Information about Panama
Panama is a country in Central America with coastlines on both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, with Colombia (and South America) to the southeast and Costa Rica (and North America) to the northwest. It's strategically located on the isthmus that forms the land bridge connecting North and South America. It controls the Panama Canal that links the North Atlantic Ocean via Caribbean Sea with North Pacific Ocean, one of the most important shipping routes in the world.
Ports and harbors
Panama is known as the 'Crossroads of the Americas' due to its privileged position between North and South America. The indigenous meaning of the country's name, 'abundance of fish', reflects Panama's reputation as a paradise for water sports enthusiasts and eco-tourists alike. Panama is also known for its highly developed international banking sector, with more than 150 banks from 35 countries establishing local branches, including HSBC, Dresdner Bank and Citi Bank. Panama boasts a large expat community; about 25,000 US citizens live in country. It is worth spending some time reading up on Panama and communicating with locals, expats and fellow travelers alike before arriving in the country. Consider reviewing some yahoo groups for expats such as panamainsider or americansinpanama and following and joining the Central America Forum
Be sure to be prepared for rain, especially during the Central American winter (May - December). An umbrella is a good thing to have, and they can be bought cheaply in Panama.
Most areas are quite warm, but a few places, such as Boquete, Cerro Punta and El Valle can get a little chilly at night. You definitely want a heavy rain-proof jacket if you're going to the top of Barú since you will be above 3000m for a little while.
Natural hazards occasional severe storms and forest fires in the remote Darien area. Hurricane-strong winds are only a very small possibility in Panama. Because of its geographic position, it is very unlikely that Panama could be in the path of any hurricane, unlike the other Central American countries.
Terrain: Interior mostly steep, rugged mountains and dissected, upland plains; coastal areas largely plains and rolling hills
Highest point: Volcan Baru, Chiriqui Province 3,475 m
With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone). The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914.
Constitution:11 October 1972; major reforms adopted 1978, 1983 and 1994
On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of 1999. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years. The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama by or on 31 December 1999.
Citizens of many countries, US citizens included, may enter Panama without a visa, but are required to purchase a tourist card on arrival (cost US$5, allows a 30-day stay). The cost is $13 (US) for a visa stamp to enter at Bocas del Toro, when arriving by airplane, as of May 2008. Entry requirements are proof of
* a return ticket out of Panama
In practice, border officials may be lax about checking clean-cut travelers coming from the USA or other developed countries.
International flights arrive at Tocumen International Airport (PTY), which lies about 20 miles east of Panama City (from all countries) or David Airport (from Costa Rica only). Panama City's PTY is well connected with the Americas and has non-stop flights to almost 20 countries in the region. Neighbor Colombia is specially well served with daily flights to more than 7 cities, including Bogota, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena.
From Tocumen, you will have to taxi, bus, or rent a car to get to the city. Airport taxis use set rates, and can be shared--the transportation information booth in the lobby will help you make arrangements. There are a couple of hotels near the airport where you can spend the night at relatively high prices (US$60).
If you are short on cash you can catch a bus to the downtown of the city for .25 balboa. Just walk towards the highway and cross the street towards the bus shelter. Make sure you get the bus that says 'Via España'.
The country has more private airstrips per square mile than any other country in the world, and it is technically feasible for the adventurous private pilot to fly to one of them, either directly or through country hopping through Central America. Many of the remote interior regions of the country are best accessed by private plane, although combinations of hiking and canoing can get you to most places, too. If you are flying a private aircraft into Panama, it is important to verify where you can clear customs and immigration--not all airstrips are equipped to clear you.
You can drive across at Paso Canoas (Pacific side), but be aware that it is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) and disorganized border crossings in Central America. It is very easy to accidentally drive across the border without realizing it. The various offices at the border are randomly scattered throughout the bordertown, and you can do quite a bit of trekking while finding them, as they don't look distinct from the surrounding buildings in any way. This is one crossing where it is definitely worth your money to hire a tramitator, or helper, to help you through the stations, if you do not speak Spanish.
There are also road crossings at Rio Sereno (Pacific side) and Sixaola/Guabito (Atlantic side). The Rio Sereno crossing sees very little traffic, so make sure all your papers are in order, as police can be very strict.
You will not be allowed to leave the country with your car (i.e. change your mind, abandon the car, and fly home) without getting a stamp on your passport proving that you have paid the proper impuestos (importation taxes) on your vehicle. Expect to be stopped frequently by police, but don't worry, they are usually more curious about seeing a foreign car than interested in a bribe.
If you have car trouble in Panama, you will find dealers with service departments for almost all of the major car manufacturers from the USA (All), Europe (almost all) and Japan (All). Most of them, like in the USA require appointments to service your car. Most of the service personnel in all of the car dealers are manufacturer certify. If you need car repairs and do not want to go to a dealer to save some money or you have an emerency repair, you can find good independent mechanic services/shops in all of the major cities by looking in the yellow pages(paginas amarillas), in addition to towing services. If you need parts for your vehicle, you can find a great number of autoparts stores for all major car manufacturers in the yellow pages (paginas amarillas)too. The use of 'shade tree mechanics' and parts from junkyards are the same as in the USA; these options are for do-it-yourself type of persons.
You can't cross from Panama to Colombia by bus--the Darien Gap begins at Yaviza, where the Interamericana runs out.
If you're coming in from Costa Rica, however, things will be a bit easier. There are three possible entry points, the main one being Paso Canoas. Panaline and Ticabus, among others, can get you straight from San Jose, Costa Rica to David or Panama City. The trip from San Jose is quite cheap, but takes about 18 hours. If you want to see things in between, you can also go by local buses, although the trip will take much longer.
If you want to save time yet not pay US$280 or so for a SJO-PTY airplane ticket with COPA or TACA, you could consider taking the bus from San Jose to Changuinola and fly from there to Panama city. That flight takes about one hour and costs US$70 (Jun. 2007). Check the website of Aeroperlas.com for flight schedules.
