Covering a strip of land that links North and South America, the Republic of Panama is best known for its 40-mile (65km) shipping canal, which is cut along a gap between mountains, linking the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The country is largely unexplored by tourists, with only a few hardy adventurers, researchers, and spirited travellers having enjoyed its amazing diversity of flora and fauna, secluded beaches, tropical beauty, and historic treasures. The name Panama means 'abundance of fish, trees and butterflies', in an indigenous language, which gives a good indication of the wonders to be found here beyond the fascinating capital, Panama City.
Panama has a significant history stretching back thousands of years, from its six indigenous peoples (including the colourful Kunas of the San Blas Islands), to its turbulent colonial occupation. Spanish forts still stand guard on the coastline, overlooking the blue waters once patrolled by famous pirates such as Henry Morgan. Despite some cultural interest, however, it is the natural beauty of the isthmus that is the biggest draw to visitors. Around 30 percent of Panama is made up of 40 national parks and officially protected areas. These include the incredible Parque Nacional Darién, just a short drive from Panama City, which is arguably the most magnificent wilderness area in Central America. Made up of archipelagos of about 1,500 offshore islands, their white soft beaches lapped by crystal clear waters and surrounded by virgin rainforest, this is an untouched paradise for diving, snorkelling, deep-sea fishing, water sports, and sunbathing.
Those 'in the know' can be forgiven for keeping the delights of Panama a secret from the flood of modern tourism, because this has preserved the beauty and atmosphere of this overlooked part of the world, where the sun nearly always shines and it is possible to swim in two oceans in a single morning.
Panama has a tropical climate and temperatures stay constant all year round, ranging from averages of around 90°F (32°C) during the daytime to averages of about 70°F (21°C) after the sun sets. Humidity is generally high, especially during the rainy season, which is between mid-March and November. During the wet season rain comes almost daily, usually in the form of heavy but brief afternoon downpours. The best time to travel to Panama is in the dry season between December and mid-March.
The official currency is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB), equal to 100 centesimos, but the US Dollar is accepted everywhere. Balboa are available only in coin denominations, with the only paper currency in use being the US dollar. The only bank that exchanges foreign currency is the Banco Nacional de Panama counter at Tocumen International Airport. Only a casa de cambio (exchange house) can exchange foreign currency for dollars outside the airport, and they are rare outside of Panama City. ATMs are widely available throughout the country, except in the Darien of Islas Contadora and Tobago, and in the Archipielago de San Blas. Credit cards are widely accepted at travel agencies, upscale hotels and many restaurants.
The official language is Spanish. However, many Panamanians speak both Spanish and English.
Electrical current is 110 volts, 60Hz. Flat two-pin plugs are the norm.
US nationals: United States citizens require a passport valid for three months beyond arrival date. A visa is not required for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
UK nationals: A passport valid for three months beyond arrival date is required. United Kingdom nationals do not require a visa for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens require a passport valid for three months beyond arrival date. A visa is not required for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
AU nationals: Australian citizens require a passport valid for three months beyond arrival date. A visa is not required for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
ZA nationals: A passport valid for three months beyond arrival date is required. South African citizens do not require a visa for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
IR nationals: Irish citizens require a passport valid for three months beyond arrival date. A visa is not required for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens require a passport valid for three months beyond arrival date. A visa is not required for touristic stays of up to 180 days.
Travellers to Panama require a passport valid for at least three months from arrival, return or onward tickets, all necessary documents for next destination and funds of USD 500 per person for the duration of their stay. Visas are generally not required as many nationalities are allowed entry for a maximum of 180 days. Panamanian entry requirements change frequently so it is wise for travellers to check with their nearest embassy or consulate before travelling to Panama. It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Malaria is a concern in parts of Panama and travellers are advised to take malaria medication if visiting provinces east of the Panama Canal. Vaccinations are recommended for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid and travellers should be up to date on vaccinations for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and tetanus-diphtheria. Yellow fever vaccinations are required for travellers arriving from infected areas and are recommended for visits to areas of mainland Panama east of the Canal Zone.
Travellers should avoid tap water in Panama unless it has been boiled, filtered or chemically disinfected, and exercise caution with street food.
Medical facilities are good in Panama City but very limited outside of the capital. Comprehensive medical insurance is recommended and all required medication should be taken along, in its original packaging, accompanied by a signed and dated letter from a doctor detailing what it is and why it is needed.
Although a 10 percent service charge is added to most hotel bills, individual staff appreciate a gratuity appropriate to services rendered. Restaurant waiters expect a tip of 10 to 15 percent if a service charge is not included. Taxi drivers do not expect tips but fares are often rounded up.
Most visits to Panama are trouble-free. Visitors should, however, be aware that there is a risk of street crime in Panama City and it is unwise to carry large sums of cash or valuables in public. Visitors should be vigilant using ATM cash machines in public places and beware of pickpockets and muggers in the main city shopping and tourist areas. There have been incidents of assault involving taxi drivers and armed hold-ups in restaurants. Travellers should use only registered taxi companies and phone for a cab rather than hailing one in the street. They should not allow the taxi to pick up additional passengers and it's best not to share a taxi with unknown passengers. Burglaries have recently been committed by organised gangs who use ruses to gain entry to properties, so visitors should be cautious. Holidaymakers should travel to Darien province only by air with an organised group, and to recognised tourist destinations protected by the Panamanian police. Travellers are advised to avoid the border area with Colombia, as this is particularly dangerous, and to avoid political demonstrations in Panama City, usually centred on Panama University and the main road known as the Transistmica.
A midday siesta is practised in many South American countries, including Panama, due to the heat. Tourists in Panama will find that shops and businesses are often closed during these lunchtime hours and should conduct their daily business either before or after siesta. The penalties for using or dealing drugs in Panama are strict, with possession of even very small quantities punishable by up to 15 years of imprisonment.
Business in Panama is formal. Handshakes are appropriate with men on meeting and departing, but not usually with women. Use of titles is very important to Panamanians, as is punctuality. As many Panamanians take an afternoon siesta, business entertaining often takes place over dinner instead of lunch. Dress for business is fairly formal despite the climate; men wear lightweight suits and ties and women wear lightweight dresses and suits. Office opening hours vary but generally businesses are open from 8am to 12pm, then 2pm to 5pm or 6pm on weekdays, and 9am to 12pm on Saturdays.
The international access code for Panama is +507. Free wifi is available in hotels, restaurants and other establishments in tourist-centred areas. Purchasing a local SIM card is a good alternative to using international roaming, as fees can be high.
Two hundred and fifty cigarettes (10 packs) or 250g of tobacco, five bottles of alcohol, and goods up to the value of PAB 2,000 may be brought into Panama duty free. Fruit, vegetables and animal products are prohibited.
Official Tourism Website of Panama: www.visitpanama.com
Embassy of Panama, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 483 1407.
Consulate General of Panama, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7493 4646
Embassy of Panama, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 236 7177.
Consulate General of Panama, Sydney +61 (02) 9150 8409.
Embassy of Panama, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 346 0703.
Consulate of Panama, Auckland, New Zealand: +64 (0)9 379 8550.
United States Embassy, Panama City: +507 317 5000.
British Embassy, Panama City: +507 297 6550.
Canadian Embassy, Panama City: +507 294 2500.
Australian Embassy, Mexico City, Mexico (also responsible for Panama): +52 (01)55 1101 2200.
South African Honorary Consulate, Panama City: +507 302 2750.
Honorary Consul of Ireland, Panama City: +507 264 6633.
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