Panama has a developing economy. Outside the Panama City area, which has many first-class hotels and restaurants, tourist facilities vary in quality. U.S. currency is valid in Panama, and is exchangeable on a one-to-one basis with the Panamanian balboa. As of December 31, 1999, all former U.S. military facilities in Panama were transferred to Panamanian control.
U.S. citizens are encouraged to obtain a U.S. passport before traveling to Panama. Although entry into Panama is permitted with any proof of U.S. citizenship (such as a certified birth certificate or a naturalization certificate) and official photo identification (such as a driver's license), travelers may experience difficulties entering Panama or leaving Panama to return to the U.S. when not in possession of a valid U.S. passport. Panamanian law requires that travelers must either purchase a tourist card from the airline serving Panama or obtain a visa from a Panamanian embassy or consulate before traveling to Panama. Further information may be obtained from the Embassy of Panama, 2862 McGill Terrace, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009, tel. 202/483-1407 or the Panamanian consulates in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia or Tampa.
U.S. citizens transiting the Panama Canal as passengers do not need to obtain visas, report to customs, or pay any fees. U.S. citizens piloting private craft through the canal should contact the U.S. Embassy in Panama City for details on required procedures.
Travel toward Colombia beyond Yaviza in Darien Province and Punta Carreto in Comarca de San Blas Province may be dangerous. There is limited Panamanian police presence in these areas, which are known to be frequented by Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary groups, drug smugglers, and undocumented aliens.
Travel beyond Yaviza towards the Colombian border is possible only by foot and is risky for individual travelers or small groups. This information also pertains to the Ancon Nature Preserve at Cana in the Darien National Park, due to its proximity to the Colombian border and possible cross-border activity by Colombian rebels.
From time to time, there may be demonstrations or other manifestations of anti-American sentiment by small but vociferous groups. While there is no evidence that U.S. citizens might be targeted (most demonstrations relate to labor disputes or other local issues) and while such protests are typically non-violent, it is nonetheless a good security practice to avoid demonstrations. For updated Security information, contact the U.S. Embassy Consular Section.
On the Pacific coast, boaters should steer clear of Coiba Island, which houses a penal colony, and be wary of vessels that may be transporting narcotics northward from Colombia. Similarly, boaters should avoid the southeastern coast of Comarca de San Blas, south of Punta Carreto.
With the 1999 departure of the U.S. military from Panama, local maritime search and rescue capabilities are greatly diminished.
There is a moderate but growing level of crime in the Panama City and Colon areas, and police checkpoints have become commonplace on weekends there. Based upon reported incidents, the high-crime areas around Panama City are Chorillo, Ancon, Curundu, Vera Cruz Beach, Panama Viejo, and the Madden Dam overlook. Crimes there are typical of those that plague metropolitan areas and range from rape to armed robberies, muggings, purse-snatchings, "quick-naps" from ATM banking facilities (in which the victim is briefly kidnapped after withdrawing cash from an ATM and robbed), and petty theft. Panama has seen an increase in the number of crimes in which unlawful weapons were used, as well as an increase in arrests for possession of illegal weapons countrywide. There has been a substantial increase in incidents of armed violence in metropolitan areas.
A curfew for minors under 18 years of age has been in effect throughout Panama City since October 1996. Under the law, students attending night classes must have a carnet, or permit, issued by the school or, if employed, a Certificate of Employment. Minors who are picked up for a curfew violation are subject to detention at a police station until parents or legal guardians can arrange for them to be released into their custody. Parents or legal guardians may be fined up to U.S. $50.00 for the violation.
The loss or theft abroad of a passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. U.S. citizens can refer to the Department of State's pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad for ways to promote a more trouble-free journey. This publication and others, such as Tips For Travelers to Central and South America, are available by mail from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, via the Internet at http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs, or via the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov.
Although Panama City has some very good hospitals and clinics, medical facilities outside of the capital are limited. Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the United States can cost thousands of dollars or more. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services. Most hospitals accept credit cards for hospital charges, but not for doctors' fees.
While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Panama is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.
Safety of Public Transportation: Poor
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Good
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Fair
Flooding during the rainy season, which lasts from April to December, washes out some roads in the interior and renders others impassable by car. In addition, roads in the interior are often poorly maintained and lack illumination at night. Road travel is more dangerous during the rainy season, and in the interior from Carnival through Good Friday (Carnival starts the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday and goes on for four days; from Ash Wednesday there are 40 days to Good Friday). On roads where poor lighting and driving conditions prevail, night driving is difficult, and should be approached with caution. Buses and taxis are not always maintained in safe operating condition due to lack of regulatory enforcement. Driving is often hazardous and demanding due to dense traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets, and a lack of effective signs and traffic signals. Auto insurance is not mandatory and many drivers are uninsured. If an accident occurs, the law requires that the vehicles remain in place until a police officer responds to investigate.
The Pan American Highway ends at Yaviza in the Darien Province of Panama, and the final portion from Chepo to Yaviza is reasonably passable only during the dry season (January-April). If destined for South America, automobile travelers may wish to ship their cars on a freighter. (The auto/ passenger ferry service "Crucero Express" ceased operations in early 1997.)
U.S. citizens living in or visiting Panama are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Panama and obtain updated information on travel and security within Panama. The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy is located on Panama Bay, Panama City, at Balboa Avenue and 39th Street. The international mailing address is Apartado 6959, Panama 5, Republic of Panama. The U.S. mailing address is U.S. Embassy Panama, Department of State, Washington, D.C. 20521-9100. The telephone number of the Consular Section is 011-507-225-1495/6988 (after hours, 011-507-227-1377); fax 011-507-225-1495; web site http://www.orbi.net/usispan/ and e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent incidents have called into serious question the safety standards of small air carriers flying domestic routes. Maintenance and pilot standards of these domestic carriers may not meet U.S. standards. Many of the airfields to which they fly are small, with rough, narrow runways that lack even rudimentary safety equipment or standards. From March through September 2000, there were two fatal crashes involving small domestic carriers, while other flights have experienced mechanical problems resulting in cancellations, emergency landings, and non-fatal crashes. In light of these recent incidents, U.S. citizens should give serious consideration to alternative modes of travel before booking flights on domestic Panamanian airlines.
Only Tocumen International Airport, serving Panama City, maintains airport security measures known to meet international standards. Security measures at domestic commuter fields serving popular travel destinations such as Colon, Contadora Island, Bocas Del Toro and the San Blas Islands are lax.