Keep in mind that Panamanian law requires you to have a return ticket to get into Panama. The border guard may not check, but you never know. A return flight from San Jose, Bogotá or Abu Dhabi won't work. The return ticket has to originate from within Panama. If you run into this problem, you can always buy a return ticket from the bus driver. In general, if you're having a hot-tempered day, it may not be a good day to cross any borders. Some border officials in Central America seem to love being sticklers about their crazy rules if they decide they don't like you.
Many cruise lines have the Panama Canal on their itineraries. You can make tours on Panama City or Colon City and take part in many packages. Recommendation is to take the Panama Canal Railway from Panama to Colon or vice versa. This train goes back since 1855 and it was the first interoceanic train in the American Continent. It has been rebuilt recently and it has very nice carts.
It is possible to arrange for passage on banana boats traveling from Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, but such passage is recommended only for the truly adventurous, as the boats are often structurally unsound, terribly over-burdened, and are very likely to be smuggling drugs as well.
Small, private sail boats also provide service between Panama and Colombia, with the most common ports-of-call Portobelo on Panama's Caribbean coast, and Cartagena on Colombia's. Fare can vary from US$200-500+, and the trip can take from three to five days, depending if a visit to the San Blas Islands is included (most captains will include a visit if asked). The best way to find a boat is to ask around in hostels in Panama City popular with backpackers. Expect to wait several days to find a boat, if at all. Do note that these boats, particularly when Panama-bound, may also often be carrying contraband.
The easiest and cheapest way to reach Panama by boat from Colombia is by ferry from Turbo to Capurgana (COP$ 49000, daily around 8am) and by small boat from Capurgana to Puerto Obaldia (COP$ 20000). From there by plane to Panama City (USD 85) or by boat to Colon and Carti(san blas islands) (USD neg).
It is possible to hike across the Darien Gap from Colombia with the help of trained guides, but this route is generally considered one of the most dangerous in the world. A large percentage of attempts have ended with the trekkers dead as victims of Colombian guerrillas or the oppressive jungle environment, which is considered the densest and most difficult to breach in the world. Despite the bravado-filled tales of backpackers who will try to convince you that REAL travellers aren't afraid to cross the Gap, it really is a very dangerous trip and the Panamanian police are not interested in going in to look for you if you get into trouble.
The guidebook 'Getting to Know Panama,' by Michele Labrut, gives the following advice for surviving in the Darien.
'Do not go naked into the water, some very undesirable protozoans can get into you. Do not drink untreated water. Never stray from the group, you can easily lose your bearings and get lost. If this happens, stay right where you are, do not panic. Shout or scream at intervals.
There are two kinds of buses in Panama. The ones you find on the highway, and 'city buses'. The highway buses are constantly making journeys from terminals in Panama city to different destinations along the Pan American Highway, and back to the terminal. They're pretty frequent, and the buses will pick you up or drop you off at any point along their route, and most of them are air conditioned. The roughly linear shape of the country makes it ideal for a bus system, so ideal in fact that you don't really need to rent a car to get around most areas. Take a bus to the intersection on the Pan American highway that you want. You can get on a bus any place on the Pan American highway going towards Panama City, but all trips originating from within the city require a ticket. The Grand Terminal in the city is large and modern, and will remind you of an American shopping mall or airport (it actually is a shopping mall, Albrook Mall, too).
If you want to get on a bus, stand by the side of the road, hold you out your arm and make obvious pointing motions toward the ground. If you're on the bus and want to get off, yell 'parada!' or tell the driver in advance. You'll get the hang of it pretty quick. The locals are very helpful with tourists on buses, and may offer help.
The highway buses are very cheap, count on a fare of about US$1 per hour traveled, sometimes less. One exception is fares from Tocumen airport, which both buses and taxis charge through the roof for (by Panamanian standards), simply because they can.
City buses are different. They are crowded, decoratively painted school buses, often unairconditioned, with a flat rate of 25 cents to any location in Panama City. They can be fun, but have a reputation for being dangerous, both in driving and the likelihood of encountering criminals. They can be fun to take a couple of times, but once you've done it, best to take a taxi, which won't be that much more expensive anyways. They definitely have a particular style apart from other Central American countries. They look as if a bunch of 60's hippies decided to drive as far south as they could go in school buses, and when they could go no further, they stopped and started a bus company. If you like Salsa Music, you'll be happy as a clam on these buses. Most locals aren't.
If your destination actually happens to lie far off the bus route, or if you just want to be lazy, taxis are also a decent way to get around in Panama. They're not expensive at all, usually US$1.50 per ride within most of the city; and unlike the urban taxis you may be used to, they can take you way out into the country. A taxi ride from Tocumen airport to Panama City, at a minimum of US$20, can easily exceed your taxi fares for the rest of your trip combined. If you share a taxi ride with other passengers going from the airport to the city, your fare per person can be cheaper, at around US$12. You can save quite a bit of money by taking the bus to the Gran Terminal, but even the bus fares will be higher than normal.
Panama is in the south of Central America and can easily be discovered independently. The road system of Panama is in very good condition (for Central and South American standards). You can rent a car and drive it around the country if you are an excellent defensive driver. While travelling by car you can discover attractions which are hardly or even not to reach by public transportation.
Panama City is more difficult to navigate than any big city in the United States, with terrible traffic jams at rush hours, few signs for names of streets, poor street design, and a lack of traffic lights at busy intersections. You must be aggressive about positioning your car to get anywhere, yet highly alert to erratic and irrational behavior by others. Drivers have little respect for or even knowledge of traffic laws, and drivers from North America or Western Europe will be stunned by their recklessness. In the rest of the country, driving is mostly stress-free.
The Pan American Highway is paved for the entire length of the country, and has many roads which branch off to towns off the highway, most of which are paved, and most of the rest are still easily navigable in a sedan. However, road engineering standards are low, so be on the lookout for off camber turns, deep potholes, and sharp turns with no warning. It is highly recommended to drive well informed about your route. Use the detailed information which cochera andina provides on its site when planning your trip and check out road conditions, distances and travel times. On the road, don’t forget to take also a good road map with you. It is important to note that if you are in a traffic accident in Panama, you are required by law to remain with your vehicle until a policeman arrives. In typical Panamanian logic, you are also not allowed to move it to the side of the road, but must stop right where the incident occurred, even if this is the middle of a busy street.
