Panama City

For other places with the same name, see Panama City (disambiguation).
Panama city at night

Panama City is the capital of Panama.

Understand

Panama City is a very multicultural place, with large populations from many different parts of the world. Spanish is spoken by most, and many speak some form of English. Customer service is slowly improving, and surprisingly dismal in hotels. However, on the streets, Panamanians are for the most part extremely friendly and helpful and would love to give you some advice.

There's great shopping, from high-end stores in the malls around Paitilla and in the banking district around Via Espana, to veritable bargains around La Central (Central Avenue, now turned into a pedestrian walkway) and the Los Pueblos outdoor mall. You can also find many ethnic stores (mostly Chinese and Indian), in certain parts of the City.

Get in

By plane

Tocumen International Airport (IATA: PTY) is just outside Panama City (it's part of the San Miguelito district, which has been incorporated as a separate city but essentially exists as part of Panama City). The airport is a hub for Copa Airlines, and is also served by American Airlines (Dallas/Ft.Worth, Miami), Delta Airlines (Atlanta, Georgia), United Airlines (Houston, Newark), Avianca (Bogotá, Colombia; San José, Costa Rica; San Salvador, El Salvador and Managua, Nicaragua). Most major Central American airlines, and several South American airlines and European Airlines also serve the city. There are at least six daily flights to and from Miami, two from Orlando and Atlanta, and three daily flights from Houston, 1 from Los Angeles LAX, two from Newark, and 1 from New York's JFK. There are daily flights to Mexico City; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Caracas, Venezuela; Santiago, Chile; Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Asunción, Paraguay; Havana, Cuba; Kingston, Jamaica, at least 7 Colombian cities (Medellín, Cali, Pereira and Bogotá included) and several international destinations. There's also service to Madrid, Spain, and service to Amsterdam with KLM.

Getting to the city center from Tocumen is unfortunately not easy. Taxis cost $30, which can be reduced to $10 if you can find two other people to share with. Depending on traffic, the trip can take well over an hour.

If you don't want to pay for a taxi, there are modern, air-conditioned buses which cost $1.25 to get to the city center from the airport, but as of February 2012, the buses only accept fare cards, not cash, and in April 2012, there was still no place to buy fare cards in the airport. However, the bus is always full of people going to and from the airport, so you can probably find someone willing to pay your fare with their card; you can pay them back in cash. Take the bus going to Albrook, from the bus stop that is across the street, farther from the airport, by the billboards. To get there, turn right as you exit the terminal, follow the fence along to the right, cross the small parking lot, and follow the (mostly) covered sidewalk the rest of the way -- or just follow people. It's no more than a 5-minute walk. There are at least two different bus routes that go to Albrook Mall; take the one marked Corredor Sur if at all possible for a half hour trip (depending on traffic), or take the local bus (Via España) for a slow (at least 1.5 hr) trip. You can buy a fare card at the Albrook transit center once you get there. There is a $2 fee for the card.

Getting back to the airport, you can catch a bus at the 5 de Mayo station. Heading down the stairs in the pedestrian underpass to the bus station, want to go left to platform 1, doors 'C' (corredor sur to Tocumen). At 4pm on a weekday there can be a substantial wait and the ride takes 50min due to rush hour.

Also, forget anything you may have heard about the red devil buses--they no longer serve the airport, although they are still common in the city.

Domestic flights leave out of Gelabert/Albrook Airport (IATA: PAC), a former US military airfield (Albrook Air Force Base). Domestic airlines are safe, and many fly very modern small jet aircraft. There are daily flights to every major town and city in the country. The only carrier is AirPanama (Aeropuerlas shut down in 2012).

Panamá Pacífico International Airport (IATA: BLB), a small airport previously known as Howard Air Force Base. VivaColombia offers daily flights to Medellin and Bogota. Taxis ask $30 for a ride to the city. You'll cross the Panamá Canal on the way.

By train

There's only train service between Panama City and Colón. It's mostly a freight train, but it has a very nice passenger car. The train ride offers excellent views of the Panama Canal and the tropical rainforest.


By bus

Panama City has one of the most modern bus terminals in Latin America. It's the main hub and well organized. The terminal is next to the Albrook airport (the domestic terminal) and it is very easy to find a bus here. All of the international buses ("tica buses" too) start and end in this terminal. Arrivals are usually on the top floor and you can transfer to city buses on the lower level.

Within the terminal, you can buy a "RapiPass 3en1" card which is valid for the metrobus, metro and terminal (bus and bathroom use). The card costs $2 and needs to be topped up.

The adjacent mall offers practically all that a traveler may want: showers, cinemas and plenty of shopping, etc.

Bus Lines

Get around

Miraflores locks, Panama Canal

By taxi

One of the easiest ways to get around town is by taxi. Taxis do not have a meter. Fares are set by the authorities, and are determined based on what section of the city you are starting at and what section of the city you are going to, with a surcharge for every additional person. The cab driver should have a table (which may include a map) that will show the costs for the fare, and they are required to show it to you if you ask or you can check Autoridad del Tránsito y Transporte Terrestre.

