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Is Panama safe?

Is Panama Safe? A Guide to Safety and Security for Expats

Are you considering relocating to Panama? If so, you’re joining a growing number of expats who have made it their top choice in Central America. But is Panama safe? In this article, we’ll explore Panama’s safety situation, discuss the areas expats should be cautious of, and highlight some of the safest and most expat-friendly destinations across the country.

If you’re thinking about moving to Panama, you’re not alone. In recent years, Panama has become the most popular Central American destination for expats. Indeed, the 2023 Expat Insider Survey by InterNations puts Panama as third in its list of the best places for expats, after Mexico and Spain. The only other Central American country in the top ten is Costa Rica, at seventh.

Panama’s welcoming atmosphere, community spirit, and affordability make it attractive for expats. These are the main attributes, according to the Expat Insider Survey.

But what about safety and security? Is Panama safe?

InterNations puts Panama as 28th safest out of the 53 countries surveyed for 2023. That’s not so surprising, as Central America will never win awards as a “safe” region. Despite many improvements over recent years, particularly in El Salvador and the other Northern Triangle countries, the region has a reputation that will be hard to shift.

Panama’s homicide rate last year was 11.5 per 100,000, which was down slightly on the previous year. Before 2022, Panama’s homicide rate had been on the rise for a few years, albeit at a slow rate. Changes in how the police dealt with crime have helped the situation. It’s worth saying, though, that compared to the United States, Canada, and Europe, an 11.5 per 100k homicide rate is high. But that’s Central America for you. Panama’s homicide rate stood fifth out of seven in the Central American pack last year, with only El Salvador and Nicaragua having lower rates.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Census of Panama (INEC), gang and drug-related violence accounts for about 40% of all homicides in the country. This is the biggest cause of homicide in Panama.

Should expats in Panama worry about all this?

In a word, yes. Let’s retract that a little. Maybe “worry” is too strong a word. Any potential expat looking at Panama or any other country in Central America should be aware of crime. They’re not in Kansas anymore. Central America as a region is generally more dangerous than the home countries of North American and European expats. That’s just a fact. But that doesn’t mean expats in Panama should live in fear. After all, it’s still the third best expat destination in the world for a reason, right? And Mexico – deemed the best expat destination in the world – has a far higher rate. Awareness is key when moving to Panama, and that’s what we want to help you with right now.

The best way to stay safe in Panama is to stay out of dangerous areas and to live in safe areas.

Luckily, for North American and European expats, that’s pretty easy. No American or Canadian in their right mind is going to move to Colón, for example. They’re going to go where they feel safe.

Most expats in Panama live in Panama City, the cosmopolitan capital

Panama City feels remarkably safe and easy to walk around. If you’re moving to Panama City, you’re probably going to end up El Cangrejo, Punta Pacifica, El Dorado, or any number of other afluent neighborhoods. You don’t want to live neighborhoods like El Chorillo or San Miguelito, which are rough. Visit in the day, if you want, as long as you’re streetwise or have a guide. But don’t live in these areas. The overall homicide rate in Panama City last year was 38.1 per 100,000, far above the national rate. But the vast majority of those homicides occurred in the areas where you don’t want to be.

Avoid the city of Colón. Those five words could be the most important words you’ll read regarding safety in Panama. Colón is located on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal and is a key transit point for cocaine heading to Europe, according to Insight Crime. With only 7% of Panama’s population, last year Colón (homicide rate 41.0 per 100k) had 21% of the country’s homicide. You, as a foreigner, have zero business going to Colón.

And then there’s the Darién. The chances of you being all the way down here in the steaming jungles that constitute Panama’s border with Colombia are rare, anyway – it’s virtually inaccessible. But just in case, don’t. The communities and villages down here are safe enough, but be aware the rainforests of Darien near the border are wild west country.

Elsewhere in Panama, you’re good.

Outside of Panama City, the interior (as Panamanians refer to all Panama except for the capital) beckons. There are obviously many places to settle, although most of them have few expats and remain off the beaten track. But there are a few good, safe places in Panama with vibrant expat communities to enjoy:

  • Boquete. This idyllic mountain town is famed for its cool climate, lush greenery, and a sense of tranquility. More importantly, it has consistently low crime rates and a strong community. A big favorite for expat retirees.
  • Coronado. Known for its stunning beaches and thriving expat community, Coronado also scores high on safety. The locals are friendly, the police are responsive, and the community stays well-connected. The city has also strengthened its local security measures, making life far less risky.
  • Volcán. This is a small, quiet town in the Chiriqui highlands, not too far from Boquete. Volcan’s crime rates are low, thanks in part to its smaller population and tightly-knit community. It’s the ideal fusion of security, tranquility, and breathtaking natural beauty.
  • Pedasí. A charming coastal town in the Azuero Peninsula, Pedasi has a welcoming vibe and a strong sense of community safety. The expat community here is vibrant and involved in keeping the town safe, and local police have an active presence.
  • Valle de Antón. A beautiful valley west of Panama City inland from Coronado. It is known for rural feel and charming villages. The valley is also home to a number of hot springs, which make it a popular destination for tourists and expats alike.
  • Bocas del Toro. Bocas del Toro is an expat hotspot in Panama. The whole province is called Bocas del Toro, but for our purposes, we’re talking about the offshore Caribbean islands where most people live. Bocas Town, is a laid-back with a mix of Caribbean and Latin influences.

If you’re looking for safety in Panama, you’ll find it in any of these locations, as well as the safer areas of Panama City already mentioned. Be aware that crime can – and does- happen anywhere, so nowhere is perfect. But you’re ahead of the game, safety-wise if you settle in any of these areas.

There are other things you can do to keep safe in Panama

It’s not all about location, some of it is going to be on you. You can stay out of trouble, for a start, by avoiding drugs. Don’t go there. Respect the laws of Panama and keep on the down low. That way you’ll avoid the kind of people for whom violence is normal. Here are some other tips:

  • Be streetwise. Know where you are at all times and try not to stand out as a tourist. Don’t carry lots of cash around with you, don’t buy rounds for the bar, and don’t flash the iPhone. Again, it’s all about being cool and nondescript.
  • Engage with your community and make friends. If there’s a neighborhood watch, join in. If there’s a safety briefing, attend it. Be an active part of your community’s safety efforts in Panama.
  • Home security. If you’re renting, make sure your place is secure and has an alarm at least. If you’re buying a home in Panama, invest in a solid security system. Consider different types of video monitoring devices, such as thermal vision security cameras and AI-enabled systems.

The above tips are obviously applicable for anywhere in the world, not just Panama

But as already mentioned, Panama is part of Central America and Central America has a reputation for not being safe. So it’s important to be and feel as safe as possible in this part of the world. It’s not just about beautiful sunsets and tropical beaches. Safety creates a foundation where all these elements can be enjoyed and cherished to the max.

CA Staff

CA Staff