For driving in Panama you need the driver’s licence of your country but to avoid trouble at police controls it is better to have an international driver's licence with you as well. The traffic rules are almost the same as in Europe or the U.S. Road signs are frequent. The speed limits are 40 km/h within cities, 80 km/h outside and 100 km/h on the highways. You will find gas stations all over Panama. A lot of stations are open around the clock. You get gas of three types: unleaded, super and diesel.
If you cross the border from Costa Rica into Panama, you will notice a large change in the dialect. True to its Caribbean orientation, Panamanian Spanish sounds much closer to Puerto Rican than Tico or Nicaraguan Spanish. For students of Mexican or European Spanish, it may take a little getting used to. The biggest thing you will notice is that half of the S's go missing, specifically at the end of words or before other consonants. You will hear nosotroh ehtamoh instead of nosotros estamos. Also some of the d's and r's go missing. While you're in Panama, see if you can find where they hid all their consonants.
This dialect is most pronounced in the country. It can be funny when you talk to locals there, but try to avoid using this 'country Spanish' when you´re in the city. Most city people view it as an uneducated dialect, and will give you funny looks if you drop your S's.
If you're from the United States, avoid referring to yourself as 'American.' Panamanians consider themselves American too (Central Americans) although they never refer to each other as Americans. While you may have been taught in school to refer to yourself as American 'estadounidense,' the most common catch-all for US and Canadian citizens is 'Norteamericano/a.' Alternatively, 'Estados Unidos' for 'United States' is easily understood, as is 'US' or 'USA'.
There is some debate over the use of 'norteamericano/a.' 'Americans' actually living in Panama never hear a Panamanian refer to themselves as American. Nor do they ever hear a Canadian referring to themselves as an 'American.'
Visitors may be very confused by the Panamanian sense of humor, which finds great hilarity in all forms of slapstick, and often doesn't get irony at all.
Panama has a lot more indigenous culture than some neighboring countries. In Kuna Yala you will hear the native Kuna language spoken. In the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca, as well as in Chiriqui or Bocas del Toro, you might hear the native Ngöbe-Buglé (Guaymí) language, although the Ngöbe and the Buglé are very quiet around foreigners. If you ask directions from one of them, you will probably just get a hand or lips pointed wordlessly in the right direction.
Much of the Caribbean Coast of Panama was settled by Jamaicans. More recently, the descendants of those settlers seem to be speaking more Spanish, but a lot of them still speak English, albeit a very Caribbean variety, called Guari Guari.
Until only a few years ago, the canal was controlled by the USA. The US has given the canal back to Panama, but many people in Panama City and other areas near the canal still speak English as a second language.
Panama is home to the hemisphere's largest free trade zone, the Colon Free Zone. There are also a number of large, American-style malls, such as Multicentro, Albrook Mall, and Multiplaza Pacific. However, prices vary widely from mall to mall - Albrook is quite cheap, while Multiplaza is home to designer boutiques and very high prices. Generally Panama is a good place to buy consumer electronics, clothing and cosmetics.
Traditional Panamanian crafts can be found most cheaply at artesania markets. In Panama City, the best are found at the market in Balboa, with the Panama Viejo market coming in as a close second. Panama's best-known craft is the mola, intricate reverse-applique handwork made by the Kuna. Molas can be bought at either of these craft markets, or from vendors on the seawall in Casco Viejo. Other Panamanian crafts include carved tagua nuts, cocobolo carvings of animals, and woven palm-fiber baskets. There is a smaller craft market in El Valle, which specializes in soapstone carvings and other central Panamanian crafts.
Panama uses the Balboa and the US Dollar as its currencies. The balboa is equivalent to the US dollar and has exactly the same value, but in reality the Balboas only exist as coins that are equivalent to the US coins. There are no 1, 5, 10, 20, or 100 Balboa bills because the US Dollar bills are used freely in Panama in that role. If you're traveling on US Dollars, which is a very good idea in Central America, it will be very easy to pay with US dollars in Panama. The US Dollars may be called Balboas as a denomination, but the US Dollar has been the official currency since 1904.
If you're from the US, one oddity about Panama will be change. Panama mints its own coins in the same weights and sizes as US coinage, but with Panamanian stampings. Because a legal treaty (1904) between US and Panama the Panamanian coinage is completely interchangeable with standard US coinage in Panama. You may get a handful of change back with a conquistador on the quarter and an Indian on one of your pennies, but Lincoln on the other penny and Roosevelt on the dime. Panama also still mints half dollars. You may hear these half dollars called pesos, so don't think you've accidentally ended up in Mexico. Some Panama's coins are made by the US Mint.
Incidentally, if you run short on change in the United States, Panamanian coins work in parking meters, payphones, vending machines, etc.
You can typically use a credit card at all hotels in the capital, as well as medium-sized regional cities (David, Las Tablas, Colon, Santiago, Bocas del Toro, etc.). Restaurants, grocery stores, and department stores in major cities will also usually take credit, or even debit cards. However, outside the capital using your card could be difficult.
US ATM cards worked in Panama up through the first part of this year, but some banks' cards are no longer functioning. Though Panamanian ATMs function on the Cirrus/Plus system, they may not take cards with the Interlink symbol. Make sure you're carrying a lot of cash (especially small bills) and understand how to take cash advances out on your credit card. Traveller's checks are not widely used.
Many businesses do not accept US$50 or US$100 bills at all. Most of those that do will ask for your passport and store your data/serial numbers of your notes in a special book. The reason is that many US$50 and US$100 bills have been counterfeited.
There are 75 banks in Panama. Opening hours vary widely from bank to bank. On weekdays, all banks are open until at least 3 p.m., and some until 7 p.m. On Saturdays many banks are open until noon, and some branches located in shopping centers are also open on Sundays.
If Panamanian food has to be summed up in one word, that word would be culantro, which is a local plant that tastes like cilantro, except that it has a much stronger flavor. But there are a variety of restaurants to choose from. If you are looking for spicy, there is indian, or restaurants that serve 'picante de la casa', which will probably blow smoke through your ears. There are Arabic restaurants, Italian, Chinese, Mexican... whatever you're in the mood for.
