Is it Safe to Live in Panama? - Is Panama City Safe? - International Living

Is it Safe to Live in Panama? - Is Panama City Safe?

Panama is very attractive when it comes to safety and security, and the expats who choose to live here obviously concur. In Panama, there isn’t the widespread envy or racial tension you might find in other economically deprived areas where “wealthy” foreigners have swept in. Major international communities have been thriving here for over a hundred years. Plus, Panama is a land of opportunity, and locals who strive to improve their lot can go far.

Is it Safe to Travel to Panama Right Now?

Whether you’re comparing crime statistics, tourist guides, or travel advisories for the region’s different countries, you’ll find that Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America.

So, does it follow that Panama is free from crime? No…I’ve traveled the globe and I’ve never encountered a country that was free from crime or corruption.

“Safety” is a subjective term, of course. Is your current city safe? Check “top 10” lists for the world’s safest cities and you generally won’t find any in the U.S., especially when it comes to personal security.

And statistics can be misleading, especially those for an entire country in which there may be some dangerous areas (due to localized organized crime or gang-related activity), but also many safe ones. If you observe the many expats and locals who live in Panama, you will learn much.

In all the attractive expat destinations we write about, you’ll see signs of this country’s prosperity. People drive nice cars, carry the latest smart phones, and even wear gold and diamonds. Children run freely in parks and on beaches, and families attend concerts and festivals.

Expat Safety in Panama

Ask any of the expats who choose to live in Panama whether they feel safe, and most will tell you that they feel safer than they did “back home.” Most will also tell you that they feel welcome in Panama.

Panamanians are accustomed to foreigners and you’ll find a wide range of ethnicities here. For years, Panama has been a crossroads for people from all over…the Americas, Caribbean Islands, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa…you name it.

If you are concerned that you will stand out because of your hair or skin color, rest assured that in Panama there is incredible diversity, and you will see virtually every race represented.

Places in Panama that Travelers Should Avoid

Like every country in the world, Panama has safe areas and dangerous ones, too. The city of Colón in the province of Colón is perhaps the only city that has a reputation for being unsafe—the entire city, not just parts of it.

Sectors of Panama City/Panama Province and the neighboring Panama Oeste province—such as Tocumen, Rio Abajo, Santa Ana, El Chorrillo, Curundu, and parts of Arraijan, Veracruz, and San Miguelito—can also be more dangerous than their upscale counterparts.

This is not an exhaustive list, but in Panama it is generally very easy to tell when a neighborhood is poor and thus certain to have more crime. Most are not areas you would stumble into, though the line is very slightly blurred between Santa Ana and the adjacent district of San Felipe, better known as Casco Viejo. (Casco Viejo is a well-policed tourism and nightlife hub filled with restaurants, bars, galleries, monuments, churches, and more.)

Precautions for Women Travelers in Panama

I have traveled to all of Panama’s provinces and several of the indigenous reserves known as comarcas. I have felt safe nearly everywhere I’ve gone, with some exceptions in Colón City (where I lived for three years) and unsavory-looking parts of David (the capital of the Chiriquí province).

A major factor, for me, is the fact that there are many women—both local and foreign—who go out and travel the country on their own. I do not stand out the way I would in a country where women do not walk or drive the streets unaccompanied.

Panama is well-known for its fairs and festivals, and I have attended many. When I was younger, I even attended Carnaval several times. It’s known as a wild bacchanalian, with multitudes drinking and dancing in the streets. But there are also parades with beautiful floats, costumes, and more. Many families—with kids of all ages—attend carnival.

At the biggest carnivals you may be concerned about groping while in a crowd. It helps if you go with a group, particularly if the men in the group encircle the women (this is what my local friends did). On occasion I did venture into the melee with just another female friend. We stayed alert and moved when a section got too crowded or rowdy.

I do not recommend drinking excessively or taking drugs that could impair your judgement or ability to defend yourself while out and about in Panama—or anywhere in the world.

