With its well-maintained infrastructure and growing importance as a connecting hub for Latin America, Panama is an exceedingly easy destination to reach, and its compact size makes it easy to travel around as well.
Panama may be a relatively small country, but time-pressed travelers will do best if they consider regional flights within the nation, especially to destinations like Bocas del Toro, David and the villages of Guna Yala. Colon is reached easily by car, taxi, bus or train from Panama City.
Rental cars are readily available in the capital and most of the larger tourist towns and cities, and long-distance buses provide economical options for regional travel as well. Below are some of the best ways to arrive in Panama, and to get around once you’re here.
Flying to and Around Panama
Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, the homebase of Copa Airlines, is in a seemingly constant state of expansion and upgrades. It’s the country’s largest international airport and the most likely point of entry for international air travelers.
Copa Airlines, which partners with United Airlines and is a member of Star Alliance, is one of the best-connected Latin American airlines. In addition to flights from nearly every major Latin American city, the carrier offers nonstop flights to Panama City from U.S. destinations including New York City, Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
For domestic flights within Panama, the most important airport is Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport, a much smaller airfield that’s more commonly called Albrook Airport. It’s more convenient than Tocumen for regional travelers since it’s much closer to central Panama City, and it’s adjacent to the massive Albrook Mall, where the capital’s main bus terminal is located.
For domestic flights, Air Panama is often the only choice. The carrier offers regional flights from its hub at Albrook Airport to popular destinations including Bocas del Toro and multiple airports in the Guna Yala semi-autonomous region (plus a handful of international flights to San Jose, Costa Rica, and Medellin, Colombia).
Since most international flights arrive in Tocumen and most domestic flights use Albrook, it’s likely that you’ll have to spend some time in Panama City, even if your final destination is somewhere else — so make the most of it and see the sights before heading out of town.
Renting a Car in Panama
Nearly all of the big international rental car brands — including Avis, Dollar, Hertz and Sixt — maintain a presence in Panama City, both at Tocumen Airport and in Panama City, especially in big tourist areas like El Cangrejo. Some other cities and towns also have rental car offices.
But take note: Visitors who plan to stay only in Panama City likely won’t want a car, as the infamously heavy traffic can be maddening, especially for visitors unfamiliar with travel patterns and routes. Taxis are plentiful in Panama City, although they frequently overcharge foreigners — so agree on a rate before you get in the cab. Even leaving the city for day trips and multi-day trips may be easier and more efficient by plane, bus or taxi, depending on the destination — so research the options well before signing on the dotted line for a rental car.
Having your own wheels can be most useful for visiting Coronado, on the Pacific coast, since restaurants, hotels, condos and attractions tend to be spread out and taxis aren’t as plentiful. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is helpful when exploring the highlands around Boquete, where the mountainous terrain can be challenging.
Regardless of which car you choose, pay close attention to the speed limits, as police closely monitor highways and you may find yourself in a speed trap.
Panama by Bus
Panama’s most legendary form of bus transportation — the Diablo Rojo, or Red Devil — is nothing more than a massive fleet of former U.S. school buses that have been repurposed as public transportation after receiving a flashy, colorful paint job. But those buses are becoming increasingly less common, and while you might see a few, you probably won’t be riding on one. Within Panama City, the modern MetroBus system — a complement to the even newer Metro rail system — is the most popular form of transportation. Buses can be crowded, and we recommend traveling with a local who knows the routes, at least for your first ride.
For travel from city to city within Panama, long-distance buses provide frequent, relatively comfortable transportation aboard air-conditioned coaches or vans, depending on the length of the trip and the route. Long-distance bus companies include Padafront, Expreso Veraguense, Sanpasa, Panaline and the self-explanatory Terminal David-Panama, but they’re not big on selling tickets (or providing information) online.
You can easily buy tickets at the main bus station, located at Albrook Mall, for same-day travel; if you’re flying into Panama City and staying at a hotel in another destination in Panama, the hotel staff will likely give you specific recommendations about which route to take.
