PANAMA

Panama

The Southernmost country on the Central American isthmus, Panama has always had a vibrant, multi-faceted culture. Since the construction of the Panama Canal, it has also been an industrially significant country with economic clout and a booming tourist industry. From Caribbean beaches to Pacific breaks, hiking adventures to spa hotels, Panama's got something for everyone, which explains why it has become such a popular destination for backpackers and package tourists alike in recent years.

Climate

Panama stretches from the Caribbean coast down to South America, and as you might expect its climate is hot and tropical. The dry season runs roughly from December to April and is the best time to visit, though temperatures can soar to uncomfortable heights in places. During the rainy season, though, it can really pour with rain – and mountainous regions can get much colder than the humid lowlands.

Temperatures do not vary too greatly year-round, with Panama City's temperature tending to fall in the mid-to-late 20o during any given month. The BBC weather website has a comprehensive and often accurate five-day forecast for Panama though you will need to search more widely to find more specific local breakdowns.

Things to do and see

Travellers to Panama will encounter a curious mix of American surfers on 'Spring Break', earnest bird-watching ecologists, retired couples and gap-year students, as well as the backpackers, families and even a Panamanian or two.

The surfing is justifiably famous, with the most skilful and daring heading to excellent breaks off the rugged Pacific coastline. The coast is also home to acre upon acre of American timeshares and golf-courses, which is unfortunate or exciting depending on your holidaying preferences.

Tours involving active sports also draw travellers. River rafting, boating, waterskiing and especially diving and snorkelling are available across the country. Snorkelling in the Caribbean coast is a popular option offering as it does an opportunity to see some spectacular underwater flora and fauna.

And if it's flora and fauna you want, Panama is the place to be. The mountains and jungles have extremely high biodiversity, and you might catch a glimpse of exotic creatures, from wildcats to giant spiders. Tours vary from arduous camping expeditions to gentle guided strolls around the national parks. Recent developments have constructed luxurious, eco-friendly cabins and tree houses with spas inside the national parks for a bit of post-hike relaxation.

The remains of Indo-American civilizations have always brought travellers to Panama, and though not as famous as the remains in Mexico and Costa Rica, evidence of ancient civilizations is scattered across Panama. See the architectural remains of the Cuevas and the Coclé civilizations everywhere from the remotest of mountains to Panama City itself.

The capital's malls and markets sell everything: fruit and vegetables, knock-off designer clothing, genuine designer clothing, native arts and crafts, local food and music.

Panama's most famous feature is not just for engineering buffs. Many travellers walk or cycle or boat along the Canal, and a trip to Panama just isn't valid unless you've at least seen it, and maybe bought the t-shirt.

Useful Links

www.panamainfo.com Telephone (507) 315-0609

Official tourism website: visitpanama.com

Travel

Although it is possible to travel to Panama by sea, this is a lengthy and often expensive option – most of the traffic comes from the pleasure-boat industry and from trading ships rather than independent travellers. Most people arrive in Panama by air or over land. It is possible to fly to Panama indirectly from the UK, changing in Europe, the USA or Latin America (or all three). No airlines offer budget flights to Panama at the time of writing, though STA Travel will offer younger travellers advice on the cheapest option.

Overland from Costa Rica or Columbia, bus is your best bet. Buses to and from the border are reliable and surprisingly frequent from across Costa Rica and Columbia – it should be fairly easy to find a connection by checking at the bus station in any town.

Panama is a small, thin worm of a country compared to some of its Latin American neighbours, so it is easy to travel round the country on public transport. And like most of its Latin American neighbours, bus is usually the most comprehensive and most frequent public transport system. Buses are reliable and mostly safe, though the comfort factor can be quite erratic, with air-conditioned coaches showing American DVDs and overheated, overcrowded minivans running the same routes.

Taxis are cheap in Panama and can often be a convenient, economic alternative to car hire, particularly given the less-than-desirable state of provincial roads. However, if you want a bit more freedom, then you can find car hire at www.car-hire-centre.co.uk.

In parts of Panama it's quickest and cheapest (and most fun) to get around by boat. Of course, this is particularly the case with the off-shore islands. It's usually possible to find a 'water taxi', that is, anyone with a boat who'll take a few coins to take you where you want to go. As always, be careful of who you get into a vehicle with.

Accommodation

Although there are limited property-rentals and package tours available, most backpackers in Panama will find themselves staying in a hostel or guesthouse as the cheapest and often most sociable accommodation. There are a number of websites catering specifically for this – try Hostels.com, Hostelworld.com, or HostelBookers.com.

In provincial Panama, it is not unlikely you'll find yourself in a place where there's no official 'tourist accommodation' option – and even in the city, there's often a very fine line between a family-run guesthouse and staying in a family's spare room. This tends to be a positive thing as with a little asking-around you can often find cheap accommodation with a friendly host, although the practice is dying out as tourism grows and the spread of official hostels – and of course, international hotel chains – continues.

It is rarely necessary to pre-book a hostel or hotel in Panama, though many have websites and it can be reassuring to do so for your first nights in a town. When visiting for feast days and carnival this is also advisable.

A number of websites also offer rental accommodation in Panama, although these can be bland and overpriced. Nonetheless, international companies such as Holiday Lettings or the Travel Library will be reliable.

Healthcare

UK residents can apply for a comprehensive, up-to-date report on health issues for travellers in Panama. The personal report, which includes recommended vaccinations, foreign office travel health advice, advice on seasonal diseases and up-to-date health news, is available from the Medical Advisory Services for Travel Abroad (MASTA). The MASTA website also has details of locations of travel clinics to visit before you leave.

Broadly speaking, Panama is a fairly safe country to travel to health-wise, so long as you don't take any foolish risks. Make sure you are vaccinated before you travel and carry a certificate of vaccinations with you. Current UK advice counsels Hepatitus A, Typhoid and Yellow Fever vaccinations for all travellers, as well as a number of others including Rabies for travellers who will be visiting at-risk areas or living long-term in Panama or Latin America. Check with your doctor or nhsdirect.nhs.uk (in the UK) for up-to-date advice.

Similarly, medical care in Panama is generally of a good standard. Clinics in Panama City are high-quality and will usually have at least one English-speaking doctor on hand. Outside the city, facilities are fewer and further between, and it's probably best to travel back to the capital for any non-emergency treatment.

However, it is not normally necessary to shell out on any premium-level insurance packages. The type of cover you choose will depend on your planned activities. Speak to an agent mentioning the areas you plan to visit and what you plan to do there, and they will be able to advise you on the best cover.