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Is it safe to travel to Boquete, Panama?

For health and vaccination related advice for Panama please click here...

When you travel abroad, the odds are in your favor that you will have a safe and incident-free trip. Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin American for tourists and for residence.

In fact, it is one of the safest tourist destinations anywhere. For this reason, dozens of multinational companies are changing their Latin American headquarters to Panama. More than 100 multinational companies have offices in Panama, including: Dell, Hewlett Packard, Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, FedEx, United Airlines, PriceSmart, Citibank, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Radisson, 3M, AES, Avaya, Caterpillar, Homewatch CareGivers, Johns Hopkins International Medicine, Telefonica, Sumitomo, Itochu, Mitsui, Sony, Matsushita, HSBC, Cable & Wireless, Harcrow, Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Nestlé, Roche, Peugeot, Western Union and Thunderbird.

Ask any foreign resident and they will tell you how safe they feel living in Panama compared to any other country in Central America. And within Panama, Boquete, being a small charming town of only 22,000 inhabitants, it's even a safer place.

Having said that, Panama is a developing nation with social disparities which creates an environment for petty crime. As in the rest of Latin America, foreigners, regardless whether they are wealthy tourists or backpackers, retired millionaires or blue collar workers, are generally considered wealthy compared to the locals, which puts them at a higher risk of being targets of petty crime and rip-off schemes.

But if you inform yourself before you go and keep a watchful eye on your surroundings as you travel, you will most likely have a safe and enjoyable trip in Panama or any other country in Latin America.

We have prepared the following travel tips to help you avoid serious difficulties during your overseas travel. Many of these tips are just general travel tips or specific for your journey on the way to Boquete (mostly for Panama City or for San José, Costa Rica) but it can't hurt to practice them throughout your entire trip. Boquete is obviously a lot safer than the bigger cities. We wish you a safe and wonderful journey!

BEFORE YOU GO

What to Take

Safety begins when you pack. To help avoid becoming a target, do not dress so as to mark yourself as an affluent tourist. Expensive-looking jewelry, for instance, can draw the wrong attention.

Always try to travel light. You can move more quickly and will be more likely to have a free hand. You will also be less tired and less likely to set your luggage down, leaving it unattended.

Carry the minimum number of valuables, and plan places to conceal them. Your passport, cash and credit cards are most secure when locked in a hotel safe or hidden inside your bedroom when staying with a host family. A lock is provided at the beginning of your stay with a host family: please use it to secure money and/or valuables. When you have to carry them on your person, you may wish to put them in various places rather than all in one wallet or pouch. Avoid handbags, fanny packs and outside pockets that are easy targets for thieves. Inside pockets and a sturdy shoulder bag with the strap worn across your chest are somewhat safer. One of the safest places to carry valuables is in a pouch or money belt worn under your clothing. Never wear anything that projects affluence. No gold chains, expensive watches and rings, luggage, or other paraphernalia should be in easy view. Don't count money or flash large notes in public.

Better yet: leave your jewelry at home.

If you wear glasses , pack an extra pair. Bring them and any medicines you need in your carry-on luggage.

To avoid problems when passing through customs, keep medicines in their original, labeled containers. Bring copies of your prescriptions and the generic names for the drugs. If a medication is unusual or contains narcotics, carry a letter from your doctor attesting to your need to take the drug. If you have any doubt about the legality of carrying a certain drug into a country, consult the embassy or consulate of that country before you travel.

Bring one or two major credit cards instead of cash. A debit card is also always a great idea (if you wish to pay with cash using your debit card, you can pay for your course withdrawing $300 - $500 per day from an ATM). Traveler checks cannot be cashed in Boquete but we do accept them as a form of payment at our school.

Pack an extra set of passport photos along with a photocopy of your passport's information page to make replacement of your passport easier in the event it is lost or stolen.

Never list your home address on the luggage tag (makes it easier for identity theft). If you're employed, put the company's address on the tag; if visiting friends, staying at a host family or hotel in Panama, you can list their address. Use covered luggage tags to avoid casual observation of your identity or nationality. If possible, lock your luggage.

Stay with your luggage until the luggage is checked. If you must put your bag down, keep one foot on the handle.

Carry important papers with you; NEVER check anything that you simply cannot afford to lose. Photocopy your passport, driver's license and credit cards.