Tips for Solo Female Travel in Panama

I wouldn’t choose to live here if I didn’t feel safe traveling in-country. I’ve done it all—local buses, the capital’s first metro line, the train from Panama City to Colón, taxis, Ubers, rental cars, fishing boats, cayucos or canoes, ferries, catamarans, and domestic flights on tiny planes.

Incidents are not completely unheard of—remember, Panama is great, but no country is free from crime. However, I’ve never had a problem with any of these modes of transportation…nor in hostels, motels, hotels, or vacation rentals…whether during the day or late at night.

In the States, I was taught and constantly reminded to be aware of my surroundings. While walking I look around constantly, noting who is close and how they carry themselves. On buses I sit by women and I avoid chattering about myself with strangers. If it’s late or I’m somewhere isolated, I walk briskly and hold my key in my hand. In Panama (or while traveling around the world) I simply apply the same street smarts I learned in the U.S.

That’s not to say that I don’t make new acquaintances or accept help. I am constantly meeting new people. I’ve been offered help…when I had a flat tire or needed advice from a local…and am incredibly grateful to all the kind souls out there. Any time I evaluate a situation and feel it is a safe one, I let my guard down, smile, and enjoy the ride.

(My high-society Panamanian friends will exit restaurants or nightspots and stand around talking, nowhere near as hyper-vigilant as I am. This may have to do with our different upbringings in different countries. Plus, Panama’s premier nightlife areas—such as Casco Viejo in Panama City and “Bocas Town” in Bocas del Toro—are popular and well-policed.)

LGBTQ+ Safety in Panama

Panama City is home to a large LGBTQ+ community and gay pride event roster. And gay residents have told me they feel safe and free to be themselves even in small towns like Las Tablas.

There are still many challenges for the LGBTQ+ community in Panama, however. For example, there have been reports of police harassment of members of the trans community in Panama. That said, in 2006, Panama ruled that transgender citizens who had undergone sex assignment surgery could change their legal gender on birth certificates. Two years later, an antiquated law criminalizing same-sex sexual activity was abolished.

Nightlife Crime in Panama

In Panama City you will find a range of venues where you can dance, gamble, or take in a show. Stick to upscale, popular areas like Casco Viejo. Nightlife crime is rare in upscale areas, but I do take reasonable precautions.

I often take the metro and walk to bars or restaurants in the city to meet friends. However, at the end of the evening, I will take an Uber back rather than walk or take the subway after 8 p.m. You can see people in the streets far later than that, but I figure why take the risk?

In the beach hub of Coronado, where I moved to in March of 2022, I go out at night without fear. Coronado is a low-security private community favored by relatively well-off Panamanians and a wide range of expats. There are nice restaurants and watering holes, plenty of shops and services, and a visible police force.

There are many other towns where I feel safe enough to let my guard down, including Pedasí, Santa Fe de Veraguas, and Volcán. Bocas Town (Bocas del Toro) is a place I visit often. I go out at night in town and don’t worry about walking back to my hotel alone. I’ve walked to Skully’s at Big Creek and then back to my cabin at Jungle Paunch after dark, just me and a female friend.

I take my cues from friends who’ve been in Bocas a long time, and I’ve never had an issue. And again, I am always aware of my surroundings and I don’t overdo it with adult beverages.

Violent Crime in Panama

In areas popular with expats, your biggest concern is likely to be petty theft or break-ins. Random violence is practically unheard of here. Panama has a large police force and crimes against tourists or foreigners are seriously dealt with.

Home-invasion-style robberies can be violent, but they are rare, especially in communities favored by expats. It’s neither quick nor easy to obtain a firearm permit in Panama, and a long-running moratorium on importation has helped keep gun prevalence relatively low. Gun-related offenses have major consequences in Panama.

Is Drug Use Allowed in Panama?

It should come as no surprise that drugs like cocaine and heroin are illegal in Panama, as they are illegal in most of the world. Marijuana is also illegal in Panama. (This may change; a medical marijuana bill is under review by Panama’s lawmakers.)

