Adventurous jungles, glorious beaches and both the Caribbean and Pacific lapping its shores! Add some vibrant and colourful cities with the relics of colonial Spain and laid back local life and Panama is an all round cool place to visit.
Home to the famous Panama Canal, as well as the very infamous Darien Gap, Panama is the place to go for you if you are looking for proper adventures. It feels like something from a movie and is freacking awesome.
Then again, those rainforests also make for a great place for Colombian rebel groups to hang out in. It also makes for a convenient place for drug trafficking gangs to use. Elsewhere, in the cities and towns, in crowded areas, tourist sights and public transport, theft is common…
So naturally, this may lead you to wonder about how viable a trip to Panama really is. You may well be asking, “How Safe is Panama?” and this is why we have created this insider’s guide to staying safe in Panama. From taxis and transport to advice for solo female travellers and even families, our guide has you covered.
Whilst COVD 19 has not gone away, the world is opening up again to travellers. Whilst Cuba has dealt with the pandemic successfully so far, commercial flights to the island remain scarce.
For the most up-to-date safety information and what you should be doing to help, please consult the WHO and your local government.
- How Safe is Panama? (Our take)
- Is Panama Safe to Visit? (The facts.)
- Is it Safe to Visit Panama Right Now?
- Panama Travel Insurance
- 22 Top Safety Tips for Traveling to Panama
- Keeping your money safe in Panama
- Is Panama safe to travel alone?
- Is Panama safe for solo female travellers?
- Is Panama safe to travel for families?
- Is it safe to drive in Panama?
- Is Uber safe in Panama?
- Are taxis safe in Panama?
- Is public transportation in Panama safe?
- Is the food in Panama safe?
- Can you drink the water in Panama?
- Is Panama safe to live?
- How is healthcare in Panama?
- Helpful Panama Travel Phrases
- Final thoughts on the safety of Panama
How Safe is Panama? (Our take)
In general, backpacking in Panama is pretty safe. In fact, it’s one of the safest countries in the central American region – people are friendly and there are plenty of laid-back rural areas to explore.
However, despite its relative safety, Panama remains somewhere that should be visited with caution. There are some no-go areas in the country which are home to drug trafficking gangs and Colombian rebel groups.
On the whole, crime rates are actually pretty high; mugging and pickpocketing is a common issue, especially in the capital.
Nature can pose a risk too, with everything from rainy season and riptides, to dense jungle and nasty critters to consider on your trip to Panama.
Without further ado, let’s look into the details of what makes this country tick…
Is Panama Safe to Visit? (The facts.)
Straddling two continents, with two distinct coastlines (Caribbean and North Pacific) connected by a world famous canal, Panama is definitely of interest. Hiking, rainforests, mountains, culture – it’s all here, which is why its tourist levels have been on the rise recently.
In 2017, an estimated 1.8 million international tourists visited Panama; that’s a fair rise from 2011 when just 1.5 million visitors found themselves here. Most tourists come from the US, Canada and Europe.
It’s becoming more and more important for the country, as tourism is currently slated to generate upwards of USD $104 million. It is one of the main factors in the country’s economy.
The New York Times Magazine (in 2012) pitted Panama as “one of the best places to visit” that year, the country having regained sovereign control of the Panama Canal 12 years prior.
With all those tourists coming in, obviously it’s in Panama’s interests to keep them safe. Tourist police in the most visited areas (including Panama City, of course) make sure that visitors not only feel but are more secure.
Even so, there is a lot of crime to contend with in this Latin American nation.
In 2012, the murder rate was 17.2 per 100,000, which is more than double the global average for that same year. Domestic violence is also a big issue in the country. ‘Express kidnappings’ are also high and apparently 90% of them go unreported. In general, there is a high level of violent crime. According to WHO, violent deaths accounted for 4.26% of all deaths in the country (that’s 733 people) in 2017.
Nature can pose a significant risk to your safety in Panama especially if you don’t know what you’re up against. Many drownings are reported each year, 80% of which caused by riptides.
Whilst it is safe to visit, the stats could seem scary. But please, do not be put off. Far from wanting to warn you off the country, it’s better to know what’s out there to better prepare yourself, we’d say!
Is it Safe to Visit Panama Right Now?
Vast swathes of Panama are safe to visit at the moment, but there are still areas which are best avoided. San Miguelito, Juan Dias and El Chorillo are not suitable for tourists.
Crime in these areas isn’t going anywhere. Mainly it’s between rival drug trafficking gangs, with crimes like robberies on the rise in the area, too. The risk of street crime in these areas, specifically to an unsuspecting tourist, is relatively high.