Consider getting a telephone calling card. It is a convenient way of keeping in touch. If you have one, verify that you can use it from your overseas location(s). Find out how to call home from Panama before you come.

Purchase a cell phone upon arrival (less than $20 with calling time) or travel with an unlocked mobile and use a local sim card.

Child Specific Advice

If traveling with children, bring along an updated photograph of each child in the event that you become separated from them.

Write your child's name and your hotel number on each card; include a close friend's or relative's contact information on the card. Give a card to each child which they will carry with them as long as you are away. Destroy once home.

Bring along a basic first aid kit with bandages, iodine, mosquito repellant, sunscreen, alcohol packets, dramamine, pepto bismol, diarrhea medicine, etc.

What to Leave Behind

Don't bring anything you would hate to lose. Leave at home:

Leave a copy of your itinerary with family or friends at home in case they need to contact you in an emergency.

Make two photocopies of your passport identification page, airline tickets, driver's license and the credit cards that you plan to bring with you. Leave one photocopy of this data with family or friends at home; pack the other in a place separate from where you carry the originals.

Leave a copy of the serial numbers of your travelers' checks with a friend or relative at home. Carry your copy with you in a separate place and, as you cash the checks, cross them off the list.

PRECAUTIONS TO TAKE WHILE TRAVELING

Safety on the Street

Use the same common sense traveling overseas that you would at home. Be cautious in areas where you may be more easily victimized. These include crowded places, bus stations, airports, elevators, tourist sites, market places, supermarket tills, festivals and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Know where your purse is while in restaurants by the streets.

Don't use short cuts, narrow alleys or poorly lit streets.

Try not to travel alone within larges cities at night.

Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.

Keep a low profile and avoid loud conversations or arguments.

Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers.

Avoid scam artists by being wary of strangers who approach you and offer to be your guide or sell you something at bargain prices.

Beware of pickpockets. They often have an accomplice who will:

Beware of groups of vagrant children who create a distraction while picking your pocket.

Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse-snatchers.

Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going. Try to ask for directions only from individuals in authority.

Know how to use a pay telephone and have the proper change or token on hand.

Learn a few phrases in the local language or have them handy in written form so that you can signal your need for police or medical help.

Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. In Boquete:

Women particularly should never accept a drink from a stranger. Keep an eye on your drink at all times.

Vary your schedule; try not to come and go at the same time everyday.

Make sure your hotel room has a peephole and a deadbolt lock. Secure the chain and secure the door by pushing a rubber stop under it.

Stay in a room near a stairwell. Never take the elevator if a fire or smoke is detected. Always stay in a hotel where the doors enter the hallway and not directly from the outside.

Do not wear name tags in public.

If you are confronted, don't fight back -- give up your valuables. If mugged, cooperate with the assailant and voice your willingess to comply by saying, "You can have anything you want. Do you want me to get it or do you want to get it?" Avoid eye contact. Keep $25 - $100 in your pocket as insurance. If hostile, offer additional money or possessions that the robber may have overlooked.

Keep your camera hidden until you are ready to use it. Use tote bags instead of camera bags. Do not hang your camera around your neck.

Avoid viewing maps in wide-open spaces.

Avoid walking alone at night.

Do not take shortcuts. Stay on well-traveled streets.

Withdraw money from ATMs only during daylight hours, preferably in banks or hotels.

Never leave valuables in plain view in your car. Lock items in your trunk before reaching your destination.

Consider purchasing portable alarms that emit a loud sound.

Watch for scams on the street. Children working with adults are notorious as pickpockets.

Never flash your money in public. Exchange funds with reputable and recognized exchangers only.

Have tips ready in advance for service personnel.

Do not flash your passport in public. Discreetly show important documents to officials only.

To avoid carrying large amounts of cash, change your travelers checks only as you need currency. Countersign travelers checks only in front of the person who will cash them.

Do not flash large amounts of money when paying a bill. Make sure your credit card is returned to you after each transaction.

Deal only with authorized agents when you exchange money, buy airline tickets or purchase souvenirs. Do not change money on the black market.

If your possessions are lost or stolen, report the loss immediately to the local police. Keep a copy of the police report for insurance claims and as an explanation of your plight.

After reporting missing items to the police, report the loss or theft of:

Remain friendly but be cautious about discussing personal matters or your itinerary.