Fares are around $1.25 for travel within one zone, and the longest fares within the City at about $5. Keep in mind that the former Canal Zone is in a different section, and it will be at least a $5 fare. The surcharge for additional passengers should be $.50/additional passenger, and there's also a $.40 surcharge if you call a cab (at least these were the prices a few years ago). A taxi to or from the international airport typically costs $30 including tolls if you take the Corredor Sur highway. A taxi to the Amador Causeway costs between $5 - $10. Cab drivers do not expect tips, and they may pick up additional passengers along the way. The rule is that unless there's little to no deviation from the first person's route, the first person picked up is the first person dropped off, otherwise they will ask if it's ok to pick up the other fare. Cabs can also be rented for the day, and the fares again are set (probably around $20-$25). In this case, they will expect a little extra (tip and/or lunch).

Beware, taxi drivers will frequently try to overcharge visitors, sometimes up to many times the actual price, and will not have or know about any table as mentioned previously. If you are clearly a visitor and asking for the price, chances are the driver will say whatever they think they can get away with and you can try haggling down. It can help to ask locals what the price should be then negotiate based on that.

Panoramic view, Casco Antiguo

By bus

Diablo rojo

Getting around by bus is also cheap and convenient. Fares are $0.25 and the destination of the bus is written across the front windshield in large letters. Buses are privately owned and drivers usually compete with each other for passengers. For this reason, buses have colorful decorations to attract customers. During rush hour some buses can get crowded, and it is not unusual to see 3 people seated on a 2-person bench and lots of people standing along the aisle. It is not advised to use buses during these hours.

As of 2013, the "red devils" have been phased out from the main city routes, but they still connect the city with outlying suburbs.

Metrobus

The city has begun replacing the flamboyant "red devils" with modern, air-conditioned city buses ("MetroBus," look for the orange sign to find stops), but the red devils are still around. The MetroBus buses do not accept cash, so make sure to buy a fare card at one of the city's many malls before using them.

Bus fare is $0.25 for regular route and $1.25 for corredor route (Corredor Norte and Corredor Sur) and the same prices for transfer. You can buy and recharge MetroBus card at many places around the city (Puntos de venta).

There are no maps or time tables at the stations so using the bus system can be frustrating without knowing the common name of the destination and/or adequte Spanish for inquiring.

By metro

Metro is operational.

A single ride is 35 cent (full price) with discounts for elderly people, students and the likes. There are no night trains and the last train leaves at 10 pm all week with the first train leaving at 5:00 am (weekdays including saturdays) or 7:00 am (sundays) respectively

The Panama Metro opened on April 5, 2014. In the first week of operation, more than a million passengers used the service. It is the first underground/subway service in Central America.

Line Two is still under construction and the estimate is that it will be finished in 2018.

By car

Car travel in Panama City is notoriously difficult. During weekday work hours, traffic jams are continuous. Many street intersections lack traffic signals creating right-of-way confusion. Short distances may be quicker on foot or other means of transportation. During holidays like Carnival the traffic can be expected to be worse.

Car rentals are available from major corporations like Hertz at Panama's Tocumen International Airport.

All taxis in Panama are required to be painted yellow by law. Hitch hiking is not uncommon.

Check points run by the national police occur at strategic locations to prevent the movement of illegal persons and goods.

See

The Archaeological Site of Panamá Viejo and Historic District (Casco Viejo) of Panamá are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Casa Gongora, Casco Viejo
Cathedral tower, Panama Viejo
A nature center run by the Smithsonian Institution is located on Culebra Island ($5 admission). It has a few fish tanks with Pacific, Caribbean, and freshwater sea life, a small pool with a sea turtle and a few little sharks, and a tank where children can touch starfish and other sea creatures. There is also a little forest where a family of sloths lives.
It is possible to travel to the end of the causeway by city bus, which apparently runs from the central bus terminal (Albrook) from 'E - Corredur Sur, Zona Este' platform (with frequency of about one bus per hour). Taxi fare from central city is around $7.

Do

Help A Sailboat To Cross The Canal - All sailboats that want to cross the Panama Canal needs by law 5 crew members when crossing the locks due to the complicity of handling these boats in these narrow locks and tieing and untieing it to the walls, other boats etc. The job called "linehandler". The owners of the boats can either hire local help or look for volunteers in exchange for the experience, food and drinks. The process takes 2 days due to long waiting times and the slow movement. You sleep on the boat during these time. It is a unique way to experience the Canal, sailing and have a closer look on the locks. A website created to connect between the volunteers and the boat's owners and to give more information - http://www.panlinehandler.com

Learn

Buy

Crafts

Panamanian crafts High end crafts can also be purchased from shops in the Centro de Artesanias in Balboa neighborhood or in the shops of Mi Pueblitos. Indian stores on every major shopping district (El Dorado mall and surroundings, Los Pueblos, and along Via Espana) also sell many Panamanian souvenirs. Gran Morrison is also a place to find many handicrafts.

Eat

Check out Panama Restaurant Week, which doesn't happen every year, but when it does it is a fantastic option to try great restaurants at good prices. Despite its name, it lasts 15 days, with dozens of participating restaurants offering special participating menus at fixed, lower than normal prices.