The border with Colombia (specifically Darien Province) is understandably a dangerous area. The violence that still sporadically affects Colombia can spill over the border into Panama.
Panamanian citizens and international tourists have been victims of serious crimes in the border area, including kidnapping and murder.
If you want to want to travel to Darien Province, you should only travel with an organised group – even then, you’ll only be allowed to areas where Panamanian police are surveilling. Never stray from your group and ensure that you register your presence with the Sena Front, which is Panama’s National Border Control.
Another area of Panama to be wary of is the central province of Colon. There’s a high rate of street crime here that means heightened vigilance, or altogether avoidance – unless with a guide or tour group (in certain areas, at least).
Robberies and attacks occur in Panama City. Pickpockets are common on the streets, but as with most places, the more touristed areas are generally safer than others.
There’s been an increase in robberies at restaurants in popular areas, however, such as San Francisco, El Cangrejo, and Obarrio.
Political demonstrations can occur in the city, particularly around the university. These often take place around a main road of Panama City known as Transistmica, as well as roads leading from Bocas del Toro. Keep away from these.
The rainy season is something you should know about too. It runs from April to November and can result in flooding and landslides, especially in rural areas. It can even make city streets impassable. The heaviest rains take place in October and November.
Making sure you know what’s happening when you’re planning your visit is a good idea.
Do you need Travel Insurance for your trip? Even if you’re only going for a few days, that’s more than enough time to get smote by wrathful angels. Have fun in Panama, but take it from us, overseas medical care and canceled flights can be seriously expensive – insurance can, therefore, be a life-saver.
Travel mishaps can and do happen and it is well worth thinking about insurance before you leave home.
We have used World Nomads for years now and I have personally made several claims. Why not get a quote from them yourself?
Do be sure to read the terms and conditions to make sure that the policy covers your needs.
Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple – just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you’re on your way!
If you want to shop around a little, then read up on competing companies and what they can offer. There are lots of insurances out there, so don’t feel limited.
Panama has loads on offer for any kind of traveller. A mix of old and new, as well as a whole load of nature, it’s a great destination that’s more than just its canal. Although visitor numbers are increasing, there’s still a fair bit of crime going on in this Latin American country. This is why we have decided to share with you some tailor-made safety tips for travelling to Panama to help you stay as safe as possible.
- Don’t carry around large sums of money – having wads of cash makes you more conspicuous and could make you a target for thieves
- Don’t look wealthy – SLR, smartphone, jewellery, anything expensive: potential thieves will see dollar signs when they see you
- Try not to seem like a tourist – being loud, looking lost, dressing like a tourist… All this may attract attention. Be discreet, walk purposefully and take cues from the way that people around you are dressed; try to blend in
- Be careful when taking money out of ATMs – people have been attacked using them. Inside banks is best, and avoid using them at night
- Be wary of pickpockets – they operate in busy areas, on public transport and at train and bus stations
- Wear a money belt – a no brainer. We have a good recommendation for you, too… (more on that later)
- Mugging does happen – if somebody tries to take your stuff, let them have it. Not worth it
- Consider a throwdown wallet – or “dummy” wallet, it’s better than having to give away all your actual money. Put a few defunct bank cards and a small bit of cash in there to make it seem legit
- Only use registered taxi companies – more on this later, but you need to be aware that they can be sketchy
- Don’t get involved with drugs – even having a small amount can land you in prison for 15 years. Even being in the company of someone using drugs could get you arrested. Don’t exacerbate a major problem of this region
- Learn some Spanish before you go – a few phrases will help read menus, ask for directions, and generally get around
- Do not go swimming in the Bay of Panama – it is horrendously polluted with untreated sewage and industrial waste
- Be careful when swimming in general – riptides on both coasts, and a lack of lifeguards and warning signs, makes this genuinely dangerous to do
- Cover up against mosquitoes – dengue fever and malaria are common. Cover up arms and legs and use repellent, especially at dawn and dusk
- Know your road safety – Panama City is dangerous for pedestrians. Drivers don’t give way to human beings, so watch out!
- Carry your passport – it’s a pain, but it’s required. No copies. Tourists have spent the night in prison because they haven’t been able to provide ID with police when asks
- Don’t walk around topless off the beach – men or women. It’s strictly enforced and you’ll be stopped by the police
- Go to the tourist police if you’ve got a problem – corruption is less of an issue than in neighbouring countries. They have armbands on their sleeves
- Know what to do in the event of an earthquake – they happen here. Chiriqui Province gets numerous 5.5+ magnitude earthquakes
- Get a sim card – the benefits of maps, translation, information and being able to contact people is invaluable
- Pay attention to the weather – heavy rains can cripple your travel plans and make hiking, driving or catching a bus very dangerous.
