International flights arrive at Tocumen International Airport (IATA: PTY), located about 30 kilometres east of Panama City (from all countries) or at David Airport (from Costa Rica with AirPanama). PTY Panama City is well connected to the Americas and offers non-stop flights to almost 20 countries in the region. Neighbouring Colombia is particularly well connected with daily flights to more than 7 cities, including Bogota, Medellín, Cali and Cartagena. Local travellers and tourists can also reach Bocas del Toro via Costa Rica.
From Tocumen you will need to take a taxi, bus or hire a car to get into the city. Taxis at the airport have fixed rates and can be shared – the transport information desk in the lobby will help you organise this. There are a few hotels near the airport where you can stay at relatively high prices (US$60).
If you are short of money, you can take a bus to the city centre for 0.25 Balboa. Just walk towards the motorway and cross the road towards the bus shelter. Make sure you take the bus that says “Via España”.
The country has more private airstrips per square mile than any other country in the world, and it is technically possible for the adventurous private pilot to get to any of them, either directly or via Central America. Most of the remote inland areas are most easily reached by private plane, although a combination of hiking and canoeing can also get you to most places. If you are flying to Panama by private plane, it is important to check where you can clear customs and immigration – not all airstrips are equipped for this.
FBO services for corporate jets are available in Panama City (Albrook and Tocumen), David (by appointment), Howard and Bocas del Toro.
- From Costa Rica: You can cross by car at Paso Canoas (Pacific side), which closes at 11pm (Panama side) or 10pm (Costa Rica side), but be aware that this is one of the busiest (if not the busiest) and unorganised border crossings in Central America. It is very easy to accidentally cross the border without realising it. The various border offices are scattered haphazardly around the border town, and you may have to walk a bit to find them, as they are in no way distinguishable from the surrounding buildings. This is one border crossing where it is definitely worth hiring a “tramitator” or assistant to help you through the stations if you do not speak Spanish.
There are also road crossings at Rio Sereno (Pacific side) and Sixaola/Guabito (Atlantic side). The Rio Sereno border crossing is not very busy, so make sure all your papers are in order as the police can be very strict.
- From Colombia: Attention: There is no road connecting the two countries.
You may not leave the country without your car (i.e. change your mind, ditch the car and fly home) without a stamp in your passport proving that you have paid the appropriate impuestos (import taxes) on your vehicle. Expect to be stopped frequently by the police, but don’t worry, they are usually more curious about a foreign car than a bribe.
If you have problems with your car in Panama, you will find dealers with service departments for almost all major car manufacturers in the USA (all of them), Europe (almost all of them) and Japan (all of them). Most of them, like in the US, require an appointment to service your car. Most service staff at all dealerships are certified by the manufacturer. If you need to repair your car and don’t want to go to a dealership to save money, or if you have an emergency repair, you can find good independent mechanical services/garages in all major cities by looking in the Yellow Pages (paginas amarillas), as well as towing services. If you need parts for your vehicle, you will also find a large number of spare parts shops for all major car manufacturers in the Yellow Pages.
The use of “shadow mechanics” and parts from junkyards is the same as in the US; these options are for the do-it-yourselfer.
It is not possible to travel by bus from Panama to Colombia: the Darien Gorge begins in Yaviza, where the Interamericana ends.
However, if you are coming from Costa Rica, it will be a little easier. There are three possible entry points, the main one being Paso Canoas, which closes at 11pm Panama time or 10pm Costa Rica time. Panaline and Ticabus, among others, can take you directly from San Jose, Costa Rica to David or Panama City. The journey from San Jose is quite cheap, but takes about 18 hours. If you want to see something in between, you can also take local buses, but the journey will be much longer.
If you want to save time and at the same time avoid paying about US$ 280 for a SJO-PTY ticket with Avianca or Copa Airlines, consider taking the bus from San Jose to Changuinola and flying from there to Panama City. This flight takes about an hour and costs USD 110 (Nov 2011). Check the Aeroperlas.com website for flight times.
Remember that under Panamanian law you need a return ticket to enter Panama. The border official may not check, but you never know. A return flight from San Jose, Bogota or Abu Dhabi is not possible. The return ticket must be from Panama. If you run into this problem, you can always buy a return ticket from the bus driver. In general, if you are in a bad mood, it may not be the right day to cross a border. Some Central American border officials seem to like to insist on their crazy rules when they decide they don’t like you.
With the boat
Many cruise lines have the Panama Canal in their itineraries. You can make excursions to Panama City or Colón City and take part in many packages.
It is possible to arrange the crossing on banana boats from Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, but this type of crossing is only recommended for the truly adventurous, as the boats are often structurally defective, horribly overloaded and most likely also loaded with drugs.
Private sailboats also operate between Panama and Cartagena, Colombia. Prices range from US$400 to US$500 and the trip usually takes four nights/five days, including a two-day stopover in the San Blas Islands (Carti Islands). The best places to find a boat are the hostels in Panama City or Portobelo, which are popular with backpackers.
The cheapest way to get to Panama by boat from Colombia is to take the ferry from Turbo to Capurganá (COP$55,000, daily around 8am) and the small boat from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldia (COP$25,000, daily around 7am). From there, fly to Panama City (USD 95) or take a boat to Colon and the Carti Islands (USD neg).
It is possible to cross the Darien Gap from Colombia on foot with the help of qualified guides, but this route is generally considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Many attempts have ended in the deaths of hikers, victims of Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries or the oppressive environment of the jungle, considered the densest and most difficult to cross in the world. Despite the bravado of backpackers who will try to convince you that real travellers are not afraid to cross the Gap, it is in fact a very dangerous journey and the Panamanian police are not interested in picking you up if you have problems.
Michele Labrut’s Getting to Know Panama gives the following tips for surviving in the Darien:
“Do not go naked into the water, very undesirable protozoa can get into you. Do not drink untreated water. Never stray from the group, you can easily lose your bearings and get lost. If this happens, stay where you are and do not panic. Shout or yell at regular intervals.”
The rest of Panama has clean water.