Panama offers some of the finest snorkelling and diving, birding and deep-sea fishing in the world. Known internationally chiefly for the Panama Canal, it has become one of the world's largest international banking centers. With it's prosperous free trade zone and an ever-expanding tourist industry, Panama has much to offer travelers

Panama is a proud prosperous nation which honours its seven Indian tribes and its rich Spanish legacy, and which embraces visitors so enthusiastically that it's difficult to leave without feeling that you're in on a secret that the rest of the travelling world will one day discover.

Select from one of the topics below:
Facts for the Traveller
Getting There & Away
Getting Around
Travellers' Reports
On-line Info
Maps of Panama

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of Panama
Area: 78,000 sq km
Population: 2,611,000 (growth rate 2%)
Capital city: Panama City (pop 610,000)
People: 62% mestizo, 14% African descent, 10% Spanish descent, 5% mulatto, 5% Indian
Language: Spanish, English and Indian dialects
Religion: 84% Roman Catholic, 5% Protestant, 5% Islamic
Government: Democracy
President: Ernesto Pérez Balladares


The isthmus of Panama is the umbilical cord joining South and Central America. It borders Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the east. Panama's arched shape reflects both its role as a bridge between continents and as a passageway between oceans. At its narrowest point, it is only 50km wide, but it has a 1160km Caribbean coastline on its northern shore and a 1690km Pacific coast to the south. The famous canal is 80km long and effectively divides the country into eastern and western regions.

There are hundreds of islands near the Panamanian coasts. The two major archipelagos are the San Blas and Bocas del Toro chains in the Caribbean Sea, though the best snorkelling, diving and deep-sea fishing are to be found in the Pacific near Coiba Island and the Pearl Islands. Panama has flat coastal lowlands and two mountain chains running along its spine. The highest peak is Volcán Barú at 3475m.

Rainforests dominate the canal zone, the northwestern portion of the country and much of the eastern half. Although Costa Rica is widely known for its fantastic wildlife, Panama has, in fact, a greater number of flora and fauna species, more land set aside for preservation, and far fewer people wandering through the jungle looking for wildlife and inadvertently scaring it away. There's much truth in the Panamanian saying that in Costa Rica 20 tourists try to see one resplendent quetzal, while in Panama one person tries to see 20 of these exquisite birds.

Panama has two seasons. The dry season lasts from January to mid-April and the rainy season from mid-April to December. Rainfall is heavier on the Caribbean side of the highlands, though most people live on or near the Pacific coast. Temperatures are typically hot in the lowlands (between 21 and 32 degrees Celsius) and cool in the mountains (between 10 and 18 degrees). These vary little throughout the year.


The earliest known inhabitants of Panama were the Cuevas and the Coclé cultures, but they were decimated by disease and the sword when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. After several forays along the country's Caribbean shore, the Spanish settlement of Nombre de Dios was established at the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Caribbean coast in 1510. Panama's Pacific coast later became the springboard for invasions of Peru and the wealth generated by these incursions was carried overland from the Pacific port of Panama (City) to Nombre de Dios. The transport of wealth attracted pirates and, by the 18th century, the Caribbean was so dangerous that Spanish ships began bypassing Panama and sailing directly from Peru around Cape Horn to reach Europe.

Panama went into decline, and became a province of Colombia when the South American nation received its independence in 1821. In 1846, Colombia signed a treaty permitting the USA to construct a railway across the isthmus and to defend it with military force. The idea of a canal across the isthmus had been mooted even in the 16th century, but a French attempt to build one in 1880 resulted in the death of 22,000 workers from malaria and yellow fever and bankruptcy for everyone involved. A Frenchman who stood to gain handsomely from a US buyout of the French rights to build a canal was named `envoy extraordinary' by Washington and he negotiated and signed a canal treaty with the USA, despite the objections of the Colombian government. The financial and strategic interests of the US momentarily coincided with the sentiments of Panama's revolutionaries, and a revolutionary junta declared Panama independent on 3 November 1903, with the overt support of the USA.