Panama perhaps isn’t as “unsafe” as some of its neighbours, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything that you should pay attention to here. It’s not exactly a low crime country, and there are numerous locations – even in Panama City – that you should be aware of. The most important thing is to pay attention of your surroundings, try not to stand out too much, and trust your gut when it comes to exploring the country.
Keeping your money safe in Panama
Losing your money anywhere in the world sucks. In fact, having your money stolen from you (or even just losing your own wallet) is something that can genuinely cut a trip short, or at least leave you with sour memories of a country.
When it comes to Panama, due to the relatively high rate of street crime and pickpocketing around tourist areas, the risk of losing your money here is relatively high here when compared to many other countries around the world.
To be honest, the best way to keep your money safe in Panama – or anywhere, really – is to wear a money belt. Put simply, if there’s nothing in your pockets to pick in the first place, then there’s nothing that pickpockets can get at – even if you happen to let your guard down for a moment.
Whilst there are a lot of money belts out there, we wouldn’t necessarily say that they are all created equal. In fact, some money belts (most, we’d say), are overcomplicated, tend to be obvious to thieves as they show even when worn under clothes, and are actually pretty uncomfortable to wear.
Our choice? That would be the Active Roots Security Belt.
We love the simplicity involved with this one. It is quite literally just a sturdy, affordable belt with a hidden zipper pocket where you can stash your cash. No potential thief will detect this unassuming belt as the place where you hide your money for the day.
If you’re not a belt-wearer, there are other products out there which do the job of hiding your money from prying eyes (and hands). An infinity scarf, for example, with a secret pocket for your money can do just as good a job as a belt!
Travelling by yourself means that you can have your very own adventure. You can travel at your own pace, do what you want to do, and leave yourself open for an amazing experience. It’s not always great (getting lonely and homesick can happen), but it’s a rewarding thing.
In Panama, solo travel is totally doable. There’s enough going on to keep you busy, and enough in terms of other travellers and friendly locals that you won’t feel lonely, but it won’t be 100% awesome all the time. Here are our Panama solo travel tips to help it go smoothly…
- Stay aware of your surroundings. Being solo, you only have yourself to rely on, which means you need to be extra cautious of who is around you and what is going on in your peripherals. Being by yourself can also mean being more of a target for criminals, so a heightened level of caution – more than you exercise in your own country – is a good place to start keeping yourself safe.
- If you’re going out hiking by yourself, make sure you go well prepared and pack enough supplies. Bring adequate clothing, food, water and equipment – even if you’re going on a short hike. To be honest, we would recommend a guide.
- If you are planning on going out into nature without a guide, you should definitely notify the staff at your accommodation (as well as any travel buddies or friends/family back home), just in case. Tell them how long you plan to be gone for, etc.
- Don’t walk away from populated areas of a town or city. It can be easy to find yourself in a relatively deserted, quiet neighbourhood that isn’t so “good” as others, and that’s something that can pose a serious risk to your safety. Avoid aimless wandering as this is what can land you in all sorts of trouble.
- Do your research on dangerous areas in places you’re visiting. This can be a combination of your own online research – hitting up travel groups on Facebook as well as forums – and asking locals. Be sure to ask staff at your hostel or hotel where is recommend to explore, and where’s not so safe.
- Don’t push yourself too much. Even though you’ve got this whole tick list of things to do (probably), know that you don’t have to do everything your guidebook recommends. Rushing through your travels, won’t only be stressful, but it could lead you to make oversights in your own security.
- Please travel light! Trust us: lugging around multiple bags, by yourself, is not fun. Panama is hot and doing this will leave you a sweaty, exhausted mess by the time you get to where you’re going. It will also make you stand out as a target with a lot of stuff to steal. Opt for one bag travel and even then, try not to pack everything – you most likely don’t need half of what you think you need.
- Accessing your money may seem simple, especially if you’ve just got one bank account and one card to get to it, but you should consider having multiple bank accounts. The headache of having no way to access your money is really not worth it, so have a few different accounts that you can withdraw money from. Have an emergency stash of cash as well as an emergency credit card, too.
- Research your accommodation in advance. Make sure that it’s in a good area of town, a secure building with staff that people mention (positively) in reviews; make sure reviews are glowing and top-notch; and if you want somewhere social that’s great for solo travellers, make sure that this is reflected in reviews. Research is key.
In general, as a solo traveller, Panama is surprisingly safe. However, you should definitely pay attention to your surroundings and not make yourself vulnerable to being a victim of crime. Not standing out, not being oblivious to situations and trusting your gut will help.
