Is Panama Safe? 8 Travel Safety Tips You Must Know

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Panama is the safest country in Central America and an important trade zone due to its namesake canal. Here’s what to know when traveling in the isthmian country.

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View over Panama City Photo © iStock/DavorLovincic

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.

1. Crime hot spots in Panama

Here are some notorious crime hotspots to avoid while traveling in Panama:

Colón, 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.

Panama City

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

  • Keep your possessions close
  • Keep your bags shut and try to carry them on your front at all times
  • Mobile phones and wallets should never go in your back pocket
  • You are required to have a form of proper photo ID on you at all times. Don’t give the police any reason to hassle you so make sure you have one on your person or at least a copy of your passport and the page with your entry stamp.
Colonial architecture on a sunny street in Panama
Casco Viejo street in an old part of Panama City. Photo credit: iStock

2. Alcohol and drug laws in Panama

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.

3. Safety in the Darien Gap

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.

4. Narco boats and crime in Panama

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.

5. Safety for female travelers

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.

6. Taxis and public transport in Panama City

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.

7. Car rental and purchase scams

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.

8. Is Panama safe for travelers?

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.

Listen to The World Nomads Podcast: Panama

What safety advice do you have for travelers in Panama?

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21 Comments

  • nativa tours panama said

    Just wanted to mention that Panama is the safest country in Central America!
    Of course there are crimes and robbery but no more than in most " northern" countries
    I would just recommend to avoid walking in some Colon streets but Panama city tourist circuit is absolutely fine: just don't " slide" from casco antiguo to the place called Chorrillo!
    San Blas is 100% safe as well as las perlas and Coiba. Bocas del toro might be more complicated following recent and recurrent aggressions. Sailing from san blas to cartagena can be hazardous: some boats are not in good conditions and some didn't reach cartagena ... trade wind in dry season make the passage even more difficult. We recommend booking san blas charters through legal companies in Panama like san blas sailing.
    Our office team can assist you for any further questions.

    Reply

  • Ramsey said

    We just came back to Canada from Panama and found it pretty safe!
    We stayed in the city, in Las Lajas, and in Rio Hato. We walked in the city at night in 2 different areas and even went shopping in a small shopping mall. We walked during day time. Everyone is on their phone (large screen phones) and no one is stealing from anyone. Most cars are pretty new.

    We spoke to a lot of locals, on purpose, to get to know them and to know the areas. They all said "esta bien tranquilo aqui" etc. We had a great time.
    Most told us petty theft is common and NOT violent crime as you're saying (unless you're in bad neighborhoods). There is violent crime for sure, just like in Toronto and New York. We stayed away from bad neighborhoods as those do have lots of crime.

    Panama is growing rapidly and the minimum salary is also being increased (highest in all of Latin America as of Dec 2016).

    We used to live in Guatemala and there is a dangerous country! Lovely but dangerous. We would only walk in areas with police or in shopping malls. We wouldn't dare walk in the city more than 50 meters.

    Reply

  • laura said

    Having lived here (Panama) my entire life, the only safety issues I have ever heard of are a few robberies. It is an overall safe country and I think it is absolutely disrespectful to display it as a dangerous place. This article is horribly biased and ignorant in regards to how life actually is here. Someone can simply walk around the city without fear of anything happening to them.
    In comparison to our neighbor countries, such as Venezuela (where crime and kidnapping is common), Panama is a overall safe country to visit and live in. Though there is some drug trafficking issues but they are never related to normal citizens. It is not even close to the way that it is said here. Drugs aren't floating around the ocean casually, it is not something one hears about. We do have an issue because most drugs travel through the country from Colombia to the U.S.

    Reply

  • Allyson said

    Hi Laura,

    We are well aware this article is very out of date. Keep posting your experiences and updated information in the comments section, we're in the process of updating these articles and appreciate your input.

    Cheers,

    [email protected]

    Reply

  • Mik said

    Yeah...right. People, there are a lot of nicer places you can go to and spend your money and have a great, safe time. Don't believe the b.s.

