Other Diseases and Dangers
Panama has seen flare-ups of viral meningitis, pertussis (whooping cough), and tuberculosis in recent years, but travelers are at little risk of contracting them.
Remember that Panama is just 8 degrees north of the equator, and it’s easy to get sunburned amazingly fast. Pale northerners have been known to get a nasty sunburn after just a half hour out in the noonday sun. Try to stay in the shade noon–3 p.m. Don’t be fooled by mild or cloudy days. Even if you don’t feel hot, ultraviolet rays are frying you. Always wear sunscreen. Be especially careful when out on the water, which reflects sun rays like a mirror. (Ever had a chin burn?) Sunglasses and a hat are also a good idea. Drink lots of water to avoid dehydration even when it feels humid.
A rip current, sometimes erroneously referred to as an “undertow,” is created when surf gets trapped on its way back out to sea, often by a sandbar. Pressure builds up until a concentrated stream of water rips a hole in the sandbar and water surges back out in a narrow channel, sometimes at impressive speed. It’s similar in effect to pulling the plug on a bathroom drain.
Be on the lookout for patches of muddy, dark, or disturbed water, which can indicate a rip. If you feel yourself being pulled out to sea, don’t panic and don’t try to fight against the current—it’s stronger than you are. Instead, swim with the current but try to veer off at a 45-degree angle to it. Contrary to popular belief, rip currents don’t drag swimmers under or sweep them out to sea. They are typically short and narrow and swimmers should be able to swim out of the channel fairly quickly. Tired or poor swimmers should just float with the current until it weakens, then swim parallel to shore to escape it. Stay calm and conserve your strength. Once you escape the rip current, swim back to shore.
Panamanians often prefer to bathe along stretches of beach with muddy sand and little surf, knowing from experience how powerful those majestic, rolling waves on the picture postcard beaches can be. Waves can get enormous on some of Panama’s beaches and give swimmers a real pounding. Use common sense and don’t wade in past your shins when the surf is high, and look out for hidden rocks and reefs.
Shark attacks are highly unlikely, particularly in the Caribbean. The Pacific sea snake is one of the most toxic creatures in the world, but the chances of coming across one are slim—I’ve only ever seen one in all my years of swimming in Panama, and it was dead, washed up on the shore. Barracudas may be scary-looking, but they’re not generally aggressive toward humans. However, do not wear shiny jewelry while swimming or diving. The flash of the sun off jewelry looks to a barracuda like the scales of a fish, and they may dart in the direction of it.
Look out for sea urchins and fire coral, and never touch any other kind of coral; it’ll scrape you up and cause serious damage to the coral. Shuffle your feet on entering or exiting the water to avoid stepping on a hidden ray.
The chance of contracting hypothermia in a tropical country such as Panama may seem slim, but it can get quite chilly in the highlands, even in the Darién, something not all travelers are prepared for. Do not go hiking in the highlands, particularly around Volcán Barú, in just shorts and a t-shirt. It can get down to freezing at the top of Barú even when it’s sweltering hot far down the volcano. Bring warm, waterproof clothing to change into if it gets wet and chilly, which it often does.
Hypothermia is caused by a drop in the body’s core temperature, so it’s possible to become hypothermic even in milder conditions. To avoid hypothermia, stay dry, dress warmly, avoid alcohol and rapid changes of temperature, and drink lots of water.
Early warning signs of hypothermia include loss of coordination, inability to concentrate, and involuntary shivering. If the afflicted person continues to shiver even when bundled up, the hypothermia is more serious.
Almost every hiker new to the tropics worries about snakes. As has been mentioned several times throughout the book, it’s rare to come across a snake while hiking and extremely rare to be bothered by one. The chances of coming across one near any population center are even smaller, partly because Panamanians are aggressive about exterminating snakes in their midst. However, be cautious around leaf and trash piles even in the cities, just in case.
There are several things hikers can do to make it even less likely they’ll be bothered by a slithering critter.
First, be careful stepping over tree falls, which attract snakes (not to mention stinging insects). Also be careful around piles of dried leaves. Before gathering any to start a fire, shuffle boot-clad feet through them.
This should go without saying, but don’t play with snakes in the tropics. Some people seem irresistibly drawn to disturbing the creatures, which usually just want to be left alone. A European tourist I was hiking with in the Darién once tried to use his walking stick to prod a baby fer-de-lance we came across. The fer-de-lance is a deadly pit viper, and even the babies can be lethal. They can also be extremely aggressive and quick when disturbed. The guide and I managed to save the guy from his foolish, possibly suicidal, curiosity.
In the extremely unlikely event of being bitten, try not to panic. All that accomplishes is to increase one’s heart rate and pump any injected venom faster through one’s system. Poisonous snakes don’t always inject venom when they strike. Obviously, get to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. If possible without risking further bites, kill the snake and take it with you to be identified. Do not try slashing at the wound and sucking out the poison, as usually this is ineffective and can actually make things worse. Keep the site of the wound below the heart and head if possible.
Do not feed, tease, or get too close to monkeys. Some can be aggressive if they feel threatened and will fling feces, bite, or otherwise attack. If bitten by a monkey, get medical help immediately. They can carry rabies and other nasty diseases.
Peccaries, a kind of wild pig, are a concern in the more remote forests, particularly in the Darién. Because their natural predator, the jaguar, has been hunted to near extinction, peccary populations have exploded in some areas. They sometimes descend on a spot by the hundreds and tear everything up. They can run surprisingly fast and have fearsomely sharp teeth. Those unlucky enough to get in the path of a herd should climb the nearest tall tree and stay there until they move on.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition