Long viewed as an off-the-beaten-track destination, Panama is quickly becoming a sought-after place to visit. Here you’ll find a contrasting nation with modern industry and a cosmopolitan capital, as well as lush rainforests, tropical islands and indigenous communities. It is a country of dramatic contrasts and it won’t take you long to realize this when you visit Panama.
To fully understand and immerse yourself in the landscape of this Central America country, it’s a good idea to come prepared and know a few things before visiting Panama.
Whether you’re wondering about what visa you might need, what language you should be speaking, or even if you’re just wondering about if the tap water is safe to drink, I’ve created this guide to visiting Panama.
Make sure to also read my post 15 Best Things To Do In Panama.
What You Must Know Before Visiting Panama
Do you need a visa to visit Panama?
In most cases, you won’t need a visa when visiting Panama. There is a visa waiver program for many countries, meaning you won’t need to get a visa before you arrive. This list of countries includes most of Europe, Australia, the USA, Canada, South Korea and Japan.
This visa-on-arrival gives you 90 days to stay in Panama (if you’re from one of those countries). However you must have the equivalent of USD $500 in your bank (or on your person), a passport with free pages and six months of validity left on it, and you must have proof of onward travel.
Panama uses the US dollar
The US dollar is actually the official currency in Panama, along with the Panamanian Balboa. Mostly, the US dollar is a common form of payment throughout the country. For example, ATMs issue US dollars, so make sure you have your bank card with you.
But there are Panamanian Balboa coins
Even though the US dollar is used widely throughout Panama, the country also has its own currency: the Panamanian Balboa, which you can also find in the form of coins (as well as notes). This is pegged to the US dollar at 1:1 ratio, so you won’t have any trouble figuring out how much it’s worth.
The only thing to keep in mind is that the Balboa aren’t accepted in the US. I handed down a few Balboa coins at the airport in Miami (the equivalent of quarter coins) and they were quick to point out they were not accepted!
It’s more expensive than you think
You may be imagining that because Panama is Central America that it’s going to be a cheap place to travel, but that’s not true, and it’s better you know before visiting Panama. Panama can actually be really expensive, with food and drink in the capital costing way more than you expect.
I remember crossing the border from Costa Rica, which is the most expensive country in Central America, thinking it’d be refreshing to be in a cheaper country again, and being quite shocked when I realized how much things costed.
There are ways to travel on a budget, of course, but this isn’t a shoestring sort of destination. You might want to save up for a little longer before you embark on more than just a week’s holiday here.
Best time to visit Panama
If you do want to make your trip to Panama cheaper, then you could always opt visiting Panama during the country’s wet season. This lasts from May to November/December, with short, sharp downpours to be expected on any given day, but you can also get whole strings of days where it rains pretty much all day.
With regards to the weather in Panama, the best time to visit Panama is basically not the wet season, so you should visit from January to March/April. However, don’t just assume that if you visit Panama in – say – February you’ll have perfect weather. In fact, that’s when I visited (for the entire month) and while the Pacific coast was sunny and dry, it sure rained a bit almost every day on the Caribbean coast (incidentally, that’s where Bocas del Toro, Portobelo and San Blas are located).
April and December can be kind of shoulder months where it might be a bit rainier than you’d like, but which also sees a few sunny days and less tourist crowds.
The peak tourist season is January to March. There’s obviously less rain, more sunshine, interesting festivals and nature watching to enjoy. The average daily temperature for February, for example, is 28°C (82.4°F); in the middle of rainy season, August, this is 27°C (81°F). Again, these are average temperatures which means it can be way hotter than that during the day!
As you can see the temperature doesn’t fluctuate too wildly throughout the year, and almost stays the same, but is just more or less rainy depending on the season.
Is Panama safe?
Yes! Panama is actually one of Central America’s safer countries, but it’s all relative and there’s still a fairly high crime rate. With this in mind, it pays to still be vigilant and pay attention to your surroundings, with pickpockets and robberies targeting tourists not unheard of.
Some areas are more unsafe than others, however. In Colon, for example, the port town can be unsafe — day or not — particularly around the cruise ship terminal. Northeast Darien Province also has some safety issues related to military groups and drug cartels – but this part of the country is literally jungle so unless you are doing a survival training it’s unlikely you’ll be going.