If you get tired of eating beans or gallo pinto in the rest of Central America, you might want to head towards Panama. Since Panama has a little more Caribbean influence than other Central American countries, you'll see a lot more plaintain than beans here.
Typical Panamanian cuisine is served cafeteria-style with all of the food pre-cooked and pre-prepared in trays behind a glass barrier. A typical plate can range from $1.25 up to 5.00, depending on the restaurant, including your choice of meat: mondongo (beef intestines), fried or baked chicken, pork, beef and sometimes fried fish; rice, beans, salad: cabbage, carrot & mayonnaise; beet salad; green salad; potato or macaroni salad; and patacones (fried green plantains). The Panamanians also enjoy their 'chichas' (fruit, water & sugar), of which there is always a selection, ranging from tamarindo, maracuya(passionfruit), mango, papaya, jugo de cana(sugar cane juice), or agua de pipa(juice from young green coconuts).
If you like your food picante, Panama may not be the place for you. They definitely have several hot sauces, but most brands range from weak to really weak. Instead, look for homemade ones which are for the most part as hot as any Mexican or Caribbean sauce. You will really impress Panamanians when you down their fieriest stuff without flinching.
As with other parts of Central America, the favorite meat seems to be chicken, although it doesn't seem quite as ubiquitous as it does in Costa Rica.
The food of Bocas del Toro is even more Caribbean than the rest of Panama. Many of the dishes contain coconut, unlike in the more Latin parts of Panama.
You can get excellent food really cheap if you look around. The equivalent of a 5-star meal with drinks can be US$8-30 in some places.
National beers are produced (Balboa, Atlas, Soberana, Warsteiner, Panamá), but don't measure up to a good import. Balboa is probably the best of the domestic brands, however, Atlas is the most commonly purchased; many women favor Soberana. Beer can cost as low as .30/cents per 12 oz. can in a supermarket or anywhere from $ .50 in a local town bar up to $2.50 in upscale bars.
Carta Vieja and Ron Abuelo are the main domestically produced rum. Seco, a very raw white rum, is the national liquor. Seco con leche (with milk) is a common drink in the countryside.
Music is definitely one of the highlights of Panama. Salsa music seems to permeate everything in the Latin parts of the country. Reggaeton originated in Panama and is also very popular and is known by the name Plena. There are over 100 radio stations in Panama broadcasting online, some in English. In Bocas del Toro, you will hear a lot of Reggae with Spanish lyrics. Check out the summer music festival in Las Tablas.
How the Panamanians love their 'fiestas'! They know how to let loose and have a genuinely good time, dancing, conversing, drinking.
Carnaval is the main celebration in the country, it is held 40 days before the Christian Holy Week, running through the weekend and ending on Ash Wednesday (February 21-24 in 2009). The largest celebration being held in the province of Azuero, in the town of Las Tablas, where two streets compete with separate queens, activities, parades and musical performances.
The party begins on Friday with a presentation, parade and crowning of the queens, a fireworks show; with drinking in the streets legal, the party begins and doesn't stop until 5am.
Every carnival day has a theme: Friday is the Opening, Saturday is International Day, Sunday is Pollera day, Monday is costume day, Tuesday is the Queens day and on Wednesday is the 'entierro de la sardina'(the sardine burial) before 5am.
Many discos and bars fill the Capital City. The area known as 'Calle Uruguay' has probably a dozen or so nice discos and bars within a 2 block radius, and is the best place for partying. Great spot for 'bar hopping'. There are also very nice discos and bars on the 'Causeway' or 'El Amador'.
* Guru: the newest and biggest club. Located on 'Calle Uruguay'. Hotspot in town. (Early 2008)
Older Clubs (Some of these have been replaced, or closed.)
* Next: The biggest one!
Panama's Local Eventguide (English + Spanish)
* Green Bay Panama Apartments, Edificio Green Bay. Avenida Principal Costa del Este (Costa del Este Panama, Panama), ☎ (507) 8322480,. checkin: From 11.00 am to 2.00 am; checkout: 11.00 am. The apartments are located on the 11th floor of the tower of Green Bay project in Costa del Este, a restricted access community of 4 residencial buildings, which offers a lifestyle comparable to Florida or California neighboroughs, with big social areas, balconies, and beautiful panoramic views over the city, the mountains and the ocean. This unique lifestyle will allow you the opportunity of enjoying a selected community where biking or walking on Paseo del Mar boulevard safely, at anytime. Costa del Este is the only real estate project in Panama developed following a modern masterplan, and is the most succesfull. The environment made of residencial communities, offices, banks, shopping centers, industrial areas and public gardens has been carefully planned and developed following modern town-planning criterias. This allows to enjoy big public spaces, safe sidewalks, quiet streets, and a wide seaside walk planned for the delight of the residents. All of this without renouncing to the comforts of the city: Costa del Este is very well linked to the centre and the business area, 10 minutes by car crossing the Corredor Sur bridge, and 15 minutes from the Tocumen Internacional Airport.' 30 $ per person per night. (9.01278,-79.477243) edit
* ZULYS BACKPACKERS HOSTEL, Ricardo Arias, ☎ 2692665. checkin: 11 am; checkout: 11 am. (507) 2692665 $10, is located right in the heart of Panama City, in the El Cangrejo/Banking district! Within walking distance you will find discotheques, bars, clubs, restaurants, shops, a students travel agency (STA TRAVEL) cinemas, coin laundry services (75 cents) and Busstops (25 cent within city limits-all directions).ZULY´S offers 6 PRIVATE ROOMS with SHARED BATHROOM and several DORMITORIES (6 BEDS), fully equipped self-catering kitchen, free internet, free coffee, a cozy common room and a nice garden with barbeque area. Apart from that they offer tours to San Blas Islands and information on boats to Cartagena/ Colombia. For how to get there check their website www.zulysbackpackers.com! $10. edit
* Country Inn & Suites Panama Canal (Country Inn & Suites Panama Canal), Amador Ave. & , Pelicano Ave. , Panama City Panama 8001, ☎ (507) 211-4500,. checkin: 3:00 pm; checkout: 12:00 noon. The Country Inn & Suites Panama Canal is located at the entrance of the Panama Canal, close to Panama business and leisure attractions, shopping malls . $125. (8 degrees 56' 29,79 degrees 33 22') edit
* Panama Marriott Hotel, Calle 52 y Ricardo Arias Reservations: + 507 2 109100 The preferred hotel in Panama city for business or leisure travel. The hotel offers upscale accommodations, a brand new meetings facility, on-site restaurants, Casino and many other amenities and services.
