Panama is a unique country situated in the northern part of Latin America. It stands out in the region for its abundant natural wonders and ancient monuments. Tourists flock to Panama for its breathtaking beaches, towering mountains, impenetrable jungles, and the remarkable canal that connects two oceans. The people of Panama live in a way that’s distinct from many other nations, known for their openness, friendliness, and independence. Welcome to Panama; the country eagerly awaits your visit!
Panama on the Map
The Geographical Location of Panama
The Republic of Panama is situated at the crossroads of two continents, sparking ongoing debates about its geographical classification. While most scientists place the entire country within North America, others argue that the Panama Canal, serving as a vital waterway between oceans, could be considered the boundary between North and South America.
Panama spans a narrow isthmus from west to east. To the north, it boasts shores along the Caribbean Sea of the Atlantic Ocean, while the Pacific Ocean borders its southern coasts. The country has a total coastline length of 2,500 kilometers.
Panama is home to several archipelagos, with the Boca del Toro islands near the Costa Rican border being a prominent tourist attraction.
On land, Panama shares borders with Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east, with a total land border length of 687 kilometers.
The country’s terrain is primarily mountainous, featuring mountain ranges that serve as dividers between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The highest point in Panama is the Baru Volcano, towering at 3,475 meters.
With over 500 rivers coursing through the country, slightly more than half empty into the Pacific Ocean, while the rest flow into the Atlantic Ocean. The most significant of these is the Rio Tuira.
Safety for Tourists
Panama ranks 50th on the Global Peace Index, which assesses factors like environmental tranquility, attitudes toward tourists, and more. It places Panama alongside countries like South Korea and Tanzania in terms of overall safety.
Panama maintains an average crime rate, and serious crimes against tourists are quite rare. However, petty theft and various scams can occur. It’s advisable to exercise caution in some areas after dark. Particularly, neighborhoods near Mosquito Bay, known for drug trafficking, and regions near the Colombian border, where smuggling is prevalent, are considered higher-risk areas.
Typical tropical hazards include intense sunlight and a hot climate that tourists may not be accustomed to. Panama’s coastal areas experience strong underwater currents that can pose a safety risk. These waters are home to potentially dangerous creatures like poisonous fish, shellfish, and predatory species, including sharks, which are more abundant on the Pacific coast.
Unfamiliar foods and variations in sanitation and hygiene may result in various gastrointestinal issues. While the urban tap water quality is generally high, it’s recommended to drink bottled water.
Panama hosts numerous mosquitoes, which can carry dangerous infections. Therefore, visitors are strongly advised to obtain vaccinations against hepatitis A, typhoid, and malaria—some of the most common infections in the country.
Overall, Panama maintains a relatively high level of safety, and with common-sense precautions, you can enjoy your time here securely and comfortably.
Public Holidays in Panama
Like all Latin Americans, the residents of the republic are known for their cheerful and friendly disposition. They cherish lively celebrations with obligatory dancing and music.
There are approximately 20 official public holidays, along with various festivals and carnivals.
Official public holidays are categorized into secular and religious celebrations. The secular ones include New Year’s Day and significant Panamanian historical events, such as Independence Day, Labor Day, Flag Day, Mother’s Day, and others.
Among the religious holidays, Christmas and Easter stand out as particularly popular.
In February, Panama hosts a vibrant carnival, a tradition found in Spanish-speaking countries across the region. It typically spans five days leading up to the beginning of Lent.
While the capital city hosts the main carnival, other regions have their unique festivals. For instance, Portobelo holds an annual Black Christ festival, while Boquete celebrates Coffee Day. In July, many cities host the Panamanian Pollera festival, showcasing the traditional and colorful women’s attire.
What Kind of Fun to Expect in Panama?
Over the past two decades, Panama has witnessed a steady increase in tourist numbers, leading to rapid development of the necessary infrastructure. Today, Panama offers its visitors not only pristine natural beauty but also comfortable holiday experiences. Tourists can enjoy a wide range of activities to suit their preferences. Here are the top 10 things every tourist should consider doing in Panama:
1. Beach Holidays: The country boasts numerous beautifully adorned beaches with warm seas and fine sands, set amidst tropical landscapes. Popular beaches are found on the Boca Del Toro islands and along the Pacific coast.
2. Diving: Panama offers divers many renowned locations suitable for both beginners and experienced divers. Apart from the Boca del Toro archipelago, areas like Portobelo, Santa Catalina, and Coiba Island in the Pacific Ocean are attractive. Specialized dive programs are available in the Panama Canal Zone.
3. Snorkeling: Many of Panama’s beaches have shallow waters, perfect for snorkeling. The rich underwater world in Panama offers delightful experiences.
