COMING TO PANAMA BY AIR
Until recently all international flights arrived at Panama’s International Airport (PTY), Tocumen International is the proper name. But now you can also fly direct from Costa Rica to the western most city of David. Tocumen is about 20 miles outside (east) of Panama City while the David Airport is on the west side of the city of David. David is the capital city of the province of Chiriqui and the third largest city in the country. It is located about 53 km (33 mi) from Paso Canoas which is the border town to access Costa Rica. Flights to David from San Jose Costa Rica on Air Panama and TACA Airlines have recently been added due to the explosive expat population in the Chiriqui region, most notably the highland community of Boquete. Panama City (PTY) is very well connected to the Americas and Europe. Continental and American Airlines have direct (non-stop) service from Miami, Houston, Newark and Atlanta. In total almost 20 countries offer non-stop flights to Panama. Special Update – for air travel within Panama note that Aeroperlas no longer offers service in Panama.
When arriving at Tocumen International you will need to take a taxi, bus, or rent a car to get into Panama City. The Airport taxis has set rates and you are free to share a cab with someone. It’s quite professionally organized and you need not be concerned with safety or being ripped off. There is ground transportation booth located in the arrivals terminal lobby which makes it quick and easy to make arrangements for your transport into the city. There are few Panama Hotels near the airport as it is not an area which offers much. However, if you have an early morning flight it can be convient to stay close by and catch the free airport shuttle. The Riande Aeropuerto Hotel is about a mile from the airport. It will run you about $100 for the night which is less than staying at comparable quality hotels right in Panama City.
Although I don’t recommend it, if you’re traveling on a backpackers budget you can take the bus into the city for just .25 cents. You will need to walk out of the terminal toward the highway. Across the street from the airport you will find the bus stop. Be sure to take the bus that says “Via España”. This is the one which will take you right downtown into the heart of the city and the Via España shopping district.
Interesting Panama Fact – It’s interesting to note that Panama has more private air strips per square mile than any other country in the world. It’s actually quite feasible for a competent private pilot to fly to one of them. Also, access to some of the more remote interior regions of Panama is best achieved by private plane. If you do plan to fly a private aircraft into Panama, it is very important that you file a proper flight plan and verify where to clear customs and immigration. Most of these smaller air strips are not equipped to clear you so you will need to first enter the country via one of the regional airports like Albrook in Panama City or Aeropuerto Internacional Enrique Malek in David.
DRIVING TO PANAMA BY CAR
There is only one way to access Panama by car and that is from the west via Costa Rica. Most drivers will cross the border at Paso Canoas. Note that the border customs and immigration offices close at 11:00PM on the Panama side but at 10:00PM on the Costa Rica side. Also, be forewarned Paso Canoas is one of the busiest and most chaotic border crossings in all of Central America. It is quite easy to cross the border without even knowing it. That is until you arrive at the border check point about five miles into Panama where you may just discover you are in a great deal of trouble! For clearing into the country you will find yourself on foot walking to various offices which are randomly scattered throughout the town. Although the town is small and the offices are not too far apart they are almost indistinguishable from all of the other buildings. The first time I went through Paso Canoas, and in fact every time I did, I hired a translator/guide to help me out. It’s definitely worth the money especially if you don’t speak Spanish well.
There is also a much smaller border crossing at Rio Sereno which is on the Pacific side and another at Sixaola Guabito on the Caribbean/Atlantic side. Beware the Rio Sereno border sees very few people crossing so you will want to be certain all of your documents are ready in advance. The police here can be very serious and very strict.
As I mentioned earlier you can only drive to Panama from the west – from Costa Rica. There are no roads connecting Panama with Columbia. The Darien Gap begins at Yaviza, where the Interamericana Highway runs out and 50 miles of dense jungle separate the two countries.
Also note that unless you are moving to Panama and will be importing your car you cannot leave the country without it. That means you can’t sell or abandon your car in Panama and fly home unless you get a stamp on your passport that proves you have paid importation taxes (impuestos) on your vehicle. While driving in Panama you may find yourself being stopped frequently by police, unless you are speeding or breaking the law in some other way this is usually no more than a check due to your foreign license plates. If you have been caught speeding or for some other minor traffic violation a small fine (bribe) paid on the spot directly to the officer will get you on your way. Don’t be too direct or over zealous in your desire to get on the road. It’s a good idea to wait for the officer to ask or if you are able to communicate clearly you might subtly suggest you pay the fine directly.
