Panama (thought to mean “an abundance of fish”) is a Central American country bordered by the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, Colombia, and Costa Rica. Panama has been a stable democracy since 1990. Prosperous and progressive, Panama has the second largest Central American economy. While Panama is known for the Panama Canal and its tropical fruit exports, tourism is becoming an important industry.
Twenty percent of Panama’s land is protected, belonging to the tribes of its indigenous people–one of the largest percentages in the world.
The unemployment rate in Panama is 4.8%, and 11% of the population lives in poverty— on less than one dollar a day. Many of the poor are immigrants from Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba. These are the communities where ISL volunteers serve.
Where We Serve in Panama
ISL’s service learning volunteers in Panama seek to serve as many of the country’s poor as we can, serving in both rural, semi-rural and urban areas.
In rural and semi-rural areas, poverty is evident by the limited access to health services, constraints in transportation, and lack of economic resources. People in these communities are often exposed to infectious diseases, even though the housing in these areas is a little better than that of the poverty stricken in urban areas. Some, however, still live in houses made of mud. The population in rural areas is a mixture of Latino and indigenous peoples, who follow the crop harvests for work.
In urban areas, poverty is more evident and social risks to children and adults are greater, as many of them are exposed to violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, and other crimes.
As with any great work, it takes great relationships to get the job done. That’s why ISL Panama has partnered with nonprofits, hospitals, governmental and religious groups, and institutions to better serve the underprivileged of Panama.
Hogar de las Niñas de la Capital
A home for girls in Las Cumbres, Panamá
Soup kitchens and a school in Las Garzas de Pacora, Colón, and Chiriquí
Fundación Juntos Podemos
An elementary school for a Shanty Place call Curundu.
Escuela de Pajonal, Pajonal, Coclé
We provide medical and dental service to students.
Escuela de Rincón de las Palmas, Coclé
We provide medical and dental service to students.
Asociación de Mujeres Ngobe Bugle
We have a partnership with them to provide health care to the community of Quebrada de Guabo in the Reserve in Chiriquí.
San Martín de Porres Parrish, Cerro Batea, San Miguelito Panamá
Nuestra Sra. Del Rosario Parrish, Torrijos Carter, San Miguelito Panamá
Fundación Spay Panamá, Betania, Panamá
What to Expect as a Service Learning Volunteer
Volunteers arrive for service in Panama via the Tocumen International Airport (PTY), which is located 15 miles from downtown Panama City. After going through Customs and retrieving luggage, volunteers are met by an ISL staff member. They are then transported by taxi, van, or bus (arranged and paid for by ISL) to their hotel or guest house in the province closest to their work site.
Airport to hotel travel time varies from 20 minutes to 1 hour. Daily travel time from housing to work sites varies from 15 to 45 minutes. On recreation days, travel may take up to a maximum of three hours. Housing locations may change as volunteers move to a new work site or as they travel to their recreation day location.
With ISL Panama, you’ll have many opportunities to experience the culture of those you serve as volunteers. Here are some of the possibilities:
Learn how to make one of many famous and delicious Panamanian dishes.
From Salsa, Merengue, and Bachata to Panamanian folk dance, this is an excellent opportunity to learn the basics of Latin dance.
Walk around the city and explore parks and architecture, from colonial times to very modern buildings.
Music Workshop Learn about traditional instruments, enjoy a moment to connect with music and learn how to meditate with the sounds.
Local Handcraft Tour
Learn about local handcrafts and study the materials used to make them at the craft market.
Traditional Dress Try on the Panamanian traditional dress called Pollera for girls and Montuno for boys. Take photos for an unforgettable memory of your visit.
Casa Gongora visit Visit a 17th century colonial period house called Casa Gongora. Panamanian artists hold art expositions there as well.
After long days of service work, here are some of your Recreation Day options.
Panama Canal Visitor Center
The Miraflores Visitors Center (CVM) is located on the east side of the Miraflores Locks. It allows visitors to observe transiting vessels from the distance of only a few yards and to learn about the various operations of the Panama Canal, the history of its construction, its participation in the world markets, and the importance of its watershed.
$30.00 for foreign students with university ID
Summit Garden and Zoo
A great introduction to the plants and animals of Panama’s rain forests, Summit Garden was founded by the Panama Canal Company in 1923 as a research station for the tropical flora of Panama. Through this research teak was introduced to the American continent. Now a zoo and a botanical garden, some of the attractions are the harpy eagle, the national bird of Panama, the Suicide tree and the Cinnamon tree.