4. Rafting: The country’s rivers flow from high mountains to the ocean, making them ideal for both extreme rafting enthusiasts and those who prefer a leisurely ride through scenic jungles. Rio Mahagua attracts the thrill-seekers, while Rio Fonseca provides a more tranquil experience.
5. Ecotourism: Nature enthusiasts will appreciate the National Park on Bastimentos Island in the Caribbean Sea. Here, you can stay in eco-hotels or traditional Indian huts built over the water, offering serenity and a deep connection with nature.
6. Ethno-Tourism: Panama is home to several vibrant indigenous groups, with the Kuna tribe being notable. A visit to these communities offers insight into their way of life and worldview, allowing you to appreciate the local culture and natural beauty.
7. Natural Attractions: Panama offers numerous excursions to explore its breathtaking landscapes. One of the standout destinations is Baru Volcano, the country’s highest point, surrounded by famous coffee plantations.
8. Unique Places: While traveling through Panama, don’t miss La Loma Chocolate Factory. It’s not just a place known for exceptionally delicious chocolate but a full tourist complex, complete with a hotel and guided tours, situated on Bastimentos Island.
9. Historical and Architectural Sights: Although Panama may not have an abundance of ancient indigenous settlements like Mexico or Peru, it does feature archaeological sites. The most renowned is the ancient Inca city, whose ruins are located in Panama Viejo, the historical heart of the capital, filled with colonial architecture.
10. Panama Canal: Lastly, one cannot forget Panama’s most famous wonder—the Panama Canal. Opened in 1920, it serves as a vital global transport artery, connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Bridge of the Two Americas, located at the Pacific entrance, adds to the allure of this remarkable feat of engineering.
What’s Important to Know About Panama
If you’re planning to visit this country, here are some essential things to know:
The official language of the country is Spanish, spoken fluently by 80% of the population. Additionally, French (18%) and English (14%) are spoken.
The indigenous Indian populations in the country speak their own dialects.
Panama is home to over 4.2 million people. About 65% of the population is mestizo, a term used for descendants of mixed European and local indigenous marriages. Native Indians still make up approximately 12% of the population.
Significant diasporas of Africans and Americans exist. The American population, primarily composed of military personnel and their families in the Panama Canal Zone, may not be fluent in Spanish, even after living in Panama for extended periods.
- For more intriguing facts about Panamanians, their character, and local customs, you can refer to this article.
The national currency is the balboa, which is divided into 100 centesimo.
Coins in circulation include denominations of 1/10, 1/4, 1/2, 1 balboa, and 1 and 5 sentesimo. Paper balboas are not issued, and they are replaced by the American dollar, which freely circulates in the country. The exchange rate of the balboa is fixed at 1:1 with the dollar.
Tourists should carry American dollars since they are the official means of payment in Panama and do not require conversion to the local currency.
Other currencies, such as euros or yuan, can be readily exchanged for dollars at banks. Moreover, the country has numerous ATMs that accept international cards.
The majority of the population in the country is Christian, with about 80% identifying as Catholics due to the historical influence of Spain. An additional 15-18% of the population are Protestants.
Bahá’í Faith is another religion gaining popularity, with approximately 2% of the population adhering to it.
The entire country is situated in a tropical climate zone, with some altitudinal belt zones in the western region near the Costa Rican border.
Panama experiences two distinct seasons: drier and slightly cooler winters, followed by humid, rainy summers. The rainy season spans from May to November, with sharply reduced rainfall during the dry season that follows.
Annual temperature fluctuations are minimal, typically within 5 degrees. The average daily temperature during Panama’s winter is around +29 degrees, while the summer temperature hovers around +32 degrees. The Pacific coast is cooler than the Caribbean coast, mainly due to refreshing ocean breezes.
In terms of moisture, the Caribbean coastal areas receive more rainfall compared to the Pacific coast. Panama is located outside the typical hurricane zone.
Panama boasts a relatively consistent sea water temperature year-round, suitable for swimming on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. While the bathing season lasts throughout the year, the ideal time for tourism is during the winter months, from November to April.
- Water temperature in winter (December-January): +27 to +28 degrees Celsius.
- Water temperature in spring (March-May): +28 to +29 degrees in May.
- Water temperature in summer (June-July): ranging from +29 to +30 degrees.
- Water temperature in autumn (September-November): fluctuates between +28 and +30 degrees.
The primary natural hazard in the country is flooding, typically caused by passing hurricanes. Although Panama lies just outside the usual tropical cyclone zone, it remains susceptible to their influence. Tropical storms occasionally traverse Panama, particularly affecting the western provinces along the Costa Rican border. One of the most destructive hurricanes in recent years was Nate in October 2017, causing significant flooding, landslides, and displacement.
Earthquakes are another potential natural hazard due to Panama’s location at the convergence of continental and oceanic tectonic plates. The country experienced a major earthquake in 1991, originating in Costa Rica, which impacted western Panama and the Bocas del Toro archipelago, resulting in casualties.
While Panama has several volcanoes, they have been inactive for centuries, minimizing the risk of eruptions. Additionally, Panama’s humid climate does not favor forest fires, reducing this threat significantly. Overall, Panama is a relatively safe country concerning natural disasters.
- For further information about Panama’s historical disasters, you can refer to this article.
Panama functions as a presidential republic with the president as the head of state, appointing the cabinet of ministers. The National Assembly represents the legislative branch.
The country is divided into ten provinces and five comarcas, designated areas for permanent residence of indigenous peoples known as Indian autonomies.
The capital and largest city in Panama is Panama City.
Major Cities and Resorts
Panama City, the capital, is the most populous city and offers historical architecture and monuments, even though its beaches may not be pristine.
Portobelo, a small resort town on the Caribbean coast, is rich in clean beaches, beautiful landscapes, and historic sites, with remnants of ancient forts.
Bocas del Toro is a popular resort with pristine beaches and unspoiled natural beauty. Industrial activities are restricted, and the archipelago is part of a Natural Park.
Symbols of Panama
Panama Canal: A pivotal engineering marvel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, considerably shortening the route between continents.
Golden Frog: A symbol of wealth in Panama’s folklore, believed to transform into a pile of gold upon death.
Pollera: A vibrant, wide-skirted dress, usually handcrafted and predominantly white in color, worn during festivals and carnivals.
Harpy: A large bird of prey, the national symbol of Panama.
Flower of the Holy Spirit: A stunning orchid chosen as one of the republic’s symbols.
How to Get to Panama
European or Asian tourists typically reach the country by air. Panama has six international airports, with Tocumen and Isla Colon (located on the islands of Bocas del Toro) being the primary ones.
Tocumen Airport serves as the country’s main air hub, with over 4.5 million travelers passing through it annually. It offers regular flights to various Latin American countries, the USA, Canada, as well as to cities like Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam, and Istanbul.
Isla Colon Airport, although it carries the title of an international airport, mainly connects the Bocas del Toro archipelago to Panama City, the nation’s capital.
Despite the high volume of ships transiting the Panama Canal daily, traveling to Panama on cruise ships may not be the most cost-effective option.
How Much Does a Trip to Panama Cost?
The total cost of a vacation in Panama can vary significantly, depending on whether you choose to plan an independent adventure or utilize the services of a tour company with experienced guides.
Panama’s central location in Latin America means that travelers from Europe can expect relatively higher flight costs. For instance, a round-trip ticket from Paris to Panama typically starts at a minimum of $600 to $700.
Basic tour packages within the country begin at around $700 to $1,500 for five days, excluding flight expenses.
In Panama, tourists can anticipate the following expenses:
Food: Dining costs are notably lower compared to Europe. A meal for two at an average restaurant can range from $20 to $50, while local eateries may offer options as low as $10. For instance, a pizza may cost $7 to $10, and a burger, fries, and a soft drink could be priced at $3 to $5. A cup of cappuccino costs approximately $2.5.
Accommodation: The average cost of a double room in a three-star hotel is approximately $40 to $50, but you can find hostel rooms for as little as $10 per person. Upscale hotels offer rooms starting from $150.
Sightseeing: Many beach services are complimentary when staying at hotels, excluding additional activities like diving. Visiting historical buildings and churches is generally free, while museums typically charge an entrance fee of $3 to $5. The cost for exploring nearby natural attractions on foot usually ranges from $5 to $10. Thematic tours can cost between $50 and $200.
Souvenirs: Tourists often take home locally-made clothing, such as T-shirts starting at $10, and shorts from $15. Traditional Panamanian products like Panama hats are available from $8. Handcrafted items from local indigenous communities, such as bracelets, earrings, and necklaces, are popular souvenirs. Molas, colorful fabric often used as bedspreads, can be purchased starting at $12. Popular edible souvenirs include chocolate, rum, and Geisha coffee, with a 200-gram can of coffee priced at $15. Costs for souvenirs can vary widely.
Transport: Public transportation, including buses and shuttles, offers an economical and often safer way to travel within cities. Bus tickets are typically around 35 cents. Taxi fares start at $1.5 with an additional charge of $1 per kilometer.
Taking unforeseen expenses into account, a one-week vacation for two in Panama may cost between $2,000 and $3,000, including airfare. The total cost can vary significantly depending on preferences and activities.
If you have visited Panama, we invite you to share your experiences in the comments. Please take a moment to write a few words about your most memorable moments and any recommendations you might have for other travelers. Your insights and suggestions are greatly appreciated!