. Colón is known for muggings. Travelers have found it impossible to walk the streets of Colón without being approached aggressively by men offering tour guide services. Many of these men are actually robbers.
Another known danger zone is the Darién Gap, near the Caribbean. This region, especially the forested area between Panama and Colombia, is high-crime due to the Colombian guerrilla presence there, and the drug running that ensues from the coast. Nevertheless, the Darién Province is an undeniably beautiful and culturally fascinating place, and many travelers choose to visit with professional guides.
Driving in Panama is not like driving in the U.S., despite the fact that cars drive on the right. Roundabouts are a common feature of city planning, which American drivers may find confusing. Lack of signage coupled with unregulated driving styles make entering and exiting roundabouts an unnerving experience. Panama City in particular has very heavy traffic, and suffers from a noticeable lack of signs, sometimes even at bustling intersections.
Rural roads are poorly maintained and offer little lighting. Driving at night outside the city is cautioned against — if something should happen, emergency roadside assistance is limited. The Panama City-Colón highway, one of the country’s older roads, is particularly hazardous.
Some public transportation is to be avoided as well. The maintenance on certain buses, especially the Diablos Rojos or "Red Devil” buses of Panama City, is not up to code, making them prone to accident. In 2015, these busses are scheduled to be retired, and replaced with a modern transportation system. The Metro Train is currently an excellent choice for safe transportation. Additionally, you can leave the driving to the professionals and book your transportation needs through Anywhere.
Though Panama does not require any vaccines to enter, it is recommended that travelers get vaccinated against yellow fever, typhoid, and hepatitis A and B. Even a rabies vaccination is a good precaution for those planning any jungle adventures, as vampire bats in Panama sometimes carry the disease.
Traveler’s diarrhea, common everywhere in Central America, can be avoided by drinking water known to have been treated, eating cooked vegetables, and being cautious of street vendor fare. Carrying an anti-diarrheic is always wise.
Panama is a country that is growing in positive ways, but the economic boosts are happening alongside increases in youth crime. It is also a country actively working to improve the safety of its citizens and visitors. In addition to actions like the curfew law, Panama is beginning to work towards an end to more high-profile crimes, especially the corruption of its own police and government. In 2015, Panama’s Supreme Court began an investigation into former president (and hugely polarizing figure) Ricardo Martinelli’s time in office. If corruption can be halted on the highest level, perhaps this transparency will trickle down, making Panama safer for all.
Panama City – From the famous Canal to the early colonial cathedral ruins of Panamá Viejo, history is alive right in the city. Panama City is also a cultural hotspot, with traditional dance performances, live music, museums, and a range of cuisine. Outdoor activities include strolling or biking the Amador Causeway (four islands built from excavated canal rocks) or tours from the city into the nearby jungle.
Boquete – A quaint mountain town along the Caldera River, Boquete captures the hearts of travelers from all over the world. Not only is it scenic and a cultural haven with a popular jazz festival and fine coffee plantations, it is known to be very safe for travelers. The large ex-pat community there can vouch for this.
Coronado – A beach town just outside Panama City, this well-developed area hosts about 600 full-time residents, and many more summer homes and vacationers. The beachy restaurants and accommodations in Coronado attract weekender Panamanians and ex-pats alike.
Bocas del Toros – The laid-back tropical vibe of this popular destination on Colón Island is many people’s favorite place in Panama. The tourism in Bocas del Toros does attract some swindlers, so enjoy the beaches but be wary of con artists, over-charging “tour guides,” and pickpockets.
Do NOT go without a guide to:
Parque Nacional Darién – Don’t go without guide, and stay in Santa Cruz de Cana.
Bahía de Piñas – This is considered a safe zone in the Darién. Bahía de Piñas boasts accommodations that are considered luxurious next to the bare-bones offerings of other places in the rugged region.
Leave flashy jewelry at home.
Do not accept tour guide services from anyone but an established company.
Do not walk to a destination or back at night. Use a registered taxi.
Do not stay at tourist attractions (like Casco Viejo) after dark.
Avoid the Diablos Rojos buses: pickpockets target tourists on them.
Acquaint yourself with a map and identify which neighborhoods to avoid.
Pack an extra pair of glasses and extra medications.
Make and bring a copy of your passport.
Refrain from putting your home address on your luggage tag to avoid identity theft.
Purchase a cell phone in Panama or use a local SIM card.
Bring along an updated photograph of those in your party (especially any children) on the off chance of separation.
Pack a small first aid kit: bandages, mosquito repellant, diarrhea medicine, etc.
No country is perfect, but every country boasts its own culture and unique beauty. By following these tips and tricks, you can safely and confidently book your Panamanian adventure and cross Panama off of your bucket list.
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