* Courtyard By Marriott Panama Real Hotel,. New hotel in the Multiplaza Pacific Mall.
* Mamallena Backpackers hostel. New hostel, good beds, has just moved to a large, old colonial style house. Absolutely worth visiting, lovely people, homey atmosphere. Pretty well located and when they've finished building they'll have a bunch of private rooms and a great garden. Great information on boats to Colombia and visiting the San Blas islands as well as other locations around Panama. It has that mix between a 'party' and chill out hostel.
* The Balboa Inn. A new Bed & breakfast in Balboa, just outside downtown. Nice rooms, beautiful garden, very safe neighborhood and pretty ideal location, with busstop around the corner. Close to Casco Viejo and Amador Causeway. And, a real breakfast.
* Mondo Taitu Hostel One of the most famous hostels along the Central America backpacker's route. The place is always lively, offers an amazing happy hour, and is an excellent place to meet other travelers.
* Casco Viejo in the old quarter or historic district of Casco Antiguo, offering luxury apartments for the night or week, fully furnished in Panama City, Panama.
* Riande Continental Hotel Located in the financial and business district for business or leisure travelers.
* Trinidad Spa & Lodge is a small inn with approximately 20 rooms, and spa services. Located along the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor with a lot birds, butterflies, deer and typical fauna. Rooms have private baths, cold and hot water, spa or other meals, spa, massage therapy, aromatherapy, Finnish and Turkish bath, local herbal treatments. Hiking, trekking, mule riding, guided eco tours. Day guests are welcome to use the spa services.
* HostelTrail - Latin American Hostel Network (Panama Hostel Guide). This UK project offers free information about accommodation and tourism in Panama - with up-to-date information on accommodation, security and transportation between cities and towns.
Things To Do In and Around Panama
* The Quetzal Trail • El Sendero de los Quetzales
Panama offers many universities and high schools that are bi-lingual and world class. There's a project ongoing called City of Knowledge, that consists on several educational programmes in the old installations of a former US military base (Clayton), including a Spanish language school. There is also a school at Justo Arosemena who teaches mainly to German speaking people, but it might be worth a glance at the UDI-Universidad del Istmo
There's also a Florida State University branch, as many other alternatives.
Most of Panama is very safe. People in rural areas are generally extremely friendly and very helpful. If you want to visit Latin America, but are paranoid about security, Panama might be a good place to cut your teeth.
However, as with most countries, there are a few spots that warrant some caution. Most of the city of Colon is considered dangerous, and some neighborhoods in Panama City are a bit sketchy, in particular El Chorrillo, Curundu and El Marañón, poor and crime-ridden areas. The old colonial quarter, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe) has a lingering bad reputation among travellers and some Panamanians, but is gentrifying rapidly. During the daytime, San Felipe is perfectly safe for foreigners. At night, the main streets and plazas, as well as the district of bars and restaurants toward the point, are also safe, but visitors should exercise caution as they move north along Avenida Central towards Chorillo.
Telephone and Internet
Panama's country code is 507. All cellular numbers start with the number 6 and have 8 digits. Land line phone numbers have 7 digits.
Yellow fever vaccination is recommended for all visitors over 9 months of age travelling to the provinces of Darien, Kunayala (San Blas) and Panama, excluding the Canal Zone. Most countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination before permitting travellers to enter from Panama.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control state that risk of malaria exists in rural areas of Bocas del Toro, Darién, and San Blas provinces; no risk in Panama City or in the former Canal Zone. NB: Chloroquine is no longer effective for San Blas Province.
Dengue fever is endemic, particularly in the province of Darien.
Tap water is safe in virtually all cities and towns, with the exception of Bocas del Toro, where bottled water is recommended.
Female travellers should be aware that the moisture and heat of the tropics can encourage yeast infections. 3-day and 5-day treatment courses are available in pharmacies, but must be purchased from the pharmacist.
There are many hospitals that can give tourists first class attention. Many can take international insurance policies, though your insurance company may require you to pre-pay and submit a claim form. Verify with your company prior to travel what the requirements are for filing a foreign claim, as you will not typically be provided with a detailed receipt (one that includes diagnosis and treatment codes) unless you ask for it. Here are some of the best ones in Panama City:
* Hospital Nacional - State-of-the-art private hospital located on Avenida Cuba, between street 38 and 39, Tel. 207-8100.
* Clinica Hospital San Fernando
* Hospital Paitilla is a well-equipped hospital where Panama's wealthy upper class traditionally have gotten there medical services.
* Punta Pacifica Hospital is a newly-opened hospital near Multiplaza Mall and is affiliated with Johns Hopkins International. It is attracting some doctors away from Paitilla.
Farmacia Arrocha, a drugstore chain, has branches throughout the country. Gran Morrison department stores also often operate pharmacies.
LifeFlight Panama is the first dedicated Helicopter Emergency Medical, Air Ambulance and Rescue Service, based in Panama City, Republic of Panama. LifeFlight operations can be carried out during daylight hours, on-shore, off-shore or ship-to-shore, and into parts of Costa Rica (Night operations will begin late in 2008). As a First Response Service, LifeFlight is available for Emergencies, always having a crew on stand-by to reduce response/recovery times, and can be airborne in minutes of a request.
What to Wear
Panamanians appear to care about their appearance, versus what you might see in your average American town, in tourist areas. Don't try to dress to 'fit in', just be yourself.