This 600 foot hill is the highest and most popular viewpoint in Panama City, with views over the Panama Canal, city center and Casco Viejo, the old town region. The road up the hill, though somewhat steep, is suitable for hikers of all abilities and it is not uncommon to see sloths, armadillos, coatimundis and deer along the way. –Free
Panama Viejo (Old Panama), a World Heritage Site, contains the remaining ruins of the first Spanish city on the Pacific coast of the Americas. Founded in the 1500’s, the city was the launching point of expeditions that conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. For 150 years it flourished as Spain exported Peruvian gold and silver to Europe via Panamá. Plagued by fire and earthquakes, it was finally decimated in the 1600’s by the pirate Henry Morgan, who sacked the city. A visit to the museum before touring the ruins is recommended.
— $6.00 per person
Metropolitan Nature Park – Cieneguita Trail
This park is one of the world’s few wilderness areas within the boundaries of a capital city. Follow the trail as it winds through the rain forest, keeping an eye out for agoutis (large guinea pig-like burrowing rodents ) and your ears perked for tamarins, tiny monkeys that sound like birds.
Metropolitan Nature Park – Canopy Crane
An international team of scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute set up a crane in this park to study the forest canopy, where most of the rain forest species live. Currently there are 12 cranes in the world used for this purpose, two of which are in Panama; you can ride one through a guided tour. $$$ (expensive)
Mi Pueblito, meaning “my little village,” is a mock village with life-sized replicas of colonial, Afro-American and indigenous dwellings, showcasing the diverse customs and traditions of Panamá–a great option for photos and a good place to buy handcrafts.
Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City, is a World Heritage Site. Completed and settled in the 1600’s, it was built after the original Panamá City was destroyed by pirates.
This bay-front area with unbeatable views is a favorite place for Panamanians and foreigners to stroll or jog along the water. Watch ships line up for passage through the Panama Canal and enjoy an impressive view of Panama City, as well.
Isla Taboga is part of an island chain 12 miles south of Panama City. The largest island in this chain, Isla Taboga dots the Pacific side of the Panama Canal and boasts the closest beaches to Panama City. Besides relaxing and enjoying the beach you can walk through its quaint and colorful town, hike to the top of El Cruce for an amazing view, go snorkeling, or take an historical tour.
Ferry-Boat Fares – $15 adults
The Amador Causeway connects three islands to the mainland near the entrance to the Panama Canal. From the causeway, there is an amazing view of Panama City and the Bridge of the Americas. Many Panamanians spend their weekends here jogging, riding a bicycle or rollerblading, and enjoying a meal in one of the many island restaurants.
Bike rentals – $3 – $18 USD per hour
Kuna Yala Day Tour
Kuna Yala is a collection of some 365 islands (one for each day of the year) where you can swim and snorkel. The islands of Kuna Yala have been formed by an accumulation of coral and are covered with palm trees and indescribable white sand beaches.
You’ll love walking along the white beaches, swimming in the crystalline water, relaxing in a hammock in the shade of the palm trees, and listening to the sound of the waves and ocean breeze.
Cost: $ 130.00 per person – a full day tour package that includes: breakfast, lunch, round trip boat and jeep transportation, entrance fee to the region of Kuna Yala, beach access, and snorkeling gear.
Whether lodging at a hacienda on the beach of the Sea of Cortez in Puerto Penasco, Mexico; a walled convent in the heart of Alajuela, Costa Rica; or an apartment situated above the bustling metropolis of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, ISL’s volunteer lodgings are unique and carefully chosen based on very important criteria.
Accommodations are safe, clean, and within a reasonable driving distance to service sites and recreational opportunities. Volunteers are provided their own bed, easy access to restrooms and showers, as well as meeting spaces for training and fellowship. Many ISL accommodations are unique and may include retreat houses, guest houses or home stays, all of which provide a distinctive cultural experience. ISL Country Coordinators will provide a description of your specific lodging in the Final Trip Document uploaded to your My ISL Portal prior to your departure.
Casa de Retiro Espiritual Monte Alverna, Betania, Panamá,
Instituto Cooperativo Interamericano
Fundación Alternativa, Coclesito, Colón
Hotel Roma, Panamá
Hotel Residencial Benidorm, Panamá
Hotel Ojos del Río
La iguana Ecor Resort, Coclé
Hotel Santa Fe, Veraguas
Hotel Lleras, David, Chiriquí
Hotel Residencial Cervantes, David, Chiriquí
Hostal Llano Lindo, Volcán, Chiriquí
We love our staff and we are positive that you will too! Each staff member is professional, courteous, and has the same passion as you do: to serve others.