Budget

There's several cafes along Via Argentina. The Spanish sandwich shops offer excellent sandwiches, coffee, and churros. Try Manolo's Churreria (don't miss the churros rellenos, pastries filled with dulce de leche and rolled in sugar) or Del Prado. Sandwiches should cost from $3-$5. Also on Via Argentina is El Trapiche, serving traditional Panamanian food for under $12/person. They serve excellent breakfast food. Niko's Cafe has several locations around the City. Owned by Greeks, they are all open 24 hours and the have a good selection of sandwiches and hot food served all day long. Don Lee is a Panamanian chain serve Chinese fast food, and definitely worth a try. There's an abundance of Chinese restaurants, and some can be very affordable. Try some around El Dorado, they should be pretty authentic.

Doraditos Asados in Chanis. An extremely popular Panamanian restaurant that's always full and can take an infuriating amount of time to order. That said it's likely always filled by locals because the prices are cheap and the food is extremely good. In particular the rotisserie chicken (a full one costs about $5) is a local favorite with two types of chimichurri to choose from.

Fish market outside of Casco Viejo. Entering Casco Viejo there's the main fish market for the city exists and has recently undergone some refurbishing. There are some restaurants upstairs where the fish is obviously very fresh and the prices are cheap.

Restaurante Poly (Corner of 26th and Avenida Sur) A very crowded, noisy and not very hygienic restaurant, it's however a truly gastronomic experience. Do not miss the delicious fish soups and the bistec picado, both for under 2 USD each.

Mid-range

Splurge

Drink

Calle Uruguay is a neighborhood filled with bars and discos for wealthy Panamanians and foreigners.

Taberna 21 is a local hangout serving great cheap beer and Spanish tapas.

Buy and try some Panamanian and Cuban coffee while you're here. It will be some of the best you've ever had.

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget Under $50
Mid-range $50 to $150
Splurge Over $150

Budget

Shared kitchen, internet and wi-fi. Friendly employees. Dorm: US$13, private rooms: US$30-$50.

Mid-range

Splurge

Connect

You can buy SIM cards for Panama's 4 carriers at the Terminal (Albrook) and probably many other places.

Stay safe

Be careful in both Casco Viejo and the Panama la Vieja ruins area. There are tourist police aplenty in both neighborhoods but do not wander too far in these areas alone (even in the day) and certainly not in the evening (as of 2010 these areas are very safe, lots of activity and tourist traffic)

Stay out of El Chorillo, Santa Ana, Curundu and San Miguel. It is very dangerous right now due to infighting between drug gangs. Tourists have been kidnapped right off the street. El Chorillo borders San Filipe so it is very easy to accidentally walk into it. When driving, car doors should be locked.

Look both ways before crossing the street! Panamanian drivers are notoriously aggressive when the traffic allows and will not slow down for you even if you're lucky enough to find a crosswalk. There's only one way to cross the road here. Wait for a break in the traffic and walk. Once you start, keep going. Drivers will stop(99% of the time......). Otherwise you'll be stuck for hours waiting.

The central neighborhoods of Marbella, El Cangrejo, Obarrio, San Francisco, and the Banking Area are generally the most safe. In any case, be careful of your belongings, even if sitting in a restaurant, as people have had things snatched without noticing it, especially when enjoying a glass too many of Panama's great wine selection. It is never a good idea to drink heavily and walk back to your hotel.

A dumb tourist mistake is bragging aloud about how cheap things are when local wages are also much lower compared to Europe and North America.

It's always a good idea (in any country really) to spend a few minutes to find out exact taxi fares before taking a taxi and always have exact change for the correct fare. This avoids over-charging and problems with some drivers. Having to ask a taxi driver how much the fare is the equivalent to wearing a "kick-me" sticker on your shorts, as you're telling him you don't know. Some have paid $20.00 to get from El Dorado to Via Argentina, but the real fare for one person is $1.75.

Outside of Multiplaza, Albrook and Multicentro are some very good looking Taxis. The drivers wear nice shirts and the Taxis have proper signs on the roof. The drivers will most likely ask you if you are interested. NEVER take these taxis. All they do is wait for foreigners and then charge 4x the price.

Some taxis at the main bus station prey on visitors. Never put your belongings in the trunk. Sit in the back seat along with your belongings and have your luggage firmly grasped while entering and exiting the vehicle; otherwise, they can drive away with your things while you are still trying to get in. Lock the doors once inside. Avoid and ignore anyone who approaches you to "get a taxi for you"; go to the curb to get one yourself. At best they will want money for this "service" amounting to half the taxi fare; at worst, they are setting you up to be robbed with certain drivers with whom they work. Lastly, the cabs are marked on the door with a unique registration number -- memorize it or write it down and secretly tuck it safely away on your person before entering any cab.

Never lose your temper with taxi drivers or police (or anyone else really) no matter how bad you may find a situation or service in some places. Exert your rights politely but firmly.

Cope

Embassies

Embassy of France, in the middle of the old city

Go next

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