    Reply

  • Giuseppe Piero Leone Filotto said

    I am Italian, I live in Botswana, but I am planning to retire in Panama, where my son Giuseppe Junior, would like to relocate. I would like to hear more about the Country and the people. I shall appreciate who ever can assist

    Reply

  • cody said

    Panamá is total safe. Mañana está seguro totalmente. Mexico is safe too, just keep your wits about you, and don't do anything stupid.

    Reply

  • Timothy R Bond said

    I have visited Panama twice in the past two years. Never, I repeat never have I had any problems in Panama. I have been to Colon, Panama City and places in between. The people are friendly and willing to help you when you have questions. I have more fears walking the streets in the U.S. than in Panama. I have never felt threatened or have I ever been threatened while in Panama. I have no idea where Phil Sylvester obtained his information for the article, But in my experiences it absolutely misleading and wrong. Go to Panama and have a great time, you will not be sorry. Panama is a wonderful country.

    Reply

  • Ima Faque said

    We live in Belize, and spent two months in Panama, and clearly Panama is much safer than most of central America. The worst part of Panama City are the night club areas, and just like in EVERY country, if your going to go into nightlife area and you frequent places in the sex and drug trade, well you are going to meet bad people and you can't expect to be safe. But most of the people of Panama are friendly hard working, and just scraping by. They are mostly devout and have strong family bonds. They are clearly a happy and proud people.
    The scariest people I met were ex-pats from the USA in Boquete. Many had radical paranoia and lived behind huge walls with barbwire and viscous dogs. They had many illegal firearms, and a very warped outlook on the world. We heard sordid tails of whole gated communities embroiled in law suites and even violence toward their fellow condo owners. We overheard a realtor assuring a couple that they did not need Spanish here, and that these "locals" make fabulous gardeners. I am not a big fan of American colonialism. So yes you are safe, but I am not so sure if everyone who reads this is coming with an attitude of fitting in, here in their new home.

    Reply

  • Mark said

    I am planning on retiring in Panama late this year. I’ve talked with numerous people that live in Panama and I don’t get the same vibe that this article puts out. I am assuming that this was written years ago and even then I don’t see how accurate it is. Colon is a bad area granted but most other places aren’t. I’m looking at smaller towns with small expat communities because I’ve lived in Alaska most my life I’m perfectly fine with less people. Besides less people means less crime in general. I don’t plan on settling into one place for any longer than 6 months at time for the first few years until I find the place that works for me. I’ve narrowed my areas down to Los Tablas, Puerto Armuellas, and Volcan. All very different places and very different climates. I will probably start with Volcan because it has the mildest climate of the group and work my way down toward the ocean later once I get more acclimated to the weather.

    Reply

  • David said

    I live in Panama and the whole articule has been like an augmented picture of what really is. Like most countries there are zones known for being dangerous, here those zones are named Red Zones ("Zonas Rojas") where criminal groups (which may or may not be related to drug cartels) are based, you should avoid these zones or if visiting be careful.
    Drug cartels are know for using Panama as a logistic center, is true, but as long you're not involved with them you'll be safe.
    There's a bunch of reviews stating that Panama is an unsafe destiny but ironically on a visit to Pittsburgh when I was walking back from PNC Park to the hotel at 5 pm someone tried to steal my mother's purse, this has never happened neither to me or my family in our country.
    As most people say, take the precautions like if in any other country.

    Reply

  • Michele said

    I live in Bocas del Toro, and got a good laugh reading this article. I've lived in several large cities in the US, and feel safer in Panama than I ever did back home. I go to Panama City by myself every few months, walk to restaurants, go shopping, sightseeing, etc. and have never had any problem. Of course you have to be smart-obviously not going to walk down dark alleys at 2 in the morning, but the tone of this article is not a fair representation from my personal experience.

    Reply

  • Ted said

    I'm Panamanian and I can't believe those who say this article is biased. It is real, well represented and gives a fair warning about the narco practices. In fact, you left out how corrupted the Police is, they stop you without a reason and end up charging you so you can leave. San Blas 100% safe? It's in la ruta de la coca. 15 years ago you could drive safely at night, now it's not so safe. Colon is a huge mess, ask the Norwegians who were robbed and raped (why they went there on a yacht is beyond me).

