INSURANCE It is required that you obtain insurance covering health care expenses as well as medical evacuation or repatriation before you leave home. You can purchase insurance through a travel agency, your credit card provider, Blue Cross, or if you're under 26, you may be eligible under your parent's health insurance.
Read the fine print. Some policies specifically exclude dangerous activities, which can include scuba diving, motorcycling and even trekking.
Look into policies that pay doctors or hospitals directly instead of requiring a payment on the spot and a subsequent claim.
If you have to claim later, ensure you keep all documentation.
Check that the policy covers ambulances or an emergency flight home
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel. 866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated overseas.
VACCINATIONS Visitors arriving from countries where yellow fever is endemic must show proof of yellow fever vaccination, usually documented on an International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), and is recommended for all visitors intending to spend at least part of their stay in the inland areas to the east of the Panama Canal Zone. The following vaccines are also recommended:
booster doses for protection against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and polio
typhoid, hepatitis A and B, rabies (depending on the length of your stay)
Do I need anti-malaria tablets for Panama? There is no risk of malaria in Panama but there is a risk of the Zika virus, therefore take extra care to avoid mosquito bites. The best prevention method is to use a mosquito repellent that contains at least 50% DEET and to sleep under the protection of a mosquito net.
WATER Tap water is safe to drink in Panama City but travellers are still encouraged to drink bottled water.
Crime is a problem in parts of Panama City, though the city’s better districts are safer than in many other capitals. The city of Colón has street crime.
Parts of Darién Province bordering Colombia are still a staging ground for narcotraffickers and human traffickers. Always register with SENAFRONT (border control) in Panama City before traveling and preferably go with a guide.There have been cases of drug trafficking on boats traveling the Caribbean from Colombia north to Panama, and to a lesser extent on the Pacific side.
During WYD there is more security, military, police and volunteer presence ensuring increased security.
HIKING SAFETY Though it’s tropical, Panama runs the gamut from hot to cold and hiking is not easy here. Always ask local outfitters or rangers about trail conditions before heading out, and ensure you go adequately prepared. Carry plenty of water, even on short journeys, and always bring food, matches and adequate clothing – jungles do get quite a bit colder at night, particularly at higher elevations. Hikers have been known to get lost in rainforests, even seemingly user-friendly ones such as Parque Nacional Volcán Barú and the Sendero Los Quetzales. Landslides, storms and vegetation growth can make trails difficult to follow. In some cases, even access roads can deteriorate enough for transport to leave you a few miles before your intended drop-off point. This is just the reality of the jungle, and there is no official rescue organization to help. Never walk in unmarked rainforest; if there’s no trail going in, you can assume that there won’t be one when you decide to turn around and come back out. Always plan your transportation in advance – know where and when the last bus will pass your terminus, or arrange for a taxi pickup with a responsible, recommended transporter.
POLICE Police corruption is not as big a problem in Panama as it is in some other Latin American countries. However, it’s not unheard of for a police officer to stop a motorist for no obvious reason, invent a violation, and levy a fine to be paid on the spot. Showing confusion will sometimes fluster the officer into letting you go. If there has been a violation, offer to go to the police station to pay. Some cities in Panama have tourist police – a division created to deal specifically with travelers. Identifiable by armbands on their uniform, officers in this division may be more helpful. SWIMMING SAFETY Unfortunately, drownings occur every year in Panamanian waters, about 80% of them caused by rip currents. A rip is a strong current that pulls the swimmer out to sea. It occurs when two currents that move parallel to the shore meet, causing the opposing waters to choose the path of least resistance, which is the path out to sea. Some tips:
If you are caught in a rip, stay calm and swim parallel to the shore to get out of it – rip currents dissipate quickly.
It is most important to remember that rip currents will pull you out but not under.
When the current dissipates, swim back in at a 45-degree angle to the shore to avoid being caught by the current again.
Do not try to swim directly back in, as you would be swimming against the rip and would only exhaust yourself.
If you feel a rip while you are wading, try to come back in sideways, thus offering less body surface to the current. If you cannot make headway, walk parallel to the beach until you get out of the rip.
THEFTS & MUGGINGS Tourist-oriented crime is uncommon in Panama, but it does happen.
Be smart – avoid carrying all your money in one place and avoid entering areas that appear unsafe. If you look like you don’t have anything of value on you, you’re less likely to interest a mugger.
Ask volunteers and your host families about spots to avoid and stay where it’s well lit and well populated.
Victims of any crime should get a police report as soon as possible. This is a requirement for any insurance claim, although it is unlikely that the police will be able to recover the property. Non-Spanish speakers can ask their embassy for help.