Below, we have a brief summary of their report, our own experiences, a note about travel for women, and some other links. Please read up on safety before planning your Panamá trip.
Important Phone Numbers
Panamá is one of the safest countries in Central America, with a relatively low crime rate, a stable government, and a strong police force. Avoid remote areas of the Darien province, the Mosquito Coast, and be wary of protests along the Inter-American Highway. Be careful of rip currents when swimming in the ocean. Areas to avoid in Panama City: El Chorrillo, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Santa Librada, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Panamá Viejo, and the Madden Dam Overlook. Read the full report here.
Note that the Government of Panama has instituted a free tourist insurance program. Most tourists who enter the country through Tocumen Aiport (Panamá City) are eligible for up to 30 days. Please go to the VisitPanama website or call 204-9300 for more information.
The vast majority of Panamá poses no special risk, outside of the usual risk of being a foreigner traveling internationally. Most of the incidents we heard about as Peace Corps volunteers happened in Panamá City and were the types of crimes you might expect in a big city (mugging, theft, etc.). That said, we highly recommend avoiding the city of Colón (outside of simply transferring buses). The Darien province typically shows up on travel advisories – we recommend that only seasoned adventurous travelers visit these destinations and that all travelers read the travel advisories and prepare themselves for the potential risks. The Mosquito Coast is also known for being a drug trafficking area. We’ve never been, don’t have any destinations there, and are honestly not even sure exactly how to get there.
Taxi tip: Taxi drivers will normally try to rip you off in Panamá City and tend to aggressively defend a high price, rather than negotiate. Ask a staff member at your hotel/hostel how much your fare should be and determine the price before getting in the cab. There are no meters, but they’ll normally stick with the predetermined price. Taxis outside of Panamá City tend to be more honest and even when they do raise the price, it’s a pretty tame increase (e.g. $1).
There have also been a lot of protests in recent years, typically involving the indigenous and their supporters blocking the Inter-American Highway for up to a few days. Some protests have trapped tourists between two destinations (there is only one highway in Panama), so be sure to check the news before changing destinations. Sign up for the Smart Traveler and the Embassy will alert you of imminent protests. The protests are almost always non-violent, though there have been incidents with tear gas, rubber bullets, and even Molotov cocktails. Stay clear of any active protests.
(Note from the co-founders: we asked a female fellow Peace Corps volunteer from Panama to write this section for us since we co-founders are men. Be sure to check out her community of service, Ella Drua)
“Panama is pretty safe, even for women traveling alone. There are, however, important precautions that women should take for safety and comfort reasons. Try not to travel at night in rural Panama. Transportation tends to shut down early, so you might end up stranded somewhere you didn’t plan on. Travel light. A backpack and hiking sneakers/sandals will attract less attention, be easier to cram on to a packed bus, and be more suited for long days of travel in this hot, wet climate. On that note, don’t feel too weird about people sitting very close to you, it’s part of the culture.
Dress conservatively when on the road. Panama’s heat and humidity are strong incentives to wear short shorts, but doing so will highlight your “gringoness” and might bring you unwanted attention. Panamanian women tend to wear pants or long skirts, and you should too. Finally, learn some basic phrases in Spanish. Traveling through rural Panamá will be very difficult if you’re not comfortable asking people where to find the truck or bus to the town you’re trying to reach. There are no written schedules to consult, and locals will be your key resource.
I’d also like to note that if you’re traveling alone as a woman, there’s a good chance you’ll be catcalled and “hissed” at. While this is incredibly annoying, it’s better to ignore the childish behavior than react negatively to it. Panamanian women do a fantastic job of shrugging it off gracefully. Traveling in rural Panamá can be a big frustration or a big part of the adventure, depending on your attitude, willingness to speak with locals, and taking the few key precautions noted above.”