GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT PANAMA

 
About three million years ago, the emergence of the Isthmus separated the marine life of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean and formed a land bridge that allowed the previously distinct floras and faunas of North and South America to mix. This unique history offers opportunities for the study of evolutionary and ecological processes unequaled anywhere else in the world.

Located at the geographical center of the American continent, Panama joins North and South America. It borders with the Caribbean Sea to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the south, Colombia to the east and Costa Rica to the west.

Panama is the youngest area of land in the Americas, having emerged from the oceans approximately 3 to 10 million years ago. In biological terms, the fact that Panama linked the landmasses of the two Americas helps explain its incredible biodiversity. Despite its small size (75,900 sq. km. to be exact) Panama is home to more than 10,000 varieties of plants and more than 1,000 species of birds. Panama City is the only major Latin American city with a rainforest that is only minutes from downtown.

GENERAL INFORMATION

National name: República de Panamá
President: Juan Carlos Varela (2014)
Land area: 75,990 sq km (slightly smaller than South Carolina)
Population: 3,802 million (July 2012 est.)
Language: Spanish (official language), English 14% (most Panamanians are bilingual)

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WEATHER & TRAVEL SEASON

Panama’s tourist season is during the dry season from December to April. This is true for the Pacific slope, but the Caribbean side can get rain throughout the year.

Daytime air temperatures increase slightly to around 30-31ºC (86-88ºF), but nighttime temperatures remain around 22-23ºC (72-73ºF). Relative humidity drops throughout the season, reaching average values as low as 70%. Relative humidity rises quickly and may hover around 90 to 100% throughout the rainy season from May through November.

The weather can be hot and steamy in the lowlands during the rainy season, when the humidity makes the heat oppressive. But it won’t rain nonstop – rain in Panama, as elsewhere in the tropics, tends to come in sudden short downpours that freshen the air, and are followed by sunshine. If you’ll be doing any long, strenuous hiking, the dry season is the most comfortable time.

Panama’s high tourist season corresponds with its Pacific-side dry season, from mid-December to mid-April. During these months, there is relatively little rain in Panama City and elsewhere south of the Continental Divide. North of the mountains, on the Caribbean side of Panama, it rains all year round. However, here it tends to rain less in February, March, September and October than it does the rest of the year.

The best time to visit Panama really depends on what you plan to do. If you intend to spend most of your time on the Pacific side, you might want to visit in December or January, when there’s generally little rain and the weather is pleasant.

If you’ll be doing any serious hiking, the dry season is the most comfortable time to do it. For planning purposes, be aware that Panama’s mountains can get very cold at night; if you’re considering camping at altitude (in Boquete, El Valle or Cerro Punta, for example), be sure to bring warm clothing.

If you’ll be spending most of your holiday surfing, bear in mind that swells are fairly constant in the Pacific year-round, though offshore winds from December to mid-April can add a few meters to curl. However, Caribbean swells are a bit more fickle, and are usually dependent on weather patterns in the region.

Other outdoor pursuits are also weather dependent. Rafting is at its best is Chiriquí Province from May to December when the rivers are running high, while diving is best from December to mid-April when the dry season lends better visibility.
During the following festival and national holiday seasons, traveling to and within Panama might be more challening due to exceptional events, parades & activities, road-blockings, increased traffic, increased alcohol consumption, or airline & store closings:

  • January: New Years Day (January 1), Marthyr's Day (January 9)
  • February: Carnivals (February 6-9, 2016)
  • April: Easter (March 24-27, 2016)
  • November: National Holidays on Nov 3-5, Nov 10, Nov 28
  • December: Mothers Day (December 8), Christmas (Dec 24-25)

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DOCUMENTATION & IMMIGRATION

The Panamanian authorities require that travelers arrive to Panama with a passport that is valid for at least 6 months starting from the day of arrival.

As of April 2010, U.S. tourists arriving by air or road are permitted to stay in Panama for 180 days, without obtaining a formal visa.

A visa is required by all except the following for stays of up to 90 or even 180 days (at the discretion of the individual Immigration authorities, subject to change): Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominica, El Salvador, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Granada, Great Britain, Greece, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, UK, USA and Vatican City.

AIRPORT TAX & VISA

When flying to Panama all arrival and departure airport taxes and tourist fees are included in the cost of the airfare.




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HEALTH & VACCINATION

Emergencies
For emergencies, there are many good private clinics and hospitals throughout the country, but the biggest and best equipped are located in Panama City. Important telephone numbers are: Police 104, Fire Department 103.