My advice: don’t break the law in Panama. Being a U.S. or Canadian citizen will not help you avoid jail time, as there’s often nothing your embassy or consulate can do to secure your release if you are caught. Panamanian jails are far less comfortable than U.S. ones, and you can be held without trial for months.

Consensual adult prostitution is not a criminal activity in Panama. (Promoting prostitution and sex trafficking are illegal.) There are many sex workers in Panama, be they men, women, or non-binary. Some may identify as “straight” while others are members of the LGBTQ+ community. You may see them “obviously attired” on streets in seedy parts of town. And you may find it difficult to pick them out amongst the “tastefully attired” in nice restaurants, nightclubs, and other venues.

You may hear from locals that registered sex workers in Panama must meet certain requirements, including weekly health checks. However, HIV/AIDS and other STDs are prevalent in Panama. Despite appearances, many sex workers do not work in the trade voluntarily and are victims of human trafficking.

Keeping Your Valuables Safe in Panama

If there’s one thing that showcases how people from all walks of life rub shoulders in this melting pot, it’s Panama’s festivals. But in any crowd of revelers (pretty much anywhere in the world), pickpocketing is going to be a concern. Carry small amounts of cash when possible and be mindful at markets and on public transportation, too.

Gated communities and buildings with security guards are popular amongst expats and Panamanians alike. They are great options for anyone worried about artwork and other valuables. It is not necessary to live in a gated community, but don’t worry that doing so will separate you from the local population. No matter where you live, most of your neighbors will likely be Panamanian.

In most of Latin America, houses and buildings that are not in gated communities often have metal grills over the windows and doors. They can look decorative, but they’re meant to discourage break-ins. The average Panamanian family also has at least one dog who will bark at passersby or potential intruders. Do as your neighbors do so you don’t stand out as the easiest target on the block.

Driving Safety in Panama

Use caution in Panama City traffic, whether driving or crossing streets. If you plan to drive in the city, learn your way around at night or on weekends before venturing into rush hour traffic. Never engage in altercations with other drivers. Even if someone cuts in line or doesn’t yield when they should, just fall back or wait patiently.

No matter where you drive, be mindful of the speed limit and watch for potholes, open manholes, and other hazards. Panama has cracked down—hard—on drunk driving. Don’t do it.

General Safety Tips

Sun: Even on cloudy days it is important to bear in mind that Panama is very close to the equator. As the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website says:

“You are at the highest risk for UV exposure when you are traveling near the equator, during summer months, at high elevations, or between 10 am to 4 pm. You can also be exposed to UV rays on cloudy days and during the winter. UV rays reflect on the snow, sand, and water. Protect yourself from the sun during any outdoor activities.” (And remember to stay well hydrated.)

Water: In most of mainland Panama you can drink water straight from the tap. I generally stick to bottled water in comarcas and on-island destinations, including Contadora, Taboga, Isla Colón, Bastimentos, and others in the Pearl Islands, Bocas del Toro archipelago, etc. When in doubt, ask before imbibing.

COVID-19: Prior to traveling to Panama check the country’s latest COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing requirements at the Ministry of Tourism here

Other diseases and vaccinations: Many expats travel to Panama without getting any specific vaccinations, as the city and other developed areas of the country have a history of being classified as low-risk for tropical ailments like malaria (though there are some malaria cases here, particularly in remote areas).

Most medical professionals will recommend that you wear mosquito repellent where mosquitoes are prevalent, to ward against maladies like dengue. A month or more before travel, check reliable resources for recommendations specific to the different areas of Panama. Online resources include the World Health Organization the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control), and the Canadian Foreign Affairs Office.

Stay Safe and Enjoy Panama

On occasion, visitors to Panama make the mistake of letting their guard down completely—something they’d never do back home. In any unfamiliar city or town, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and to do what you can to blend in. Big cities (and small ones, too) always have good and bad areas. Ask questions, use your city smarts, and you’ll see just how easy it is to live and travel safely in Panama.

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