As a solo traveller, anywhere in the world, you should make sure that you keep in touch with people back home. You may be off doing some cool thing, travelling around the world, but going off-grid is not cool (or safe). A familiar voice can keep those solo travel blues at bay, too.
Is Panama safe for solo female travellers?
If you’re a woman thinking of an adventure in Panama, then we wouldn’t advise you against it. Panama is pretty safe for a solo female traveller. There’s nature to explore, beaches to admire, culture to soak up, locals to meet. It’s cool.
There are, however, some things that you should be aware of to make sure that you’re as safe as can be. As a female in the world, you’re going to have to come across things like annoying men, more attention because you’re travelling solo, and some uncomfortable situations. But in general female travellers find Panama to be pretty safe. You should keep our Panama-specific solo female traveller tips in mind…
- Some men may hassle you in Panama, mainly in terms of flirtatious comments, horn honking, staring and (bizarrely) hissing. It’s best to give these sorts of people a wide berth and do your best to simply ignore their behaviour. They can get annoying and overwhelming at times, but the best course of action is always ignoring them.
- Keep clear of deserted areas and poorly lit streets at night. These are going to be the sorts of places where serious crime may occur, and you will put yourself more at risk by wandering into a quiet area of a town. Avoid outskirts of urban areas.
- Similarly, try not to wander into areas where people will be drunk or otherwise under the influence. There is a chance that serious crime could occur in these sorts of places.
- In general, it’s not a good idea to go hiking by yourself or exploring remote areas alone. This is best done with a tour guide, preferably in a group tour. It’s just too risky to be visiting certain parts of Panama by yourself, male or female.
- When it comes to what to wear, you should dress more towards modest than not. Although locals might wear more revealing, skimpy clothing, as a traveller to the country you’ll get more attention from Panamanian men for dressing the same way.
- As a solo female traveler, you will get more (unwanted) attention than if you were in a group. You might want to consider making friends with some fellow travellers at your accommodation, so you can travel around and explore the country together. Either way, you won’t be with people 100% of the time, so it pays to be even more cautious than you usually would be.
- Be careful about going out to bars at night. We wouldn’t advise going by yourself, for a start. Even if you go with a group, you can still get unwanted attention. Don’t feel like you need to tell strangers everything about yourself, don’t accept drinks from strangers, and be firm if someone is trying it on.
- Don’t walk around at night – at all. It’s just not a good idea. With Panama’s crime rate, combined with you not knowing anything about the streets you’ll be walking around, it will just put you at risk. Try to walk at night with a group or get a well-reputed taxi company to whisk you home.
- When you’re travelling on a long distance bus, it’s a good idea to sit next to a female or a family. You will get less hassle, you’ll feel more comfortable, and you may even get a chance to chat. This is a good idea as it can help put your mind at ease if you are feeling particularly nervous.
- Be wary of taxis. We have a whole section about taxis later on, but specifically, this point is for female travellers. It’s common for taxis to be shared, but this can be risky. Avoid the risk and pay a little more to have the taxi all to yourself instead.
- Make sure you choose your accommodation wisely. It definitely pays to do your research when it comes to where you’re staying. Look at reviews from other female travellers, make sure they’re positive, and choose according to what suits you. You should make sure that it’s located in a safe area of town and that the staff have been commented on as nice and helpful – things like that matter.
There are tons of ways to store valuables and goods while traveling but a travel scarf has to be the least obtrusive and the most classy.
The Active Roots Zipper Scarf is your run-of-the-mill infinity scarf but with a hidden pocket that’s big and sturdy enough for a night’s cash, your phone, a passport and (hell with it) some snacks too!
Solo female travel in Panama may seem like a distant dream, but if you’re travelled solo anywhere in Latin America before, you will know the sort of vibe to expect in this country. With that in mind, it’s not somewhere we would recommend for first time female travellers.
Even so, given that Panama isn’t exactly the safest place in the world for a solo female traveller, we would recommend getting yourself on a guided tour. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and may make your trip more rewarding – and more interesting – in the end.
There are plenty of resources online to check out for female travellers, Facebook groups and forums offering places to ask for advice, tips for travel, and to share stories. You may even get to meet up with a local or a fellow female travelling the same place and time as you are!
Is Panama safe to travel for families?
As you might be able to guess, Panama is family friendly society. If you’re looking for a place to travel with your children, somewhere that’s definitely going to be an adventurous place to be, then this could be it.
There are a whole lot of places to visit, things to see and do across this Central-and-Southern American country. There’s a lot of history, some beautiful beaches and a lot of nature to enjoy.
There is some good infrastructure for travelling around here as well as a fair few family friendly resorts.
