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Introduction to Panama

While Panama is known mostly for its famous canal, the country's natural attractions offer an irresistible lure to far-sighted travellers. This overlooked country offers some of the finest birding, snorkelling and deep-sea fishing in the Americas.

It is a proud nation that offers astounding wildlife adventures, that respects its seven indigenous peoples and that celebrates its Spanish heritage with frequent and colourful festivals. There's an inescapable feeling that you're in on a secret the rest of the travelling world has yet to discover.

The country's indigenous name means 'abundance of fish'. Rafters can ride 20 sets of rapids in a single day, wildlife abounds in the scarcely-visited national parks, and a person can snorkel in the Caribbean Sea and swim in the Pacific Ocean...on the same day! It's no wonder the locals boast that Panama has much more to offer than nearby, traveler-soaked Costa Rica.


The area of Darién Province between Yaviza and the Colombian border along the upper Tuira River is unsafe due to the presence of smugglers, bandits and Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary forces. However, the vast majority of Darién National Park is relatively safe, although there is risk of contracting dengue and malaria so take appropriate pre-travel precautions and cover up as much as possible while you're there.

It's highly advisable to visit the park with a guide, if only due to the inherent risks of travel in remote jungle with ill-defined trails. Keep your ear close to the ground when travelling close to the Colombian border, where the rule is the closer you are to the border, the higher your security risk.

Full country name: Republic of Panama

Area: 78,200 sq km

Population: 3 million

Capital City: Panama

People: 65% mestizo, 14% African descent, 10% Spanish descent, 5% indigenous

Language: English, Spanish

Religion: Roman Catholic (85%), Protestant (10%), Islamic and Jewish (1%)

Government: constitutional democracy

GDP: US$18 billion

GDP per capita: US$6,200

Annual Growth: 4.1%

Inflation: 1.1%

Major Industries: Banking, construction, petroleum refining, brewing, cement and other construction materials, sugar milling, shipping and agriculture

Major Trading Partners: USA, EU, Central America & Caribbean, Japan

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Traveler Facts

Visas: UK, Germany and Switzerland citizens and many other nationalities need only a passport to enter Panama, while people from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, USA, Venezuela and some other countries need a tourist visa or tourist card as well. Contact an embassy or consulate for current details.

Health risks: dengue fever, malaria, rabies, yellow fever

Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5

Dialling Code: 507

Electricity: 120V ,60Hz

Weights & measures: Metric

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Carnaval is celebrated over the four days preceding Ash Wednesday and involves music, dancing and a big parade on Shrove Tuesday. The celebrations in Panama City and Las Tablas are the most festive. The Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations at Villa de Los Santos, on the Península de Azuero, are equally renowned. The Festival of the Black Christ at Portobelo on 21 October includes a parade of the famous life-size statue of the Black Christ, and attracts pilgrims from all over the country.

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Best time to Visit

Panama's tourist season is during the dry season from around mid-December to mid-April. The weather can be hot and steamy in the lowlands during the rainy season, the humidity makes the heat harder to endure. Rain in Panama tends to come in sudden short downpours that freshen the air and are followed by sunshine. If you'll be doing any long, strenuous hiking, the dry season is the most comfortable time to do it; the Darién Gap can be crossed only at this time.

If you like to party, try to be in Panama City or on the Península de Azuero for Carnaval, held each year on the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Panama City's Carnaval celebration is one of the world's largest.

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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Balboa


Budget: US$2-6

Mid-range: US$6-8

High: US$8-10

Deluxe: US$10+


Budget: US$7-20

Mid-range: US$21-40

High: US$40-60

Deluxe: US$60+

Accommodation tends to be more expensive in Panama than in other parts of Central America; a hotel room that might cost US$6 in Nicaragua or Guatemala might cost US$10 here. If you're travelling on a budget, you'll pay at least US$30 to US$40 per day for a room and three meals. A moderate budget will be in the range of US$50 to US$70 a day.

Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it's exactly the same bill. Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US coins; both are used. In most of Central America, US dollars are the only currency exchanged. In Panama City, however, you can exchange currencies from almost anywhere in the world at a casa de cambio (currency exchange office), due to the city's large international offshore banking industry.

You can tip some small change, or around 10% of the bill if you're feeling affluent, in fancier restaurants; in small cafes and more casual places, tipping is not necessary. Haggling over prices is not the general custom in Panama.

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Panama City

The capital of Panama is a modern, thriving commercial center stretching 8km (5mi) along the Pacific coast from the ruins of Panamá Viejo to the edge of the Panama Canal. Casco Antiguo is an area of decaying colonial grandeur, striking architecture, peeling paint and decrepit balconies.

Attractions include the 17th-century Metropolitan Church, the Interoceanic Canal Museum of Panama, the Plaza de Bolívar, the presidential palace, the History Museum of Panama and the Spanish 16th-century sea wall. Vía España's banking district is the complete opposite to this yesteryear charm.


Known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural environment, the small alpine town of Boquete is nestled into a craggy mountain valley 38km (23mi) north of David. It's a fine place for walking, bird-watching, horseriding and enjoying a respite from the heat of the lowlands.

Flowers, coffee and citrus fruits are grown in the area and the town's Feria de las Flores y del Café is a popular annual festival held for ten days each January. Boquete is a good base for climbing the 3475m (11,400ft) Volcán Barú or visiting the volcano's vast national park.

Isla Taboga

This charming historical island, south of Panama City, has an attractive beach, protected rainforest, and bountiful flocks of brown pelicans. Known as the Island of Flowers for the times of the year it is filled with the aroma of sweet-smelling blooms, it's a popular retreat from the city.

Panama Canal

Both an engineering marvel and one of the most significant waterways on earth, the canal stretches 80km (50mi) from Panama City on the Pacific to Colón on the Atlantic. Seeing a huge ship nudge its way through the narrow canal, with vast tracts of jungle on both sides, is an unforgettable sight.

The easiest and best way to visit the Canal is to go to the Miraflores Locks, which offers visitors a good view of the locks in operation. There's also a museum with a model and a film about the Canal. Five-hour boat tours leave from Balboa in Panama City.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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