Is Panama Safe? 5 Travel Safety Tips You Must Know

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Is crime and drug violence a problem in Panama? Find out about muggings, express kidnappings and whether or not this is a risk to a traveler's personal safety.

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View over Panama City Photo © iStock/DavorLovincic

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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 ATMs, 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.

1. Crime hot spots in Panama

Here are some notorious crime hot-spots to avoid while traveling in Panama:

Colon, Panama

Colon is simply a no go zone, and most government agencies have issued stern warnings about travel to the city.

Panama 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.

Take care in markets and shopping areas

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).

Madden Dam

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.

Tips to stay safe

  • Keep your possessions close
  • Keep your bags shut and try to carry them on your front at all times
  • Men should carry wallets in their front rather than rear pockets.
Colonial architecture on a sunny street in Panama
Casco Viejo street in an old part of Panama City. Photo credit: iStock

2. Drug possession 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.

"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.

3. Safety in the Darien Gap

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.

4. Narco boats and crime in Panama

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.

5. Is Panama safe for travelers?

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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12 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

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