Panama travel guide, including map of Panama, top Panama travel experiences, tips for travel in Panama, plus where to see wildlife and meet indigenous tribes in
The southernmost of all the Central American countries, this sliver of land linking Costa Rica and Colombia never made it onto the ‘gringo trail’. Thankfully. Look beyond the eponymous canal; Panama has far more to offer the traveller. Its diverse cultural make-up reflects a medley of ethnicities from the descendants of Spanish conquistadors to Native Indians, and the little-visited, steamy rainforests and virginal coastlines play host to an array of exotic wildlife. You can venture into jungle communities, where puberty rites and other tribal customs still hold sway, or soak up the rays on an uninhabited island. Moreover, despite recent development, the country retains serious ecotourism credentials: there are vast swathes of untouched tropical wilderness bustling with monkeys, jaguars, bears and more species of bird than anywhere else on the planet.
Take a torch for the unlit rural areas and frequent power cuts.
Wanderlust web intern Thomas Rees on the thing he wished he'd known before he arrived:
"Book ahead for onward trips to Colombia. Places on backpacker yachts through the San Blas Islands fill up quickly. Organise your journey ahead of time and be sure to check-out the testimonials available online when choosing which boat to travel on. Some of the captains can be a little shady.”
The dry season runs from December to April on the Pacific side, though the Caribbean side gets rain all year round. The heaviest rainfall, usually in October and November, can cause flooding, landslides and travel disruptions. Dry season generally has the best hiking and diving conditions although it is also peak tourist season, so things get booked up pretty quickly. It’s worth planning your trip to coincide with one of the festivals such as the Panama City carnival and Peninsula de Auero’s carnival (Mardi Gras), held in February and the run up to Ash Wednesday respectively.
Tocumen Airport (PTY) is 24 km from Panama City.
Car hire is available and there is a good road network everywhere except Darién Province. Bear in mind that car insurance isn’t compulsory and many locals don’t have any. Trips on buses and in taxis can be a little hair-raising and accidents are common. It’s possible to chug between Panama City and Colon on the world’s first transcontinental railway.
Most of the tourist accommodation is to be found around Panama City and along the coast, though in sections of the country you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere at all to lay your head. Standards and prices are a hit and miss affair – expect varying quality and a pricing system that fluctuates depending on factors such as who serves you and how rich you seem to be. Book well in advance if you want somewhere to stay during a festival or public holiday. Options include sumptuous and budget hotels, eco resorts, national park campsites, traditional village homestays, coastal houseboats and roadside motels (although these are usually ‘push buttons’– sex hotels where you pay by the hour).
Panama has a unique blend of African, Spanish and Native American cuisines. Meat, fish, rice and plantains dominate. Flavours are mild, though you will have the option to slather food in salsa piquante (spicy sauce). Along the coast seafood such as lobster, corvina, snapper, and octopus abounds. The country produces an array of fruit. Popular foods include sancocho (chicken and vegetable soup) and empanadas made from flour or corn and filled with anything from minced meat, fish and spices to cheese or dessert fillings. Vegetarians may need to develop a penchant for Chinese fare. Tap water is, by and large, safe to drink (but be wary in Bocas del Toro Province). Tropical fruit juices and local coffee are good. Locals swig seco (the national drink), rum, palm wine and an array of nationally produced beers.
Earthquakes pose a risk. Swimming off the Pacific and Caribbean beaches can be dangerous and drownings are frequent. Don’t even dip a toe in the Bay of Panama – it is jam packed with sewage and industrial waste. Street crime does occur so take precautions. Darién Province can be perilous – enter by air and only if you’re on an organised expedition accompanied by Panamanian police. Consult your GP or travel health clinic before departure for advice on jabs and malaria prophylaxis. Healthcare is good in the capital but facilities further afield are limited. There is a risk of contracting malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, leishmaniasis and leptospirosis. Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome and Chagas’ disease are also a threat; try and avoid rodent habitats and mud and thatch huts.
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A good value expedition cruise on a small and friendly vessel exploring the wildlife-rich wilderness coast of Panama and Costa Rica.
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