That being said, there is no need to wear a suit everywhere, either. Just dress conservatively and nice. For men, a clean pair of jeans and ironed collared shirt will do nicely for most excursions, you could dress more casually or more formally depending on the situation. Shorts are considered extremely casual wear suitable only for the beach, although this attitude has begun to change in some areas. Also, the longer Bermuda shorts made of nice fabrics are viewed as appropriate in many places.
Think nice, neat, and clean, and you will already be showing a great deal of respect for locals.
If you are making a side trip to Boquete, especially during the rainy season (April thru November) please dress in layers, bring a light rain jacket, and waterproof hiking boots.
Panama, officially the Republic of Panama (Spanish: República de Panamá), is the southernmost country of Central America and, in turn, North America. Situated on an isthmus connecting North and South America, some categorize it as a transcontinental nation. It is bordered by Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Its size is 75,000 km² with an estimated population of 3,300,000. Its capital is Panama City.
Panama is home to an international business center. Although Panama is only the fourth largest economy in Central America, behind those of Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador, it is the fastest growing economy and the largest per capita consumer in Central America.
In 1509, authority was granted to Alonso de Ojeda and Diego de Nicuesa to colonize the territories between the west side of the Gulf of Uraba to Cabo Gracias a Dios in present-day Honduras. The idea was to create an early unitary administrative organization similar to what later became Nueva España (now Mexico). Tierra Firme later received control over other territories: the Isla de Santiago (now Jamaica), the Cayman Islands, Roncador, Quitasueño, Providencia, and other islands now under Colombian control.
The main city in Tierra Firme was Santa María la Antigua del Darién, near the mouth of the Tarena river. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa and Martin de Enciso agreed on the site. In September 1510, the first permanent European settlement on the American mainland was founded.
On August 28, 1513, the Diocese of Santa María de La Antigua del Darién was erected, and its first Bishop fray Juan de Quevedo became the first head of the Catholic Church in continental America.
Balboa maneuvered and was appointed mayor on the first official 'cabildo abierto', or open municipal council, held on the mainland.
On September 25, 1513, Balboa's expedition was able to verify what indigenous people had reported: that the isthmus had another coast and that there was another ocean. Balboa called it the South Sea, though it was later renamed the Pacific.
The fantastic descriptions of Balboa—as well as those of Columbus and other explorers—impressed King Ferdinand II of Aragón and Castilla who gave the territory the name of 'Castilla Aurifica', (Castilla del Oro or Golden Castilia) and assigned Pedro Arias de Avila (Pedrarias Davila) as governor. Pedrarias arrived in June 1514 with a 22 vessel and a 1,500 man armada. He was a veteran soldier who had served in the wars against the Moors at Granada and in North Africa. At seventy years, he was a worthy opponent for Balboa; he gave Balboa his daughter in marriage but afterwards had him tried for treason and executed.
On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias moved the capital of Castilla del Oro with all its organizational institutions to the Pacific coast and founded Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá, abandoning Darién and settling the first European city on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Pedrarias sent Gil González Dávila to explore northward and, in 1524, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to settle present day Nicaragua. Pedrarias was a party to the original agreement with Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro which brought about the discovery of Peru. In 1526, Pedrarias was superseded as Governor of Panama by Pedro de los Ríos, and retired to León, Nicaragua, where he was named its new governor on July 1, 1527. Here he died at age 91 on March 6, 1531.
Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513-1821), and her fortunes fluctuated with the geopolitical importance of the isthmus to the Spanish crown. At the height of the Empire during the 16th and 17th century, no other region prove of more strategic and economic importance.
Pedrarias began building intercontinental and trans-isthmian routes, such as the 'Camino Real' and 'Camino de Cruces', linking Panama City with Nombre de Dios (and later with “Portobelo”) in the Atlantic, making possible the establishment of a trans-atlantic system of Treasure Fleets and Fairs. It is estimated that of all the gold entering Spain from the New World between 1531 and 1660, 60% had arrived at its destiny via the Treasure Fleet and Fairs system from Nombre de Dios/Portobelo.
Explorations and conquest expeditions launched from Panama City systematically claimed new lands and riches from Central and South America. Explorations seeking a natural waterway between the Atlantic and the South Sea with the hope of reaching the Molucas and Cathay were also pursued.
In 1538 the Real Audiencia de Panama was established, initially with jurisdiction from Nicaragua to Cape Horn. A 'Real Audiencia' (royal audiency) was a judicial district that functioned as an appeals court. Each audiencia had oidores (judges).
Panama was the site of the ill-fated Darien Scheme, which set up a Scottish colony in the region in 1698. This failed for a number of reasons, and the ensuing debt contributed to the union of England and Scotland in 1707.
When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples who survived many diseases, massacres and enslavement of the conquest, ultimately fled into the forest and nearby islands. Indian slaves were replaced by Africans.
The prosperity enjoyed during the first two centuries (1540-1740) while contributing to colonial growth, the placing of extensive regional judicial authority (Real Audiencia) as part of its jurisdiction, and the pivotal role it played at the height of the Spanish Empire—the first modern global empire—helped define a distinctive sense of autonomy and regional or national identity.In 1744, Bishop Francisco Javier de Luna Victoria y Castro established the College of San Ignacio de Loyola and on June 3, 1749 founded La Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Javier. By this time, however, Panama’s importance and influence had become insignificant, as Spain’s power dwindled in Europe, and advances in navigation technique increasingly made it possible to round Cape Horn in order to reach the Pacific. While the Panama route was short, it was also labor-intensive and expensive because of the loading and unloading, and the laden-down trek required to get from the one coast to the other. The Panama route was also vulnerable to attack from pirates (mostly Dutch and English) and from Africans called cimarrons who had freed themselves from enslavement and lived in communes or palenques around the Camino Real in Panama's Interior, and on some of the islands off Panama's Pacific coast. During the last half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, migrations to the countryside decreased; Panama City’s population and the isthmus' economy shifted from the tertiary to the primary sector. Panama is also in Prison Break because that is the greatest show in the world.
