Getting Around in Panama
Panama is a small country with good transportation infrastructure. It’s easy to get most places by bus or small plane, and the rides are generally short and painless. Panama’s roads are in good shape. The country’s main highway, the Interamericana (or Interamerican Highway) runs west to east and is easy to navigate. In Panama this highway runs from the border with Costa Rica all the way to the town of Yaviza in the Darién. No roads go past this point.
Buses are the cheapest way to explore Panama. Most are charter buses that are comfortable and efficient. Rental cars are another option for travelers interested in exploring the isthmus at their own pace (and who are comfortable driving in a foreign country). Domestic flights are the fastest way to travel to many parts of Panama. In more remote areas – like the Comarca de Guna Yala (San Blas Islands) and the Archipiélago de Las Perlas (Pearl Islands) – they are the only sensible option.
Panama is reasonably well connected by domestic flights. Because Panama is so small, flights are generally quite short – the longest takes around an hour, not including interim stops. Popular routes can have several flights a day, while less traveled destinations will only be served once or twice a week. Domestic flights often make several stops along the way, so be sure to get off at the right place.
Panama’s main domestic airport is in Panama City. This airport, Aeropuerto Marcos A. Gelabert, is near the Albrook Mall and bus terminal, not far from downtown. The majority of flights begin and end here. There is also a domestic terminal at the Tocumen International Airport, although it’s used much less frequently than the Albrook airport. This terminal is used mainly for international travelers connecting to destinations in western Panama.
The airport in the city of David in western Panama finished an expansion in 2012 with the goal of becoming an international hub. However, things have yet to really take off. This being the case, travelers will generally need to go through Albrook to get to other places in Panama.
The weight limit on baggage for domestic flights is around 12 kilograms (26.5 pounds). This includes both checked luggage and carry-ons. Passengers are sometimes asked to report their body weight as well.
By Rental Car
Panama’s transportation system – which includes domestic flights, buses, boats, private transports, and taxis – makes it easy to get around without ever stepping behind the wheel. In most cases, this is the best way to travel. You certainly won’t want to drive within Panama City or other urban areas.
However, some travelers may want the autonomy of having a rental car, especially if they’re on a longer trip. Be warned, however, that driving in Panama can involve busy streets and in rural areas, very rough roads.
Visitors to Panama can drive for 90 days. All drivers must have a driver’s license from their home country and be prepared to present a passport. Two kinds of insurance are required when driving a rental car. Essentially, these are collision and robbery insurance (called cobertura de colisión y robo) and liability insurance for third parties (called cobertura de daños a terceros o responsabilidad civil). Some traveler’s insurance and home auto insurance policies cover car-rental protection, but it’s a good idea to check ahead of time to make sure that it includes Panama.
Panamanian law requires drivers and passengers to wear seatbelts. It’s illegal to drive while talking on a cell phone, and also illegal to not wear a shirt while driving (seriously).
Panama City has many rental car agencies, and others can be found in David or other major cities. The major companies include Avid, Hertz, Thrifty, Alamo, Budget, and National.
Buses are the primary way that most Panamanians – and many travelers – get around. They run frequently and are cheap and fast. Rural buses tend to only run from dawn till dusk, but there are night buses for longer treks. Very few routes are express, meaning that your bus will likely make several stops along the way. For longer journeys, your bus may stop at a roadside restaurant/cafeteria, allowing passengers to re-fuel with food and go to the bathroom.
The country’s largest bus terminal is in Panama City. Known as the Gran Terminal de Transportes, this terminal is in the Albrook neighborhood. Buses from here go to every part of Panama. The two other largest bus hubs are in Santiago and David. The main bus terminals for the Azuero Peninsula are in Chitré and Las Tablas.
Reservations are not always necessary, but are a good idea on popular routes. At the very least, arrive at the station early to purchase tickets.
Boats are the main form of transportation in several parts of Panama, including the archipelagos of Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala (San Blas Islands), as well as parts of the Darién and in mainland Bocas. Ferries and water-taxis run between Panama City and Isla Taboga and Isla Contadora, and between Isla Colón and the mainland in Bocas del Toro.
The Bocas archipelago is one of Panama’s hottest destinations, and as such has developed a relatively straightforward and cheap boat service. Almirante is the mainland port where travelers will depart to the Bocas archipelago—both water taxis and a car ferry leave from here. In the rest of Panama, transportation by boat is less scheduled and commercial, and may involve negotiating a price with a local boat owner. By and large, it’s easier to sign up with a reputable tour company. If you do decide to negotiate your own boat ride, however, be sure to agree on a price ahead of time.
Boat trips are often taken in either fiberglass boats or long wooden dugout canoes called piraguas. Both will have outboard motors and should be equipped with life jackets (salvavidas). During fishing, diving, or sailing tours, the boats will be larger and better equipped.
Taxis are ubiquitous in Panama. Even in small towns, you’ll see these brightly painted yellow cars and trucks plying the streets. The taxis don’t have meters, but local zoning laws set some fares. Popular routes also tend to have set prices. Most fares are cheap, but it’s wise to establish a price before you leave. It’s also smart to clarify whether the price is per person or for the total amount. Most taxis within Panama City should cost around US$3, and less in small towns. Drivers do not expect a tip.
Upscale “tourist taxis” are available in Panama City. These are usually larger, air-conditioned sedans. They charge more than yellow cabs and tend to group around upscale hotels.
Taxis run day and night. At night, however, you might want to call for a radio cab rather than wait around for one to show up—hotels and restaurants can usually do this for you.
Panama’s only passenger rail line is the Panama Canal Railway. Rebuilt in 2001, this historic line runs between Corozal (just outside downtown Panama City) and Colón. The hour-long trip runs parallel to the Panama Canal and gives good views of Panama’s interior. Although some Panamanians use it as a commuter service, the railroad is mostly used by travelers day tripping from Panama City. The vintage train features a carpeted interior, dark wood paneling, and open-air viewing decks. Those who take the train to Colón should either hire a taxi or tour operator beforehand to pick them up at the Colón station. Colón is unsafe and should not be entered.