Elsewhere, Panama City is relatively safe, with crime usually only taking place in specific neighborhoods that tourists likely wouldn’t venture into anyway.
In short, when visiting Panama you should stay aware of your surroundings when you get money out, keep your belongings close to you, and try not to follow Google Maps blindly down deserted side streets.
Can you drink tap water in Panama?
You’re going to want to drink plenty of water in the high heat and humidity of Panama, but it’s not safe to drink everywhere. Tap water is usually safe to drink in Panama’s cities, but heading out into more remote areas, it’s best avoided. In Bocas del Toro, for example, it’s definitely not safe to drink the tap water, and lots of people end up being sick because of that.
All in all, it’s better to be safe than sorry and you should actually avoid drinking tap water in Panama altogether. One thing you could do is bring along a refillable water bottle with a filter, or get yourself a straw that filters the water as you drink it, rather than buying plastic bottles of water.
There’s no land crossing with Colombia
That’s because of the densely forested and mountainous region called the Darien Gap. Over the years there have been attempts made to create infrastructure (i.e. highways) through this region, but that’s never been possible due to the cost of such a project and also the impact to the environment.
The Darien Gap is also one of the most treacherous migration routes in the world, a remote stretch of land that spans about 96.5 kilometers (60 miles). People often try to make their way through the mountains and rainforests here from Colombia on a desperate journey to reach the US.
In short, if you were thinking about carrying on to Colomba by road from Panama (or vice versa), you may have to change your plans — it’s not possible.
It’s home of the Panama Canal
One of the highlights of visiting Panama is seeing the Panama Canal. Indeed, Panama is where you’ll find it. Opening back in 1914, this artificial waterway is an integral part of global shipping cuts straight through the isthmus of Panama. It’s 82 kilometers (51 miles) long and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, taking ships on a journey through giant lock systems and man-made lakes.
You should also read my post A Guide To Visiting The Panama Canal.
Don’t rush through Panama City
There’s a lot more to Panama City than first meets the eye. Despite the clustering of skyscrapers, there’s a slower pace of life here than you might first expect from a modern metropolis. Lunches and dinners seem to go on for hours, people saunter slowly through the warm streets, and friends and families sit out in the evening in parks.
There’s even plenty of history here, with the old town in the form of Casco Viejo born when a famous pirate called Henry Morgan burnt down the old old town in 1671 (you can still see the ruins of this too).
So while you might think that Panama City is merely a jumping-off point to see the spectacular nature of Panama, its highlands and its rainforests, it’s a destination in itself. So, how long should you stay in Panama City? I recommend spending a few days here at least, getting to know what makes it all tick.
Head over to my post 13 Best Things To Do In Panama City, Panama.
The transportation system is actually better than in most of Central America
Compared to other Central American countries, Panama actually has a fairly comprehensive and reliable transportation system. For one thing, in Panama City you’ll find the first subway network in Central America.
Low-cost bus routes connect major destinations. These are affordable (think cheaper than driving), but surprisingly comfortable with air-conditioning and often with movies showing. Getting around cities is more about taxis and Uber; they’re affordable and safe to use.
The Panama Railway Company also provides a way to get from one side of the country to the other. Dating back to 1855, this feat of engineering is still in use today as both a freight and passenger line. The ride between the Atlantic and Pacific side lasts only an hour, but with carriages designed for sightseeing, you’ll get amazing views of Lake Gatun and the surrounding landscape as you go. It’s well worth it.
Other than public transport, Panama boasts some nicely maintained highways for visitors to drive around on. These are pothole-free and easy to navigate.
Should you rent a car in Panama?
One thing you may be wondering before visiting Panama is whether you should rent a car. You actually should, if you can! You’ll be able to travel at your own pace and enjoy the beautiful scenery without having to rely on taxis, tours or bus timetables. You can make stops when you want, leave when you want in the morning, and visit places that may not even be served by public transport.
However, driving in Panama is actually not the most affordable way to get around. The cost of renting a car in Panama is similar to what it costs in the US.
Even if it’s not cheap, it is easy to rent a car. You’ll find international car rental companies at the airport and in town and city centers across the country. But in order to get the cheapest deal possible, book ahead online.
I recommend using Discover Cars as a comparison site to find the best deals for car rental in Panama.
