First thing you need to know about Panama is that this small but diverse portion of land is located in the American continent; strategically on the isthmus of Panama – a narrow strip of land that connects North and South America, and links the Atlantic Ocean to the north of the Pacific Ocean.
Panama – officially named Republic of Panama – covers 74,340 square kilometers of land, and 1,080 square kilometers of water; making it the 119th largest nation in the world with a total area of 75,420 square kilometers.
Its territory is divided into ten provinces: Panama, West Panama, Bocas del Toro, Darien, Chiriqui, Cocle, Colon, Herrera, Los Santos, and Veraguas; with Panama as the capital province.
Also, the country has five comarcas (or counties) inhabited by indigenous groups: Kuna Yala, Emberá, Kuna of Madugandí, Kuna of Wargandí, and Ngöbe-Buglé. Touristically, it is possible to visit three of those five counties, and that’s a very enriching experience for visitors.
Panama is bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south.
The country mostly lies between latitudes 7° and 10°N, and longitudes 77° and 83°W; and unlike the other countries in Central America, Panama’s time zone is Eastern Standard Time – 05:00 hours (UTC-5:00).
Well, it’s very important to know that tourist-oriented crime is very uncommon in Panama. Unlike other countries around the world, pickpockets or scammers are not a significant issue to deal with during your Panama vacations.
Of course, it can happen anytime and tourists should be cautious when moving around or visiting some specific regions**.
**Parts of Darién province (bordering Colombia) are still a staging ground for rebel groups or drug traffickers.
Some basic, useful precautions to take into account are:
Due to its geographic position, most of Panama enjoys fairly consistent temperatures all year round. Within the day, temperatures range between 30-33 °C, and at night go down to 21-23 °C; in specific areas of the country such as Boquete, Cerro Punta and El Valle, temperatures are cooler and nights can get a little chillier.
Panama only has two defined seasons: dry season or summer from December to April, and rainy season or winter from May to November. During most of the rainy season, mornings and early afternoons are usually sunny, while late afternoons and evenings have intermittent rainfall.
In general, during both seasons, sun rises at 6:00 am and sets around 6:25 pm, giving around 12 hours of daylight.
There are six international airports in Panama, located in different regions of the country, where regular scheduled flights and some private charters operate:
Tocumen International Airport (PTY), Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport (PAC), Panama Pacifico International Airport (BLB), and Scarlett Martinez International Airport (RIH), located in Panama City; Enrique Malek International Airport (DAV) located in David, Chiriquí; and Bocas del Toro “Isla Colon” International Airport (BOC) and Changuinola “Capitan Manuel Niño” International Airport, both located in Bocas del Toro province.
Besides, the country has several local airstrips where internal flights operate; in fact, the country has more private airstrips per square mile than any other country in the world.
The only domestic airline operating in Panama is Air Panama. This airline offers regular internal flights, private charters, and international flights to San José, Costa Rica and Medellin, Colombia – that are helpful in case you want to make a journey including neighboring countries.
The official currency in Panama is the Panama Balboa (PAB); but in fact, the official paper currency is the US dollar – with an exchange rate of 1:1. This means that if you bring American currency, you don’t need to exchange money.
What it is important is to take into account that many businesses do not accept bills of USD$50 or USD$100, so it’s necessary to carry small bills of $5, $10 and $20.
Also, credit cards are widely accepted throughout the country (mainly Visa and MasterCard); and ATMs are readily available except in the most isolated places.
To enter Panama, a passport valid for at least the next six months is required from all nationals from Australia, UK, Canada, USA and all EU countries; without requiring a Visa for stays of up to 90 days.
Sanitary standards of Panama are good in most of the territory; however, there are some areas where it’s important to be extra careful with health care – particularly if you are travelling with children, elderly people, or pregnant women.
The Panamanian cuisine, as well as its people, is very diverse. The mixture of races and cultures of Latin people, Afro-Antilleans, Asians and indigenous, have created a unique and rich blend of flavors and ingredients that will undoubtedly indulge your palate.
Within the coastal areas, including Panama City, the fresh seafood is very common; as well as the use of coconut, tropical fruits, spices, and vegetables. In the interior communities, by contrast, the diet is based typically in livestock, chicken, starchy fruits, beans, and rice.
If you want to be sure of tasting the typical Panamanian cuisine, these are the most popular dishes you cannot miss during your Panama vacations:
Besides, the world-known “Ron Abuelo” (Abuelo Rum) is made in Panama, in the cultural region of Azuero. This rum and the “Seco Herrerano” gin are the two most popular local spirits in the country.
Public bus: It is possible to move around Panama using public transportation, mainly in Panama City with the MetroBus system. But even in the rest of the country, the public bus structure is convenient and economical although a little bit less comfortable.
The Grand National Transportation Terminal in Panama City is located in Albrook Mall – about 10 minutes from most of the hotels in the city, and from here, it is possible to take buses to the most popular destinations of the country including the public buses to Costa Rica.
The bus ticket prices vary depending on distances; for example, a ticket to move around the city can cost 25 cents and a ticket to go from the city to Bocas del Toro (10 hours) can cost $30 approximately.
Taxi: Taking taxis in Panama is not as easy as it should be. First of all, taxi drivers can decide whether or not they want to go to certain places, so you must ask them before enter the car if they are willing to take you to the place you want to go.
But that’s not the only issue, taxis in Panama are collective…and that means that it’s quite possible that you will have to share your taxi with two or three people.
It’s very important to be always aware of who is inside the taxi before going in, and to pay attention to the people who enter the vehicle on the way, to avoid robberies or other kind of difficulties.
Uber: Uber is available and legally operating in Panama, and actually it’s very popular amongst tourists and foreigners due to the peculiarities of the regular taxi service. Within the country, it’s possible to pay in cash and by credit card; and its fares, as well as the regular taxis, are economical and convenient.
Metro: Panama has the first and only metro service in Central America; and in spite of the fact that only has one line, the metro system avoids an increasing traffic congestion in the city.
Line 1 is 13.7km-long and comprises 12 stations (seven underground and five elevated). Each one of the metro stations has air-conditioning, video surveillance, passenger information systems, wheelchair accessibility (including lifts), and fire safety and electronic ticketing systems.
The metro operates from 5:00am to 11:00pm on weekdays, from 5:00am to 10:00pm on Saturdays, and from 7:00am to 10:00pm on Sundays; and each ride costs 35 cents (it’s necessary to buy a rechargeable MetroCard with a cost of $2).A Line 2 of the Panama’s Metro system is currently under construction, and will include a stop at the Tocumen International Airport.
Driving: It is possible to rent a car to move around Panama, just take into account the specific conditions that apply including the minimum age and the mandatory guarantee deposit. Besides, it’s important to be aware that in Panama City there is a serious problem of traffic jams during peak hours, and that drivers throughout the country tend to be a little bit reckless.
Internal flights: Booking an internal flight to visit some Panama’s tourist destinations is possible, and sometimes very recommended. Air Panama is the local airline offering regular schedules flights and private charters to and from the different airstrips of the country.