Getting around Panama: Transportation Tips
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Although the canal corridor and the western Pacific region are covered by a comprehensive road network served by regular public transport, eastern Panama, Guna Yala and Bocas del Toro are each linked to the rest of the country by just a single road. Access to the islands of Bocas del Toro and Guna Yala is by plane or boat, and boats also provide the main means of transport between the islands, as well as along the rivers of the Darién region. Crossing the isthmus by train is also possible between Panama City and Colón.
Where there are roads, buses are the cheapest and most popular way to travel. Panama City is the hub of the network, with regular buses to Colón, Metetí in Darién, Almirante (for Bocas del Toro) and all the western cities and towns. Buses vary in comfort and size, from modern, a/c Pullmans to smaller “coaster” buses and old US school buses – Central America’s ubiquitous “chicken buses”. Smaller towns and villages in rural areas tend to be served by less frequent minibuses, pick-up trucks and flat-bed trucks known as chivas or chivitas, converted to carry passengers, while Colón and David are also served by express buses, which are more expensive, more comfortable and faster.
wthebusschedule.com/pa is a fairly reliable source to check bus timetables.
Most buses are owned either by individuals or private firms, and even when services are frequent, schedules are variable. Cities and larger towns have bus terminals; otherwise, buses leave from the main street or square. You can usually flag down through-buses from the roadside, though they may not stop if they are full or going a long way. In general, you can just turn up shortly before departure and you should be able to get a seat, though the express buses to and from David, buses from Bocas del Toro, as well as international buses to Costa Rica, are definitely worth booking in advance. Fares, as elsewhere in Central America, are good value: bank on paying around US$2 per hour of travel, more for the more luxurious long-distance buses; the most you’ll have to pay is US$29 for the overnight, ten-hour ride from Panama City to Almirante.
Starting at around US$50 a day or US$300 a week (almost double for 4WD), car rental is reasonably priced but not cheap. However, having your own vehicle is a good way of seeing parts of the country not well served by public transport, especially the canal corridor and the Azuero Peninsula. All of the main rental companies are based at Tocumen International Airport, and also in the city centre; some also have offices at Albrook airport and the airport in David; National Panamá (wnationalpanama.com) is popular with locals as it offers some of the cheapest rentals in the country.
Driving in Panama is pretty straightforward, though even the paved roads in the canal corridor and the west can be badly maintained. The main roads on the Azuero Peninsula are in good condition, however, as is the road across the cordillera to Bocas del Toro, and the secondary roads to Cerro Punta, Santa Fé, Boquete and El Valle. 4WD is rarely necessary except during the rainy season and in more remote rural areas. Police checkpoints appear throughout the country, mainly on provincial borders, and normally you are only required to slow down. If the police ask you to stop, in most cases they will just want to know your destination and see your licence and/or passport.
Hitching is possible, but carries all the obvious risks. Private cars are unlikely to stop for you on main roads, though in more remote areas, hitching is often the only motor transport available, and there is little distinction between private vehicles and public transport – drivers will pick you up, but you should expect to pay the same kind of fares you would for the bus.
In larger cities, like Panama City and David, taxis are plentiful and inexpensive. Most intra-city rides will cost US$1–2 (US$2–5 in the capital). There are many unlicensed cab drivers patrolling the streets who are willing to negotiate on prices, but who may engage in unscrupulous practices. Even licensed cab drivers won’t hesitate to exploit an obviously unsavvy, lost or needy tourist. Specifically, be wary of price hikes on the Amador Causeway in Panama City.
Scheduled ferries run from Panama City to Isla Taboga as well as between Bocas del Toro and Almirante. Motorized water-taxis and dugout canoes are important means of transport in Bocas del Toro, Darién and Guna Yala, though the only scheduled small-boat services are the water-taxis in Darién (between Puerto Quimba and La Palma, or La Palma and Garachiné) and between Almirante and Bocas. Otherwise, you’ll either have to wait for somebody going your way, or hire a boat. The latter can be expensive – US$150 for a motorized dugout with a small engine from La Palma to Sambú, for example – but obviously works out more cheaply the more there are of you. Make sure you find out the approximate price per gallon for diesel and the number of gallons needed per journey from a disinterested party before starting to negotiate a price. Hiring a dugout canoe also opens up possibilities for wilderness adventure – up jungle rivers to isolated villages or out to uninhabited islands.
Cities and larger towns are served by regular flights with Air Panama (wairpanama.com), currently the only domestic carrier, which flies to David, Bocas, parts of Darién, as well as to Guna Yala and to the Pearl Islands. With the exception of the more isolated areas, though, most destinations are so close to Panama City that it’s scarcely worth flying; not least because it’s very expensive (at the time of writing, high-season return flights between Panama City and Bocas cost US$236). Flights can be bought online, or over the phone using a credit card.
Cycling is a popular way to get around in western Panama, where roads are generally paved and traffic scarce (away from the Interamericana and other major routes), and towns usually have a shop offering parts and simple repairs. Other good roads for cycling include all those on the Azuero Peninsula and the roads to Cerro Punta and El Valle, off the Interamericana.
The Panama Canal Railway (wpanarail.com), which runs alongside the canal between Panama City and Colón, offers an excellent way of seeing the canal and the surrounding rainforest.