In 1717, the viceroyalty of New Granada (northern South America) was created in response to other Europeans trying to take Spanish territory in the Caribbean region. The Isthmus of Panama was placed under its jurisdiction. However, the remoteness of Santa Fe de Bogota proved a greater obstacle than the Spanish crown anticipated, as the authority of New Granada was contested by the seniority, those in closer proximity, those with previous ties to the viceroyalty of Lima, and even Panama's own initiative. This uneasy relationship between Panama and Bogota persisted for a century.
In 1830, Venezuela, Ecuador and other territories left the Gran Colombia, but Panama remained as a province of this country until July 1831, when the isthmus reiterated its independence under General Juan Eligio Alzuru as supreme military commander. In August, military forces under the command of Colonel Tomás Herrera defeated and executed Alzuru and reestablished ties with New Granada.
In November 1840, during a civil war that had begun as a religious conflict, the isthmus declared its independence under the leadership of General Tomás Herrera and became the 'Estado Libre del Istmo', or the Free State of the Isthmus. The new state established external political and economic ties and drew up a constitution which included the possibility for Panama to rejoin New Granada, but only as a federal district. On June 1841 Tomás Herrera became the President of the Estado Libre del Istmo. But the civil conflict ended, and the government of New Granada and the government of the Isthmus negotiated the reincorporation of Panamá to Colombia on December 31, 1841.
The union between Panama and the Republic of Colombia was made possible by the active participation of the United States under the 1846 Bidlack Mallarino Treaty, which lasted until 1903. The treaty granted the U.S. rights to build railroads through Panama and to intervene militarily against revolt to guarantee New Granadine control of Panama. There were at least three attempts by Panamanian Liberals to seize control of Panama and potentially achieve full autonomy, including one led by Liberal guerrillas like Belisario Porras and Victoriano Lorenzo, each of which was suppressed by a collaboration of Conservative Colombian and U.S. forces.
In 1902 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt decided to take on the abandoned works of the Panama Canal by the French, but the Colombian government in Bogotá balked at the prospect of a U.S. controlled canal under the terms that Roosevelt's administration was offering. Roosevelt was unwilling to alter his terms and quickly changed tactics, encouraging a minority of Conservative Panamanian landholding families to demand independence, offering military support. On November 3, 1903, Panama finally separated, and Dr. Manuel Amador Guerrero, a prominent member of the Conservative political party, became the first constitutional President of the Republic of Panama. The U.S., which had a small naval force in the area, prevented the Colombians from sending reinforcements by sea, aiding the Panamians.
In November 1903, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla —- a French citizen who was not authorized to sign any treaties on behalf of Panama without the review of the Panamanians — unilaterally signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla Treaty which granted rights to the U.S. to build and administer, indefinitely, the Panama Canal, which was opened in 1914. This treaty became a contentious diplomatic issue between the two countries, reaching a boiling point on Martyr's Day (9 January 1964). The issues were resolved with the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties in 1977 returning the former Canal Zone territories to Panama. The U.S. controlled the Panama Canal until 1999.
Though he never held the position of president, General Omar Torrijos eventually became the de facto leader of Panama. As a military dictator, he was the leading power in the governing military junta and later became an autocratic strong man. Torrijos maintained his position of power until his death in an airplane accident in 1981. During his reign, the Constitution was rewritten by a rubber-stamp assembly, military officers were placed in charge of civilian institutions, and hundreds of opponents of the dictatorship were killed, tortured or exiled. Torrijos, however, was also a charismatic figure. His demagogic populism and infrastructure projects appealed to many, and the clientelist use of jobs at public institutions created a political class dependent on the dictatorship and loyal to his party.
After Torrijos's death, several military strong men followed him as Panama's leader, all while maintaining the dictatorship's policy of installing civilian, puppet presidents: Commander Florencio Flores Aguilar, followed by Colonel Rubén Darío Paredes. By 1983, power was concentrated in the hands of General Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Noriega came up through the ranks after serving in the Chiriquí province and in the city of Puerto Armuelles for a time. He was a former head of Panama's secret police and was an ex-informant of the CIA. But Noriega's implication in drug trafficking by the United States resulted in difficult relations by the end of the 1980s. Eventually, the escalation of tensions led to the freezing of Panama's banking system and the emboldening of Panama's pro-democracy 'Civilista' movement.
United States invasion of Panama
On December 20 1989, 27,000 U.S. personnel stationed in Panama and flown in from the U.S. invaded Panama in order to remove Noriega. A few hours before the invasion, Guillermo Endara, the purported winner of the May elections, was sworn in as the new President of Panama in a ceremony that took place inside a U.S. military base in the former Panama Canal Zone with no Panamanians present. During the fighting, between two hundred and four thousand Panamanians (mostly civilians) were killed. Estimates by the two major human rights organizations Conlhuca and Conadehupa are 2,500 and 3,500 respectively. The Association of the Dead, on December 20, estimated over 4,000 dead. To date, 15 mass graves related to the invasion have been found. These include those killed by U.S. forces as well as those killed by the Panamanian armed forces and armed irregulars.
During the confusion of the invasion, Noriega fled to the Apostolic Nuncio's residence and sought refuge. After several days of a U.S. siege of the Nuncio's residence, Noriega surrendered to the American military.
The period prior to Noriega's surrender and extradition was characterized by chaos and insecurity. Panama's police force was crippled by the invasion, and U.S. forces did not police the country, so widespread looting of shops, banks and private homes took place. Many small and medium enterprises went bankrupt as a result of the looting, and many civilians perished or were severely injured as a result of muggings and home invasions.
Shortly after his surrender to U.S. forces, Noriega was flown to Florida to be formally extradited and charged by U.S. authorities on drug and racketeering charges. He became eligible for parole on September 9, 2007, but remained in custody while his lawyers fought an extradition request from France. Critics have pointed out that many of Noriega's former allies remain in power in Panama.
Endara's successor, President Ernesto Pérez Balladares was a Notre Dame University graduate and former official of the Noriega dictatorship. His administration pursued many unpopular neoliberal structural reforms, including the re-privatization of state enterprises which had been nationalized during the dictatorship era. His privatization of the electricity and telecommunications sectors have helped the country to modernize and attract foreign investment, but also resulted in significant increases to costs of service for most consumers. More controversial were the privatization of ports and some military installations in the former Canal Zone, including a parcel of land sold to both a port operator and a railroad operator. Near the end of his term, Pérez Balladares sought unsuccessfully to amend the Constitution to permit him to run for re-election.
