Country Facts – Panama
This information is provided to offer guidance to those seeking to live and work overseas. For more information we recommend that you speak with your national government Foreign Office (or equivalent).
Panama Country Guide
Welcome to Panama, the southernmost country in Central America. Over the years Panama’s vital location for international trade and shipping has attracted interest from one group after another. Back in the time of the Conquistadors, Panama was used by the Spanish as the place to set sail for Europe with their bounty.
A number of different unions with neighbours – most notably Colombia – have further added cultural and linguistic diversity, and that’s before the US government arrived to overturn a military coup and build the Panama Canal.
These days, Panama is consistently voted as one of the very best expat destinations in the world. With a warm, year-round climate, Western standards of medical care and a very low cost of living, there is much to love here. Lastly, for expats seeking work, a growing banking sector and strong tourism figures mean there are employment opportunities aplenty.
Panama sits just a few degrees off the equator, making for a tropical year-round climate. Temperatures are typically warm, varying between 24 and 30°C right throughout the year. As might be expected, humidity is generally high, which can take some getting used to. The annual cycles here in Panama are more related to the level of rain received, than the temperature.
The dry season is to be found between January and April, though even in the wettest months (September to December) the vast majority of the rain falls in late afternoon and overnight. This means that Panama can be enjoyed year-round, irrespective of what the rains are doing. The most noticeable geographic feature of Panama is the long spine of mountains, known as the Cordillera Central, that bisects the country and serves as the continental divide. Many travellers find that the weather up in the mountains is cooler and dryer, and is therefore more comfortable for living in.
Around 40% of Panama is heavily forested, and many rare species of plant and animal may be found here. Indeed, the jungle in Panama is so dense that it represents the only break in the Pan-American Highway – a road that otherwise runs unbroken from Alaska in the north to Patagonia in the south.
Much of Panama’s history and culture stems from the time of the Spanish Conquistadors. Not only is Spanish the national language here but many of the foods and customs also have a strongly Hispanic flavour. Panama is typically quite a relaxed country, where time keeping can be frustratingly imprecise. Typically Panamanians maintain a strong sense of family, with large gatherings frequently taking place.
While the Panamanian government does not keep track of religious inclinations, it has been estimated that over 80% of the population consider themselves Roman Catholic, and religious festivals are strongly supported throughout the year.
After the US entered Panama in 1989 to help over-throw the military government, Panamanian culture has become noticeably Americanized. US clothing and music abounds here, and thanks to the luxury of the major cities, many well-known North American brands have set up shop here.
Panama City is the capital city and is considered highly developed and almost luxurious. Many visitors comment on its similar appearance to Miami, with its gleaming metallic sky scrapers. Over half of the population of Panama live within this one city, meaning that it is very well-served by facilities.
Outside of urban areas, the population density – and facilities – decline precipitously. If you plan to travel or live outside of these major urban areas, therefore, be aware that the standards of living may not be quite what you have observed in the city.
The official language of Panama is Spanish, though speakers of Castilian or typical Latin American Spanish could be in for a surprise. Panamanian Spanish is said to closer resemble Puerto Rican, though Panamanians are aware of these differences in dialect and, when necessary, are capable of speaking more ”classical Spanish”.
Oddly, for a country with such strong ties to the US, official figures show that only 14% of locals speak fluent English. It should come as no surprise that these English-speakers are largely focused in cities and key tourist areas. Visitors to Panama are therefore strongly advised to brush up on their Spanish before arrival so as to integrate as easily as possible.
Arguably the only real weakness of Panama is a travel destination is its transportation network, though the government is working hard to improve the situation. One of the most popular forms of travel are the buses – of which youll find two varieties. There are highway buses which travel across the country, taking passengers from one area to the next. Then, there are the so-called ”city” buses, for getting around a specific town or city.
In the past, these city buses developed a very poor reputation. They were often badly maintained and driven carelessly, making them quite a dangerous form of transport. To compact the problems associated with city buses, they also increasingly became a target for criminals and gangs, and many tourists and expats suffered thefts of money or personal belongings when travelling by bus.
At the time of writing, the Panamanian bus system is undergoing a major change. Brand new buses have been purchased, drivers are being retrained and security levels are being increased. So, while there is still some way to go, travelling by bus in Panama is now safer and more reliable than in the recent past – yet is still one of the most cost-effective methods of transport of all.
Within urban areas taxis may be caught. In Panama City these can be a realistic option, but in many smaller towns and cities the taxis are poorly maintained and are frequently involved in accidents. Stories of tourists having problems with overcharging are rife, and it is commonplace for taxis in Panama to stop to pick up additional passengers while on route to your destination. This increases the chances of petty crime.
If you are going to catch a taxi in Panama, therefore, aim to do business only with licensed companies, agree a price in advance of travel and be clear that no other passengers should be picked up on the way.
For those wishing to explore the more rural areas of Panama, hiring a car is likely the most practical option. The road system is generally of a high quality and, outside of the cities, traffic tends to be light. This means that driving in Panama can be quite a pleasurable experience. A standard UK driving license can be used for 90 days after arrival, after which you will need to seek a Panamanian license.
In terms of healthcare, Panama is a country of extremes. On the one hand, you have the major urban areas like Panama City, which offer world-class healthcare facilities at budget prices. For this reason Panama has become a medical tourism hotspot, where patients can expect standards on par with the US or UK, but all at a fraction of the price.
On the other hand, outside of these key urbanisations, hospitals and doctors surgeries are few and far between. The few that do exist are typically lacking in facilities. As a result it is almost inevitable that any kind of medical care will need to take place in the city.
Note that Panama offers both public and private hospitals. Standards in both are comparable; the main difference is the waiting time. For this reason most travellers and expats opt to use private hospitals, though of course the care here can cost more. It is not unusual for hospitals to expect payment in full and on the spot for any treatment received, and for this reason it is highly recommended to seek medical insurance before arriving in the country.
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa, which is fixed against the dollar. In reality however, Panama should be considered dual-currency, with the US dollar a legal tender which is accepted everywhere.
Credit and debit cards are accepted almost everywhere and it is suggested that tourists use these to both pay for shopping and to withdraw cash. Generally speaking most expats find that cashing travellers checks in expensive and so is best avoided.
Note that most banks close at lunchtime on Saturday and remain closed throughout Sunday. In addition, many banks maintain a dress code and will refuse entry to those inappropriately dressed (shorts, for example, after often a no-no).
In Panama compulsory schooling begins at the age of 6 and continues on to the age of 15. This amounts to 6 years of primary school, followed by 3 of middle school. Pupils may, if they choose to do so, continue onto high school thereafter for a further 3 years of study, after which university may be attended.
For expats seeking to educate children in Panama the standard options of public, private and international schools exist. Many expats find that lessons taught in Spanish, together with somewhat lax discipline in public schools largely rules them out of the equation.
Fortunately, with a large and active expat population already, Panama is well-served with private schools where lessons are taught in English, and often by American or British tutors. If you are in Panama only temporarily it can be worth seeking out the rather more expensive international schools here. Doing so will make for easier recognition of your child’s education and qualifications in other countries.
Food & Drink
Like many countries in Central America, Panamanian cuisine is best characterised as fresh and healthy. Corn plays a major role in the diet, in the form of tortillas and bollos. Meat typically also features prominently, especially locally-sourced fish or beef, which is farmed extensively on the plains.
In combination with this you will typically find as assortment of seasonal vegetables which is likely to include plantains, together with rice and/or beans. Fresh fruits are also a common ingredient at meal times.
Panama has a long tradition of growing coffee and even dyed-in-the-wool tea drinkers may find themselves being converted. The coffee is fresh, aromatic and delicious, while Panamanian tea can take some getting used to. It is typically served very sweet, with condensed milk and is considered an acquired taste among visitors. Tap water is considered safe in most areas.
If you want to experience something a little more exotic why not try a glass of Seco, a liquor made of fermented cane sugar with a kick that must be experienced to be believed!
Generally speaking, eating establishments are safe and clean, and one can find a hearty meal almost anywhere for next to nothing.
While some Central American countries have developed a bad reputation for safety, most visits to Panama are without incident. Petty crime of course exists, especially in crowded areas in major cities, but these may be found anywhere in the world.
Of greater concern are the number of infectious agents which may be picked up in Panama. Of these, yellow fever, dengue fever and malaria are all widespread and represent a very serious danger to those of us without any form of resistance. Speak to your doctor some weeks before visiting Panama in order to ensure you have received all the necessary vaccinations for your trip.
A number of people have died over recent years in the Chiriqui region as a result of flooding. The Foreign Office therefore recommends tourists only visit this area as part of an organized trip, so as to minimize their risk.
Lastly, note that Panama shares a border with Colombia, which can represent significant risk. In the past drug smugglers and gangs have repeatedly kidnapped or even killed those straying into “their” territory. Visitors are therefore strongly advised to avoid such areas at all costs.
Places to Visit
Panama has a wealth of sites worth seeing. While the following list is far from exhaustive, on account of the vast array of opportunities that await you in Panama, it does at least represent some of the top destinations in Panama.
Parque Nacional Coiba
Coiba isn’t just a National Park; it’s also a World Heritage Site, and is considered one of the top dive spots in the whole of the Pacific. This island – the largest in Central America – boasts almost untouched natural beauty, being clothed in virgin rainforest and surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs in the world.
If wildlife is your thing, this deserted tropical island also offers one of the last places in the world to see large colonies of scarlet macaws, and over 760 species of fish have been recorded here.
The Panama Canal is a feat of engineering, and many people consider it a modern wonder of the world. Built by the United States in just a decade, the canal is 48 miles long and is a major shipping lane for vessels looking to move from the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea. Now a major driver of the Panamanian economy, it is said that the best way to take in the Panama Canal and its grand scale is to see it by air.
Parque Nacional Soberania
Soberania is said to be the most accessible rainforest in all of Panama. Over 105 mammal species and 525 species of bird have been found here, making it a true biodiversity hotspot. With footpaths crossing the 55,000 acre park you won’t be short of things to do. For the history buff, seek out the Las Cruces Trail, which was used by the Spanish Conquistadors to transport their bullion.
Panama City is the largest and most impressive city in Panama. Juxtaposing ultra-modern sky scrapers with old-fashioned colonial architecture, the city has much to offer visitors. From numerous museums and galleries, to guided walks and the historic Old Quarter, visitors will find surprises around every corner.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is an archipelago of islands just off the coast of Panama. Possessing an odd place between land and water, this mesmerising “water world” offers a feeling of tropical island life with the safety and familiarity that such a proximity to Panama brings. With a true Caribbean feeling, settle into the relaxing way of life and enjoy the friendly locals and unique local foods.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Panama please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.