Panama is a small but beautiful and a blessed country in Central America with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. The Panama Canal is what the country is most famous for connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
In the middle of the country lies the Panama Canal which links the North Atlantic Ocean, via the Caribbean Sea with the North Pacific Ocean. Needless to say, this is one of the most important shipping routes in the world.
- Panama City — the capital city with three distinct points of interest: the new city, the old city, and the colonial city. Also, the base to visit the Panama Canal
- Balboa — earlier the “Canal Zone” (not mostly administrative buildings)
- Boquete — coffee growing capital of Panama in the Chiriqui Highlands and known as the Valley of the Flowers
- Boca Chica — the closest town to Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriqui
- Portobelo — historic Spanish Forts, boats to Colombia, and dive centers
Top Things To Do In Panama
Panama’s strongest attraction is its diversity. In just five days you can visit beautiful beaches, mountains, a modern city, and the historic ruins of the colonial past.
The Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most important interoceanic connections and probably the first thing that comes to your mind when thinking about Panama.
There are different ways to explore the canal: the most visited place at the canal is the Miraflores Visitor Center / Miraflores Locks in Panama City. It is located at the old canal with its smaller locks for smaller ships, but still very impressive.
To see the new, expanded canal, you can visit the Agua Clara Visitor Center in the city of Colon (Panama), on the Caribbean side of the canal.
In addition, it is also possible to book a luxury train ride along the canal or a boat ride on the canal.
Panama City is the capital of Panama. It’s also the biggest and most populous city in in the country and therefore an economic and cultural heart of Panama.
Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the Old Colonial Town of Panama City.
Portobelo-San Lorenzo is famous for the military fortifications on the Caribbean Side of Panama built by the Spanish Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s also a UNESCO Heritage Site.
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands is a group of islands just off the Caribbean coast of Eastern Panama. The indigenous Kuna Yala tribe have self-governing authority over the islands.
The San Blas offers a large array of sights. Starting with the fascinating people, incredible seascapes, colorful reefs, and islands, to the abundant sea life in its waters and wildlife on the mainland. There are continuous festivals and gatherings occurring at villages that visitors can witness to get a glimpse of the culture. Numerous Kuna villages offer visitors multiple opportunities for various glimpses at the daily lives of the Kuna.
If you snorkel, (Dog Islands) you will find a great variety of tropical fish in the shallow warm waters. This is not the case for the main villages that have their latrines where land and water. such that boat transport often is required.
Many of the tiny islands with beautiful beaches have one member of the Kuna tribe on the island who collects $1 per person for use of the island for sunbathing or swimming. Be sure to bring small change with you and be prepared to be in the middle of nothing.
The Pearl Islands (Archipelago de las Perlas) are a region in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Panama. Made famous as the site for three seasons of the reality television show Survivor, the archipelago is a combination of beautiful islands with pristine virgin forest and sandy white beaches.
Taboga is an island in Central Panama. It is one of the favorite escapes for residents of Panama City, who enjoy the beach, hiking, nature, fishing, and boat charters.
The island has a charming village with a whitewashed church, a few narrow streets with several small restaurants, small hotels and great views to Panama City from the highest point on the island which stands at approximately 300 m.
Taboga Island offers a number of adventures for nature and history lovers. There are several marked trails up the mountains which one can enjoy. Plus unmarked rainforest areas to explore.
Taboga is fortunate to have the second oldest church (San Pedro) in the western hemisphere.
Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí
Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí lies in the Gulf of Chiriqui, is dotted with dozens of small islands and islets, including Boca Brava, Isla Palenque, and Islas Secas.
The area has some of the best sport fishing and whale watching in the region, and several resorts and boutique hotels have opened in the area since the mid-2000s.
National Parks in Panama
Darien National Park
The Darien National Park is a world heritage listed national park in Eastern Panama. The park comprises the Darien Gap, the narrow land bridge between the Americas. The area is fairly isolated and there are no roads through.
Coiba National Marine Park
Coiba National Marine Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is frequently referred to as the Galapagos of Central America for its abundance of rare species in both the water and on land. Here you can scuba and snorkel and see some of the rarest pelagic species of marine life in the world.
La Amistad International Park
La Amistad International Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is Panama’s second largest park, covering over 850 square miles (207,000 hectares). It is a bi-national park, as an additional 193,929 hectares stretch to the Costa Rica side.
Amistad is the Spanish word for friendship and it was created to promote friendship between the two countries.
Volcan Barú National Park
Panama’s highest peak at 11,401 feet (3475 meters) is located in Volcan Baru National Park.
