From the days of the Spanish conquest, through the time when the US built the Panama Canal, until today when foreigners are flocking in numbers to its land to live, Panama has always been an attraction destination. The country has seen amazing growth with some occasional setbacks over the years. The influence the canal has had on its destiny cannot be measured, but it can be seen everywhere you look. The country of Panama is a beautiful country rich in traditions, food, and history. Here you will have an amazing opportunity not only to volunteer and help others, but to be in contact with a society on the rise.
The country is mainly driven, economically and developmentally, by its capital, Panama City. Here commerce and business flourish as a direct result of its geographical location and importance lent by the Panama Canal. This wonder of human machine works has made Panama a very important center for people from all over the world. When you walk the streets of Panama City you will see a wide variety of nationalities and cultures represented. It is refreshing to see such a cosmopolitan mixture of nationalities.
With the incredible natural diversity in Panama, it is no surprise that ecological focused projects are in demand and on the rise. Many volunteer programs are focused on conservation of the resources in the provincial areas of the country, and in the education and support of the populations in these areas. Many of the highest quality organizations are found outside the capital anywhere from one hour to multiple hour trips on land. Panama is home to an amazing diversity of environments and species, and the growth in organizations and potential organizations reflects that.
Panama boasts some decent health services, however, as seen throughout much of Latin America, it is not always made a priority. If you are in the large cities, you can find great opportunities in the more established hospitals and health service institutions. These provide great opportunities for medical students also who need to do residency work and for understanding medical advancements in the country. In the provincial towns, you can expect to be on the forefront of health education projects and in direct contact with local people. In the provinces, there are not well established institutions thus volunteers are often required to have a more hands on experience and to create alternative solutions to certain health issues.
Human Rights Advocacy
By sharing a border with Colombia and being a major byway in the immigration lines of Latin America, you can find some volunteer opportunities in human rights advocacy. It would be wise to consult groups such as the UNHCR to see what groups are in the capital currently focused on this issue. There are some other groups that have operations in various countries and they often times have an office in Panama City as well.
Health and Safety of Volunteers in Panama
Panama is a country that does not require a massive amount or any special types of vaccinations. As a rule of thumb, always have your Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Tetanus up to date. However, vaccinations such as Yellow Fever are not necessary. If you find you will be out in the country side and it makes you feel better, you can get additional vaccinations. If you are in the city areas of Panama, there is even less need for the vaccinations.
In terms of safety you should always be aware of your surroundings. When in the large cities, consult with your advisors or locals before going out to find out what areas to be in and which areas to avoid. Once you are out in the city, know where you are going and look like you know where you are going too. Make sure you have someone to go out with at night and a sure way of getting home afterwards. In the provincial towns, gauge who is alright to be around and where to be. It will be a more intimate setting in the countryside, so you will have to figure out a routine that works for you. Whether you are in the cities or in the countryside, always keep your jewelry and "bling" to a minimum. This goes for just about anywhere in Latin America. The idea of vanity and publicly wearing lots of accessories is an invitation for theft and potentially other problems. Humility in these cases will serve you well.
Visas for Volunteering in Panama
Tourist Visas are relatively easy to get and they last anywhere from 30-90 days. Check with your organization to see what they handle, what you would need, and to see about renewal methods.
Work Visas are tough to come by, as many companies have to prove why to employ you rather than a local. Check with your company or organization about who to handle this.
Contributed by Lee O'Brian