Whilst neighbouring Costa Rica does attract a lot of families on vacation, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to Panama. It’s safe to visit for families – most of the country is safe to travel with children, it’s pretty compact and is mainly well developed. It’s a great way to introduce this region to your children.
Opt to go on a tour, which will take you on adventures into jungles and all sorts of other exciting things. There are many tour and travel agencies that are geared towards family vacations, so you shouldn’t find any problems there. Just make sure you go with a reputable and well reviewed tour agency and you should be more than fine.
You could even take children as young as 4 years old to Panama, especially if you’re an adventurous family. There’s no shortage of islands and beaches, for example, on both the Caribbean and Pacific coast. Whilst older children will enjoy the exciting, adventurous side of this place – from exploring the cities to zip-lining through jungles.
Unless you want to stay put in a resort, we wouldn’t recommend bringing children any younger than 4 as this could end up being a very stressful way to see the country.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to travel to Panama. There are two main seasons: the rainy season (June to December) and the dry season (January to May). The dry season is obviously the most popular time to visit, but it’s possible to have a good time outside of that seasonal window (though the rainy season does mean almost daily downpours).
Weather varies by region too. On the Caribbean coast, the thick forests have high humidity, as do the northern regions of Panama, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s throughout the year. In the Boquete highlands, there’s lower humidity but temperatures often soar way into the 90s during the drier months.
Needless to say, it’s important to keep your children covered up from the sun (don’t forget sunscreen), as well as from mosquitoes (make sure you use child-friendly repellent). Be extra careful at beaches and ensure that your children don’t go too far from you at any time. Warn them of the dangers of the sea!
When it comes to getting around, we wouldn’t recommend a stroller or pushchair; sidewalks are narrow, damaged or nonexistent in some places, and traffic can be dangerous in cities. Instead we would advise carrying younger children in a sling.
In Panama City, it’s best to stock up on supplies for your children such as nappies and baby food. Things like high chairs in restaurants, as well as children’s menus, don’t really exist – neither do baby changing facilities.
In general, Panama is safe for families. It’s an amazing destination. Tours are definitely an option for anybody travelling to the country with their family, but to make things even safer for yourself. If you don’t feel like the stress of travelling around the country and organising things for yourself, then there are always resorts to fill your every need.
Is it safe to drive in Panama?
Panama has a surprisingly good standard of roads and a good system to go with it – in general, that is. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that driving in Panama is a good idea.
The driving standards of its citizens is pretty low. Traffic causes a lot of congestion. There are lots of hazards to look out for. Secondary roads are also (often) in pretty bad shape.
Furthermore, because the buses and taxis are cheap – and readily available – it’s not really necessary to drive in Panama.
Drink driving is a real issue as well. In 2015, according to a survey, it was found that 70% of all road deaths were related to drink driving.
If you want to rent a car in Panama, you have to be over 25 years old and have a valid driving license. The prices for renting a car in Panama are generally pretty cheap, but if you’re going to explore off the beaten track, then you’ll need a four wheeled drive.
When you do you rent your car, note down all of the preexisting damage, dents and scratches. Otherwise, you could be wrongfully charged for this later.
Thefts from rental cars do happen. Make sure that you park in a safe space and don’t leave anything on display in the car; don’t leave anything valuable in the car, just in case.
In Darien Province, the road conditions are bad. Not many of them are surfaced at all. It’s best to get a driver to take you on a tour; the Darien Gap area, in general, is actually one of the most notoriously impassable stretches of land on Earth.
In general, elsewhere, watch out for potholes and road repairs left unfinished. Signs are usually not to be found anywhere, so a good GPS is very important.
If you do have an accident, do not move your vehicle until after the police have arrived even if it’s blocking traffic and people are honking.
In cities, traffic can be very heavy and clogged by construction work. It’s really just not worth driving in any Panamanian city. One thing to note about rural roads, on the other hand, is the habit of other drivers flashing headlights at you (indicating police ahead).
As you’re probably used to anyway, everyone has to wear a seatbelt. If you’re travelling with a child in your car, and they’re under 5 years old, then they have to be in a car seat in the back of the car.
All in all, we wouldn’t recommend driving in Panama. Basically, it’s not worth it. Unless you’re really into your adventuring and part of your whole thing is to drive in rugged (or chaotic) places, we wouldn’t say driving is something you should do here.
Besides, public transport is so cheap and so surprisingly reliable (even Ubers and taxis, too) that there’s not much point. Speaking of which…
Is Uber safe in Panama?
As of recently, Uber does operate in Panama and, yes, Uber is also safe in Panama.
It operates in Panama City and Panama City only.
Usual benefits apply: track your journey, read reviews of drivers, no worries of having to converse in a language you’re not proficient in, no need to fumble around for correct change (paying in app and all). There’s nothing much to worry about.
