When travelling one of the most important things to always consider is safety. Whether it be personal safety or securing your belongings, nothing ruins a trip faster than safety gone wrong. Safety in Panama is undoubtedly higher than most Central American countries and there is an overall medium to low risk for foreigners seeking to visit this beautiful country. As a traveler, it is important to always bear in mind that no matter whether a country’s safety level is low, medium or high there is always a chance of finding yourself in an unfortunate situation. No country is perfect and as such it is always a good idea to exercise caution and take a street smart approach to travelling.
Thanks to Panama’s ideal location on the map, the Panama Canal was born. In addition to that, Panama’s free zone in Colon is the second largest duty free area in the world helping to make Panama’s economy one one of the most stable in Latin America. Panama maintains its economy through banking, commerce, shipping and tourism. Such economic activity in any country means more of the population can be put to work thus contributing to lesser crime statistics. The country thrives on shipping, banking, commerce, and tourism. This does not mean Panama does not face hardships which has a ripple effect on safety in Panama. Distribution of wealth is largely uneven and it is estimated that a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Panama’s economy has fluctuated over the years and there is hope that the expansion of the Panama Canal will help to add more economic stability.
How Safe Is Panama?
Panama is relatively safe compared to other Latin American countries and is surely one of the most breathtaking. If you wish to visit Panama, you must take some basic precautions to preserve your health and safety for the entirety of your stay. You will bask in enjoyment of Panama’s friendly people, mixed population and captivating culture. Not to burst your bubble but bear in mind the socio-economic problems of the country will require you to stay alert and exercise caution. Countries with terribly unequal living conditions typically have higher crime rates and Panama is no different. Currently, the U.S. Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) travel advisory lists Panama at Level 1, meaning travelers should maintain normal precautions.
With a constant influx of tourists, it is in Panama’s best interest to maintain its visitors safety in Panama. Police presence is high in the most visited areas like Panama City as the city tries to make its guests feel safe and enjoy relative safety in Panama.
The risk of crime is considerable and is a major threat to safety in Panama and for travelers it is essential to adopt safety habits based on common sense. While Panama remains relatively safe compared to other Central American countries, crime rates are high, including shootings, rapes, armed robberies, assaults and burglaries. The provinces with the largest cities also have the highest crime rates and pose the greatest danger to safety in Panama. These provinces are Panama, Colon, Herrera and Chiriqui. According to statistics from the Panamanian National Police (Policía Nacional de Panamá, PNP), the total number of homicides increased slightly, from 424 in 2017 to 440 in 2018. Reported assaults increased from 3,380 to 3,670 in 2018; sexual assaults increased from 4,681 to 4,959 in 2018; robberies decreased from 9,683 to 8,939 in 2018; and burglaries decreased from 17,365 to 14,233. It is important to note that crime reporting is generally lower in some rural provinces.
These burglaries often occur when the resident is less likely to be at home, as thieves generally focus on property theft and tend to avoid violent confrontations. Factors contributing to home burglaries include inadequate perimeter walls, lack of or use of alarms, minimal lighting, non-existent/weak bars and poorly paid/trained guards. Although the general crime trend is downward, home burglaries are a problem that affects even relatively wealthy areas.
Vehicle theft remains a constant problem throughout the country, especially in metropolitan areas. Most vehicle thefts are crimes of opportunity, targeting vehicles in which high-value items, bags and/or purses are left on display. When driving or parking a vehicle, take your valuables with you or make sure they are not in plain sight.
Other Areas of Concern
Several high-crime areas have the potential to be relatively more dangerous. These are lower-income areas and/or areas of increased gang activity with a lower police presence that leads to reduced overall safety in Panama.
The high crime areas in/around Panama City: El Chorrillo, San Miguel, Santa Ana, Cabo Verde, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Santa Librada, Rio Abajo, San Miguelito, Juan Diaz, Pedregal, and Panamá Viejo. Travel safety in Panama City and its environs is crucial to securing tourism in the country.
Local Emergency Services and Numbers
Like most places, Panama has emergency services even though they might be limited. In the event of an emergency, dial the following numbers for assistance:
- Police: 104
- Medical Assistance: 911
- Firefighters: 103
When in a foreign country, it is always best to reach out to your home country’s embassy or consulate for assistance and advice if one is available.
20 Travel Safety in Panama Tips
All kinds of travelers can find something to enjoy in Panama, whether it be the city, jungle, beaches or a combination of all three. Panama offers more than a canal to the other side of the world, here you will find the old and the new as well as spectacular destinations. More and more visitors travel to Panama each year, however, the crime statistics and safety in Panama is not to be ignored. With your safety in Panama in mind, here are a few helpful travel tips to help ensure your safety in Panama.