The volcano has been dormant for over 600 years; but with the bubbling Hot Springs and frequent seismic activity, it might not be entirely extinct.
If you are lucky you might see the Pacific and the Caribbean ocean from the top. Best chances for that is right on the sunrise.
There is a rough and very steep 4×4 road to the top. Near the summit, there are numerous cellular towers, and the rock face of the summit is covered with graffiti. In spite of this, the views beyond are breathtaking.
Less than 9 degrees north of the equator, most of Panama enjoys temperatures that are fairly consistent year round, with daytime temperatures in the 90s F (30–33°C) and nighttime around 70°F (21–23°C).
Tropical maritime; hot, humid, cloudy; prolonged rainy season, called winter or Invierno (May to November); short dry season, called summer or Verano (December to April).
The most popular time to travel to Panama is December through March when lacking humidity and nearly zero percent chance of rain makes it ideal for travelers.
During most of the rainy season, mornings and early afternoons are usually sunny while late afternoons and evenings have intermittent rainfall.
Most areas are quite warm, but a few places, such as Boquete, Cerro Punta, and El Valle can get a little chilly at night. You definitely want a heavy rain-proof jacket if you’re going to the top of Barú since you will be above 3000 m for a little while.
Natural Hazards: Occasional severe storms and forest fires in the remote Darien area. Hurricane-strong winds are only a very small possibility in Panama. Because of its geographic position, it is very unlikely that Panama could be in the path of any hurricane, unlike the other Central American countries.
Many Panamanians are bilingual but most of the local population speaks Spanish. So knowing a few Spanish words will be helpful.
Panama has a lot more indigenous culture than some neighboring countries. In Kuna Yala, you will hear the native Kuna language spoken.
In the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, as well as in Chiriqui or Bocas del Toro, you might hear the native Ngöbe-Buglé (Guaymí) language, although the Ngöbe and the Buglé are very quiet around foreigners.
If you ask directions from one of them, you will probably just get a hand or lips pointed wordlessly in the right direction.
In the larger cities, you can find all types of food (ranging from French to fresh Sushi to Middle Eastern, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Mexican… or whatever you’re in the mood for.)
Outside of the cities, the selection is largely Panamánian with bountiful seafood and beef due to the abundance of cattle farms and the fantastic fishing in the area.
Panamanian cuisine is a mix of several cultures. Reminiscent of the country’s Afro-Caribbean, French and Spanish influences, the dishes take on a complete character of their own.
Since Panama has a little more Caribbean influence than other Central American countries, you’ll see a lot more plantain than beans here.
Most dishes are served with coconut rice and a type of squash or other native vegetables. If Panamanian food has to be summed up in one word, that word would be “culantro”, which is a local plant that tastes like cilantro, except that it has a much stronger flavor.
A typical plate in a humble, family restaurant might include your choice of meat such as mondongo (beef stomach), fried or baked chicken, pork, beef or fried fish, and patacones (fried green plantains), rice, beans, and salad.
The Panamanians also enjoy their “chichas” (fruit, water & sugar), of which there is always a selection, ranging from tamarindo, maracuya (passionfruit), mango, papaya, jugo de caña (sugar cane juice), or agua de pipa (juice from young green coconuts).
Panamanian food is not very hot. They definitely do have several hot sauces, but the emphasis is not on the heat.
You can get excellent food really cheap if you look around. A quick and cheap lunch can be found at the so-called Fondas, which are small eateries located near schools, sports stadiums and in industrial areas where workers and students will have their afternoon meal.
The local food is far tastier than the typical Subway sandwich, Whopper or KFC meal and a lot cheaper.
If you eat at the same location often enough you will move from the status of a crazy gringo who must have gotten lost on the way to the Burger King to just another one of the locals enjoying lunch and casual conversation.
Drinks To Try
The national beers are Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, and Panamá. Balboa is probably the best of the domestic brands, however, Atlas is the most commonly purchased; many women (and also men) favor Soberana since it is light and not bitter.
Carta Vieja and Ron Abuelo are the main domestically produced rum. Seco, a very raw white rum, is the national liquor.
Seco con leche (with milk) is a common drink in the countryside.
Renting Vs. Public Transportation
You can rent a car in Panama City and Tocumen airport. However, you need to be at least 23 years old to do that. Cars drive on the right side of the road.
Although roads in Panama are in good condition, you should still be careful. Local drivers can be rather reckless since they know their turns and routes and you may appear too slow to them.
The currency of the country is Balboa. The exchange is available at the bank in Tocumen International Airport and in exchange houses, mostly in Panama City.
