Getting to Panama
Most people get to Panama by air, which makes sense, as flying is the simplest and most comfortable way to travel here. There are non-stop flights from North and South America, and some direct routes from Europe and the U.K. It’s also possible to drive (or bus) into Panama or get here by boat, although these options can involve much more time and potential discomfort.
Make reservations as far in advance as possible. More people travel during the dry season (mid-December to mid-April) and around Christmas and Carnival. November also has several national holidays, and Panamanians tend to crowd buses and travel routes during this time.
Visitors to Panama must show proof of onward travel (especially if crossing at the border). They also must pay a US$40 departure tax to leave the country, which is included in the price of flights.
Panama is well connected with destinations in North and South America, the Caribbean, and parts of Western Europe. Travelers coming from Asia, Africa, Australia, or Eastern Europe will likely need to change planes/airlines at least once.
Most travelers will fly into Tocumen International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen), Panama’s main international airport. It is 25 kilometers (15 mi) east of downtown Panama City and is fairly modern and convenient. It has a small domestic terminal, as well as some tourist services, including ATP booths, ATMs and one bank. Its airport code is PTY.
There is also an international airport in David in western Panama. It currently only receives flights from Costa Rica, but it’s hoping to attract more international flights. The airport is officially known as Aeropuerto Internacional de David “Enrique Malek.” The airport code is DAV.
There are non-stop flights to Panama City from the following U.S. cities: Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., Newark, New York City (JFK), and Orlando. Travelers coming from other U.S. cities will first be routed to one of these airports. Depending on where you’re coming from in the U.S., travel time is anywhere from three to five hours.
There are no direct flights from Canada to Panama. Those flying from Canada will likely stop in the United States or Mexico in route to Panama.
Only a few airlines offer direct service from Europe—these tend to depart from Amsterdam or Madrid. Carriers that don’t fly direct will often stop in airports along the east coast of the U.S.
South America has good connections with Panama. There are direct flights to Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. Flights to countries close to Panama, such as Colombia or Ecuador, take around two hours. Flights to places like Brazil and Argentina can take seven or more hours.
Flights are fast, easy and frequent from Costa Rica. Flights leave from the country’s capital, San José, and take about an hour. Flights from other Central American countries are not usually direct.
Flights from Australia, Asia, Africa and the Pacific usually reroute to Los Angeles, Mexico City, or San Francisco before departing for Panama.
Panama has three border crossings with Costa Rica: Paso Canoa along the Pacific side, Guabito-Sixaola on the Caribbean side, and Río Sereno in the highlands. Paso Canoa is along the Interamericana (Interamerican Highway) and is the route used most. The Guabito-Sixaola border crossing is mainly used by travelers heading to and from Bocas del Toro. Río Sereno is somewhat difficult to access and is not always open for foreigners.
The Interamericana ends at the town of Yaviza in eastern Panama — it is here that the Darién Gap begins. This being the case, there are no roads that run between Panama and Colombia. Travelers must fly to Colombia.
Cars rented in Panama or Costa Rica cannot cross the border. Crossing in your own vehicle can sometimes be difficult as well, so it’s usually easiest to just take a bus. Buses ply the Interamericana from all other Central American countries and continue on to Panama. The buses are fairly inexpensive and decently comfortable. Trips between Panama City and the capital of Costa Rica, San José, depart daily. The drive takes around 16 hours.
The Panama Canal is visited by thousands of tourists each year, many of them on cruise ships. Panama has two cruise-ship ports along the Caribbean coast near Colón and one along the Pacific side at Amador. The main season for cruises through the Panama Canal is between October and April. It takes around 8–10 hours to transit the canal.
Yachting is also big in Panama. Yachters come from around the world to sail through the canal and visit the country’s islands and archipelagos. That said, yachting facilities in Panama are somewhat limited. There are marinas on both the Pacific and Caribbean entrance to the canal, and a number of ports scattered throughout the country. The archipelagos of Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala (San Blas Islands) are both popular with yachters. Bocas has two moderately sized marinas, but there are none in Guna Yala.