    A lot of Panamanians are uneducated, rude, loud, gossipy, homophobic and hate foreigners. There is nothing to see here as well, unless you go to Bocas or San Blas. Oh yes, there's Bahia Piña but that is narcolord paradise.

    Reply

  • Wesley said

    Please take this down. It is misleading and incorrect. The tone is one that paints a very different picture of the reality. Shame on you world nomads. I have enjoyed your articles in the past but will no longer be supporting you.

    Reply

  • sonia said

    Is Volcan very quite so if we play music in our home will people be upset .

    is there any night life in Volcan.


    if mean if we open a bar in Volcan would that be a problem.

    Reply

  • Peristalsis said

    There is obviously some sort of mistake being made in this article - the author has clearly confused Panama City, Florida, with Panama City, Panama.

    Reply

  • Me said

    We are considered to be the safest country in all Central and South America. In fact, we are safer than some USA cities.

    Although I will admit your article holds some truth, but it is also true that you can come here with healthy good intentions and not come across any of this. I don't do drugs and am not one to be around a messy toxic lifestyle. So I don't see any of it. It is just not part of my world.

    You can choose what type of life you wish to see by what path you take and the choices you make. All countries have drugs and crime. Yet I have not come across it and I have lived in Mexico City, South Africa and other countries.

    I feel this is very one-sided. I live a peaceful, happy life with beautiful people around me.

    Reply

  • steveo said

    Having lived and been to the “dangerous” parts of panama, this article is incredibly bias. Panama City is incredibly safe to walk around at night, but most things aren’t open past 9 anyways. My grandfather lives in the “dangerous” part of Panama City and there have never been any issues. Having been to Colon and Isla grande there was never any issues either it’s not a dangerous place where you get robbed mid daylight. Panama is also the safest country in Central America. Stop spewing these lies. Having driven across the country it’s also very safe, going to Colon is safe there are some military checkpoints but if you speak Spanish there are no issues, but if you’re a tourist you should go across the country with a tour guide local. Having gone to the southern part of Panama it’s also very safe, but it’s true to stay away from the Darien gap. Panama is full of friendly warm hearted people working class people, you have to go looking for trouble to have issues. But one rule is just don’t be flashy, stay off your phone most of the time, unless your in Panama City it’s fine but stay aware. Be aware of the police cause they can randomly pull you over so make sure to have your proper documents. This article should be written by a local instead of some random person that doesn’t know anything about the country or the people.

    Reply

  • TONY said

    As I was turning 62 in 2022, I decided to take early retirement. I heavily researched several places before narrowing down my choices to Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. I visited each country two or three times over the past ten years or so, before deciding to retire in Panama.

    Key factors in my decision: cost of living, familiar currency, friendly, proud people, very “tranquillo”, tropical climate without hurricanes. I also found some disadvantages to living in Belize (seeming very impoverished, “third world”) and Costa Rica (way too expensive).

    As to crime, I have been living here in Panama City only a few weeks. - but feel this article is somewhat misleading. In any big city, there are neighborhoods to avoid, as mentioned in the comments . The best two neighborhoods in the city are El Cangrejo and San Francisco. My interactions with local police have been very positive. I do not walk around at night; same rule I had for New York, Chicago, etc. Use backpack or man purse, carry only what you need, do not dress flashy, respect the culture, be aware of your surroundings - it is very easy to get lost in the city, Google maps is often useless so make sure your taxi driver is familiar with your destination.

    Watch where you walk! Sidewalks are not maintained very well. You are more likely to trip and fall, or step in something very unpleasant - then you are to get mugged!

    Reply

  • Johanka said

    I toured Panama alone with my nine-year-old son for three months in 2018, and then a month in 2019. I felt completely safe - except for Colón, who is dirty and poor. I plan to live in Panama for 3 years. Costa Rica is expensive. I was in the north of Colombia this year, and I have never seen the uglier places. I didn't feel safe. But I highly recommend Panama. She is friendly.

    Reply

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