Driving in Panama is relatively simple, but it’s probably best done by somebody who has experience driving in a foreign country; driving in the cities can be quite chaotic, for example, and is best avoided.
There’s lots of wildlife
Not many people realize this before visiting Panama, but there’s lots of wildlife here! Panama’s rich geography includes swathes of untouched rainforest, remote mountain villages, far-flung beaches and mangroves. It’s not surprising that the nation is so blessed with an array of flora and fauna to keep even the most exacting nature-lover entertained for weeks on end.
Panama is basically a paradise if you like wildlife-watching. Even Panama City has its very own rainforests within its boundaries, courtesy of the Metropolitan Natural Park. But of course, there’s much more to the country than this.
Over in the Chiriqui Highlands, the Volcan Baru National Park boasts the highest peak in the country — the Baru Volcano, at 3,505 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level — and a landscape that is blanketed in dense rainforest.
There’s the UNESCO-recognized La Amistad International Park, which straddles the border between Panama and its neighbor, Costa Rica and features hundreds of species of birds and over 100 species of mammal.
Isla Coiba National Park, also UNESCO-listed, protects 38 islands with waters that overflow with marine life. So much so that it is often dubbed “Panama’s Galapagos.” And these parks I’ve listed are literally just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the incredible natural credentials of Panama.
The San Blas Islands are remote but oh so worth it
This far-flung archipelago is a deliciously inviting slice of what will make you want to visit Panama. Made up of around 365 islands and cays across 259 square kilometers (100 square miles) on the Caribbean Coast, San Blas Islands are sparsely inhabited and boast beautiful palm-fringed beaches.
It’s part of Guna Yala, an autonomous region of Panama that’s home to the indigenous Guna people, who are known for their bright clothing, fishing and fierce independence (they also have their own language).
Even though they’re so beautiful, with white sand beaches and crystal clear waters, you’ll rarely find crowds of tourists here. That’s partly because it takes some effort to reach this corner of the Caribbean; options include getting a 4X4 from Panama City (around 5:00 am) to the coastal town of Gardi, and then getting a boat from there. It’s a long trip, but I would say it’s worth it!
For more information, read my post A Guide To Sailing San Blas Islands, Panama.
It’s a great surfing destination
Surfing in Panama is internationally renowned, regularly attracting a crowd of surfers to ride its famous breaks. The surf here is good all year round and offers up the chance to surf on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the same trip (on the same day, if you feel like it!).
Santa Catalina is one of the premier surf destinations in Panama. It’s a laid-back kind of place with a lack of development and a main street that’s populated by bare-foot surfers heading to the beach.
Cambutal Beach on the Azuero Peninsula is another hotspot, and another easygoing surf town to spend a few days (or longer). Also on the Azuero Peninsula is Playa Venao, it’s a party-oriented town that features one of the best surf breaks in the country.
Bocas del Toro is also a magnet for surfers, particularly Isla Bastimentos, which boasts powerful waves that are the mainstay of experienced surfers.
Head over to my post A Guide To Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
There are some great hikes!
With all its amazing nature and dramatic landscapes, it’s no wonder that there are some equally amazing hikes to embark on in Panama. You can hit trails that pass through verdant rainforests, hike up cloud-covered mountains or wear your way past powerful waterfalls.
There’s something for every kind of hiker in Panama, from easy day routes a stone’s throw from the center of Panama City (for example, in the Metropolitan Natural Park), all the way to multi-day expeditions in the wilderness.
One famous hike in Panama is the trail that leads up to La India Dormida in the Valle de Anton, which only takes two hours but offers up some breathtaking views over the green-clad valley. There’s also an amazing 7-kilometer (4.4-mile) hike that passes through Soberania National Park, which is particularly loved by bird enthusiasts.
For more adventurous multi-day treks, there’s El Camino Real. Used by marauding pirates in the 18th century, it connects the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts and passes through thick rainforest scenery and rugged, rocky terrain. It’s definitely not one you should embark on without being prepared!
Panama has two independence days
That’s right! Panama celebrates two monumental events that have shaped the nation throughout its history. In 1821, Colombia became free of Spain; at the time, Panama also became independent from Spain but joined Colombia, so they celebrate this important event annually on November 28th, which is called Independence Day.
