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When to Go
Money and Costs
Getting There and Away
Panama has a cosmopolitan capital city (see more about Panama City Panama), incredible
rainforest and some of the finest snorkeling, birding and deep-sea fishing in the
world, so it's hard to figure out why travelers tend to steer clear of this country
or just whiz through. It may have something to do with the fact that Panama is known
internationally for its canal, the 1989 US invasion and the name it donated to a style
of headgear, but this does it no justice.
The reality is a proud prosperous nation that honors its seven Indian tribes and its
rich Spanish legacy and embraces visitors so enthusiastically that it's difficult to
leave without feeling that you're in on a secret that the rest of the traveling world
will one day uncover.
Full country name: Republic of Panama
Area: 75,500 sq km (29,157 sq mi)
Population: 2.8 million (growth rate 1.3%)
Capital city: Panama City (pop 700,000)
People: 65% mestizo, 14% African descent, 10% Spanish descent, 10% Indian
Language: Spanish, English and Indian languages
Religion: 85% Roman Catholic, 10% Protestant, 5% Islamic
Government: Constitutional republic
President: Martin Torrijos
GDP: US$8.8 billion
GDP per head: US$3200
Annual growth: 4.1%
Major industries: Banking, construction, petroleum refining, brewing, cement and other
construction materials, sugar milling, shipping and agriculture
Major trading partners: USA, EU, Central America & Caribbean, Japan
Visas: Every visitor needs a valid passport and an onward ticket to enter Panama, but further
requirements vary from country to country and occasionally change. UK, Germany and Switzerland
citizens and many other nationalities need only a passport, while people from Japan, New
Zealand, USA, Venezuela and more need a tourist visa or tourist card (US$5) as well.
Contact an embassy or consulate for current details.
Health risks: Dengue fever, hantavirus (Los Santos province), malaria, rabies and yellow fever
Time: GMT/UTC minus 5 hours
Electricity: Variable - either 110V or 220V
Weights & measures: Metric
When to Go
Panama's tourist season is during the dry season from around mid-December to late March.
The weather can be hot and steamy in the lowlands during the rainy season, when the humidity
makes the heat more oppressive than otherwise. Rain in Panama tends to come in sudden short
downpours that freshen the air and are followed by sunshine. If you'll be doing any long,
strenuous hiking, the dry season is the most comfortable time to do it; the Darien Gap can
be crossed only at this time.
If you like to party, try to be in Panama City or on the Peninsula de Azuero for Carnaval,
held each year on the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Panama City's Carnaval celebration is
one of the world's largest.
Carnaval is celebrated over the four days preceding Ash Wednesday and involves music,
dancing and a big parade on Shrove Tuesday. The celebrations in Panama City and Las Tablas
are the most festive. The Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations at Villa de Los Santos,
on the Peninsula de Azuero, are equally renowned. The Festival of the Black Christ at
Portobelo on October 21 includes a parade of the famous life-size statue of the Black
Christ, and attracts pilgrims from all over the country.
Money & Costs
Currency: US dollar (known as 'balboa')
Budget: US $3-7
Mid-range: US $9-15
Top-end: US $20+
Budget: US $19-29
Mid-range: US $39-59
Top-end: US $90+
Accommodation tends to be more expensive in Panama than in other parts of Central America; a
hotel room that might cost US$6 in Nicaragua or Guatemala might cost US$10 here. If you're
traveling on a budget, you'll pay at least US$25 per day for a room and three meals. A
moderate budget will be in the range of US$30-50 a day.
Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it's
exactly the same bill. Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US coins;
both are used. In most of Central America, US dollars are the only currency exchanged. In
Panama City, however, you can exchange currencies from almost anywhere in the world at a
casa de cambio, due to the city's large international offshore banking industry.
You can tip some small change, or around 10% of the bill if you're feeling affluent, in
fancier restaurants; in small cafes and more casual places, tipping is not necessary.
Haggling over prices is not the general custom in Panama.
The capital of Panama is a modern, thriving commercial center stretching 10km (6mi) along the
Pacific coast from the ruins of Panama Viejo in the east to the edge of the Panama Canal in
the west. The old district of San Felipe (also known as Casco Antiguo or Casco Viejo) juts
into the sea on the southwestern side of town. It's an area of decaying colonial grandeur,
striking architecture, peeling paint and decrepit balconies. Attractions include the
17th-century Metropolitan Church, the Interoceanic Canal Museum of Panama, the Plaza de
Bolivar, the Presidential Palace, the History Museum of Panama and the sea wall built by
the Spaniards four centuries ago. Via Espana's banking district is the complete opposite
to this yesteryear charm, with aggressively modern buildings and sophisticated entertainments.