Yellow Fever vaccination
As of November 01, 2008, Panama requires valid Yellow Fever Vaccination to enter or leave the country for the following countries:
South America: Bolivia, Brasil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela.
Africa: Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo Democratic Rep., Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leona, Sudan.

We strongly urge each traveler to contact his / her travel agent to inquire about updated immunization requirements for travel to other countries and from other countries to Panama.

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MONEY

Tipping
The standard tipping rate in Panama is around 10% of the bill. Tip is usually left on the table or with the waiter after having paid for your bill. Some restaurants include the tip already in your total; look for “propina” on your bill and see if you have to add on or if the restaurant has it already included in the price. For guidelines on how to tip your tour guides, go to About Us - FAQ.

Currency
Panama uses the US dollar as its currency. The official name for it is the balboa, but it’s exactly the same bill, and in practice people use the terms ‘dólar’ and ‘balboa’ interchangeably. Panamanian coins are of the same value, size and metal as US coins, though both are frequently used. Coins include one, five, 10, 25 and 50 centavos (or centésimos) – 100 centavos equal one balboa. Most businesses won’t break US$50 and US$100 bills, and those that do may require you to present your passport.

ATMs
Throughout Panama, ATMs are readily available except in the most isolated places – look for the red ‘sistema clave’ sign. Generally speaking, ATMs accept cards on most networks (Plus, Cirrus, MasterCard, Visa, Amex), though a charge is usually levied depending on your issuing bank. The amount that can be withdrawn at one time varies from bank to bank, though it is usually around US$500.

Credit cards
Although they are widely accepted at travel agencies, upscale hotels and many restaurants, credit cards can be problematic almost everywhere else. In short, carry enough cash to get you to the next bank or ATM. The most common credit cards are VISA or MASTER CARD. AMERICAN EXPRESS is also widely accepted.

Tax
A 10% tax is added to the price of hotel rooms. When booking with us, this tax is already included in your rate.

A 7% ITBMS sales tax is levied on all nonfood products. This tax is to be added to your total tour price. 

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TRANSPORTATION

When planning your trip with Ancon Expeditions of Panama, your domestic land, air and water transportation is normally included in your itinerary. You do not have to worry about being overcharged by taxi drivers (charge is not being determined by a taxi meter, but by own “gusto” of the driver) or by getting on the crowded, loud local buses “diablos rojos”.

However, if you would like to go on train, boat or bus rides on your own, here some helpful information:

Train
The Panama Railway Company (PCRC; 317 6070; www.panarail.com; Carr Gaillard) operates a glass-domed luxury passenger train from Panama City to Colón (US$25 one-way, US$50 for a round-trip), leaving Panama City to Colón at 7:15am and returning at 5:15pm every day. It’s a lovely ride that follows the canal, and at times the train is surrounded by nothing but thick vine-strewn jungle. If you want to relive the hey-day of luxury train travel for an hour or two, this is definitely the way to do it. However, bear in mind, that the train does not have seating reservations and it can be very crowded due to its main purpose: transferring the Colon Free Zone executives to and from their work each day.

Boat
Barcos Calypso (314 1730; roundtrip US$11) has departures to Isla Taboga from Panama City at 8:30am and 3:00pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 8:30am on Tuesday and Thursday and 8:30am, 10:30am and 4:00pm on Saturday and Sunday. Ferries depart Isla Taboga at 9:30am and 4:00pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 4:30pm on Tuesday and Thursday and 9:00am, 3:00pm and 5:00pm on Saturday and Sunday. Ferries depart from La Playita de Amador, which is located behind the Centro de Exhibiciones Marinas on the Causeway / restaurant Mi Ranchito on Isla Naos. The easiest way to reach the dock is by taxi (US$4 to US$6).

Air
International flights arrive at and depart from Tocumen International Airport (238 4160), 35km northeast of the city center. International airlines serving Panama City include:

  • Copa Airilnes
  • American Airlines
  • Continental Airlines
  • Condor
  • Delta
  • KLM
  • Grupo TACA
  • Lufthansa
  • Mexicana
  • Avianca
  • Iberia
  • Air Canada

Panama’s domestic flight destinations are all within one hour from Panama City and depart from Albrook airport “Aeropuerto Marcos A Gelabert”, in the former Albrook Air Force Station near the canal. You should be at the airport 1 hour before departure.