The canal treaty granted the USA rights in perpetuity over land on both sides of the canal and a broad right of intervention in Panamanian affairs. The treaty led to friction between the two countries for decades, partly because it was clearly favourable to the USA at the expense of Panama and partly because Colombia refused to acknowledge Panama's independence until 1921 when the USA finally paid Colombia US$25 million in compensation. The USA began to build the canal again in 1904 and 10 years later the first ship negotiated the engineering marvel. The US intervened in Panama's affairs repeatedly up until 1936, when it relinquished its right to use troops outside the Canal Zone. The two countries continued to argue over the canal contract until a new treaty was signed in 1977. This treaty calls for the gradual withdrawl of US interests and complete Panamanian control of the canal by 1999.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$8 billion
World GNP ranking: 108th
GDP per head: US$2400
Annual growth: 6%
Inflation: 1.5%
Major industries: Banking, shipping and agriculture
Major trading partners: USA, Germany, Costa Rica


Panama's arts reflect its ethnic mix. Indian tribes, West Indian groups, mestizos, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Swiss, Yugoslav and North American immigrants have all offer contributed ingredients to the cultural stew. Traditional arts include woodcarving, weaving, ceramics and mask-making.

Spanish is the official language, though US influence and the international nature of the canal zone reinforce the use of English as a second language. West Indian immigrants also speak Caribbean-accented English. Indian tribes have retained their own languages. Panama is predominantly Roman Catholic, but there are sizable Muslim and Protestant minorities and small numbers of Hindus and Jews.


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.

Facts for the Traveller

Visas: US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand citizens and most other nationalities do not need to obtain a visa, but they do need a tourist card (available from embassies and airlines serving Panama) in advance. Citizens of the UK, Germany and Switzerland can stay up to three months without a visa or tourist card if they have an onward ticket and sufficient funds.
Health risks: Dengue fever, malaria, rabies and yellow fever
Currency: US dollar (also known as `Balboa')
Relative costs:

  • cheap meal: US$1.50-3
  • restaurant meal: US$3-6
  • cheap room: US$6-12
  • hotel room: $US10-18

Time: UTC minus five hours
Electricity: Variable - either 110V or 220V
Weights & measures: Metric
Tourism: Estimated 300,000 visitors per year


Panama City is safer than most capital cities, but some parts of it (particularly the district of Chorrillo) should not be strolled around at night. The city of Colón has a major crime problem and shouldn't be strolled around day or night. The area of Darien 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 Darien National Park is relatively safe, though it's advisable to visit the park with a guide due to the inherent risks of travel in remote jungle with ill-defined trails.


Panama City

The capital of Panama is a modern, thriving commercial centre stretching 10km along the Pacific coast from the ruins of Panamá Viejo in the east to the edge of the Panama Canal in the west. The old district of San Felipe (also known as Casco Viejo) juts into the sea on the south-western side of town. It's 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 sea wall built by the Spaniards four centuries ago. Via España's banking district is the complete opposite to this yesteryear charm, with aggressively modern buildings and sophisticated entertainments.

Attractions on the fringes of the city include the Panama Canal (see below), the 16th-century ruins of Panamá Viejo, the Summit Botanical Gardens and Zoo, the tropical rainforest of the Sobreranía National Park and the 265-hectare Parque Nacional Metropolitana.

Panama Canal

The Canal is both an engineering marvel and one of the most significant waterways on earth. Stretching 80km from Panama City on the Pacific coast to Colón on the Atlantic side, it provides passage for over 12,000 ocean-going vessels per year. Seeing a huge ship nudge its way through the narrow canal, with vast tracks of virgin jungle on both sides, is an unforgettable sight. The easiest and best way to visit the Canal is to go to the Miraflores Locks, on the north-eastern fringe of Panama City, where a platform offers visitors a good view of the locks in operation. There's also a museum with a model and a film about the Canal. Boats leave Balboa, a western suburb of Panama City, for a five-hour tour through the locks to Miraflores Lake.

Isla Taboga

This charming and historical island, 20km south of Panama City, has an attractive beach, some lovely protected rainforest, and is home to one of the largest colonies of Brown Pelicans in Latin America. Known as the Island of Flowers, because at certain times of the year it is filled with the aroma of sweet-smelling blooms, the island is a favourite retreat from the city. Taboga has a long history and was settled even before Panama City. There is a small church here, claimed to be second oldest in the Western Hemisphere, and Pizarro set sail from here for Peru in 1524. The island's annual festival is on 16 July, and involves nautical processions and celebrations. Taboga is a one-hour boat trip from Balboa.


Known for its cool, fresh climate and pristine natural environment, the small alpine town of Boquete is nestled into a craggy mountain valley 35km north of David. It's a fine place for walking, bird-watching, horse-riding, 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 Cafe is a popular annual festival held in January. Boquete is a good base for climbing 3475m Volván Barú, 15km west, or visiting the volcano's 14,300-hectare national park.

Panamanian Islands

Archipiélago de San Blas

The islands of the San Blas Archipiélago are strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the Golfo de San Blas nearly all the way to the Colombian border. The islands are home to the Kuna Indians, who run the 378 islands as an autonomous province, with minimal interference from the national government. They maintain their own economic system, language, customs, and culture, with distinctive dress, legends, music and dance. The economy of the islands is based on coconut sales, fishing and tourism, and they offer travellers good diving, snorkelling and swimming; the best diving conditions are between April and June. The most interesting islands are Achutupu, Kagantupu and Coco Blanco. There are flights to several of the islands from Panama City or you can catch a ride with Kuna merchant ships from Colón.

Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro

Several of the pristine islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipiélago in the Caribbean Sea are protected by the marine Parque Nacional Bastimentos. The park offers great diving, snorkelling and swimming and its beaches are used as a nesting ground by several species of sea turtles. The main town on the archipelago is Bocas Del Toro on the south-eastern tip of Isla Colón. The archipelago is off the north-eastern coast of Panama and is accessible by plane from Panama City, David and Changuinola, or by ferry from Almirante and Chiriquí Grande.

Isla Grande

It would take all the exotic Caribbean clichés to describe this remote and beautiful island off the Caribbean coast near Portobelo. Only five by one and a half km in size, it's inhabited by 300 people of African descent who make their living from fishing and coconuts. There are a handful of places to stay on the island and boats for rent, but no dive operators or places to rent snorkelling equipment. Visitors are often attracted by local festivities, which include San Juan Bautista on 24 June, celebrated with canoe and swimming races; the day of the Virgen del Carmen, on 16 July, is marked by a land and sea procession; and Carnaval, before Ash Wednesday, is fêted with Calypso dancing and songs.


There are hundreds of islands off both coasts of Panama and, because the coasts are just an hour's drive apart, you could easily spend the morning snorkelling in the Caribbean Sea and the afternoon snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean. Some of the best snorkelling and diving to be found in Central America can be found in the protected waters beside Panama's Coiba Island. Divers looking for something different might want to consider diving in the Panama Canal; not only are there wrecks to explore but also all kinds of submerged equipment left by the French when they worked on the railroad many decades ago. Surfers should check out Santa Catalina Beach, on the Azuero Peninsula, which periodically sees waves with six metre faces, though they're usually hovering around three metres.

Fishing enthusiasts will be pleased to know that more deep-sea fishing records have been set at Piñas Bay, on the Pacific coast, than anywhere else in the world. You can see sea turtles in large numbers along both Panamanian coasts, although the Kunas' habit of lopping their heads off with machetes and eating them is taking a heavy toll. Cana, deep in the heart of the Darien National Park, is birding nirvana and, what's more, you're likely to find yourself alone as you take in the great green, blue-and-yellow, red-and-green and chestnut-fronted macaws.

Getting There & Away

Panama has flights to all Central American countries, and both North and South America; Miami is the principal hub for flights to Panama. Copa is the national airline. There's a $US20 departure tax on international flights. There are three land border crossings between Panama and Costa Rica; Paso Canoas, on the Interamerican Highway, is the most popular, followed by Guabito-Sixaola near the Caribbean coast. There are buses to the border which connect with local services on the Costa Rican side. Despite the huge amount of shipping passing through the Panama Canal, it's hard to catch a ride on a boat. The two-week hike through the jungle that comprises the Darien Gap - the roadless terrain between Yaviza and the Colombian border - is an unwise endeavour (see the warning above) but if you absolutely must cross the Panama-Colombia border on foot, do so at Puerto Obaldia, a sleepy little town just a couple of km from some fine beaches.

Getting Around

Panama has a number of domestic airlines and a good domestic flight network. There's an inexpensive bus system servicing all accessible parts of the country. The country's train service, which really only amounted to a line between Panama City and Colon, was destroyed in the 1989 invasion and is in the process of being rebuilt.

Boats are the principal mode of transport in several parts of Panama, particularly between the San Blas and Bocas del Toro archipelagos. Kuna Indian merchant vessels carry cargo and passengers along the San Blas coast, between Colón and Puerto Obaldía. Cars can be rented in Panama City and David.