The Panama Canal—which, surprisingly to most, runs north-south—literally divides this country in half. Just to the east of the canal, the capital, Panama City, sits on the southerly Pacific coast; its twin on the northerly Caribbean coast is Colón, a gritty port city that is still trying to remake itself as a tourist destination. Further east off the Caribbean (northern) coast is the San Blas Archipelago, a cluster of islands that's home to the indigenous Kuna people. Much of the far eastern side of the country is preserve land of the Darién, a national park that stretches all the way to Colombia.
West of the canal is mountainous, verdant coffee-growing country, where you'll find charming mountain towns like Boquete. To the north, along the Caribbean coast, is Bocas del Toro, another group of islands that is fast becoming an ecotourism destination.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Panama is during the dry season, between mid-December and mid-April. During the rainy season, the weather is typically hot and steamy in the lowlands, but the rain tends to be intermittent and followed by sunshine. The coastal temperature year-round is about 85° F during the day and 70° F at night; in the mountains, temperatures are around 64° F during the day and 50° F at night. One of the world's largest Mardi Gras celebrations, held in the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday in Panama City, is another popular time to visit. For this Carnaval week, hotel reservations need to be made well in advance.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Tocumen International Airport (www.tocumenpanama.aero) is about about 20 miles northeast of Panama City. Continental has the most direct flights from the U.S., including departures from Newark, New York, and Houston. Delta and Northwest fly direct from Atlanta, and American flies from Miami. If your hotel hasn't arranged a transfer, you'll be able to get a taxi to most downtown destinations for less than $30.
The country's other international gateways are the miniscule airports in the western communities of Bocas del Toro and David. They qualify as "international" only because they have a handful of daily flights from nearby Costa Rica on Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) and Nature Air (www.natureair.com). Taxis to any destination in the town of Bocas del Toro are only $1; to get to downtown David, plan on spending less than $10.
It's incredibly easy to get around this long, thin country, thanks to several regional airlines. In addition to the above-mentioned Air Panama and Nature Air, there's Aeroperlas (www.aeroperlas.com). This arm of Taca, the region's biggest carrier, is by far the best of the three, offering more flights to more destinations, including Bocas del Toro and Chiriquí. All domestic flights are out of Albrook, the national airport north of downtown Panama City. A taxi ride to this tiny terminal—once used by the U.S. military—should cost less than $5.
Car rentals through Avis, Budget, Hertz, National, and other national and international agencies are available at the airports in Panama City and David. Print out your reservation information if you reserve online, since errors are common. There are no car rentals in Bocas del Toro, as there are few places to go on the island. Locals and travelers take taxis—both the kind that run on land and the water version.
In Panama City, brightly colored taxis are abundant. You can hail them by waving them over, or have your hotel call one for you. Most destinations in the downtown area should be less than $5. There are no meters, so make sure to agree on the fare in advance. If you are traveling along a major road such as Via España, you might also want to take a city bus. Painted in vivid shades and embellished with the names of wives and girlfriends, these privately owned vehicles ply the main roads. Fares within the city are 25 cents. Stops along the main thoroughfares are clearly marked (and often packed with people).
WHAT TO PACK
Don't overpack if you'll be taking domestic flights; there's a 25-pound limit on checked luggage. Since it's always hot in Panama, you'll want to bring want lightweight cotton clothing anyway. If you plan to go hiking in the mountains, take a warm sweater, as the temperatures are lower at higher altitudes. If you're beach-bound, sunblock and insect repellent are must-brings.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends talking to your doctor about getting vaccines for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, and yellow fever before visiting Central America (www.cdc.gov/travel/camerica.htm). There is no risk of contracting malaria in Panama City, but a minimal risk in the rural provinces of Bocas del Toro, San Blas, and the Darién. If you want to take malaria medication, consult your doctor so you can start taking it before leaving home.
Although Panama City's old-town district of Casco Viejo is beautiful and well worth a visit, it's best to take a taxi at night. Street crime, such as robberies at ATMs, does happen throughout Panama City; take the same precautions you would in any large, unfamiliar city. The city of Colón should be avoided because of serious street crime.
The national tourist agency, Instituto Panameño de Turismo (IPAT), is headquartered in the Centro Atlapa on Via Israel in Panama City. You will also find an IPAT counter in the airport and in tourist centers throughout the country.
Tel: 507 526 7000
NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Panama City
Population: 3 million
Area: 30,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 507
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Panama Balboas = $1.00 US Calculate Other Amounts
Panama does not require visas for citizens of the United States, but a $10 tourist card, available from airlines serving Panama, is required.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
Check out The Tailor of Panama for a modern portrait of this Central American nation—and for Pierce Brosnan's sendup of his own other big screen persona, James Bond.
For the story behind Panama's biggest moment, pick up a copy of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough's engaging 1978 tome, Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal.
The Creole-like native cuisine makes Panama's cuisine a delight for those who prefer their food a little spicy. For something zesty, dig in to a sancocho, a Panamanian stew of chicken and veggies. At breakfast, nothing hits the spot quite like hojaldras, small, sugar-dusted doughnuts.
A duty-free paradise, Panama's goods are about thirty-three percent less than the prices in neighboring countries for high quality goods like handmade mahogany bowls, leather items, and papier-mâché artifacts.
Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but it is always best to agree in advance on fares. A service charge of ten to fifteen percent will likely appear automatically on your hotel bill.
January: 1, New Year's Day; 9, Martyrs' Day
May: 1, Labor Day
October: 12, Día de la Hispanidad
November: 3, Independence from Colombia Day; 4, Flag Day; 28, Independence from Spain Day
December: 8, Mother's Day; 25, Christmas Day
Spring: Friday before Easter, Good Friday; Easter