- Don’t walk with huge sums of cash – also bear in mind Panama entry and exits requirements forbids you from travelling with more than US$10,000
- Don’t look wealthy – dress modestly and avoid displaying signs of wealth such as jewelry
- Don’t be an obvious tourist – try to blend in and not draw unwanted attention
- Exercise caution when using the ATM – if possible use ATM inside the bank avoid using them at night
- Keep an eye for pickpockets – they tend to strike on buses and in busy places
- Store your money discreetly – wear a money belt or find creative ways to disguise your money
- Mugging occurs sometimes – if it happens to you, do not fight, let the item go. A ‘fake’ wallet or throw-down wallet can be used in such a situation, not that you’re asking for trouble but if you must go to an unsafe area it’s better to lose a ‘fake’ wallet than a real one
- Do not take illegal or unregistered taxis or tours – this goes without saying and is the quickest way to threaten your safety in Panama
- Avoid illegal drugs – the smallest amount of illegal substances can get you 15 years in prison. Hanging out with drug users or dealers can also get you time in lock up
- Learn some Spanish – knowledge of a few basic phrases will always come in handy in a Spanish speaking country
- Exercise caution when swimming – both Panamanian coasts have riptides, no lifeguards and few warning signs. Also avoid heavily polluted waters like the Bay of Panama
- Cover up and use mosquito repellent – dengue fever and malaria exists in the region. There are organic repellents available for those who prefer to avoid mainstream repellents – one such repellent is Lemon Eucalyptus oil.
- Practice road safety in Panama – Panamanian drivers drive recklessly sometimes and Panama City can be dangerous for pedestrians.
- Always walk with your passport – it is possible to be arrested if you cannot properly ID yourself, bring your original passport with your entry stamp/visa to present to police officer if necessary
- Do not walk at night or hangout alone at tourist destinations after dark
- Pack a mini first aid kit with the basics and carry an extra pair of glasses and enough medication.
- Go to the tourist police station or contact your country’s embassy or consulate if you have a problem with your safety in Panama
- Get acquainted with earthquake safety measures – earthquakes happen in Panama and tremors are common
- Carry or purchase an inexpensive cell phone – use a local SIM card in Panama to stay connected to maps, people and have access to translation and other information
- Follow weather patterns – Panama weather can be very unpredictable and heavy rains can ruin your travel plans and make outdoor activities, driving or even getting into a taxi very dangerous.
Panamanian Laws & Culture
It is common knowledge that you should abide by local laws wherever you travel. Avoiding being arrested or detained in a foreign country or in general is a smart thing to do and will make your life a whole lot easier.
Panama’s legal system is not very easy to understand and reporting a crime that threatens your safety in Panama may vary from your home country and sometimes is different in each of Panama’s provinces. Majority of local authorities generally do not speak English or another language apart from Spanish. Bear in mind a translator or a local attorney may be required.
The law in Panama requires all persons to walk with legal identification every time. You can be arrested and fined if you have no ID when stopped by police.
Sentences for illegal drug use, possession or trafficking are severe. Prison conditions are terrible and convicted criminals should expect huge fines and/or long jail sentences.
If you would like to take photographs of people, ask permission first. Indigenous people may ask you for a small sum if you would like to take a picture of them.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
It is illegal and therefore a crime in Panama to intentionally infect others with a sexually transmitted disease.
Panamanian law does not prohibit same sex intercourse but bear in mind homosexuality is not widely or generally accepted in Panamanian society.
Curfews For Minors
Curfews may exist for minors under 18 years of age, predominantly in Panama City. Minors who are out and about late at night in Panama City can be arrested by police if they are deemed to be a part of suspicious activities. They may also be fined and detained until authorities can contact their parents.
Safest Places to Visit in Panama
Panama City – the world famous Panama Canal and the Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) are only two reason to visit Panama’s beloved city
Bocas del Toros – there’s a tropical magic to Bocas del Toro that makes it a popular destination . Imagine a laid back sunny atmosphere, the music of birds, lush green trees and white sand beaches within walking distance. An influx of tourism in Bocas del Toros attracts few miscreants so as usual, keep your750
Boquete – the mountainous town of Boquete is very scenic and offers a cultural hotspot for travellers due to its jazz festival and its aromatic coffee as well as a large expat community
Coronado – this beach town is located right outside Panama City and is a vacation hotspot for summer homes, weekend trips and holidays.
Places to Avoid Visiting
To travel or not to travel is your decision and you are responsible for your personal safety while in a foreign country.
It is recommended that you do not visit the Parque Nacional Darién (Darien National Park) or Bahía de Piñas without a guide. If visiting Darien National Park it is best to stay in Santa Cruz de Cana. Bahía de Piñas is a rugged region of Panama that is also recognized as a safe zone in the Darién. It has accommodations that range from luxurious spaces to bare minimum.
Travel between Yaviza and the Colombian border is not recommended for tourists. The Colombian guerrilla groups and drug traffickers have infiltrated this area and carry out many operations there. The rate of violent crimes in this region is very high and there have been many reports of armed robberies, kidnappings, missing persons and deaths. This area covers from outside the town of Yaviza in the Darién Province to the Colombian border. The location of this danger zone starts at the end of the Pan-American Highway and extends to the end of the Colombian border. Parts of the Darién National Park and some privately owned nature reserves and tourist resorts also fall within this region.
If you choose to ignore warnings and visit the Darien you should:
- Keep your eyes open and be extra vigilant
- Be aware of your surroundings and security measures
- Inform family or friends or your intentions in detail