Attractions on the fringes of the city include the Panama Canal, the 16th-century ruins of
Panama Viejo, the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo, the tropical rain forest of the Parque
Nacional Sobrerania and the 265-hectare (655-acre) Parque Natural Metropolitano.
The Panama Canal (click for more info) is both an engineering marvel and one of the most
significant waterways on earth. Stretching 80km (50mi) from Panama City on the Pacific
coast to Colon on the Atlantic side, it provides passage for over 12,000 oceangoing vessels
per year. Seeing a huge ship nudge its way through the narrow canal, with vast tracts of
virgin jungle on both sides, is an unforgettable sight. The easiest and best way to visit
the Canal is to go to the Miraflores Locks, on the northeastern fringe of Panama City, where
a platform offers visitors a good view of the locks in operation. There's also a museum with
a model and a film about the Canal. Boats leave Balboa, a western suburb of Panama City, for
a five-hour tour through the locks to Miraflores Lake.
This charming and historical island, 20km (12mi) south of Panama City, has an attractive
beach, some lovely protected rain forest, and is home to one of the largest colonies of
brown pelicans in Latin America. Known as the Island of Flowers, because at certain times
of the year it is filled with the aroma of sweet-smelling blooms, the island is a favorite
retreat from the city. Taboga has a long history and was settled even before Panama City.
There is a small church here, claimed to be second oldest in the Western Hemisphere, and
Pizarro set sail from here for Peru in 1524. The island's annual festival is July 16, and
involves nautical processions and celebrations. Taboga is a one-hour boat trip from Balboa.
Known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural environment, the small alpine town of
Boquete is nestled into a craggy mountain valley 35km (22mi) north of David. It's a fine
place for walking, bird watching, horse riding and enjoying a respite from the heat of the
lowlands. Flowers, coffee and citrus fruits are grown in the area and the town's Feria de
las Flores y del Cafe is a popular annual festival held in January. Boquete is a good base
for climbing 3475m (11,400ft) Volcan Baru, 15km (9mi) west, or visiting the volcano's
14,300-hectare (35,320-acre) national park.
Archipielago de San Blas
The islands of the San Blas Archipelago are strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama
from the Golfo de San Blas nearly all the way to the Colombian border. The islands are home
to the Kuna Indians, who run the 378 islands as an autonomous province, with minimal
interference from the national government. They maintain their own economic system,
language, customs and culture, with distinctive dress, legends, music and dance. The
economy of the islands is based on coconut sales, fishing and tourism, and they offer
travelers good diving, snorkeling and swimming; the best diving conditions are between
April and June. The most interesting islands are Achutupu, Kagantupu and Coco Blanco.
There are flights to several of the islands from Panama City or you can catch a ride with
Kuna merchant ships from Colon.
Archipielago de Bocas del Toro
Several of the pristine islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in the Caribbean Sea are
protected by the marine Parque Nacional Bastimentos. The park offers great diving, snorkeling
and swimming, and its beaches are used as a nesting ground by several species of sea turtle.
The main town on the archipelago is Bocas Del Toro on the southeastern tip of Isla Colon. The
archipelago is off the northeast coast of Panama and is accessible by plane from Panama City,
David and Changuinola, or by ferry from Almirante and Chiriqui Grande.
It would take all the exotic Caribbean cliches to describe this remote and beautiful island
off the Caribbean coast near Portobelo. Only 7 sq km (3 sq mi) in size, it's inhabited by 300
people of African descent who make their living from fishing and coconuts. There are a handful
of places to stay on the island and boats for rent, but no dive operators or places to rent
snorkeling equipment. Visitors are often attracted by local festivities, which include San
Juan Bautista on June 24, celebrated with canoe and swimming races; the day of the Virgen
del Carmen, on July 16, is marked by a land and sea procession; and Carnaval, before Ash
Wednesday, is f?d with Calypso dancing and songs.
There are hundreds of islands off both coasts of Panama, and because the coasts are just an
hour's drive apart, you could easily spend the morning snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea and
the afternoon swimming in the Pacific Ocean. Some of the best snorkeling and diving to be
found in Central America can be found in the protected waters beside Panama's Coiba Island.