In fact, for longer trips, Uber actually works out cheaper than a taxi.
If you’re not an Uber fan, Cabify is also present.
Are taxis safe in Panama?
Taxis are plentiful in Panama. Not only that, but they’re also very cheap.
However, they can be a bit of a problem. Taxis in Panama aren’t easy – or safe.
If you’re picking a cab up in Panama City, for example, don’t expect your driver to know where they’re going: they won’t always know your destination!
You should only use registered taxi companies, which you can tell from their badge and their license. Both of these should be on visible display. Do not get into taxis that wait outside of hotels or malls. These are often large, American-type cars, these usually cost twice as much as a regular taxi and are unmarked.
Also, don’t be surprised if a taxi driver refuses to take you to a certain location. It’s normal for a taxi driver to pick and choose who they drive around, depending on their destination, of course.
It’s also not uncommon for a taxi driver to pick up multiple passengers. If you’re unhappy with this, just say so, but you will have to pay more; this, however, will also mean it’s safer for you.
Taxis in Panama do not have meters. They do have standard fares (measured by zones) that they should stick to.
It costs more for a few things, such as the number of passengers, luggage and how late at night it is. Note that it’s probably a good idea to carry small denominations of money with you so that you don’t have to use big notes. Drivers may claim to not have change (which may be true depending on the size of the bill you’re trying to use).
The most important thing to do is to ensure that you agree upon a price with the taxi driver before you leave. This way, there’s no big shock – or disagreement – when you get to your destination.
A good idea is to ask at your accommodation for what the average fare to get from A to B, or X to Y, is
It’s possible for you to just hail a cab on the street – just wave your arm. Late at night, however, or in the holidays, taxis can be hard to come by. There are a few reputable radio taxi companies that you can call up, however.
America Libre is one of them; so is Taxi Unico Cooperativa; and Radio Taxi America. These are all reputable radio taxi companies that you can use in Panama City.
You can also hire a taxi for a day, or any length of time, which might be a nice idea if you get on with your driver.
To sum up, taxis in Panama are pretty good, but usually things like agreeing on fares beforehand and not using unlicensed cabs definitely apply here.
Is public transportation in Panama safe?
As we mentioned earlier, the public transportation system in Panama is actually pretty good. You can get around the country quite easily and without too much trouble, being able to get to most destinations you want to see with relative ease.
In Panama City, they have just phased out its colourful “Diablos Rojos” or “Red Devils”. These old school, former US school buses – once ubiquitous in the country – were the classic way to get around, and only for around 25 cents (US).
However these were pretty dangerous and were often involved in accidents, so in 2010 the Metrobus system was introduced. This shiny, air-conditioned mode of transport is government regulated and offers a safe way to travel around the city.
In fact, the Panamanian government advises tourists to use the Metrobus system to “ensure your own safety” – a few Red Devils can be seen dotted around, but we don’t recommend using them.
Metrobuses have dedicated bus stops, with rides costing anywhere between 35 cents to $1.35 (US); routes that use the highway are at the higher end of the fare scale. Note, however, that this is an IC card affair – no cash here, people. You have to buy a Rapi-Pass; hit up trajetametrobus.com or buy at supermarkets and bus stops (costs USD $2).
You can even catch the Metrobus from Albrook International Airport to pretty much any community around the capital.
In other parts of the country, there are fancy highway buses that can take you comfortably from east to west, or north to south. These are usually big, air-conditioned, Mercedes Benz buses – some even come with reclining seats. Though the buses are fancy and safe, the bus stations themselves are hotbeds for crime, so alighting and departing (and waiting) is when you’ll need to be vigilant.
You can buy same-day bus tickets from the station you’re departing.
Tourist shuttle buses also exist, but they take longer than you may expect and tend to get quite jammed full of people.
When it comes to train travel, Panama City has an underground subway system called – you guessed it – El Metro. Opened in 2014, El Metro serves 16 stations across two lines: one runs west-east from Albrook to San Isidra, the other runs between Albrook the City of Knowledge.
You use the same Rapi-Pass card to get around on the metro, too. Generally safe to use, however, around station entrances/exists you should be aware of your surroundings, and in general keep your belongings close to you.
There is a railway line in Panama, too. It goes from Panama City to Colon and is basically a chance for luxury travel in the country, harking back to colonial times. It’s pretty cool actually, running parallel to the Panama Canal and travelling through thick jungle for a lot of the journey. If that’s something you’re into, it would be an interesting experience.
There you have it: the transport in Panama is safe, reliable and cheap. Like everywhere in the world, public transport isn’t your own private chauffeur, so you’ll have to ensure your own security, and that of your money and your belongings/luggage, on any given service.