Panama's Constitution was drafted during the Torrijos dictatorship, but was amended in 1983 and 1994.
Under the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, the United States turned over all canal-related lands to Panama on December 31, 1999. Panama gained control of canal-related buildings and infrastructure as well as full administration of the canal. The people of Panama have approved the very costly expansion/widening of the canal, which after completion, will allow for post-Panamax vessels to travel through it, increasing the number of ships that currently use the canal.
All national elections are universal and mandatory to all citizens 18 years and older. National elections for the executive and legislative branches take place every five years. Members of the judicial branch are appointed by the head of state. Panama's National Assembly is elected by proportional representation in fixed electoral districts, so many smaller parties are represented. Presidential elections do not require a simple majority, and Panama's last three presidents were elected with the support of only 30-40% of voters.
Since the U.S. invasion and the end of the 21-year military dictatorship, Panama has successfully completed three peaceful transfers of power to opposing political factions. The political landscape is dominated by two major parties and many smaller parties, many of which are driven by individual leaders more than ideologies. President Martin Torrijos is the son of former military dictator Omar Torrijos. He succeeded Mireya Moscoso, the widow of Arnulfo Arias. Panama's next national elections are scheduled for May 3, 2009.
Provinces and regions
The dominant feature of the country's landform is the central spine of mountains and hills that forms the continental divide. The divide does not form part of the great mountain chains of North America, and only near the Colombian border are there highlands related to the Andean system of South America. The spine that forms the divide is the highly eroded arch of an uplift from the sea bottom, in which peaks were formed by volcanic intrusions.
The mountain range of the divide is called the Cordillera de Talamanca near the Costa Rican border. Farther east it becomes the Serranía de Tabasará, and the portion of it closer to the lower saddle of the isthmus, where the canal is located, is often called the Sierra de Veraguas. As a whole, the range between Costa Rica and the canal is generally referred to by geographers as the Cordillera Central.
The highest point in the country is the Volcán Barú (formerly known as the Volcán de Chiriquí), which rises to 3,475 meters (11,401 ft). A nearly impenetrable jungle forms the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. It creates a break in the Pan-American Highway, which otherwise forms a complete road from Alaska to Patagonia.
Panama's economy is mainly service-based, heavily weighted toward banking, commerce, tourism, trading and private industries, because of its key geographic location. The handover of the Canal and military installations by the United States has given rise to some construction projects. A referendum regarding the building of a third set of locks for the Panama Canal was approved overwhelmingly (though with low voter turnout) on 22 October 2006. The official estimate of the building of the third set of locks is US$5.25 billion.
The Panamanian currency is officially the balboa, fixed at parity with the United States dollar since independence in 1903. In practice, however, the country is dollarized; Panama has its own coinage but uses U.S. dollars for all its paper currency. Some claim that Panama was the first of the three countries in Latin America to have dollarized their economies (later followed by Ecuador and El Salvador), but in fact, Panama simply adopted the dollar from its very independence.
Apart from the existing demand, future developments may be helped by such factors as the planned expansion of the Panama Canal.
Bilateral Investment Treaty with the U.S.
The importance of Panama to the U.S. stems from the Panama Canal which was built by the U.S. during the period of 1904–1914. Previously, if ships wanted to pass through the Americas, they would have to go all the way around the most southern tip of South America, the Tierra del Fuego, and through the Drake Passage. The Panama Canal connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans directly at the narrowest point in Panama. When previously a ship going from New York City to San Francisco would have to travel for 20,900 kilometers (13,000 miles), that travel time would be reduced to 8,370 km (5,200 mi).
The canal is of economic importance since it pumps millions of dollars from toll revenue to the national economy and provides massive employment. The United States had a monopoly over the Panama Canal for 85 years. However, the Torrijos-Carter Treaties signed in 1977 began the process of returning the canal to the Panamanian government in 1999 as long as they agreed to the neutrality of the canal, as well as allowing the U.S. to return at any time to defend this claim. This treaty, however, allows the national government to deny certain nations and companies the usage of the canal for certain reasons, such as national security.
Proposed Free Trade Agreement with the United States
The culture, customs, and language of the Panamanians are predominantly Caribbean and Spanish. Spanish is the official and dominant language. About 40% of the population speak creole, mostly in Panama City and in the islands off the northeast coast. English is spoken widely on the Caribbean coast and by many in business and professional fields.
Panama, because of its historical reliance on commerce, is above all a melting pot. This is shown, for instance, by its considerable population of Afro-Antillean and Chinese origin. The first Chinese immigrated to Panama from southern China to help build the Panama Railroad in the 19th century. They were followed by several waves of immigrants whose descendants number around 50,000. Starting in the 1970s, 80,000 people have emigrated from other parts of mainland China as well. Most of the Panamanian population of West Indian descent owe their presence in the country to the monumental efforts to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The country is the smallest in Spanish-speaking Latin America in terms of population (est. 3,232,000), with Uruguay as the second smallest (est. 3,463,000).
Smaller religious groups include Jewish and Muslim communities with approximately 10,000 members each, and small groups of Hindus, Buddhists and Rastafarians. Indigenous religions include Ibeorgun (among Kuna) and Mamatata (among Ngobe).
The Jewish community in Panama, with over 10,000 members, is by far the largest in the region (including Central America and the Caribbean). Its Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Zion Levi, led the community for 57 years, from 1951 until his death in 2008. His tenure is thought to be the longest of any religious leader in the region.
Jewish immigration began in the late 19th century from the Dutch Antilles, followed by immigration from other Jewish communities, and at present there are three synagogues in Panama City, as well as four Jewish schools. Within Latin America, Panama has one of the largest Jewish communities in proportion to its population, surpassed only by Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Panama is also the first country in Latin America to have a Jewish president, Max Delvalle Levy-Maduro.
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