Panama is a Central American country located on the Isthmus of Panama, a stretch of land linking Costa Rica and Colombia, and bordered by the Pacific ocean and the Caribbean sea. Due to its geographical location, Panama is famous for its varied landscapes; from dense tropical rainforests, vast savannas and imposing mountain peaks to the stunning beaches of the San Blas Islands and the bustling capital of Panama City. But, this majestic country also offers an important transportation intersection between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, through the use of the Panama canal, a historical and world famous engineering wonder. This land bridge between North and South America, means that the Panama Isthmus is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, home to an eclectic mixture of exotic plants and wildlife. Panama has something for everyone and if you love to wander off the beaten path, there are hundreds of unexplored islands, Bocas del Toro and San Blas, easily accessible from Panama City.
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Climate in Panama
Panama’s climate is tropical maritime, with extended rainy seasons and hot, humid dry seasons. Rainfall varies between the two coasts. On the Caribbean coast, rain falls throughout the year, but on the Pacific coast, there is a more pronounced dry and wet season. Dry season is usually from January to April, with the driest month being March and wet season runs from May to December. Throughout July and August you can expect daily rainfall and thunderstorms.
Temperatures rarely fall below 23℃ (73℉), although temperatures are slightly cooler in the mountainous regions, such as Boquete. The best time to visit Panama is from February to April before the rain sets in, but expect high humidity and hot temperatures.
Currency in Panama
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa, but the US dollar is what is used and accepted as legal tender. Whilst you will most likely receive coins in the form of Balboa (Panama has its own $1 coin), always use USD notes when exchanging money. At the time of writing the conversion rate from USD to Euros is: $1 = €0.86
If you are traveling from the US, you will not need to exchange money as the US dollar is legal tender in Panama, but if you are traveling from elsewhere, you can change your money in the Tocumen International airport in Panama city.There is a Banco Nacional de Panama desk as well as several other exchange desks. You can also change your money at the banks in Panama City.
There are plenty of ATMs in Panama City (Multiplaza mall has a good selection), all accepting of Visa, Mastercard, Amex and Cirrus, with a transaction limit of around $500 (€400). However, while there are ATMs in the city and major towns (look out for red signs with ‘Sistema Clave’), this is not true for the smaller places that are off the beaten track, therefore, always carry some cash on you.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Always let you bank know that you are travelling abroad, this will prevent them from freezing your card which they will do if they think it has been stolen.
Getting Around Panama
Panama is a small country with good infrastructure and well maintained roads. The mode of transport most used by backpackers is via public bus. For transport around the city, the Metro bus is an excellent option, which has now replaced the older diablos rojos or red devils as they were locally known. The Metro buses are air conditioned, modern and safe, however, they do not accept cash, so you will need to buy a Metro Card. These can be bought from large supermarkets, and at the main bus station in Panama City “Gran Terminal de Transportes” (also known as Albrook station). Look out for ‘Venta de targeta y recarga’ sign, which means it is possible to buy a card and top it up. The metro card costs $2 (€1.70) and most bus journeys within the city cost $0.25 (€0.22). Within the city, you will see plenty of bus stops along the major streets. The buses are not numbered, but they will have the destination in the front window; make sure you wave the bus down, they don’t stop automatically. Tap your card on the card reader when you board the bus, this will discount the ticket price from your card. To exit the bus, press the red button on one of the poles.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: If you wanted to take another bus, wave your card at the reader behind the turnstile. You have 30 minutes to take your connecting bus free of charge.
The Gran Terminal de Transportes services most, if not all, destinations in Panama, with connections to Costa Rica (book with Tica Bus) and Nicaragua as well. There is no need to pre-book your tickets, but for the more popular routes, it is a good idea to book your tickets in advance. You can only do this at counters in the bus station as there is no online function for this. All are well signposted and there are plenty of people willing to help you. For the longer routes between cities within Panama, buses are relatively comfortable with air conditioning. Services include: Epreso, Sanpasa, Panaline and Padafront. Please note that inside the bus station there is a food court – follow signs for the Plaza Norte.
Panama’s international airport is Tocumen International airport and will most likely be your entry point to the country if you are flying. The main service here is with Copa Airlines who are one of the best connected airlines in Latin America with direct flights from the USA as well as every major Latin American city. For domestic flights within Panama, you will most likely depart from Aeropuerto Marcos A. Gelabert, which is near to Albrook mall where the main bus terminal is located. Whilst there is a domestic terminal in Tocumen International airport, most flights depart from here; please check your flight confirmation. You will most likely fly with AirPanama.
