You will find here most of the practical information you need to prepare your trip :
Tocumen International Airport, 26km northeast of Panama City, would be a good entry point if it was not for the late (or very late) arrival of most flights : you are most likely to arrive after 10pm and, at that time, a public bus to the city is clearly a bad idea. No choice but to take an expensive taxi !
On departure, the US$20 airport
tax is also heavy on any budget...
Crossing from/to Costa Rica is a fairly easy process. There are two borders : at Paso Canoas, 56km west of David, or at Guabito, near Bocas Del Toro Archipalago. The later is certainly the nicest with very relaxed officials and a wild "middle of nowhere" kind of atmosphere.
Crossing by land to Colombia
remains a very bad idea with regards to the safety issues affecting the eastern
part of Panama.
Some adventurers are using the boat connection from/to Colombia as a cheaper alternative to the plane. Considering the safety issues, such a trip should be considered only with a reputable boat and good investigation as for the latest crime situation.
People entering Panama at Puerto Obaldia, may not receive a very good welcome from the immigration officers. Backpackers reported having problems because they did not have an onward flight (thay had to pay for an expensive phone call to Panama City to check whether they could enter or not). Some also had to perform a blood test, with the same plastic tester used for all !
The visa situation of Panama certainly lacks clarity : in theory, people from the The States, Canada, New Zealand , Australia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan as well as most developping countries need a visa or tourist card to enter Panama. This document is however not available at the borders and must be obtained in San Jose (Costa Rica) for US$5.
What happen if you show up without one ? Absolutely nothing ! You will still get your 3 months stamp. To exit the country without the proper document could however prove more problematic : an American who did not have the visa-tourist card was charged a $50 fine at the airport. Knowing about this affair, a Canadian friend investigated at the immigration office in Panama City. The answer from the immigration guy was that, as far as he knew, no visa was necessary. And indeed, nobody checked anything when he left !
If you are from the above nationality, entering by land and exiting by plane, you may therefore have to do a bit of investigation once in Panama. In theory, the tourist card can be obtained at most Banco Nacional for $10 and, more convenient, it can be purchased at the airline ticket counter upon departure. In practice, people may not know what you are talking about...
My personal conclusion of all this : this American guy was very unlucky (or arrogant) !
From the touristy point of view, Panama is a fairly quiet country that can be visited at any time without the need of hotel reservation. Bocas Del Toro may however be the exception, with some cost increases between December & April. This would also be a bad time to tour neighboring Costa Rica...
From the weather point of view, the dry season (summer or "verano") from mid-Dec to April would in theory be the best period. In practice, any time is fine as the rainstorms of the winter or "invierno" (from May to December) do not usually last long. Just carry an umbrella...
Do not make the mistake to overlook Panama ! There may not be too many places to visit but you may loose the notion of time in most of them ! Some people are spending a week in Panama City alone !
If you have limited time, you could rush the main attractions in a week. The more remote San Blas Archipelago would require another one.
Things are fairly easy as Panama adopted the US$ currency since 1904. Plastic is also widely accepted with ATM machines in most cities. Travellers Cheques can be changed at all Banco Nacional against a maximum commission of 1.1%. Carrying other currencies would however be a bad idea, although some Banco Nacional's branches (incl. at the airport) will accept the major ones.
Panama is one of the most expensive country in the area but prices remain reasonable on average. Accomodation is slightly more expensive than its neighbours (at least US$6 for a Sgl) but there are some excellent deals around : nice rooms with HW shower, cable TV & view can be found for less than US$10. Also, there is usually no seasonal variation as in Costa Rica.
The food is very cheap and, even in Panama City, vegetable meals can be found for $0.75 and meat dishes for $1.35 ! Do not expect any culinary experience however... Tap water is usually drinkable (a great saving on your budget !) and good pastries are available at any corner for around $0.25.
Transport is reasonably priced, with the 6 hours luxury trip from Panama City to David at less than US$11. On shorter trips, Minibus or chicken bus are much cheaper, at around US$1 per hour.
There are a few entrance fees but paying is sometimes optional. Most of the attractions are however free to enjoy, making a visit of Panama much cheaper than Costa Rica for example.
There are however three black points : the taxi cost from the airport if you show up late at night (US$10-20), the airport departure tax (US$20, like most other countries) and the ridiculous cost of accomodation for the hill or beaches resorts near Panama City. Excluding those, people on a budget you should survive pretty well with less US$15 per day. A bit more for San Blas area.
See Passplanet's Cost Table for more details.
Panama is a fairly healthy country as most people have access to free medical care.
The tap water is safe to drink in most places but unfortunately very heavy on chlore in some localities, making mineral water a tastier (but expensive) choice. Vegetables, local ice-cream and ice are no problem.
Malaria is usually only a problem in the regions east of Panama City and Mefloquine (Larium) may be advisable there.
Being up to date with your inoculations (polio, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria) is of course essential and adding hepatitis A and B is recommended.
The safety issues in some
This is certainly the biggest annoyance !
First, there are a few places where going to is asking for trouble : the eastern
region near Colombia, Colon City & Chorillo district in Panama City. Second,
there are places where walking at night (or with any bag) is a very bad idea :
part of the San Felipe district for example. And third, there is a need to be
cautious in every big city.
The accomodation cost in the resorts near Panama City : There are a few nice places nearby, either in the mountains or by beaches but the cost clearly put them outside of the backpackers' itinerary ! Even during the week, when things are very quiet, you will have to pay a minimum of $10 for a dorm bed (if you can find one !). Portobelo & the San Blas Archipelago were also reported pricey.
Being mistaken for an American : Clearly, people from Panama have good reasons to dislike the United States. The shameful Canal Treaty and the George Bush's 1989 invasion that left as many as 7,000 people dead are two of the most severe cause of resentiment but the whole history of Panama is based on this love-hate relationship with the States. Consequently, people from the States may receive a cooler welcome than people from other nationalities. Incidents are rare however and most people are clever enough to make a distinction between the US government and the US visitors.
The noise level : This is an endemic problem in the whole area : people do not really care whether you are sleeping or not and their dogs care even less ! Bringing earplugs is a good idea.
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