The first two transactions I made in Panama were for my airline ticket with Copa Airlines and my excursion with Jungle Land Panama and both were marked for fradulent activity. This was easy enough to solve while still in the US and fortunately it did not happen while we were in Panama but we didn't charge much having read that Panama was a place where people don't use credit cards much. Be sure to call your credit card companies to notify them of travel as well as your ATM card bank.
In Casco Viejo close to El Chorillo I jumped off a bus with a German bloke. Soon the area looked like a warzone, the population was almost entirely black. A guy from a shanty house shouted "Gringos" at us and followed us, but he was too drugged to keep pace. But still his shoutings attracted attention. metres more a small indian lady told us not to pursue that road. We told her, the next road is a big one and she said ok, but hurry up. She shouted at the big black guy who was about metres behind us. 10 metres more a taxi stopped. The driver told us not to go here, since we will be robbed. This was not for business as he was full with passengers. He drove besides us in our walking speed until we reached the crossroads behind us. Luckily the big drunk had been stopped by the Indian lady. We turned right, and immediately the area looked safer. 2 minutes later about 5 police came and asked us if we are crazy to walk in that area. They pointed us the way out to the Presidential Palace. That was at noon.
A week later an old lady told me at an intersection not to go right, because there are bad people. That was again at noon. So: I agree with ianerin.
As I have seen some pubs close to the market area, I decided to return in the evening at about 730 pm. Unexpectedly there were no street lights and a lot of homeless I was almost falling over. The pubs were all closed at that time. A guy followed me and wanted something. Again a very uncomfortable situation. I became faster and faster and he followed me close. At the first intersection with light and 2 old guys playing domino I realized safety is at hand and shouted at him and he left.
I have never seen such a bad place as Ciudad Panama. The lower class is mostly black, in the better parts there are gunmen guarding the houses at all times (one time attacking me verbally when I was pissing on a 200 metre factory wall at night). But these guys seem to be necessary in a place like that.
I think the economic imbalance together with lots of arms made Ciudad Panama a dangerous place.
Panama City has some very poor slums around Casco Viejo and this area is known for tourist who stray off the main areas getting robbed. Fortunately there are tourist police who help make sure tourist don't stray too far from the beaten path.
When in Panama city, do protect yourself against dengue. Dengue fever is a hemorragic fever found in many countries, including the tropics... basically where there's malaria, there's usually dengue, too. Malaria mosquitos bite at night, dengue mosquitos bite in the day... moreeover they are mostly found in cities.
There's no vaccination against dengue, but it is not mortal either, just painful and annoying. In case you have doubts, walk around the casco antiguo area and see the sheets with slogans urging people to be careful about dengue (in the photos). There really can't be any doubt that it is widespread in the city... so do cover up with repellent.
Panama City is considered a dangerous city under international travel standards. A remarkable part of the population lives in poverty and tourist are natural targets for robbery and pickpocketing. Said that, I never felt unsafe and all what I did is just applying common sense. I would like to share with you few practices that worked out for me.
- I didn't go to any neighborhoods there were no reasons for me to go to.
- I did visited areas someone would recommend not to go (such as Santa Ana, Barrio Chino, Calidonia) but ONLY during day hours and the streets that where crowded.
- I did enjoy exploring Casco Viejo corner by corner, but always during day hours and taking my guard on.
- I hanged out till late at night but always taxing taxis after dark.
- I may have missed a worthwhile experience but I did not jump on any Diablos Rojos and took taxis instead.
- The bus to Colon (on the Caribbean coast) is OK. The bus station in Colon is not a place to hang around and I got into the first taxi I managed to catch.
- I behaved on the ground that if I feel uneasy most likely I am at risk.
- I never had problems in taking photos. I took in Panama City some of the best smiling faces I ever did.
Don't be afraid, don't be overconfident, use common sense, enjoy the city.
As I stated in another tip, Panamanians tend to ignore many traffic laws that many North Americans follow. Stop signs are a suggestion, as are speed limits, however, many people drive below the posted speed because their vehicle is in such poor condition that they can’t drive at a very high speed, say above 25 MPH (40 KPH), anyway.
Many Panamanian vehicles have no operable tail lights, so you have to be careful not to rear end someone! (Amazingly, Panamanians tailgate without compunction!) Many of them have blue lights on the front of the car and many have sirens for horns. So if you hear a siren in Panama and don’t see an emergency vehicle, it is probably someone behind who wants to pass blowing their horn/siren! You have to be very careful in Panama, most people don’t drive with any courtesy at all to other drivers or pedestrians, I seldom have cars allow me to cross a street here; I have to wait until the auto traffic clears before crossing, even at a marked pedestrian crossing! I always walk facing traffic here, because drivers tend to use whatever side of the road is more convenient for them, even if it is the shoulder!
Diablos Rojos are colorful former school buses that are seen everywhere in Panama, they are the principle way most folks get around. They are cheap and circulate in the district painted on the upper front windshield. (Windscreen to the Brits). These are cheap transportation for the locals. I don’t advise gringos to use them because many unsavory characters ride them and may perpetrate theft or physical harm because many Panamanians have the perception that gringos are wealthy and carry a lot of money on them. So, please, avoid using the Diablos Rojos, even tho they are pretty and seem innocuous, they are dangerous for non-locals to use. I would advise using taxis instead, as they are cheap vs taxis in the US, Canada, or Western Europe, and go everywhere, whereas the DRs tend to just travel in a certain area.
For example, a taxi from Albrook Mall to the Bank center is about $2. To Amador Causeway is about $3. Diablo Rojos are 25 cents, but they are usually crowded and uncomfortable. Most taxis in PC have A/C.
When chosing your hotel, either make sure it is sound-protected or off the main roads that the Diablo Rojos (buses) tread. These being Via Espana, Av Central, Av Balboa, parts of Calle 50, Ave 3 Sur. Even being a few blocks off helps. The buses are just plain LOUD.
I am not one to necessarily be extremely concerned about areas that may be dangerous, but when I attempted to walk from one of the city's main shopping areas to the Bridge of the Americas so that I could look down over the entrance to the Panama Canal, it apparently stumbled in to a neighborhood that was not safe. How do I know this? Because several Panamanians saw me and my friend walking into this neighborhood and insisted that I turn around and not go in because I would be robbed. A nearby policeman came over and hailed a cab for us to get out of the neighborhood. I'm not saying that I know the neighborhood was dangerous or not, I can only go by the helpful locals who insisted on our safety.
If you decide to take the Ferry from Panama City to Isla Taboga and if, like me, you're terrified of birds...watch out! The birds are all over the place on the deck of this ferry ride and they're not scared of people.
If you do want to stand on deck, watch out for birds flying into your head and also for bird droppings from above!