If you are traveling to Panama from Colombia. The San Blas route is popular with those looking for something a bit different. The San Blas Is a sailing cruise from Cartagena’s old town in Colombia to the stunning San Blas Islands or visa versa. It will cost you around $650 (€559) for 6 days all inclusive. From the San Blas islands you then have a half a day of combined boat and jeep travel to Panama City. You will sail across crystal clear waters and snorkel with turtles and stingrays, but if you don’t feel that comfortable on a sailing boat and get easily sea sick, it might not be the best option for you as the water is very choppy.
The Bocas archipelago is also very popular with those looking to explore Panama. You can take a boat from the mainland port in Panama City, Almirante, which takes around 25 minutes. There are three boat companies to choose from and these boats depart from the port every 30 minutes. Look out for: Bocas Marine Tours, Transporte Torres and Taxi 25. There is the option to take a large ferry which takes 2 hours.
Travel Insurance for Panama
You can buy and claim online, even after you've left home. Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com is available to people from 140 countries and it is the only travel insurance we will ever use! It is designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities.
WorldNomads.com is backed by a suite of strong and specialist travel insurers who provide you with great cover, 24 hour emergency assistance and the highest levels of support. The WorldNomads.com prices are some of the most competitive online and if you need to change plans, you can buy more cover or claim online while you are still away. You can even buy a World Nomads policy if you're already travelling. They also offer travel safety advice and tips online through the World Nomads Travel Safety Hub and WorldNomads.com members can learn the local lingo through a series of iPod & iPhone Language Guides and can stay in touch with family and friends with an online travel journal. You can find out more about why travel insurance is important for your trip. If you have any questions about your travel insurance or travel safety in general, please contact WorldNomads.com directly.
Medical Advice for Panama
When you know where you want to go in Panama, go to your doctor’s surgery and ask to see the nurse to discuss travel vaccinations. They will go through your travel plans and suggest the appropriate vaccinations. It is likely that you will need:
- Hepatitis A and B, tetanus
- Rabies, typhoid
- Yellow Fever - this is an absolute must. You may need to show your certification in some places.
- Malaria tablets (location dependent)
In the UK, some of the vaccinations will be free of charge through your doctor’s surgery, and some will cost. To keep the cost down, you can always visit a travel centre instead, where the injections are slightly cheaper. When thinking about vaccinations for your trip, the following website can be really helpful: Fit for Travel.
What to pack for Panama
- Long sleeved tops and long comfortable walking trousers if you are hiking
- Dresses / shorts / light clothes
- Quick dry towel
- Waterproof clothing / rain poncho - I suggest both!
- Walking shoes / trainers / sandals
- Bug spray and sunscreen
- Battery pack / electronics
- First aid kit (inclusive of Imodium and rehydration sachets)
- Packing cubes. Go for different colours to separate your clean and dirty clothes!
- Biodegradable soap ~ especially for hiking and washing in nature
- Money belt
- Life Straw. This is an amazing accessory to have when you are trekking and a cheap alternative to buying water along the way, it also saves on buying plastic bottles and for every purchase, a child in a developing country, receives clean drinking water for 1 school year!
- Travel Pillow
- Zip lock bags for traveling with left over food items / prevent liquid items from spilling
Safety Considerations for Panama
As with all Latin American countries, it is really important to remain alert and aware of your surroundings:
- Always keep your valuables hidden or locked away.
- Always keep your valuables in your small backpack and wear it on your front
- Always choose an ATM inside of a bank rather than on a street. Put your cash in your money belt, under your top straight away. If you feel nervous about withdrawing money, go with someone else.
- If you are travelling on buses, do not store your backpack overhead or in the back of the bus, keep it on you at all times. For extra security, put your passport, money and phone in a money belt around your waist, under your clothes.
- When travelling on buses, always padlock your big bag and and put your protective cover over it.
- Do not walk around at night on your own, always take a taxi, even if it is a short distance.
- Always ask your hostel about the area and for safety advice.
- Keep your bank cards separate so if anything happens, you have a second source of money.
- Always have at least one photocopy of your passport, so if you lose it, you still have a copy.
- Bring another form of identification with you (driver’s license), stored separately
- Never leave your drinks unattended at night.
- Get insurance before you travel! Even if you are only going on a short trip as you never know when you are going to need it. As a wise man once said, “if you can’t afford travel insurance, then you shouldn’t be travelling”. We recommend World Nomads.
Budget for Panama
Panama is one of the richest countries in central America and therefore costs are higher in comparison to Guatemala and Nicaragua. You can find cheap options for accommodation and food, but if you are travelling around and interested in doing activities, I would suggest a backpacking budget of around $40 (€35) a day but again, this is dependent on you and your itinerary.