Panama's domestic destinations are served by Air Panama and Copa Airlines. Domestic flights depart Panama City from Albrook Airport. Located near the Costa Rican border, David's Aeropuerto Enrique Malek frequently handles flights to and from San José.
Book ahead in high season, when demand for flights to destinations like Bocas and the Comarca de Guna Yala exceeds availability.
If you can get over the heat, you can cycle through Panama easily enough, with lodgings within a day's ride away. Cycling within larger Panamanian cities – particularly Panama City – is not for the faint of heart. Roads tend to be narrow, and people drive aggressively. Also, frequent rains reduce motorists’ visibility and tire grip.
The best places for cyclists in Panama City are the coastal routes of the Cinta Costera (a dedicated bike lane from downtown and around Casco Viejo) and the Causeway. Weekend cyclist groups often go out to Gamboa via a shady but narrow road.
Outside the cities, Panama's Interamericana boasts the best quality in Central America, although sections have an extremely narrow shoulder. Roads in many of the provinces (especially in Veraguas and Colón) are in poor shape – plan accordingly and bring lots of spare parts.
Boats are the chief means of transportation in several areas of Panama, particularly in Darién Province, the Archipiélago de Las Perlas, and the San Blas and Bocas del Toro island chains.
From Panama City, there are regular ferries from the Causeway to Isla Taboga and Isla Contadora. Panama City is also the jumping-off point for partial and full Panama Canal transits.
If you’re planning an excursion to Isla de Coiba and the national marine park, the best way to reach the island is through an organized boat tour. Local fishers also ply the waters off the coast of Veraguas, though this is a riskier proposition as the seas can get really rough.
The tourist mecca of Bocas del Toro town on Isla Colón is accessible from Almirante by frequent water taxis.
Colombian and Guna merchant boats carry cargo and passengers along the San Blas coast between Colón and Puerto Obaldía, stopping at up to 48 of the islands to load and unload passengers and cargo. However, these boats are often dangerously overloaded. Taking passage on a sailboat, or the four-day motorboat service to Colombia, is a wiser option.
Since there aren’t many roads in the eastern part of Darién Province, boat travel is often the only way to get from one town to another, especially during the rainy season. The boat of choice here is the piragua (long canoe), carved from the trunk of a giant ceiba tree. The shallow hulls of these boats allow them to ride the many rivers that comprise the traditional transportation network of eastern Panama. Many are motorized.
You can take a bus to just about any community in Panama that is accessible by road. Some of the buses are full-size Mercedes Benzes equipped with air-con, movie screens and reclining seats. These top-of-the-line buses generally cruise long stretches of highway.
Most common are small Toyota Coaster buses, affectionately called chivas. Use these to visit towns on the Península de Azuero and along the Interamericana.
Panama City has just about finished phasing out its diablos rojos (red devils) for modern, safe, air-conditioned buses on the Metrobus system. Riders can obtain swipe cards at Albrook Bus Terminal or main bus stops. Official bus stops are used, and the transportation is air-conditioned.
Car & Motorcycle
Signs can be confusing or wholly absent in Panama. There are many poor secondary roads, and even paved roads can sometimes resemble a lunar landscape.
- On all primary roads (including the Interamericana) the speed limit is 80km/h; on secondary roads it's 60km/h or less.
- Drivers should carry their passport and driver’s license.
- If there's an accident, do not move the vehicles (even if they’re blocking traffic) until after the police have arrived and made a report. It's also essential for insurance claims.
- Oncoming cars with flashing headlights often indicate that there is a problem or a police speed trap ahead. Slow down immediately. Piles of branches placed on the road's edge often signal a broken-down vehicle.
Due to the low cost and ready availability of buses and taxis, it isn’t necessary to rent a vehicle in Panama unless you intend to go off the beaten track. Some beach areas have notoriously poor roads. There are car-rental agencies in major cities such as Panama City and David. Many also operate out of Tocumen International Airport.
To rent a vehicle in Panama, you must be 25 years of age or older and present a passport and driver’s license – if you are over 21 and can present a valid credit card, some agencies will waive the age requirement. Even with an international agency, you are usually renting through their subsidiaries and will not get any support from them outside Panama.
Prices for rentals in Panama run from as low as US$20 per day for an economy car up to US$100 per day for a cuatro por cuatro (4WD). When you rent, carefully inspect the car for minor dents and scratches, missing radio antennae, hubcaps and the presence of a spare tire. Damage must be noted on your rental agreement; otherwise you may be charged for it when you return the car.
There have been many reports of theft from rental cars. You should never leave valuables in an unattended car, and you should remove all luggage from the trunk when you’re checking into a hotel overnight – most hotels provide parking areas for cars.
Hitching is not common at all in Panama; most people travel by bus, and visitors would do best to follow suit. In any case, hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don't recommend it. Travelers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk.
The efficient Metrobus system covers Panama City and its outskirts, but services can be difficult to figure out. Panamanians are usually friendly, including bus drivers; they’ll often be able to tell you where to wait for a particular bus if you ask in Spanish (few bus drivers speak English). Panama City's El Metro subway is fast and convenient but has a limited route. In general, taxis are cheap and can save a lot of time and hassle.
Panama City's mostly underground transportation system is known as El Metro. The one line (at present) runs west–east from Albrook and then north to San Isidra; a second line between Albrook and the City of Knowledge is on the way. The main terminal is across from Albrook Bus Terminal. Fares are paid with the same swipe card used for the Metrobus system.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful, though not all drivers have a good grasp of locations.
- Before even getting into a taxi, state your destination and settle on a fare. Panamanian taxis don’t have meters, but there are standard fares between Panama City's neighborhoods.
- Get informed. Ask the staff at your accommodations for typical rates between city sectors; these usually go up after dark.
- Taxis can be scarce late at night and around the holidays. At these times, it’s best to call for a radio taxi.
- More expensive ‘sedan’ taxis operate from upscale hotels. They charge double what you’d pay a hailed cab.
- Consider using Uber; it's reliable and cheap, and the drivers are helpful and friendly.
The country’s only rail line is the historic Panama Railroad, which runs from Panama City to Colón. The Panama Canal Railway offers daily passenger service on a fully operational vintage train. Aimed at tourists looking to relive the heyday of luxury rail travel, the hour-long ride runs parallel to the canal and at times traverses thick jungle and rainforest.