Crime levels are high, and we're not talking about petty theft here. Violent crime such as armed robberies (which have been known to occur in restaurants), shootings, rape, muggings, car theft, car jackings, and ‘express kidnappings' from ATM machines, just to name a few – and that's just in Panama city.
This isn't to say something bad will happen to you. It's an incredibly beautiful country that's well worth exploring, you just need to be street smart and take extra caution to avoid falling victim to crime.
Here are some notorious crime hot-spots to avoid while traveling in Panama:
Colon is simply a no go zone, and most government agencies have issued stern warnings about travel to the city.
Criminal activity in Panama City has led to a curfew for those under 18, which is strictly enforced. Minors who are in breach will be detained at a police station until a parent or guardian comes to collect them and the fine issued.
Pick-pocketing and mugging is rife in Panama City, particularly in busy streets, on buses, and at bus stations.
Shopping areas are also hot spots, particularly Via España and Avenida Central, the area of Calidonia, as well as in the old town (Casco Viejo) in Panama City, and in the old Panama ruins (Panama Viejo).
On the way out of Panama, the Madden Dam area is to be avoided. In this area street crime and drug usage is high among locals.
Panama is on the route from the cocaine growing areas of South America to the largest consumer country, the USA. Trafficking is a serious business, and as such poses a real threat to unwitting travelers.
"No me mates, esas drogas no son mías!" which translates to, "Don't Shoot, the drugs aren't mine!"
You may not get shot by the police for drug possession, but it is a serious crime to be in possession of even very small quantities of drugs. Simply being in the company of someone using drugs is sufficient grounds for arrest. Prison terms for drug offences can be up to 15 years, and it can take up to two years to even appear before a Judge for sentencing.
With crime such a grim reality in Panama, police checkpoints are commonplace on weekends on roads between cities. Use your common sense and stop when requested.
You should not visit Darien Gap beyond Yaviza in southern Panama, which is near the border with Colombia. This area is the province of serious drug business – we're talking violent criminal activity, guerrilla groups and drug traffickers.
There have been numerous reports of kidnappings and murders (including foreigners), armed robberies, injuries from recently-planted landmines, deaths and disappearances in this area.
The dangerous zone begins at the end of the Pan American Highway (at Yaviza, about 230km southeast of Panama city) and ends at the Colombian border. This area includes the Darien National Park, privately owned nature reserves, and tourist resorts. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operate in this region, so just avoid the area altogether.
Criminal drug activity is not isolated to land. Plying the waters of the Archipiélago de San Blás, the Pacific Coast, and the Atlantic Coast are numerous boats that run back and forth between the Zona Libre in Colónand Cartagena, Colombia.
If you decide to ride on one of these slow cargo boats, consider the fact that your crew may be trafficking drugs. Remember, you may pay the price for even being in the company of someone in possession of drugs.
When traveling by boat or along the coastline, if you see any bales or wrapped packages floating in the sea or lying on remote beaches, avoid them at all costs. These are likely to be drugs ready for pick-up, do not touch them.
So long as you are extra cautious, try not to stand out like a lost tourist, and don't be flashy with jewelry or expensive items like cameras and phones, you should have a safe and enjoyable time in Panama.
Try to learn a bit of Spanish before you go, and listen to the advice of your government travel advisories on which places you should avoid.
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