Divers looking for something different might want to consider diving in the Panama Canal;
not only are there wrecks to explore but also all kinds of submerged equipment left by the
French when they worked on the railroad many decades ago. Surfers should check out Santa
Catalina Beach, on the Azuero Peninsula, which periodically sees waves with 6m (20ft) faces,
though they're usually hovering around 3m (10ft).
Fishing enthusiasts will be pleased to know that more deep-sea fishing records have been set
at Pinas Bay, on the Pacific coast, than anywhere else in the world. You can see sea turtles
in large numbers along both Panamanian coasts, although the Kunas' habit of lopping their
heads off with machetes and eating them is taking a heavy toll. Cana, deep in the heart of
Parque Nactional Darien, is birding nirvana, and what's more, you're likely to find yourself
alone as you take in the great green, blue-and-yellow, red-and-green and chestnut-fronted
Panama's arts reflect its ethnic mix. Indian tribes, West Indian groups, Mestizos, Chinese,
Middle Eastern, Swiss, Yugoslav and North American immigrants have all contributed ingredients
to the cultural stew. Traditional arts include wood carving, weaving, ceramics and mask making.
Spanish is the official language, though US influence and the international nature of the
canal zone reinforce the use of English as a second language. West Indian immigrants also
speak Caribbean-accented English. Indian tribes have retained their own languages. Panama
is predominantly Roman Catholic, but there are sizable Muslim and Protestant minorities
and small numbers of Hindus and Jews.
The Isthmus of Panama is the umbilical cord joining South and Central America. It borders
Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. Panama's arched shape reflects both its
role as a bridge between continents and as a passageway between oceans. At its narrowest
point, it is only 50km (30mi) wide, but it has a 1160km (720mi) Caribbean coastline on its
northern shore and a 1690km (1048mi) Pacific coast to the south. The famous canal is 80km
(50mi) long and effectively divides the country into eastern and western regions.
There are hundreds of islands near the Panamanian coasts. The two major archipelagos are the
San Blas and Bocas del Toro chains in the Caribbean Sea, though the best snorkeling, diving
and deep-sea fishing are to be found in the Pacific near Coiba Island and the Pearl Islands.
Panama has flat coastal lowlands and two mountain chains running along its spine. The highest
peak is Volcan Baru at 3475m (11,400ft).
Rainforests dominate the canal zone, the northwestern portion of the country and much of the
eastern half. Although Costa Rica is widely known for its fantastic wildlife, Panama has, in
fact, a greater number of flora and fauna species, more land set aside for preservation and
far fewer people wandering through the jungle looking for wildlife and inadvertently scaring
it away. There's much truth in the Panamanian saying that in Costa Rica 20 tourists try to
see one resplendent quetzal, but in Panama one person tries to see 20 of these exquisite birds.
Panama has two seasons. The dry season lasts from January to mid-April and the rainy season
from mid-April to December. Rainfall is heavier on the Caribbean side of the highlands, though
most people live on or near the Pacific coast. Temperatures are typically hot in the lowlands
(between 21?C and 32?C/70?F and 90?F) and cool in the mountains (between 10-18?C/50-64?F).
These vary little throughout the year.
Getting There & Away
Panama has flights to all Central American countries and both North and South America; Miami
is the principal hub for flights to Panama. Copa is the national airline. There's a US $20
departure tax on international flights, payable only in cash.
There are three land border crossings between Panama and Costa Rica; Paso Canoas, on the
Interamerican Highway, is the most popular, followed by Guabito-Sixaola near the Caribbean
coast. There are buses to the border that connect with local services on the Costa Rican side.
Despite the huge amount of shipping passing through the Panama Canal, it's hard to catch a
ride on a boat.
The two-week hike through the jungle that comprises the Darien Gap - the road less terrain
between Yaviza and the Colombian border - is an unwise endeavor. But if you absolutely must
cross the Panama-Colombia border on foot, do so at Puerto Obaldia, a sleepy little town just
a couple of kilometers from some fine beaches.
Panama has a number of domestic airlines and a good domestic flight network. There's an
inexpensive bus system servicing all accessible parts of the country.
Boats are the principal mode of transportation in several parts of Panama, particularly
between the San Blas and Bocas del Toro archipelagos. Kuna Indian merchant vessels carry
cargo and passengers along the San Blas coast, between Colon and Puerto Obaldia. Cars can
be rented in Panama City and David.