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SafetyTravel Safety: Americas: Panama

Panama: Republic of Panama
Capital: Panama
Population: 2,882,329
Currency: balboa (PAB); US dollar (USD)
Languages: Spanish (official), English 14%
Religions: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant 15%
Borders: Colombia 225 km, Costa Rica 330 km

Panama has a developing economy. Outside the Panama City area, which has many first-class hotels and restaurants, tourist facilities vary in quality. U.S. currency is the currency of Panama, and is also referred to as the Panama balboa.

U.S. citizens are warned not to travel overland through the eastern area of Darien Province (beyond a line drawn from Punta Carreto in the Comarca de San Blas Province on the Atlantic coast, through Yaviza in the eastern Darien Province, to Punta Pina on the Pacific coast). This area encompasses parts of the Darien National Park as well as privately owned nature reserves and tourist resorts. While no incidents have occurred at these resorts, U.S. citizens, other foreign nationals and Panamanian citizens have been the victims of violent crime, kidnapping and murder in this area. The Panama-Colombia border area is very dangerous due to the activities of Colombian terrorist groups, drug traffickers and common criminals. Note: The Secretary of State has designated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

From time to time, there may be demonstrations or other manifestations of anti-American sentiment by small but vociferous groups. While most demonstrations relate to labor disputes or other local issues and are typically non-violent, it is nonetheless a good security practice to avoid demonstrations. U.S. citizens are advised to exercise caution on the campus of the University of Panama, where members of radical, anti-U.S. student groups are active.

Visitors should be cautious when swimming or wading at the beach. Some beaches, especially those on the Pacific Ocean, have dangerous currents that cause drowning deaths every year. These beaches are seldom posted with warning signs.

On the Pacific coast, boaters should steer clear of Coiba Island, which houses a penal colony, and be wary of vessels that may be transporting narcotics northward from Colombia. Similarly, boaters should avoid the southeastern coast of Kuna Yala Comarca (or Comarca de San Blas), south of Punta Carreto.

Local maritime search and rescue capabilities are limited and well below U.S. standards.

Crime in Panama City is moderate, but growing, particularly because of the activities of youth gangs. Colon is a high crime area. Police checkpoints have become commonplace on weekends on roads in both cities. Based upon reported incidents by local police, the high-crime areas around Panama City are San Miguelito, Rio Abajo, El Chorillo, Ancon, Curundu, Vera Cruz Beach, Panama Viejo, Parque Soberania, and the Madden Dam overlook. Crimes there are typical of those that plague metropolitan areas and range from rape to armed robberies, muggings, purse-snatchings, petty theft, and "express kidnappings" from ATM banking facilities, in which the victim is briefly kidnapped and robbed after withdrawing cash from an ATM.

There has been a substantial increase in crimes involving the use of weapons, as well as for possession of illegal weapons. Armed robberies targeting tourists have become more frequent on the beaches of Bocas del Toro province. Police resources there are limited.

Panama City has a curfew for persons less than 18 years of age, although this law is not often enforced. Under the law, students attending night classes must have a carnet, or permit, issued by the school or, if employed, a Certificate of Employment. Minors who are picked up for a curfew violation are subject to detention at a police station until parents or legal guardians can arrange for them to be released into their custody. Parents or legal guardians may be fined up to U.S. $50.00 for the violation.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country's laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the U.S. and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the U.S. for similar offenses. Persons violating Panamanian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Panama are strict, and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and heavy fines.

Under the PROTECT Act of April 2003, it is a crime, prosecutable in the United States, for a U.S. citizen or permanent resident alien, to engage in illicit sexual conduct in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18, whether or not the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident alien intended to engage in such illicit sexual conduct prior to going abroad. For purposes of the PROTECT Act, illicit sexual conduct includes any commercial sex act in a foreign country with a person under the age of 18. The law defines a commercial sex act as any sex act, on account of which anything of value is given to or received by a person under the age of 18.

Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Predators Act of 1998, it is a crime to use the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transmit information about a minor under the age of 16 for criminal sexual purposes that include, among other things, the production of child pornography. This same law makes it a crime to use any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including the Internet, to transport obscene materials to minors under the age of 16.

Although Panama City has some very good hospitals and clinics, medical facilities outside of the capital are limited.

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Panama is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Fair
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Fair
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Fair

Panama's roads, traffic and transportation systems are generally safe, but traffic lights often do not exist, even at busy intersections. Driving is often hazardous and demanding due to dense traffic, undisciplined driving habits, poorly maintained streets, and a lack of effective signs and traffic signals. On roads where poor lighting and driving conditions prevail, night driving is difficult, and should be approached with caution.

Buses and taxis are not always maintained in safe operating condition due to lack of regulatory enforcement. Auto insurance is not mandatory and many drivers are uninsured. If an accident occurs, the law requires that the vehicles remain in place until a police officer responds to investigate. Traffic in Panama moves on the right, as in the U.S., and Panamanian law requires that drivers and passengers wear seat belts.

Flooding during the April to December rainy season often makes city streets impassible and washes out some roads in the interior of the country. In addition, rural areas are often poorly maintained and lack illumination at night. Such roads are generally less traveled and the availability of emergency roadside assistance is very limited. Road travel is more dangerous during the rainy season and in the interior from Carnival through Good Friday. Carnival starts the Saturday prior to Ash Wednesday and goes on for four days.

Traveling On The Pan American Highway: There is often night construction on Panama's main highway, the Pan American Highway. There are few signs alerting drivers to such construction and the highway is not well lit at night. When traveling on the highway, travelers should be aware of possible roadblocks. The Pan American Highway does not go through to Colombia. It ends at Yaviza in the Darien Province of Panama. The highway's final portion from Chepo to Yaviza is reasonably passable only during the January to April dry season. If destined for South America, automobile travelers should ship their cars on a freighter.

For specific information concerning Panamanian driving permits, vehicle inspection, road tax and mandatory insurance, contact Panama national tourist organization offices in New York via the Internet at

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed the Government of Panama's civil aviation authority as Category 1 -- in compliance with international aviation safety standards for the oversight of Panama's air carrier operations. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA's Internet site at

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact DOD at (618) 229-4801.

Several incidents have called into serious question the safety standards of small air carriers flying domestic routes. In recent years, there have been fatal crashes involving small domestic carriers, while other flights have experienced mechanical problems resulting in cancellations, emergency landings, and non-fatal crashes. In light of these incidents, U.S. citizens should give serious consideration to alternative modes of travel before booking flights on domestic Panamanian airlines.

Only Tocumen International Airport, serving Panama City, maintains airport security measures known to meet international standards. Security measures at domestic commuter fields serving popular travel destinations such as Colon, Contadora Island, Bocas Del Toro and Kuna Yala islands (or San Blas Islands) are lax.

Please also refer to the separate Worldwide Caution Public Announcement.

September 20, 2004

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