Stay Safe in Panama
Most of Panama is very safe. People in the rural areas are generally extremely friendly and helpful. If you want to visit Latin America but are paranoid about safety, Panama might be a good place to cut your teeth. One exception is the border region between Panama and Colombia, which is considered extraordinarily dangerous because of Colombian rebel groups and drug traffickers. Most of Colon City is considered dangerous [www], and some parts of Panama City are a bit grim, especially El Chorrillo, Curundu and El Marañón, poor and crime-ridden areas. The old colonial neighbourhood, Casco Viejo (also called San Felipe), has a bad reputation among travellers and some Panamanians, but it is quickly being gentrified. During the day, San Felipe is perfectly safe for foreigners. At night, the main streets and squares and the bar and restaurant district towards the tip are also safe, but visitors should exercise caution when travelling north on Avenida Central towards Chorillo.
Stay Healthy in Panama
Panama is known for its excellent medical care, which has recently made it a hotspot for medical holidays.
Yellow fever vaccination is recommended for all visitors over 9 months of age in the provinces of Darien, Kunayala (San Blas) and Panama, excluding the Canal Zone. Most countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination before allowing travellers to enter Panama.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control [www] report that there is a risk of malaria in rural areas of Bocas del Toro, Darién and San Blas provinces; no risk in Panama City or the former Canal Zone. NB: Chloroquine is no longer effective in San Blas province.
Dengue fever is endemic, especially in Darien province.
Tap water is safe in almost all towns, with the exception of Bocas del Toro, where it is recommended to use bottled water.
Travelling women should be aware that the humidity and heat of the tropics can favour yeast infections. Three- and five-day treatments are available in pharmacies, but should be obtained from the pharmacist.
There are many hospitals that can provide first-class care to tourists. Many accept international insurance policies, but your insurance company may require you to pay upfront and submit a claim form. Check with your health insurance company before you travel to find out the requirements for submitting a claim for reimbursement abroad, as you usually won’t receive an itemised bill (including diagnosis and treatment codes) if you don’t request it. Here are some of the best facilities in Panama City:
- Hospital Nacional [www] – Modern private hospital on Avenida Cuba, between 38 and 39 streets, tel. 207-8100.
- San Fernando Hospital Clinic
- Hospital Paitilla is a well-equipped hospital where traditionally the wealthy upper class of Panama goes for treatment.
- Punta Pacifica Hospital [www]isa newly opened hospital near Multiplaza Mall and is now operated by Johns Hopkins International. It attracts some doctors from outside Paitilla.
- Santo Tomas Hospital is considered by many emergency physicians and medical professionals to be the best for trauma care because of the number of trauma patients. Like Cook County Hospital in Chicago, the medical teams at Santo Tomas see many types of trauma every day and are well equipped to treat these cases. Once a patient is triaged, they can be transferred to a private facility.
Farmacia Arrocha, a pharmacy chain, has branches all over the country. Gran Morrison’s department stores often have pharmacies too.
The new 911 system is now only in operation for medical emergencies. Most of the coverage is in and around Panama City. However, during major holidays or national celebrations, 911 units are stationed throughout the country, including Las Tablas, David, Chitre and Santiago.
Medical evacuation flights are not as organised as in the EU, Canada and the United States. Until a medical helicopter service is operational, the only option for rapid evacuation within the country is to charter a small plane or helicopter that can carry a stretcher. Fees are charged to a credit card or paid in cash. Contact air charter companies for a quote. Typically, a medical flight in a small twin-engine plane from David to Panama City costs $4,000. Helicopters are significantly more expensive. A new air medical transport service for private members is now available. Membership for tourists costs $10 for 90 days of coverage.
Foreign evacuation flights are usually operated by air ambulance services from Miami and cost between US$18,000 and over US$30,000 depending on medical necessity.
Travellers with pre-existing conditions or those at risk should check their insurance cover for these flights. Do not assume that the credit card’s travel insurance will cover the costs. Many only cover up to $1,000.
Cleanliness and personal hygiene: Toilets are amazingly clean and well-maintained, even in the most remote areas and smallest restaurants in the country. They far surpass most North American public facilities in this regard. In most areas, it is customary to dispose of toilet paper in the designated wastebasket, not in the toilet. Most remote areas do not have adequate septic systems to handle toilet paper waste. This is especially true along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts.