With this article, we hope to provide expats in Panama with all the information they need on the healthcare system, housing, and other essential aspects of life in Panama. If you are looking for information on visas, work permits, and doing business, please check out our articles on moving to Panama and working in Panama.
Over 3.6 million people live in the country, more than half of them in the Panama City-Colón metropolitan corridor. Although the culture and customs of people living in Panama are largely Spanish and Caribbean, the nation is something of an ethnic melting pot due to its long history in trade and commerce. According to the CIA World Factbook, the ethnic composition of the population is as follows: mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 65%, Native American 12%, black or African descent 9%, mulatto 7%, white 7%.
Among the various ethnic groups in Panama, those of Afro-Antillean and Chinese origin make up a significant part of the population. The latter are often descendants of the Chinese immigrants who first came in the 19th century to help build the Panama railway. Similarly, a lot of the people of West Indian descent can trace their origins back to the Afro-Caribbean workers who were recruited to build the Panama Canal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Up to 50% of people in Panama are estimated to have African ancestors of some kind or other.
The official and predominant language is Spanish, with 93% of people in Panama speaking it as their first language. However, many people are bilingual, i.e. they speak Spanish and English (8%), French (4%), Arabic (1%) or an indigenous language. Given the country’s Spanish colonial history, the fact that about 85% of those living in Panama are Roman Catholics is hardly surprising.
For a small country, Panama has a lot to offer in the way of leisure activities. Those interested in nightlife and shopping will feel right at home in Panama City, as it has plenty of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, shopping malls and boutiques. UNESCO world heritage buildings and interesting museums can also be found in the capital, along with a buzzing art scene and many annual music festivals.
Flanked on both sides by oceans, Panama presents a large variety of watersports to enjoy. Fans of surfing, windsurfing, body- and kiteboarding will find suitable breaks and weather conditions for their favorite hobbies along either of the coastlines. Panama´s indigenous name means “Abundance of fish”, and there are excellent opportunities for snorkeling, diving and fishing. In addition to beautiful beaches, you can explore Panama´s jungles and mountains, as well as many small islands in the San Blas archipelago. Hiking, rafting, and birdwatching are some activities expats living in Panama can enjoy on their days off.
Living in Panama, you will experience a tropical climate with little seasonal variations, high temperatures and high humidity. People in Panama’s coastal regions on the Caribbean side will experience much heavier rainfall than on the Pacific coast. The rainy season typically lasts from April to December, but it varies between seven and nine months. A typical dry season day on the Caribbean coast usually sees temperatures between 24 and 30 degrees Celsius. Panama’s south, on the Pacific coast, sees slightly cooler temperatures.
Due to its location on the isthmus between North and South America, Panama is a long, narrow piece of land. Although large areas are still covered in forest, deforestation is a continuing threat to people living in Panama. However, as the country lies outside of the hurricane belt, you are unlikely to be affected by many natural catastrophes.
As soon as you know where and for how long you will be living in Panama, you should visit your doctor to see whether you need any vaccinations. As in most tropical countries, mosquitoes and unclean water or food pose the two most common threats to your health.
Vector-borne diseases that could affect expatriates are, depending on the area, malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya. Malaria can be found in Bocas del Toro on the Atlantic coast, as well as areas bordering Costa Rica and Colombia, but also in some outlying parts of Panama City. Dengue fever is rather common among people living in Panama, and outbreaks happen annually. As there are no vaccinations against them, the only effective way to protect yourself from chikungunya, malaria and dengue fever is by warding off mosquitoes, so make sure to take all sensible precautions against mosquito bites. Malaria mosquitos are active during night, but the type that carries dengue and chikungunya bites during the day, so it is good to stay vigilant at all times.
If you are entering Panama from countries with incidence of yellow fever, a proof of vaccination is required by the authorities. Another vaccine that is highly recommended for anyone in Panama, especially those with small children, is a jab against rabies. Living in Panama can be a very outdoorsy experience, and rabies is a common disease in stray dogs and cats, but also in the many vampire bats. When walking through woodland or shrubs, please make sure to wear adequate shoes to protect yourself against snake bites.
Tap water is safe to drink in Panama City, but is to be avoided everywhere else in the country (also in form of ice cubes). Do take some anti-diarrheal medication with you as you might have troubles adapting to the local water and food during your first few weeks in Panama.
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