However, US dollars are widely accepted so if you are traveling from the US, just carry some cash and your regular credit cards should work just as fine.
Note: Many islands, such as Isla de Coiba and Isla Contadora, have neither banks nor ATMs, so you need to have cash on you.
How Safe Is Panama
Most of Panama is very safe. People in rural areas are generally extremely friendly and very helpful. If you want to visit Latin America, but are paranoid about security, Panama might be a good place to cut your teeth.
One exception is the border region between Panama and Colombia, which is considered extraordinarily dangerous due to Colombian rebel groups and drug traffickers. Most of the city of Colon is considered dangerous, and some neighborhoods in Panama City are a bit sketchy, in particular, El Chorrillo, Curundu, and El Marañón, poor and crime-ridden areas.
The old colonial quarter, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe) has a lingering bad reputation among travelers and some Panamanians but is gentrifying rapidly.
During the daytime, San Felipe is perfectly safe for foreigners. At night, the main streets and plazas, as well as the district of bars and restaurants toward the point, are also safe, but visitors should exercise caution as they move north along Avenida Central towards Chorillo.
Electricity and Plug Type
WiFi and SIM Card
Panama has one of the most advanced telecommunications systems in Latin America. This is due to the fact that most major submarine fiber cables cross the Panama Canal, either by land or water.
The most popular app to call and text in Panama is WhatsApp. Viber is also used. These allow for free calls and texts to others that use the same app. Many Panamanians do.
Calls to the USA and Europe are between 4 and 10 cents a minute. The best way to make international calls from Panama is to buy prepaid telephone cards that are sold at every corner. They can also be bought at Tocumen Airport but at a much higher price than in the local shops.
Panama’s country code is 507. All cellular numbers start with the number 6 and have 8 digits. Landline phone numbers have 7 digits.
Health Tips for Panama
Located in the tropics, several major mosquito-borne diseases are a risk in Panama
Panama is well known for its excellent medical care, making it a recent hot spot for medical vacations.
Yellow fever vaccination is recommended for all visitors over 9 months of age traveling to the provinces of Darien, Kunayala (San Blas) and Panama, excluding the Canal Zone. Most countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination before permitting travelers to enter Panama.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control state that risk of malaria exists in rural areas of Bocas del Toro, Darién, and San Blas provinces; no risk in Panama City or in the former Canal Zone. NB: Chloroquine is no longer effective for San Blas Province.
Dengue fever is endemic, particularly in the province of Darien.
Note: Tap water is safe in virtually all cities and towns, with the exception of Bocas del Toro, where bottled water is recommended.
The moisture and heat of the tropics can encourage yeast infections. 3-day and 5-day treatment courses are available in pharmacies but must be purchased from the pharmacist.
There are many hospitals that can give tourists first class attention. Many can take international insurance policies, though your insurance company may require you to pre-pay and submit a claim form. Verify with your company prior to travel what the requirements are for filing a foreign claim, as you will not typically be provided with a detailed receipt (one that includes diagnosis and treatment codes) unless you ask for it.
The new 911 system is now operational for medical emergencies only. Most coverage is in and around Panama City. However, during major holidays or national festivals, 911 units are stationed around the country especially in Las Tablas, David, Chitre, and Santiago.
In Case Of Medical Emergency
Medical evacuation flights are not as organized as in the EU, Canada, and the US. Until a dedicated helicopter emergency service is operational, the only choice for fast evacuation from the interior is to charter either a small plane or helicopter capable of holding a litter. Charges are billed to a credit card or paid in cash. Contact charter aircraft companies for a quotation. Typically, a medical flight on a small twin-engined plane from David to Panama City will cost $4,000. Helicopters are significantly more. A new private membership air medical transport service is now available. Tourist memberships are $10 for 90 days coverage.
Evacuation flights out of the country are normally provided by air ambulance services from Miami and range from $18,000 to over $30,000 depending on the patient’s medical needs.
Travelers with a prior medical condition, or who are at risk, should check their insurance coverage for these flights. Do not assume that a credit card’s travel insurance will cover the cost. Many only cover up to $1,000.
Personal cleanliness and sanitation: The bathrooms in even the most remote areas and smallest restaurants of the country are amazingly clean and well-kept. They far exceed most North American public facilities in this respect. In most areas, the standard practice is to throw toilet paper into the provided bin – not the toilet. Most remote areas do not have the proper septic systems to handle toilet paper waste. This is especially true along the Pacific and Caribbean coastal areas.
July 11, 2016 12:00 am 2 Comments
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