For the last 100 years or so, Panama has gained worldwide attention for the canal which revolutionized transport between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Started as a purely logistical engineering endeavor, the canal has transformed Panama into a top tourist destination, with just under 2 million tourists visiting each year according to recent statistics.
In addition, in terms of safety, it is one of the safer options of countries in Central America to visit. The US State Department even lists it as a Level 1 on its Travel Advisory – “Exercise Normal Precautions.” Indeed, among frequent travelers, Panama is considered a generally safe country for foreigners to visit as long as one takes steps to mitigate their risks of harm.
But what if you’re new to traveling? What even are those steps and precautions? How do you keep yourself safe in a country which is totally new to you?
When it comes to the most dangerous aspects of Panama, almost all stem from violence related to gangs and drugs. With its proximity to Colombia and its placement within the Central American drug funnel from South America up North to the USA, Panama tends to get unfortunately caught in the crossfire. In addition, regular incidents of violent crime and mugging still run rampant in the cities and pose a risk to foreigners and locals alike.
Complete safety and an incident-free holiday are unfortunately impossible to guarantee in any country, but by knowing in advance the places one should and should not visit, you will already be most of the ways towards keeping yourself in good health, spirits, and safety throughout your trip.
What is the crime rate in Panama?
This is a more nuanced question as much of the crime in Panama revolves around the illicit drug trade. For example, the homicide rate is 17.2 per 100,000 population (very low for Central America), with the majority of these taking place in areas that no tourist should be visiting. The same goes for muggings and theft – the “dangerous” areas are more dangerous! The crime rate in Panama for tourists who stick to safe areas is quite low.
Is Panama City dangerous?
Panama City is safe compared to other Latin American cities, and smart tourists are unlikely to encounter any problems, or even feel unsafe. It’s better to think about safety in Panama City by neighborhood. The “touristy” areas like Casco Viejo are usually patrolled by police and quite safe. “Bad neighborhoods” like El Chorrillo and Curundu, and sparsely populated places should be avoided. Just use your common sense (and follow our general safety tips).
Read our guide: What to in Panama City
Traveling in Panama: Safety Tips
We’ve put together a brief list of what we consider to be the most vital tips for minimizing your risk of danger in Panama:
- Take extra caution in Colon. We might even say avoid the city altogether, especially if you’re riding solo or new to travel. It’s one of the major cities in the country, but the level of violence in the city exceeds that of Panama City, and you will likely find yourself spending much more time trying to keep yourself safe than actually enjoying any cultural value.
- Do not visit the Darien Gap. And don’t just take our word for it, but the US State Department recommends people do not travel near the border with Colombia whatsoever. This is due entirely to the violence fueled by drug trafficking, coupled with the presence of the Colombian paramilitary rebels FARC, who control much of the drug trade. Some parts are considered okay for tourists, but you should take care to only go with tour groups, stay in places heavily populated with police, and do not go further South than Yaviza.
- Take extra care while swimming. Tourists drown in Panama every year. It makes sense – the country is mostly beaches, beaches, and more beaches. But rip currents are extremely common, even more so on the Pacific side of the country, and can easily cause panic if you don’t know when to do when you get caught in one. Be sure to research the safest way to extricate yourself from a riptide before you get in the water.
- Be discerning about boat travel. Much drug trafficking happens while at sea, and if you use a cargo ship or boat to move from one province to the other, it is entirely possible that the crew is transporting drugs. In addition, if you see unmarked packages floating in the water or lying on remote beaches, these are almost certainly drugs in transit, and do not touch them. Speaking of which-
- Stay away from drugs. To be even affiliated with someone carrying drugs (not even the one carrying the drugs yourself) is a criminal offense in Panama and subject to significant jail time. Use your common sense, and steer clear of anyone who sets off your alarms.
- Watch out on the roads. Drivers in Central America are notoriously reckless, and in Panama, pedestrians neither have the right of way nor are stopped for. Do your best not to become roadkill.
- Research where you go swimming. Not all beaches in Panama are created equal, and some (such as beaches on the Bay of Panama) are heavily polluted and very unhealthy for anyone to swim.
- Carry your passport. Unfortunately, a photocopy won’t do it, and travelers have gotten in trouble with the police many times before for skimping on this one. This is where using a full-sized money belt under your clothes can come in handy, to keep it safe!
General Safety Tips
While the previous list was for Panama-specific advice, we also want to include some knowledge that is good for any traveler to keep on their mind and in their back pocket (or, ideally, their front pocket).
- Keep your awareness for pickpockets. Pickpocketing is one of the most common crimes which tourists are subject to in Latin America (most countries, actually), and there are a set of principles one can follow to decrease your risk of being a victim.
- Don’t carry too much cash – the most you have, the more you can lose. Only take out what you need for the day.
- Split your money into different locations on your person – chances are if they get you, they won’t get everything.
- Use a money belt – this can be a garment that looks like an actual belt, or a flat pouch worn under the clothes. Either way, basically impossible for someone to get at.
- Don’t be flashy. They are targeting those who look like they have something valuable to take. Leave your phone in your pocket while you’re on the street.
- Wallet in your front pocket, and keep your bag zipped up and close to you.
- Vigilance. If you’re always aware, they don’t have an opening in which to take advantage of you.
- Blend into the crowd. Don’t wear classic tourist clothes like shorts and sandals, and don’t speak English loudly so as to not attract attention.
- Don’t hail a taxi off the street, if you can help it. This is most likely going to be an unauthorized taxi, which will either rip you off or use you in an express kidnapping scheme. Use only taxis which have been called in advance from reputable companies – your accommodation should be able to assist you in this regard.
- Avoid card skimming. Only swipe your card from large vendors whom you trust, and only use ATMs inside bank lobbies which won’t have been tampered with.
- Don’t travel alone at night. It’s the easiest way to become a victim of mugging, and if you are mugged-
- Give them what they want. Hand over the wallet, phone, whatever they ask for. It is not worth arguing and risking your safety or your life.
The bottom line – traveling is a skill best learned through practice. Panama is a generally safe place to be, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a healthy list of “don’ts” along with the “do’s.” Follow some basic travel advice, do your research, and you’re much more likely to have the wonderful Panama vacation of your dreams!