Is the food in Panama safe?
Food in Panama is a pretty tasty affair. There are mixes of influence from indigenous people, Spanish and African culinary traditions. With a lot of similarities with neighbours such as Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, there’s a lot of flavours to experience here.
Dishes here are fairly simple, not overly sophisticated, but almost always beautifully fresh and beautifully seasoned. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it out, but to help you (and your stomach) eat safely here, we’re sharing our food safety tips for Panama…
- As a general rule, you should always – no matter where you are in the world – go to places that are frequented by locals. They are going to be the people who know what’s going on in terms of tastiness (as well as quality and service), so make sure you head where the tourists don’t head.
- Speaking of which, you should avoid tourist traps. Often with English signage outside and maybe a tout trying to get you in, at these places the focus is on profit, not on hygiene or quality. Avoid these and find yourself a local restaurant that doesn’t offer up bland international cuisine.
- When you’re looking for a place to eat, especially in rural areas, make sure that food has been cooked in front of you, and that meat especially is served up hot throughout. This way you can tell that the food has been cooked freshly.
- When it comes to ceviche – which is basically a raw fish of some kind mixed with a load of other ingredients – make sure it’s fresh. In general, you should only eat it at coastal locations where you can ensure that it’s been caught the same day. If seafood tastes or smells weird, then stop eating – trust us: getting ill from seafood is not fun at all.
- A good place to go for cheap, filling and tasty food is a cafeteria. This is a self service type of establishment with a variety of different meals on offer. They’re popular with locals and are often open all day, which is pretty convenient.
- If you’re hankering for something familiar, then you may want to check out some of Panama’s Chinese cuisine. No, seriously: almost every single town, large and small, has at least one Chinese restaurant to its name. Vegetarians will enjoy the choice of vegetable dishes here. Plus, stir frying means cooking at high temperatures, killing off any germs that may be present.
- A drastic change in diet can cause you an upset stomach, so we would recommend that you don’t go in too hard when you first get to Panama. Ease yourself into the new cuisine and you should be fine.
- Wash your hands! It seems like the simplest ever thing, but your hands pick up a lot of bacteria and germs even just on a normal day, so – especially if you’ve been on public transport, or trekking – ensure that you wash your grubby mitts before you eat.
The food in Panama is safe. One of our favourite things about this place are its tortillas. Not like Mexican tortillas, they’re also made from corn dough but are generally thicker. Breakfast here often means tortillas topped with eggs and melted cheese – very delicious, by the way.
There’s tons of stuff to try including sancocho (a light chicken soup with cilantro, potatoes and yucca) and carimanolas (a yucca stuffed with cheese, topped with ground beef and then fried) to name just a couple. Wow. Mostly you’re going to be fine eating Panamanian food.
Can you drink the water in Panama?
The tap water in Panama is mostly safe to drink. In Panama City and most other parts of the country, it’s totally fine.
However, in the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala, it’s not so safe. Here we recommend that you either buy bottled water (not good for the amount of plastic involved) or boil water vigorously for 1 minute, or 3 minutes at higher altitudes.
In these areas, you should also avoid ice cubes.
Make sure you bring a refillable water bottle so that your trip to Panama is a sustainable, planet-friendly one.
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Is Panama safe to live?
You may have already heard about expats living in Panama. A lot of people from Canada and the US make their way to Panama for a more laid back life.
In fact, it’s a rather favourable expat destination – especially for North Americans since, well, it’s close.
There are a lot of pros, to be fair, when it comes to living in Panama. First of all, you can have a relatively nice life for a relatively low cost. There’s also friendly locals to get to know, and who will be quite welcoming to outsiders; there’s amazing nature to explore; things are quite reliable here too (internet, tap water, electricity, etc.).
Of course, it’s not all amazing all the time. Things can be pretty different to where you’re from: driving isn’t fun, nature can be dangerous, and then there’s the crime.
The pickpocketing, the violent crime and the drug trafficking could all add up to a place that you don’t want to live in. Being in Panama, therefore, means not living how you would back home. Wearing jewellery, looking rich, anything that singles you out as someone with money is not a good idea on a day to day basis.
Things like break-ins and burglaries are not uncommon; people go as far as having bars put on their windows and guard dogs to protect their homes. A house or apartment with good security will not only give you peace of mind, but actually make a difference in your life, keeping you and your stuff safe.
Life is obviously going to vary depending on where you choose to live, from a fishing village – where things will probably be much more old fashioned and laid back – to the capital city, which is where you’ll find a big portion of other expats and more opportunities.
If you don’t feel like living in Panama City – which does, to be fair, offer up the amenities of a modern city but with the rainforest a day trip away – there are smaller towns that might offer a chance for you to live a completely different lifestyle.
Panama, in general, is trying to grow and develop. There are economically deprived parts of the country; there are wealthy people. The recent additions of the Metrobus and El Metro in the capital show that the country is, albeit gradually, on the rise. It may be a good time to base yourself here, in fact, to see it all happen.
Before you do anything, you should definitely do your research. First off, visiting the country will help. Secondly, head online: ask questions on expat forums, research safe places to live, what sorts of jobs you can do in Panama, and then make your decision.
How is healthcare in Panama?
Healthcare in Panama is some of the best in Latin America. A mix of private and public facilities, there’s not a lot you’ll find wrong with it – especially in Panama City.
There’s a lot of chances to get access to good healthcare in the capital, as well as good clinics and pharmacies. It’s very easily accessible, with top-notch, well equipped medical facilities and well trained (often English speaking) doctors.
In other large cities, there will be hospitals with specialists, but they won’t be the same level as those to be found in Panama City.
Outside of the large cities, however, the level of medical care can be very limited. There’s a lack of funding in the countryside, which means a lack of beds and a shortage of equipment and doctors, as they prefer to be based in Panama City for their lifestyle.
Note that most doctors will expect upfront, cash payment, in full, leaving you to deal with your insurance company afterwards – even for emergencies. With that in mind, having good medical travel insurance is a must.
The best hospitals and clinics, obviously, will be the private ones. The staff here, especially the doctors, will have trained in the US and will definitely speak English.
Even if the healthcare in Panama is good, some of the best in Latin America actually, having a serious injury or illness may mean that you have to be evacuated – most likely to the US or Mexico. Again, travel insurance, in this case, is a necessity.
When it comes to pharmacies, don’t worry: there are plenty, even a few chains, that you’ll find dotted around the country, but most of all in large towns and cities.
Basically, the more rural you get, the less likely you are to find anything medical. When was the last time you saw a health clinic in the middle of a rainforest?
Helpful Panama Travel Phrases
Spanish is the official language of Panama and spoken by nearly every citizen of the country. The local dialect is very similar to the Spanish spoken in the rest of Central America. Those who learned any sort of North American style of Spanish will have no problem speaking with Panamanians.
There are several local indigenous languages in Panama, but these are only found in remote locations. You might hear or see a word or two when backpacking in Panama’s more off the beaten track places (e.g. San Blas), but rarely will you hear full conversations in any of these languages.
English should be somewhat common around all of the major tourist attractions in Panama. Non-native speakers will vary in proficiency but they should be good enough at English.
To really tap into the local scene and impress the Panamanians, you should try and speak a little Spanish. Most Panamanians will be more receptive to you; otherwise, they already speak English and would prefer to communicate that way.
Here are a few helpful Spanish travel phrases with English translations for your trip to Panama. Note that these were taken from our Backpacking Costa Rica guide and that they are still applicable in Panama.
Hello – Hola
How are you? – Como estas?
Good Morning – Buenos dias
I don’t understand – No entiendo
How Much – Cuánto cuesta?
Stop here – Te detienes aquí
Where Is The Toilet? – Donde esta el bano?
What Is This? – Qué es esto?
No plastic bag – Sin bolsa de plastico
No straw please – No paja por favor
No plastic cutlery please – No hay cubiertos de plástico por favor
Sorry – Lo siento
Help! – Ayudame!
Cheers! – Salud!
Dick head! – Cabron!
Final thoughts on the safety of Panama
Panama is statistically speaking one of the safest countries in Central and South America. Even so, there are things about Panama that may make you think twice about visiting this country: theft from tourists is common, pickpocketing happens, muggings can occur too. This isn’t like where you’re from (most likely, anyway) and will, therefore, require you to be more careful and cautious than usual.
The position of Panama, sandwiched between Central America and South America, occupying both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, is both a blessing and a curse. You get the best of both worlds in terms of natural beauty on either side, you get the rainforest of the Darien Gap, but then again, it’s the funnel through which so much trafficking takes place, making a lot of the country unsafe to travel.
However, it’s all relative. You could come to Panama, stay in a resort, and be absolutely fine the entire time – no safety issues at all. You could even have a tour organised when you plan to visit, meaning you get to travel around with a group of people and led around by a knowledgeable guide (our recommendation). Independent travel, however, is possible: just be sensible with how you go and you’ll be fine.
And don’t forget to sort your travel insurance before heading to Panama! We’ve put together a roundup of the best travel insurance for backpackers – check it out here, or if you’re low on time, get a quote from World Nomads, our favorite travel insurance provider.
Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple – just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you’re on your way!