Getting Around Panama
Copa Airlines (www.copaair.com) and Air Panama (www.airpanama.com) operate flights within Panama. Smaller airports for internal flights are Marcos A Gelabert International Airport in Albrook and Enrique Malek in David, Chiriquí.
Panama is widely accessible by bus, and the roads are often good. However, Panama has several islands that are only accessed by flight or very long boat trips, and for some areas, such as Yaviza for hiking in the Darién, it might be more expedient for those on a tight schedule to fly rather than braving long bus journeys.
Departure tax for domestic flights is included in your ticket.
Internal flights can be influenced by the weather – confirm all flights before making your way to the airports.
There is a reasonably good road system throughout Panama, but foreigners driving through the country should be extremely careful of other drivers, as the standard here seems to include a degree of recklessness. Assertiveness on the roads is a must, and get ready to use your horn.
Side of the roadRight
Road quality isn’t at all bad for much of Panama, as the major route is the Panamerican Highway which runs the length of this fairly thin country. Hire a 4-wheel drive vehicle for more rural areas.
The major route is the Panamerican Highway, but the Trans-Isthman Highway also connects Panama City to Colón. The Corredor Norte toll road has reduced the journey time to Colón by 30 minutes. When travelling to rural areas, make sure you have been informed in advance about road conditions, as flooding and landslides in the rainy season may well put a dampener on your plans.
Available in city centres and airport; you must be at least 21 years old to hire a car, although some companies set a minimum age of either 23 or 25. You can hire a 4-wheel drive vehicle, but plan ahead as they are popular. There are plenty of car hire places in Panama City and nearby Tocumen airport.
The taxis of Panama City are metered, but make sure the driver puts it on. Elsewhere, they are not metered, and fares should be agreed in advance. Drivers do not expect tips, but they may pick other passengers up on the way. This is normal, but if you’re uncomfortable with it, you should say so.
You can hire bikes in cities, notably Panama City, David and Boquete. However, cycling around cities can be extremely perilous due to drivers seemingly regarding cyclists as fun targets. Cyclists should ensure they are very visible, constantly alert and have plucked up all their courage. Hostels in smaller villages sometimes rent out bikes, in which case the roads are safer.
Cycling around the country will require your own bicycle, which you can buy in cities. Most main roads in Panama are surfaced well enough. The things to be aware of are afternoon downpours in the rainy season (best to cycle early in the morning); hills in the midday heat; and, again, your safety with the traffic.
Bus travel around Panama is good and the usual way to travel. There are paved roads between major destinations such as David, Boquete, Colón and Panama City. The Panamerican Highway is used for most major routes, and you can flag down coaches along the way, or buy tickets in city terminals. There are many bus companies, all leaving from Panama City’s Albrook bus terminal, of varying standards and prices – scout around and find the one that suits you. To check bus times and journey lengths, use www.thebusschedule.com/pa.
Seat belts must be worn by drivers and front seat passengers at all times. Children under five years must travel in the back in a fitted child seat. Motor insurance, even third party, is not a legal requirement in Panama; therefore, many Panamanians drive without it. If you are involved in an accident, the law stipulates that you should wait with your vehicle until the traffic police (transito) arrive.
Speed limits are 40kph (25mph) within cities and 100kph (62mph) on highways.
There are no breakdown services available in Panama. If anything does go wrong with your vehicle, contact your car hire service immediately for help.
A national driving licence is usually sufficient, but an International Driving Licence is safer if you are stopped.
An efficient metro, plus extensive bus and minibus services run in Panama City. The bus system can be extremely confusing for travellers, but the prices and destinations are listed in the windscreen if you feel like giving it a shot, and locals will always help if you ask for it.
The Panamá Canal Railway Company (PCRC) (tel: +507 317 6070; www.panarail.com) runs a scenic 76km (47-mile) passenger route from Panama City to Colón.