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Welcome to Panama


Covering a land-bridge which 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; only a few hardy adventurers, researchers and spirited travellers have had the joy of discovering its amazing diversity of flora and fauna, secluded beaches, tropical beauty and historic treasures. The name, Panama, means 'abundance of fish and butterflies', in an indigenous language, which gives a good indication of the wild wonders to be found here, beyond its rather daunting, but fascinating capital, Panama City.

Panama has a significant history stretching back thousands of years, from its eight indigenous peoples (including the colourful Kunas of the San Blas Islands) to its turbulent colonial occupation. Spanish forts stand along the coastline, overlooking the blue waters once patrolled by famous pirates like Henry Morgan, and where Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea.

It is the natural beauty of the isthmus that offers so much for visitors, however. Around 30 percent of Panama is made up of 15 national parks and forest reserves, and 10 wildlife sanctuaries, like the incredible Parque Nacional Darién, just a short drive from Panama City, which is the most magnificent wilderness area in Central America. Archipelagos of about 1,500 offshore islands, their white soft beaches lapped by crystal clear waters, sport virgin rainforest and are an untouched paradise for divers, snorkellers, deep-sea fishing, water sports and sunbathers.

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 integrity of this overlooked part of the world where the sun always shines and it is possible to swim in two oceans in a single morning.

Information & Facts


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. Many Panamanians take an afternoon siesta, therefore business entertaining takes place over dinner instead of lunch. Many Panamanian business people prefer to host visitors to dinner at home, where they will be treated as VIPs and given a gift. The appropriate reciprocation is to invite the host to dinner in return. 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 are from 8am to 12pm, then 2pm to 5pm or 6pm on weekdays, and 9am to 12pm on Saturdays.


Panama has a tropical climate, with temperatures staying constant all year round, ranging from 90°F (32°C) during the daytime to 70°F (21°C) in the evening. Humidity is generally high, especially during the rainy season, which is between October and November. The best time to travel to Panama is between December and March.


The international access code for Panama is +507. The outgoing call code on Cable & Wireless is 00 (on Telecarrier dial 088+00 followed by the relevant country code. On Clarocom dial 055+00 followed by the relevant country code e.g. 0550027 for South Africa). Discount telephone rates apply between 10pm and 7am. Coin and card-operated public telephones are available, cards being sold at stores and vending machines. There are no domestic area codes in Panama. Cell phone providers offer digital TDMA 800 and GSM 850 networks therefore triband handsets are required for international visitors. There are several Internet service providers in Panama and Internet cafes are widely available in Panama City. Most hotels also offer the Internet.


A midday siesta is practised in many South American countries 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.

Duty Free

The following items may be brought into Panama duty free: 500 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 500g of tobacco, three bottles of alcohol, opened bottles of perfume for personal use and gifts up to the value of B/.50. Fruit, vegetables and animal products are prohibited.

Electrical current is 120 volts AC, 60Hz. Round 2-pin plugs are the norm.
Getting Around

A bus service criss-crosses Panama, most services starting and ending in Panama City at more or less hourly intervals from the Gran Terminal de Albrook in the downtown area. Buses are fairly comfortable and reliable. In the city itself the buses are brightly coloured, hot and uncomfortable, a flat fee payable at a turnstile when boarding. A tourist train service connects Panama City to Colon along the Panama Canal. Several international car rental companies are represented in Panama, but road conditions and signage are not good, so driving can be hazardous and traffic in the cities is chaotic. There are abundant taxis in Panama, as well as shared cabs called colectivos. In Panama City taxis are not metered but fares are calculated by zones, and the fare should be agreed before the journey. Most hotels can arrange private taxis prior to arrival.


It is recommended that visitors be inoculated for typhoid. Malaria prophylaxis is advised for most parts of the country other than Panama City and the Canal, and dengue fever is on the increase; travellers should take precautions against mosquito bites, as there are a number of tropical diseases spread by mosquitoes. Yellow fever vaccination is recommended for all travellers, except those visiting Panama City and the Canal, and is a requirement for all visitors arriving from an infected area. Vaccinations against tuberculosis and hepatitis B are sometimes recommended. Leptospirosis is a risk throughout the country, particularly during periods of heavy rainfall. Tap water is not safe to drink outside the capital without being boiled, filtered or chemically disinfected, and food should be eaten peeled, cooked and piping hot. Travellers are advised to carry an anti-diarrhoea drug. Medical facilities are good in Panama City, but less so elsewhere in the country. Critical medical problems require air evacuation to somewhere with better medical facilities, and travellers are therefore advised to have a fully comprehensive medical insurance policy. Quality control of pharmaceuticals in Panama is inadequate, so travellers are advised to bring a sufficient supply of their own medications from home.

The official language is Spanish. However, many Panamanians speak both Spanish and English.

The official currency is the Panamanian Balboa (PAB), equal to 100 centesimos, but the US Dollar is accepted everywhere at a rate of B1 = US$1. Balboa are available only in coin denominations. The only paper currency used is US dollars. It is easy to exchange currency and travellers cheques in Panama at banks, exchange shops, hotels and the airport. Avoid the black market. The best rates are offered at the larger banks. Old, creased and dirty foreign notes may be refused for exchange. Most major credit cards, American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Diners club, are widely accepted. There are about 300 ATMs in Panama City. Banks are usually open from 8am to 1.30pm on weekdays.

Passport Visa

Travellers to Panama require a passport valid for at least three months after arrival, return or onward tickets, all necessary documents for next destination and sufficient funds. Tourist Cards can be purchased on arrival for a fee of USD 5, they are valid for 30 days but extensions are possible. Be aware that it can take as long as 30 days to obtain a visa, if it is required. Panamanian entry requirements change constantly so it is wise to check with your nearest embassy or consulate before travelling to Panama. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.


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. Use only registered taxi companies and call a cab rather than hailing one in the street. Do not allow the taxi to pick up additional passengers and do not share a taxi with unknown passengers. Burglaries have recently been committed by organised gangs who use ruses to gain entry to properties, so be cautious. Travel to Darien province only by air with an organized group to recognized tourist destinations protected by the Panamanian police. Travellers are advised to avoid the border area with Colombia, as this is particularly dangerous. Avoid political demonstrations in Panama City, usually centred on Panama University and the main road known as the Transisthmica.

Local time is GMT -5.

Although a 10% 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% if a service charge is not included. Taxi drivers do not expect tips.

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