Most international flights arrive at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport, 33km from downtown.
Airports & Airlines
At present Panama has three active commercial international airports:
- Tocumen International Airport (Panama City)
- Aeropuerto Enrique Malek (David)
- Panamá Pacífico International Airport (Panama City) Located 12km southwest of Panama City. Viva Air Colombia airline began using this small airport, the former US Howard Air Force Base, in 2014.
Airlines with international flights to Panama include:
Panama levies a US$40 departure tax for passengers on international flights. This is always included in the price of the ticket.
Many travelers arrive in Panama by bus from Costa Rica. It’s recommended that you get to the border early in order to ensure that you don’t miss onward transportation on the other side. There are no roads into Colombia, and travelers are strongly discouraged from crossing overland due to the instability of the border region, but sea crossings are possible.
There are three border crossings between Costa Rica and Panama. Most travelers cross at Paso Canoas (gateway: David). Note that Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica.
To enter Panama from Costa Rica, you’ll need a passport and an onward ticket. Some nationalities may require a visa.
You can also be asked for an onward ticket if you are entering Costa Rica. If you do not possess one, it is acceptable to buy a return bus ticket back to Panama.
The most heavily trafficked border crossing to/from Costa Rica is at Paso Canoas (open 7am to 7pm, Panama time), 55km northwest of David on the Interamericana.
- The best place to spend the night before crossing is David.
- Ensure that you have both entry and exit stamps in your passport.
- Allow one to 1½ hours for the formalities on both sides. Buses from David depart frequently for the border (US$2.10, 50 minutes, every 15 minutes) from 4am until 9:30pm.
- On the Costa Rican side, you can catch regular buses to San José or other parts of the country.
- From David, there are also taxis to Paso Canoas (US$35).
Sixaola & Guabito
The Caribbean border post at Guabito/Sixaola (open 8am to 5pm, Panama time), 15km northwest of Changuinola, sees less traffic than Paso Canoas on the Pacific side, though most travelers find it hassle-free. Buses from Changuinola depart frequently for the border (US$1.25, 30 minutes, every half-hour) from 5:30am to 7pm. On the Costa Rican side of the border, you can catch regular buses on to Puerto Limón and San José, as well as regional destinations.
The least-used crossing into Costa Rica is the border post at Río Sereno (open 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, to 3pm Sunday, Panama time), located 40km northwest of Volcán. Buses to the border depart from David and travel via La Concepción, Volcán and Santa Clara (US$5.10, 2½ hours, every half-hour till 5pm). On the Costa Rican side of the border, you can take a 15-minute bus or taxi ride to San Vito, where you can catch buses to regional destinations.
At all three border crossings, you can take a local bus up to the border on either side, cross over, board another local bus and continue on your way. Be aware that the last buses leave the border crossings at Guabito and Río Sereno at 7pm and 5pm, respectively; the last bus leaves Paso Canoas for Panama City at 9:30pm.
Two companies, Expreso Panama and Tica Bus, operate daily directo (direct) buses between San José (Costa Rica) and Panama City, departing from Albrook Bus Terminal. Both recommend making reservations a few days in advance.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving to Panama from the USA or Canada may take from a week to considerably longer depending on the stops. Driving at night is not recommended. Central American roads are narrow, rarely painted with a center stripe, often potholed and subject to hazards such as cattle and pedestrians in rural areas.
To drive to Panama, get insurance in advance, have your papers in order (including a permiso de salida – exit permit – from the country of the car's origin) and never leave your car unattended (fortunately, guarded lots are common in Latin America). US license plates are attractive as souvenirs, so display these from inside the car.
If you are bringing a car into Panama, you must pay between US$5 and US$25 for a tarjeta de circulación (vehicle control certificate), depending on the length of time on the road in Panama, and another US$1 to have the car fumigated. You will also need to show a driver’s license, proof of ownership and Panama insurance papers – insurance is best bought upon entering the country at an insurance dealer near the aduana (customs) office. Copy the insurance policy and have it officially stamped.
Your passport will be stamped to show that you have paid and followed procedures when you brought the vehicle into the country. A car visa is only valid for a maximum of one month (US$25) and can be renewed for up to three months. Overstaying will cost you up to US$500 in fines.
Driving to Panama from North America
Lonely Planet's reader-tested tips for the cross-continental drive:
Think it through Driving yourself through Central America is not a cheap option. Advantages include greater comfort and flexibility, but you will spend more than you expect on gas, insurance and fees.
Drive defensively Few cars use turn signals, pedestrians cross highways – things are different here. Driving in Panama is not for the faint of heart – be smart and stay safe.
Go mainstream Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans are extremely popular in Central America, which makes them substantially easier to service or sell, though you may not recover your initial expenditure.
Get insurance in the USA or Canada beforehand For full coverage, though, Panama requires its own insurance.
Learn to service your car Mechanics charge much more in Panama than in other Central American countries.
Be prepared Bring along a good tool kit, an (empty) emergency gas canister, plenty of emergency food and water, and industrial-strength duct tape. A spare tire is obligatory, especially if you'll be traveling over rough terrain.
Know the law Panamanian law requires that all vehicles be fitted with a catalytic converter.
Nationalize your car It costs approximately 20% to 25% of the vehicle’s value in taxation, but it's required if you want to sell it. Since any damage reduces value, don't make repairs until afterwards.
Advertise your wares Try online expat forums or take out a classified in La Prensa newspaper on Sunday, when the majority of car buyers are looking.
It’s possible to cross to Colombia by sea, which makes for a very enjoyable passage. Expensive multiday sailboat voyages depart from Colón Province, while most motorboat trips depart from Cartí in the Comarca de Guna Yala.