TRAVELING TO PANAMA BY BUS
Just like driving by car you can’t get to Panama from Colombia in the east by bus due to the Darien Gap. Once again you will be arriving from Costa Rica. Fortunately being with a group in a bus makes it easier. You will also be entering at Paso Canoas. Panaline, Ticabus and Tracopa are the most popular carriers which take you direct from San Jose, Costa Rica to either David or all the way to Panama City. The bus fare from San Jose is really quite cheap at only $10. But, on the down side it’s a long journey at about 18 hours. If you’re interested in breaking the trip up and sight seeing along the way it is always possible to take local buses from point to point. Of course that also means your trip will likely take a number of days.
As a money saving alternative to flying you could consider a Bus & Fly option. Afterall the flight from San Jose to Panama City typically costs around US$300 on COPA or TACA, but taking the bus all the way is a grueling 18 hour haul. You may want to consider busing from San Jose to Changuinola, which is a small Panamanian town on the Caribbean side near Bocas del Toro. From there you can fly to Panama city inn about an hour and for US$110 (note; fare as of Nov. 2011). Note: Check our Panama Travel section for Aeroperlas and AirPanama flight schedules.
Panama Travel Tip – Panamanian law requires that you have a return ticket before you can enter Panama. The immigration official at the border may not check, but it’s not worth the risk. Also note that your return flight cannot be from somewhere outside of Panama to home. In other words just because you have a return ticket from San Jose to home doesn’t prove to the Panamanian official that you will leave Panama. Your return ticket has to be from within Panama. If you run into a problem there are a couple of quick solutions, you can buy a return ticket from the bus driver. Anther option is if you have access to the internet and room on your credit card buy a fully refundable ticket online. Show your e-ticket to the immigration official and then go online and cancel your ticket once you are inside Panama. The important part is to remain cool and calm. You need to be creative and in a problem solving mode when you have challenges.
COMING TO PANAMA BY BOAT
More and more cruise lines are transiting the Panama Canal and they are all leaving more time on their itineraries for excursions into Panama . You can take a tour of Panama City when entering from the Pacific or Colon City when entering through the Caribbean and there are a number of other excursions to places in and around the two cities. Note: I do not recommend any tour of Colon but the areas of Portobello outside of Colon City are beautiful. One recommendation is to hope on the Panama Canal Railway and transit either from Panama to Colon or the opposite direct. The train line has been rebuilt recently and it the cars refurbished.
Interesting Panama Fact – The Panama Canal Railway dates back to 1855. It was the first interoceanic train in the American Continent.
For Adventure travellers it’s possible to gain passage on one of the numerous banana boats which travel from Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, to and from Panama. This kind of travel is only recommended for the true adventure seekers, as these boats are typically unsound, often over loaded, and will quite likely also be carrying some kind of illegal contraban.
Private sailboats are a much safer alternative. They commonly provide passage between Panama and Cartagena Colombia. The charge for berth on a provate boat usually runs around US$400 to US$500. It takes about four to five days and most boats stop in San Blas Islands for a few days of snorkelling. The best way to find a private boat is to ask around in the hostels and hotels in Panama City or Portobello which are frequented by backpackers. You’re bound to find someone who just arrived off the boat and knows who is heading Panama way.
The cheapest way to reach Panama by boat from Colombia is by ferry from Turbo to Capurganá (COP$ 49000, daily around 8AM) and by small boat from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldia (COP$ 20000). From there by plane to Panama City (USD 85) or by boat to Colon and Carti Islands (USD neg).
This is an overview of how to get to Panama for links to specific companies which can help you plan the details of your journey be sure to visit out Panama Travel page.
P.S. Please tell me what you thought of this letter in the comments area below. What did you like? What could you have done without? What else can I tell you about Panama? Leave your comments, questions, suggestions – join the conversation and watch what happens!
The information expressed here is solely the opinion of the author. Nothing on this web site or in subsequent communications is to be considered personalized investment advice. Although we may answer your general questions, we are not licensed under securities laws to address your particular investment situation. No communication by any associate or representative of Learn About Panama is to be deemed as personalized investment advice.