Panama is at the crossroads between North and South America and between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In Spanish Colonial times it was the transit point for transporting gold and silver from the defeated Inca Empire by mule along the Camino Real and back to Europe and it was frequently targeted by pirates and privateers. In 1746 Spain abandoned the route after the capture of Portobelo by Admiral Vernon (in London the old Green Lane from the Kensington Gravel Pits in what is now Notting Hill Gate to Kensal Green was renamed Portobello Road) and began trading round Cape Horn.
A hundred years later the railway from Panama City to Colon (opened 1853) enabled goods to be transported across the isthmus. In 1881 Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who built the Suez Canal (inaugurated 1869), arrived in Panama and attempted to build a sea-level canal but the project failed after 30km had been dug at the cost of some 22,000 lives, mostly from malaria and yellow fever.
After Panama gained independence from Colombia in 1903, construction began in earnest and the Canal opened on 14 August 1914, just as war was breaking out across Europe, under US administration.
After all the upheavals of the 1980s under General Noriega, the country is now a stable democracy and on 31 December 1999 Panama finally took over control of the canal zone. In 2007 work started on the project to broaden and deepen the canal to allow larger ships to transit.
But there is, of course, so much more to Panama than its canal, from colonial history to cloud forest, some of the world’s best coffee, indigenous tribes, fantastic bird watching, festivals and uninhabited islands. Only the hardiest of travellers will venture into the Darien Gap but the rest of the country is ready to be discovered.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has further information:
Panama is below the hurricane belt and is not generally prone to natural disasters. The summer months are December to April when tropical rainfall is low and are probably the best time of the year to visit; the wet season runs from May to November with October and November the wettest months. The Caribbean coastline generally wetter than the Pacific.
Humidity is less of an issue in the highlands.
Please click the links below for up-to-date visa and entry requirements for British nationals travelling to Panama:
Please make sure your passport is valid and up to date. In general terms, your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from your date of arrival into all Latin American countries.
Evidence of Yellow Fever vaccination may be required for travellers who are going to or have recently been to countries where there is a risk of yellow fever transmission.
Travelling with children
Single parents or adults travelling with children under the age of 18 are required to provide notarised documentary evidence of parental responsibility, or consent to travel from those with parental responsibility. Such documentation is often required before being allowed to enter Latin American countries and, in many cases, before permitting children to leave the country.
Local airport taxes
International and domestic airport taxes may be payable locally if it is not included with your airline tickets. This is usually payable in US dollars and it may not always be possible to pay by credit/debit card.
For up-to-date advice on any vaccination requirements and any health risks associated with visiting Panama, please contact your local GP.
The following NHS website provides health information and advice for travellers to Panama:
Please click onto the links below for up-to-date advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth office:
British Embassy in Panama City:
The US dollar is legal tender in Panama although the official currency is the Balboa, named after Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513.
It is best to travel to Panama with a supply of US dollars. ATM cash machines also distribute US dollars.
If you don’t already have a stock of US dollars we suggest you visit an airport ATM when you land, before leaving the airport. You should always take sensible precautions when using bank ATMs.
It is generally easy enough to travel throughout Panama using bank ATMs but these are not always available in remote locations such as the San Blas islands or Bocas del Toro archipelago. We always recommend you keep a supply of US dollars handy and make sure that notes are clean and undamaged. Torn or damaged notes (e.g. from a staple or written on) will not be accepted.
We also suggest that you have a supply of single 1 dollar notes as these are useful for tips for airport and station porters and for hotel staff.
Credit cards are widely accepted in hotels and the better restaurants and shops but may not be accepted in small shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, nor in local markets.
In general terms, Visa is more widespread than MasterCard in Panama but it may be a good idea to take both if you have them. American Express is less widely accepted.
Exchange rates are subject to change at any time but the following table provides indicative information for countries in Central and South America:
Panama is GMT -5 hours (BST -6)