But then, later in 1903, Panama itself became its own independent republic and no longer a part of Colombia. This is called Separation Day and is celebrated on November 3rd.
Speaking Spanish will be helpful
Panama may have ties to the US, but that doesn’t mean everyone speaks English. In fact, a lot of people here don’t speak English. For one thing, Spanish is the official language, and is spoken by most of the population.
So brushing up on your Spanish language skills will definitely be helpful when visiting Panama. Simple phrases, numbers and being able to recognize certain words will help you communicate, catch buses and read menus at eateries (which is always important!).
Food is actually monotonous
Speaking of food – Despite the varied landscapes and patchwork of heritage and peoples that have made Panama what it is, the food is not as varied or exciting as you’d imagine. You will come across posts and articles talking about the delicious food of Panama, but I think they are truly sugar coating the reality of things. In fact, real foodies may end up being disappointed. I know I was!
Most of the staple foods are made up of rice, corn, plantains and yucca. And chicken is pretty much always on the menu.
One place where you can get a lot of different things, however, is in the capital city. Here you can find everything from Italian-inspired eats to Japanese sushi. Elsewhere, head to local fish markets for the freshest dishes (think ceviche).
But there’s excellent coffee
Coffee in Panama is top quality. As well as growing some of the beans themselves, Panama is also close to more globally famous coffee producers like Costa Rica and Colombia.
But the coffee that grows in the Chiquiri Highlands in Panama is thought to be some of the best quality coffee in the country. Sharp and strong, it’s full of flavor, benefitting immensely from Panama’s rich volcanic soil.
The oldest coffee estate in Panama is Cafe Ruiz, in Boquete. With around a hundred years of history, this plantation is highly regarded. And on the slopes of Volcan Baru, there’s the La Torcaza Estate, which grows coffee at 1,350 meters (4,429 feet) above sea level.
Anywhere you are in the country (unless you’re in the middle of nowhere), you can often get a really good cup of Panamanian coffee.
It’s actually quite dirty (especially in Bocas)
One of the main things that might catch your eye when visiting Panama is the amount of garbage that you’ll see out in the open. Even though it’s a relatively stable country, and expensive to visit, and plenty of tourists make their way to Panama each year, there is a lack of infrastructure to deal with litter across the country — particularly plastic.
I was honestly shocked by the amount of garbage mounts on the side of the highway, it certainly was a big change in the scenery from (almost) pristine Costa Rica, and it made me (negatively) wow a few times.
It seems that both the government and local people have grown accustomed to the problem, with overflowing dumpsters and trash cans in cities, and even litter along trails in national parks. The whole place can appear dirty and it’s sad to see, especially on the islands like Bocas del Toro or even in rainforests, where you might be expecting a pristine paradise.
I remember getting to a beach in Isla Bastimentos, in Bocas del Toro, where I could not even see the actual beach from a distance as the view was blocked by trash.
Basically, this is more of a warning to let you know that if you’re planning a trip, expect to see a lot of garbage in Panama.
Panama is home to various indigenous communities
It may seem that Panama is a Hispanic country with a mainly Spanish or European heritage, but that’s far from the case. In fact, there are many indigenous groups that make up the patchwork of the nation.
The native people of Panama account for just over 12% of the 3.4 million-strong population (according to the 2010 census). There are two main indigenous groups: the Ngabe people and the Bugle people (also called the Bokota). These groups make up half of the indigenous population of Panama.
The Ngabe live in western Panama mainly, across five indigenous territories, and the Bugle live in Bocas del Toro and Veraguas.
Other indigenous communities include Embera, who live in the southeastern portion of Darien Province, the Guna (who have their own autonomous region that I mentioned earlier), Talamanca people, Naso (close to the border with Costa Rica) and the semi-nomadic Wounaan people, who are related to the Embera.
Many of these indigenous groups speak their own indigenous languages. For example, the Ngobe language is spoken by 170,000 people, while the Guna language is spoken by over 60,000 people; the Bokota language only has around 1,000 speakers.
The indigenous people of Panama have many traditions and a strong connection to the natural environment. Many live in parts of the country which are protected, where they practice their identity through dances, songs and religious belief systems.
For more help in planning your trip to Panama, make sure to also read these posts: