Safety and security
Personal attacks, including sexual offences, are rare but there have been some in recent years. You should maintain at least the same level of personal security awareness as in the UK.
Official crime statistics have shown increased levels of robberies, murders and assault in San Miguelito, El Chorillo and Juan Diaz. Most of these crimes are among members of rival drug gangs, but you should take sensible precautions to protect yourself and your belongings against the risk of street crime. Robberies at restaurants have been on the increase in some of the more popular areas in Panama City like Obarrio, San Francisco and El Cangrejo (Via Argentina).
Don’t carry large sums of cash or valuables in public. Use a hotel safe wherever possible. Be vigilant when using ATMs installed in public places. People have been attacked after withdrawing cash. There have also been instances of devices being inserted in ATMs, which allow cards to be cloned. Beware of pickpockets in busy areas, on buses and at bus stations. Watch out for muggers, particularly in the main shopping areas of Via España and Avenida Central, the area of Calidonia, the old town (Casco Viejo) in Panama City, the old Panama ruins (Panama Viejo), the Madden Dam area - off the main Panama to Colon road and the city of Colon, where rates of unemployment, street crime and drug use are high.
The area near the border with Colombia is particularly dangerous (east of a line drawn from Punta Carreto in the Comarca de San Blas on the Atlantic coast, to Yaviza in the eastern Darien province, down to Punta Piña on the Pacific coast). Political and criminal violence in Colombia can spill over into Panama. In 2016, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement; however, the threat of incursions by Colombian guerrillas and other armed groups remains. Foreign nationals and Panamanian citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, kidnapping and murder in this area.
Use registered taxi companies. Picking up multiple travellers in Panama is common practice, but you should insist that taxi drivers do not do this.
Be cautious if you are approached by visitors seeking access to your property. Criminal gangs have used this method to enter and then commit burglaries. If you are in any doubt call the police.
You should only travel to the Darien province with an organised group to destinations under the surveillance of the Panamanian police. Don’t stray from your group.
If you’re hiking in the hills of the town of Boquete in the Province of Chiriqui, you should do so with an experienced guide. Don’t go hiking without taking the necessary precautions.
Driving standards are poor. Panama has a reasonably good road system, except in Darien Province where there are very few surfaced roads. Watch out for pot-holes and unfinished repairs. Traffic is very heavy, especially around peak hours, and there are a number of construction works throughout the city that worsens the situation in some areas.
A 2015 survey stated that 70% of all road accidents were as a result of drink driving (which is not strictly monitored) or using a telephone whilst driving. Take extra care when driving.
By law seat belts must be worn by drivers and front seat passengers. Children under 5 must travel in the back in fitted child seats. If you are involved in an accident, Panamanian law requires that you wait with the vehicle until the traffic police (Transito) arrive.
In 2013, the new Metro Bus system replaced old buses, also known as Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) in Panama City. Taxis are generally in poor condition and are responsible for a significant proportion of accidents due to poor maintenance and driving standards.
To drive in Panama, you’ll need a valid photo-card UK driving licence. The Panamanian authorities will not accept paper licences. Foreign driving licences are only valid for 90 days following your entry to the country (make sure you carry a copy of your passport with the date stamp as proof of entry within the allowable period). In order to obtain a local licence, you should bring, from the UK, a legalised certificate of entitlement issued by the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and once in Panama, contact the issuing agency SERTRACEN for further information on the requirements needed.
Swimming and water sports
Take great care when wading swimming or taking part in water sports on Pacific and Caribbean beaches as in some places there are strong currents and undertows. Beaches seldom have signs warning of the dangers and there are a number of drownings every year.
Don’t bathe in the Bay of Panama; it is highly polluted with untreated sewage and industrial waste.
Political demonstrations occur occasionally in Panama City, mainly around Panama University and the main road known as the Transistmica, as well as the main road from Bocas del Toro. Some demonstrations by construction workers, indigenous groups and students have turned violent in the past. Monitor local media and avoid all demonstrations.