Watch for people following you or "loiterers" observing your comings and goings.

Keep a mental note of safe havens, such as police stations, hotels, and hospitals.

Report any suspicious activity to local police.

Safety in Your Hotel

Keep your hotel door locked at all times. Meet visitors in the lobby.

Do not leave money and other valuables in your hotel room while you are out. Use the hotel safe.

If you are out late at night, let someone know when you expect to return.

If you are alone, do not get on an elevator if there is a suspicious-looking person inside.

Be sure of the identity of visitors before opening the door of your hotel room. Don't meet strangers at your hotel room, or at unknown or remote locations.

Refuse unexpected packages.

Leave no personal or business papers in your hotel room.

Read the fire safety instructions in your hotel room. Know how to report a fire, and be sure you know where the nearest fire exits and alternate exits are located. (Count the doors between your room and the nearest exit; this could be a lifesaver if you have to crawl through a smoke-filled corridor.)

Laptops

Get a strong leash made of metal and lock it to your laptop's security slot on one end, and the leg of a cafe table on the other. Use this leash at your hotel/host family as well and hide laptop if there is no safety vault. You shouldn't be worried about your host family, but even if Boquete is extremely safe, your host family's house can be robbed. If using laptop in public, Laptop leash also serves as a visual deterrent, so don't hide the cable. Leave it up in plain sight. And realize this kind of safety net will only go so far. Don't leave the laptop for a restroom run, as a quick thinking notebook snatcher just needs a snap of the wire cutters to steal your goods.

Keep your eyes open- don't disappear into your Internet world. Look up and look around. No need to stare suspiciously at everyone nearby, but do show a measure of alert awareness of your surroundings.

Look for a laptop carrier that doesn't scream "laptop carrier". In the same way you shouldn't flash $1500 USD in cash, you shouldn't go arround with a label saying: HEY, I HAVE A LAPTOP! Women can find purses and tote bags that laptops can fit in, and for men, briefcases, backpacks and courier bags might be less obvious choices.

Lastly, and always important to do - back up your laptop and install anti-theft software on it. And keep the backups somewhere safe. It's not the law, but it's still a REALLY GOOD IDEA. If your precious laptop does get snatched, you at least will have your irreplacable data.

Safety on Public Transportation

Taxis

Only take taxis clearly identified with official markings. Beware of unmarked cabs. Select your own taxicabs at random (don't let someone choose one for you). Don't take a vehicle that is not clearly identified as a taxi. Compare the face of the driver with the one on his or her posted license. Sit behind the driver so you can see him, but he cannot see you. Pay the driver upon arriving at your destination and while you are still sitting in the vehicle. Avoid getting in a cab that is already full.

Bus

When getting on a bus make sure your luggage is placed on top or inside storage compartment and don't get on the bus until storage compartment is closed. If you plan to fall asleep and have hand luggage, tie it to you and make sure that you'll notice if someone is opening zippers (locking them with clips for example). When waiting for a bus, stay in well lit areas, with other people around you. Traveling on a bus from Panama City to Boquete shouldn't be any problem, just always keep an eye on your luggage at Panama City and David.

Safety When You Drive

When you rent a car, choose a type that is commonly available locally. Where possible, ask that markings that identify it as a rental car be removed. Make certain it is in good repair. If available, choose a car with universal door locks and power windows, features that give the driver better control of access. An air conditioner, when available, is also a safety feature, allowing you to drive with windows closed. Thieves can and do snatch purses through open windows of moving cars.

Keep car doors locked at all times. Wear seat belts.

As much as possible, avoid driving at night, or if it's raining very hard, pull over.

Don't leave valuables in the car. If you must carry things with you, keep them out of sight locked in the trunk, and then take them with you when you leave the car.

Don't park your car on the street overnight. If the hotel or municipality does not have a parking garage or other secure area, select a well-lit area.

Never pick up hitchhikers.

Don't get out of the car if there are suspicious looking individuals nearby. Drive away.

If you must rent a car, rent only from a reputable company. Any operating problems that occur could signal sabotage.

Be aware of 'staged' car accidents meant to catch you off card.

Back into your parking spaces to facilitate a quick exit.

Park only in well lit and well traveled areas.

