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Volunteer in Panama

Volunteering in Panama is your chance to discover the humming metropolis of Panama City, incredibly rich and accessible rainforests and an abundance of exotic species...

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Volunteer Projects and Internships in Panama

Volunteer work in Panama

The name Panamá means "abundance of fish, butterflies and trees", according to ancient, Pre-Columbian Panamanian dialect. Panama is a natural land bridge that connects North and Central America with South America. That's why Panama hosts animal and plant species from both regions! You can find more bird species in Panama alone than in North America as a whole! Volunteer programs in Panama provide you with the opportunity to lend a hand to the country's gradual, sustainable development.

There are a lot of different volunteer programs in Panama, so no matter where your interest lies, there will be a project that matches it. This can be either working with children in daycare centers, helping at an organic farm or supporting local environmental efforts. You want to learn more about the different volunteer work in Panama? Then keep on reading.

Teaching in Panama

Education in Panama is obligatory for the first seven years of the primary education and the three years of Middle School. And more than 90% of the Panamanians are literate. Despite of this, the education system in Panama has been described as one of the worst in the world! Needless to say, the educational system in Panama suffers substantial inequalities and even though public schools are free for the duration of the obligatory study years, only major cities have access to modern facilities.

Volunteer work in Panama in programs such as teaching is not only rewarding, it will also help you grow as a person. To be working in teaching projects with children you need to be:

  • open minded
  • creative
  • flexible
  • prepared to face challenges

In some volunteer programs in Panama, the need for creativity and improvisation is paramount. As a volunteer in Panama in the field of education you will be working in a team and if you have the necessary skills you might get the chance to plan classes independently. If you decide to work as an English teacher you will help in improving the vocabulary as well as spoken English skills of the students. We recommend you to make use of your creativity to organize educational games to play with the children.

Some teaching projects will even get volunteers to beautiful beaches close to Bocas del Toro. Volunteer programs in Panama here strive to provide equal access to education for the indigenous communities of Bocas del Toro. Volunteers have the unique opportunity to be immersed in the island communities of Bocas del Toro while also being able to learn or improve their Spanish.

Medical and healthcare

Healthcare in Panama is provided through the public and private sector. The public sector is funded through the Ministry of Health and the Social Security System. Healthcare is generally good and affordable. However, problems with public health care are usually found in the countryside, in the rural areas of Panama, where they struggle with lack of funding and non-availability of doctors. Although medical care is cheaper in Panama than in the US, considering the average Panamanian wage it is still quite expensive for most people.

Being a volunteer in Panama in the field of health care can be a great opportunity for you to really make a difference in the lives of the unfortunate and to get some hands-on medical experience. Coming from a medical background, your help is always well received. As a volunteer in Panama, you can join many projects in areas such as:

  • Health education
  • Hospital placements
  • Dentistry
  • Nursing
  • Medical and healthcare internships

Animal and wildlife conservation

Panama is home to 954 indigenous bird species, plus hundreds of migrating bird species. Around 225 mammal species, 214 reptile species and 143 amphibious species can be found in Panama as well. Panama is home to the Quetzal, a resplendent bird that was sacred to the Mayans and figures prominently in their artwork and pre-Hispanic legends. It was so venerated that in Mayan times, it was forbidden to kill it.

As a volunteer in Panama, you are also able to observe sloths in their natural habitat - probably sleeping. They usually live solitary high up in the tree canopy of the tropical rainforest, where they eat and mainly sleep as they spend around 20 hours a day inactive!

Additional to this awesome species, Panama is home to five of the world's seven species of sea turtles and you can spot them along both coasts. Although watching these rare creatures lay their eggs above the waterline is a great experience, some environmental projects in Panama are raising awareness of the negative impact massive tourism carries for the sea turtles. They promote responsible tourism to these beach areas during the nesting and hatching season.

Cost of living

The suggested daily budget for living as a volunteer in Panama is between US$20 and US$50. This is an estimate made considering the average price of some of the services you might need and things you might want to buy when volunteering. It gives you a general overview of how much things cost in this country, so you can be prepared and save the money you will need.

Additional costs you should consider as a future volunteer in Panama:

An exemplary overview of living costs in Panama (in US$, for one person) is:

Things to know before you volunteer in Panama

When you travel to a different country for voluntary work it is important to familiarise yourself with its culture and social characteristics. This helps you to settle in quickly and avoid misunderstandings. These are some tips that you might find helpful when preparing for your volunteer work in Panama.

Safety & Precautions

Panama is slowly becoming a very popular touristic site and the country is usually trouble-free. Although Panama is a safe country for travellers, you still should exercise common sense. To stay safe, you should keep the following safety guidelines in mind at all times during your volunteer journey in Panama:

  • Due to the country's closeness to Mexico and Colombia, drug-related violence can occur especially in marginal zones of the country. Be aware of this, and do not visit violent neighbourhoods or "risk zones", like Ciudad de Colón, or the Av. Central, Barrio de Calidonia, Chorrillo and/or Curundú barrios, in Panama City.
  • Keep your personal belongings and important travel documents with you at all times. It also makes sense to bring attested photocopies of these documents, in case you loose them.
  • If you are going out, it does not make sense to take a lot of money with you, as well as jewellery or other fancy possessions. Take only the money you will need and leave everything else back home.

Important to know: Possession, trafficking and manufacture of drugs is a serious offense in Panama. Some of these offences carry long prison sentences, so please, do not get involved!

Culture & religion

Panama is a small country in Latin America, which has a land border in the north with Costa Rica and in the south with Colombia. Nearly half of the Panamanian population lives in the metropolitan area of Panama City. Panama's culture has evolved from a diverse set of different ethnic groups, most of them indigenous. These include Cuna, Guaymi and Panamanian Indians. During the 16th century, the indigenous cultures were affected by the colonization by the Spanish.

Following the colonization, there was a definite class system in Panama, with the richer white population at the top and the native Indians and black population at the bottom. While you still might encounter this class system in the rural areas of Panama, the cities are becoming more cosmopolitan. While Panama is a very modern country and the current president is a woman, machismo is still very alive amongst men. Catcalls and whistles from men on the streets towards women are not an uncommon thing.

Around 80% of Panama's population is Catholic, but Protestantism has grown in popularity over the last few decades. Religious festivals are very much a part of the culture in Panama and are usually celebrated with music and parades.

To sum up this section, these are our top 5 tips to keep in mind as a volunteer in Panama:

  1. Men usually shake hands, unless they are close friends or family members (in this case, they will hug). Women usually hug each other or kiss each other on the cheek.
  2. Unlike other Latin American countries, Panamanians are not as touchy!
  3. When going to a restaurant, tips are expected to be 10%.
  4. Punctuality when meeting friends is usually not respected, so don't take this too seriously. You might need to get used to this.
  5. If you are invited to have lunch or dinner at a restaurant, your host will refuse to let you pay but you should bring a small gift to show your gratitude.

Health advice

Going abroad for volunteering always includes some issues and precautions that need to be taken into account, especially if you are traveling to a country with tropical temperatures and wilderness. The health risks will vary between individuals and many depend on your activities, length of stay and general health.

  • Eat and drink safely: Don't eat undercooked food, avoid eating street food and don't drink water from the tap!
  • Also, wash your hands often, especially before eating.
  • Plan for how you will get health care during your stay. Get a travel insurance and bring medicine with you, especially if you need special medication.
  • Prevent bug bites: You might want to cover exposed skin, use an insect repellent, and use a bed net.
  • Make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccinations before every trip. These include MMR, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio, yellow fever and your yearly flu shot. Moreover, the US-based Health protection agency CDC recommends hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations because you can get these diseases through contaminated food or water in Panama.

Who can volunteer in Panama?

You might have noticed by now that there are a lot of different projects that require different skills and abilities from their international volunteers. While you can find out the specific requirements for each project on their profiles on Volunteer World, here are some general requirements that apply to most volunteer programs in Panama:

  • You need to be at least 18 years old for most of the volunteer work in Panama. When in doubt, we advise you to get in contact with the local project manager, as in some projects you can also volunteer when you're 16 years old.
  • You should have an intermediate level of English knowledge; most projects for volunteering also require basic to intermediate Spanish knowledge.
  • Depending on the project you're interested in, you might need to provide a criminal background check and a health declaration before volunteering.

Visa regulations to volunteer in Panama

You have made it to the last section of this guide, which is another really important aspect while planning your trip as a volunteer in Panama: getting your volunteer visa for Panama.

Please consider that the following information is based on a best practice approach, which has been made according to the best of our knowledge and in cooperation with several volunteer organisations. That's why you should please make sure to discuss your visa requirements with your project coordinator on Volunteer World. If in doubt, we also recommend getting in touch with the embassy or consulate of Panama in your country .

General entry information

There are some general requirements you should comply with upon your arrival:

  • Please check the current validity of your passport. Your passport should have at least 6-month validity from the date of arrival in Panama.
  • Make sure your passport has at least two blank Visa pages. Panama requires that you have adequate unused pages in your passport, allowing for any necessary stamps upon arrival and departure.
  • Please check if a transit visa is required for any connections.
  • Make sure to be in possession of a valid return ticket.

Best practice for short-term volunteers

Panama grants 180-day tourist visas to residents of most foreign countries without prior application. Among others, residents of Canada, the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand or the European Union, are able to work as a volunteer on a tourist visa for up to 180 days.

Citizens from all other nationalities need a Tourist Card (US$5) that they either have to get from the embassy of Panama in their country or at the airport in Panama before going through immigration. Please contact the embassy in your country to find out which is the case for you.

Best practice for long-term volunteers

If you are planning to volunteer in Panama for more than 180-days and are a citizen from countries granted a 180-day tourist visa, you can apply for an extension for up to another 30, 60 or 90 days. Applications are approved or denied on a case-by-case basis. Immigration recommends you apply at least a week before your time is up.

In case you do not want to apply for a visa extension or you would like to extend your stay for longer than 90 days you can always also leave the country for 3 days. Upon return a new 180-day visa will be granted to you.

For more information please consult the closest embassy or consulate of Panama.