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HISTORY

Panama City was founded in 1519 by the Spanish governor Pedro Arias de Ávila (Pedrarias) not long after Balboa first saw the Pacific. Although the Spanish settlement quickly became an important center of government and church authority, the city was ransacked and destroyed in 1671 by the English pirate Sir Henry Morgan, leaving only the stone ruins of Panamá Viejo.

Three years later, the city was reestablished about 8km to the southwest in the area now known as Casco Viejo. Although the city’s peninsular location meant that it was well defended, the destruction of the Caribbean port at Portobelo in 1746 dealt a heavy blow to the Spanish overland trade route. Panama City subsequently declined in importance, though it returned to prominence in the 1850s when the Panama Railroad was completed, and gold seekers on their way to California flooded across the isthmus by train.

After Panama declared its independence from Colombia on November 3, 1903 in the Parque de la Independencia, Panama City was firmly established as the capital of the new nation. Since the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, the city has emerged as a center for international business and trade.

The city’s only major setback in recent times occurred in 1989, when it was invaded by the USA to oust dictator Manuel Noriega from power. The capital suffered damage both from the invasion itself and from the subsequent looting, and several residential blocks of the El Chorillo district were destroyed by combat-ignited fire.

Today, Panama City is by far the wealthiest city in Central America, and residents are wholly optimistic about the future – and with good reason. Following the handover of the Canal in 1999, and the subsequent closure of American military bases in the country, Panama City is finally in charge of its own destiny. Furthermore, a spate of foreign investment and the recent referendum to expand the Panama Canal means that the capital is likely to continue its remarkable boom.

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PEOPLE & CULTURE

Panamanians' culture, customs, and language are predominantly Caribbean Spanish. The majority of the population is ethnically mestizo or mixed Spanish, Indigenous, Chinese, and West Indian. Spanish is the official and dominant language; English is a common second language spoken by the West Indians and by many businesspeople and professionals. More than half the population lives in the Panama City-Colon metropolitan corridor.

Panama is rich in folklore and popular traditions. Lively salsa - a mixture of Latin American popular music, rhythm and blues, jazz, and rock - is a Panamanian specialty, and Ruben Blades its best-known performer and Minister of Tourism since September 2004. Indigenous influences dominate handicrafts such as the famous Kuna textile molas. Artist Roberto Lewis' Presidential Palace murals and his restoration work and ceiling in the National Theater are widely admired.

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TOP 10 TIPS FOR ECO TOURISTS

(credit to IUCN)
  1. Visit destinations which have conservation value, such as protected areas, World Heritage sites or areas where nature and culture is a key attraction. Include in your trip visits and activities related to conservation projects. Visit www.protectedplanet.net. Or take this a step further and plan a “doing” holiday! Many organizations plan expeditions where you can spend time working on a local conservation project.
  2. Travel light: limit the packaging you bring with you. This will become waste in your holiday destination.
  3. Before you travel, learn as much as possible about your destination, about the natural assets, the local people and their culture and any environmental concerns (for example if there is a drought, if forest fires are a major threat ...). This should help to make your journey more enjoyable!
  4. Use reputable local tour operators, preferably those who contribute to conservation themselves. Aim to follow any local codes, for example regarding behaviour or dress if visiting cultural or sacred natural sites.
  5. Aim to follow any local codes, for example regarding behaviour or dress if visiting cultural or sacred natural sites.
  6. Pick nature-friendly accommodation: ask hotels if they are truly eco, for example do they have an environmental policy? Have they implemented energy and water saving measures? Do they contribute to local conservation efforts and support local communities?
  7. If you can, try to get to your destination by train or coach - you'll see more of the country you're travelling in as well as reducing your carbon emissions. Consider also offsetting your travel using a Gold Standard supplier (http://www.cdmgoldstandard.org/GS-Portfolio-Pledgers.287.0.html)
  8. When you're on holiday, choose wisely what you put on your plate. Choose locally sourced produce that's in season and be aware that certain endangered species may be on the menu without your knowledge - ask local conservation organizations for a list of what to look out for.
  9. Many wild plants and animals are in great danger. You can contribute to protecting them by avoiding buying souvenirs made from endangered species (jewellery made from red coral and turtle carapace, shatoosh and many others). Be careful if you're bringing plants or seeds back from your travels - check that they couldn't become invasive species.
  10. Wildlife watching can be an incredible experience. But don't disturb wildlife, for your own safety and theirs!
  11. Maintain a relationship with your new friends in the destination, become a member of local conservation organizations.

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