If you’re looking to expand your international horizons, you can also consider traveling by bus between Panama and points in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and elsewhere in Central America (although it’s not possible to travel south to Colombia by land, as there is no road through the jungle that divides the two nations). Expreso Panama offers service between Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica, although Costa Rica-based Tica Bus is the best known company operating international bus routes into and out of Panama.
Panama by Train
Like most Latin American nations, Panama hasn’t been big on trains in decades. However, it is home to Central America’s first modern subway system. The Metro debuted in 2013 as an impressively efficient way to avoid the traffic and travel across the forever-congested capital city. There is currently only one line so its utility is limited, but you’ll find a few popular stops, including El Cangrejo, a neighborhood with lots of hotels, and Albrook Mall, the city’s largest shopping mall and location of the regional bus station.
The only viable passenger rail route running outside of Panama City is the Panama Canal Railway, a largely tourist line that follows the route of the Panama Canal from the capital to Colon, on the Caribbean coast.
Panama by Boat
Considering that it’s flanked on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by the Caribbean Sea — and sliced in two by one of the world’s most famous canals — it’s no shocker that Panama offers lots of opportunities to tour by boat.
Transiting the Panama Canal, of course, is the most talked-about way to experience Panama from the water. Large cruise ships make the crossing regularly, but even if you’re a ground-bound visitor, you can still feel the thrill of floating alongside gigantic passenger and cargo ships, and even ride through the locks.
Panama Marine Adventures offers partial and full canal tours aboard the Pacific Queen, a 300-passenger cruiser with indoor and outdoor seating, a souvenir shop, and onboard snacks and refreshments. The partial canal tour starts at the Gaillard Cut, where the Chagres River enters the Panama Canal, and allows for a view of the ongoing work to expand the canal. You’ll view the impressive new Centennial Bridge before passing through the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks, during which the ship is lowered 18 meters in two steps before heading out to the Pacific Ocean. The full canal tour, which runs from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Caribbean, takes between eight and nine hours, and includes a continental breakfast and full lunch.
Ancon Expeditions offers a slightly different way to see the canal; its Panama Canal Rainforest Boat Adventure will take you through coves and inlets to search for wildlife including birds, reptiles and even monkeys, accompanied by a naturalist guide.
Also worth exploring by water is Bocas del Toro, where multiple islands make boats one of the most practical forms of transportation. Bocas Water Sports offers diving excursions (as well as instruction), while Bocas Sailing does — you guessed it — sailing excursions around the archipelago aboard 42-foot catamarans, with time for snorkeling and lunch.
Panama by Motorcycle and Bicycle
Panama’s varied terrain and natural beauty make for good biking conditions in several regions. In Bocas del Toro’s main town, bicycles are one of the most enjoyable ways of getting around its relaxed and uncrowded streets; rentals by the hour or day are available on Main Street.
Small-town charm and beautiful scenery also make El Valle de Anton, a town in the Cocle province, another fun place to bike, with verdant hills and lush forests as a backdrop. Hotel Residencial El Valle, a small inn, rents bicycles to hotel guests and the general public.
Panama City, with its hectic traffic and crowded streets, isn’t the most inviting place for cycling, but the Amador Causeway (at the mouth of the Panama Canal), the historic Casco Antiguo and the park-like Cinta Costera waterfront provide some of the city’s best biking conditions. Luna’s Castle, a hostel in the Casco Antiguo, lends bikes for free to its guests.
Biking tours are most popular in areas like the Chiriqui Highlands, where the rugged terrain is great for challenging mountain bike excursions. The international tour operator Backroads offers a five-night, multi-sport tour that includes biking in the Chiriqui Highlands and hiking along the Baru volcano before heading south to explore indigenous territories and the Panama Canal.
Motorcycle tours and rentals are less common in Panama, but if you’re comfortable heading out on your own, Rentalmotorbike.com lists rentals of BMW motorcycles in Panama City. For more extensive tours, Costa Rica BMW Tours offers 10-night guided motorcycle tours that run from the south Pacific coast of Costa Rica to central Panama.
— written by Mark Chesnut