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Country Reports

Panama Country Report

Overview

INTRODUCTION

Although Panama (population 3.7 million) is a relatively safe country, visitors should be aware of a few issues.

CRIME

Crime rates are lower than in most other Central American nations and the homicide rate fell by approximately 20 percent in 2015 (to 12.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants). Nevertheless, visitors should take basic precautionary measures when in the country, particularly in cities.

Overall, the capital Panama City is relatively safe. However, the road connecting Panama City's Tocumen International Airport (PTY) and the city center passes through some moderately dangerous neighborhoods. It is advisable not to make any stops when traveling to and from the airport.

Security conditions are more worrying in other cities, including  Colón (the second-largest city), Cristóbal, La Chorrera, Arraiján, San Miguelito, Pedregal, and Tocumen (home to PTY airport).

Crime rates tend to rise during holiday periods, e.g. around Christmas/New Years, Easter, and Carnival (February/March).

KIDNAPPING

According to the UN, Panama has one of the highest rates of kidnapping per capita in Latin America, with 5.7 incidents per 100,000 inhabitants reported in 2013. Victims are generally targeted at night or as they are leaving work; they are often forced to withdraw money from ATMs by their captors.

"Virtual" kidnappings are also reported. The modus operandi often consists of the perpetrator telephoning victims to falsely inform them that a friend or family member has been kidnapped and to demand a ransom for his/her release. The perpetrators often gather information about the alleged victim via social media; it is therefore advisable to remain vigilant regarding the sharing of personal information online and with strangers more generally. In the event of a suspicious call, ask to speak directly to the supposed kidnapping victim, ask the caller to describe the supposed victim (or his or her vehicle), and attempt to contact the victim directly (via SMS, social networking sites, etc.).

SECURITY

The presence of narcotraffickers and organized crime groups groups in Darién and Guna Yala provinces, which border Colombia, has prompted some governments to advise against travel to the area. This includes the so-called "Mosquito Coast," a remote strip of land along the Caribbean Sea between the mouth of the Rio Chiriquí and the Coclé Del Norte

POLITICS

Presidential elections were held in May 2014 without incident. The next presidential and legislative elections will take place in May 2019.

SOCIAL UNREST

Protests are relatively frequent in Panama City. Protests in Colón have been known to cause closures on major roads. Although most demonstrations remain peaceful, Panamanian National Police may respond with riot control measures, especially in the event of roadblocks. Within the capital, protests are often organized at Panama University, near the National Assembly building, on the city's main thoroughfare Transistmica, and on the road leading from Bocas del Toro province. All protests should be avoided as a precaution.

TRANSPORTATION

Cases of taxi drivers robbing kidnapping and/or robbing their clients have been reported, and offending drivers may be armed. To minimize this risk, only use official taxis (yellow in color), never take a taxi with tinted windows, ensure that the car's license plate as well as the drivers credentials are visible, and never take a taxi that already has an occupant (potential accomplice) or allow drivers to pick up more clients (a common practice).

Larger highways are generally well maintained but secondary roads are often less so. Traffic accidents are common along the Pan-American Highway, which should be avoided when possible after nightfall. According to one study, Panama is one of the worst countries in the world for drivers, due to poorly maintained roads and heavy traffic.

In the Panama City region, the metro bus system is safe.

Flooding, particularly common from April to December, can leave roads impassable (see NATURAL RISKS section).

For intercity travel, long distance buses and domestic airlines are safe.

HEALTH

The quality of medical care varies greatly throughout the country. High-quality private hospitals and clinics can be found in the capital; public facilities often offer a much lower quality of care. Outside of Panama City, conditions are generally poorer. All travelers are advised to take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance prior to departure.

Water- and food-borne illnesses are common amongst travelers. Tap water should not be considered potable, particularly outside larger cities. Only drink bottled or decontaminated water and do not accept beverages with ice. Avoid any undercooked dishes, especially meats and seafood, and any other foods that cannot be thoroughly cooked, peeled, or disinfected (e.g. ice cream, berries, etc.).

A number of mosquito-borne diseases are present.

  • There is a low to moderate risk of contracting malaria year-round in the provinces/regions of Darién, Guna Yala, and Ngäbe-Buglé, as well as in the east of Panamá province. There is no risk in the capital Panama City, Panamá Oeste, or the canal zone.
  • There is a risk of contracting yellow fever in areas east of the Panama Canal (e.g. provinces/regions of Darién, Emberá, and Guna Yala as well as parts of the provinces of Colón and Panamá). There is generally no risk in areas to the west of the canal, the capital Panama City, the canal area, and the Balboa islands. There are regular outbreaks of dengue fever, including in urban areas.
  • Chikungunya is also present, although transmission rates appear to be relatively low.
  • There is a high risk of contracting the Zika virus in Panama. While the virus is usually relatively benign, links between the Zika virus and severe birth defects as well as the potentially fatal neurological disorder Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) have been established.

NATURAL RISKS

The Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June 1 until November 30. While hurricanes and tropical storms rarely hit Panama directly, storm systems can bring torrential rains, leading to flooding and landslides. Hurricane Otto lingered off the northern coast for several days in November 2016, resulting in at least ten deaths and an estimated USD 10 million in damages, prompting the government to decree a six-month state of emergency.

Mountainous areas of the country can prove dangerous, particularly during the long rainy season - which extends from March until December - due to flooding, mudslides, and subsequent road closures. Flooding also occurs within Panama City and can result in transportation chaos.

Panama is located in a seismically active zone and earthquakes occasionally occur. A 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck neighboring Costa Rica in 1991, leaving dozens dead and resulting in major infrastructural damage in the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro.

LEGAL

Drug use and drug trafficking is severely punished in Panama, even for relatively small quantities. Pay close attention to all bags while at the airport as well as en route. 

Climate

Panama's climate is tropical; the dry season extends from January until April and the rainy season from May until December. The coast receives more rainfall than the interior of the country. Along the plains, temperatures fluctuate between 20°C and 30°C and tend to be lower in mountainous areas (10°C to 18°C).

Useful Numbers

Country Code: +507 Police: 911 Fire Dept.: 911 Ambulance: 911

Electricity

Voltage: 110 V ~ 60 Hz

Outlets:

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