If detained for whatever reason by an official, ask for identification. If in doubt, tell them that you want to see his superior. Keep your emotions in check.

Panama Specific Information

Places to Avoid

Tourists are warned not to travel deep into Darien Province, near to the border with Colombia (complete opposite side of the country from where Boquete is, which is adjacent to the border with Costa Rica - Boquete is to the Southwest of Panama and Colombia is Panama's eastern neighbor). Reliable communications and medical infrastructure are not readily available in the region, which makes travel there potentially hazardous. Moreover, all around the Panama-Colombia border area the presence of Colombian terrorist groups, drug traffickers and other criminals is common, increasing the danger to travelers.

From time to time, there may be demonstrations protesting internal Panamanian issues, or manifestations of anti-American sentiment by small but vociferous groups (mainly in large cities such as Panama City, David, Changuinola or Colon). While most demonstrations relate to labor disputes or other local issues and are typically non-violent, it is nonetheless a good security practice to avoid demonstrations.

Only drink in bars and restaurants. Drinking in public streets is not allowed. Drugs such as marihuana and cocaine are not allowed by law. Go out in groups and avoid going out by yourself. Do not accept drinks from strangers. Dress in a decent manner (a t-shirt is always required in public until you arrive to the beach).

Outdoors, Nature & Adventure

If you decide to hike, go to a remote beach, or plan for an outing in the area, provide your designated person at your base (hotel receptionist, front desk at Habla Ya, travel companion, host family) with details about your plan. Always notify your designated person at your base of any changes to your plan.

Never hike alone or without a reputable guide. We have several experienced guides who will show you the best trails, breathtaking views, wildlife and exotic birds. The fact that you might hike by yourself at home doesn't mean you should be able to hike alone in Panama as our hiking trails are not well maintained nor clearly marked, and you could easily get lost. Our National Parks barely have rangers (unfortunately only enough to charge the entrance fees). Rivers can also suddenly surge. It's not worth considering saving $25 and going by yourself if you're putting your life at risk (and besides you will be helping the local economy by hiring a certified guide).

Keep a fully charged cell phone with you. Leave your phone number with your designated base person or known Boquete resident. Cell phone signals diminish with elevation and distance, and signals will completely drop in certain areas. Keep the phone numbers of key contacts.

Always carry the following with you: ID, lighter, whistle, flashlight, plenty of water, food bars. Wear brightly colored clothing to make it easier for rescuers to see you if you should get lost or injured.

Wear clothing in anticipation of sudden weather changes. Rain storms develop suddenly, rivers rise quickly without warning (never attempt to cross a river over improvised bridges such as fallen logs) and temperatures drop with elevation (yes even in the tropics in can reach freezing point at night in the mountains).

Never accept rides from unknown persons or from anyone who has not been recommended by a reliable Boquete resident.

If you hire a driver or boat men to pick you up at the end of your day, only pay them at the end of the trip and never upfront. You are better off hiring tours through official companies instead of just picking a random independent guide. Their guides will be certified and trained in first aid, the businesses will be paying their taxes and there will be a team of people to support you if anything goes wrong.

Only join rafting trips with reputable companies.

Visitors should be cautious when swimming or wading at the beach. Some beaches, especially those on the Pacific Ocean (and in the Caribbean during surf season - December to April, June and July mainly), have dangerous currents that cause drowning deaths every year. These beaches are seldom posted with warning signs (nor lifeguards).

Do not surf or swim by yourself. If you surf, be cautious of the conditions and don't get in anything where you don't feel confident that you will be safe. If you don't know how to surf don't try to learn by yourself: take lessons with a certified surf school and respect the locals.

Crime

Crime in Panama City is moderate but increasing, particularly because of the activities of youth gangs. The city of Colon is a high crime area. Police checkpoints have become commonplace on weekends on roads in both cities. Based upon reported incidents by local police, the high-crime areas around Panama City are San Miguelito, Rio Abajo, El Chorrillo, Ancon, Curundu, Veracruz Beach, Panama Viejo, and the Madden Dam overlook. Crimes there are typical of those that plague metropolitan areas and range from rapes to armed robberies, muggings, purse-snatchings, "express kidnappings" from ATM banking facilities, in which the victim is briefly kidnapped and robbed after withdrawing cash from an ATM, and petty theft.


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