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Panama is an incredibly beautiful country that's well worth exploring and it’s notably safer than neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia. It is not without dangers, however. If you keep your wits about you and avoid well-known danger zones, you can avoid falling victim to crime.
Here are some notorious crime hotspots to avoid while traveling in Panama:
Colón is simply a no-go zone day or night, and most government agencies have issued stern warnings about travel to the coastal city.
Bastimentos Island, Bocas del Toro
Bastimentos is the largest island in the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, one of Panama’s top tourism destinations. There have been reports of muggings, attacks, and rapes of tourists after dark. It is better to stay on the main island (Isla Colon), which has a police station or nearby Isla Carenero which is smaller with a tight-knit community of locals.
Particularly at night, avoid the areas of Calidonia, El Chorillo and San Miguelito where shootings are not uncommon. Watch out for pickpockets at bus stations and busy shopping areas such as Avenida Central.
Tips to stay safe
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.
It is a serious crime to be in possession of even very small quantities of drugs – including marihuana. 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.
Due to the prevalence of drugs in the isthmus, police checkpoints are commonplace on weekends on roads between cities. Use your common sense and stop when requested. You might see or hear of locals doing it, but don’t attempt to bribe police officers.
Regarding drinking, anyone over the age of 18 can buy alcohol in Panama. Public consumption of alcohol is common in certain places such as beaches, but it’s prohibited in some parts of Panama City, including family-friendly Parque Omar. Do take this seriously because if you are seen you can be arrested and jailed.
The Darién Gap is a perilous, narrow swathe of land that engineers omitted when building the Pan American highway from Argentina to Alaska in the 1930s. This was due to its inaccessibility, rough rivers, challenging vegetation, and deadly creatures. Today, it’s dangerous for other reasons.
Drug traffickers frequent this lawless area on Panama’s border with Colombia. There have been numerous reports of kidnappings and murders, armed robberies, mysterious deaths and disappearances.
Authorities are also on high alert for human traffickers and illegal immigrants crossing this land border so you might be in for a scuffle if you encounter police there. Even agents from Panama’s National Border Service (Senafront) have been shot at by drug and people smugglers. Migrants have been sexually assaulted and extorted, too.
You should not visit Darién beyond Yaviza in southern Panama, which is near the border with Colombia. 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 Darién National Park, privately owned nature reserves, and tourist resorts.
Natural threats in the Darién jungle include impassable swamps, human-eating big cats, disease-carrying insects, venomous spiders, and enormous snakes. If you must visit, do so with a local guide during the dry season. The Darién is one of the least visited places in the world for a reason.
Criminal drug activity is not isolated to land. Plying the waters of both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts (and the famous San Blas Archipelago) are go-fast boats and drug-submarines transporting illicit materials between Panama and other Latin American countries.
If you travel between Colombia and Panama by sea, 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 so do not touch them.
Wolf whistles and catcalls are prevalent all around Panama. Even taxi drivers will honk at women on the street – to signal both their availability and admiration.
For women walking alone, having earphones in (even if you aren’t actually listening to music) is advisable to feign ignorance and disregard unwanted attention. Always use a rideshare app at night rather than a yellow cab and share your live location with a friend.
Taxis in Panama City move at Formula One speed and drivers are known to remove seat belts from the back seats or hide them under fabric. It is also customary for yellow cabs to pick up multiple passengers going along the same route.
To minimize the risk of being taken somewhere you don’t know, don’t get into a cab that already has passengers or request that the driver doesn’t pick up any additional people while you’re in the car.
Taxis in Panama City aren’t metered so check the price before you get in to avoid any disagreements.
There has been an increase in scams where people trading low-cost cars online are robbed or killed, their vehicles or money are taken, or they are marched to a cash machine to withdraw funds. Take extra precautions when meeting people from social media or Facebook groups to buy or sell any items.
As long as you exercise caution, try not to stand out like a lost tourist, don't be flashy with expensive items, and don’t blatantly break any local laws, you should have a safe and enjoyable time in Panama.
Listen to the advice of your government travel advisories on which places you should avoid, know where your embassy or consulate is, and try to learn a bit of Spanish before you go so you can communicate with locals. When you arrive in Panama City, Casco Antiguo Spanish School in the old town has an express Spanish for Travelers program to learn the basics during a half-day class.
What safety advice do you have for travelers in Panama?
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