If you plan to visit Panama, it’s possible that you’re going to stay in Panama City and never leave. Maybe you’d like a more thorough survey of the country and you’ll go to Colon, or Rio Hato. But then – how do people get around in Panama? No matter what your preference, if you plan to move your feet at all, you’ll need a bit of background on how transport works throughout the country before you set those feet on Panamanian soil.
Luckily, the know-how of getting around isn’t too complicated or different from other Latin American countries. Nevertheless, we’re here to help with a starter guide on what works, what doesn’t, and where to go first. And there are some questions to address, such as:
Is Panama dangerous for tourists?
In general Panama is one of the safest countries in Latin America, with lower crime rates than tourist hotspot Costa Rica. Because it shares a border with Colombia, Panama’s crime mostly revolves around drugs, so for tourists who use common sense and don’t go to dangerous areas like Darien Gap, Colon, or city ghettos, there’s rarely any issues visiting Panama.
Is it safe to walk around Panama City?
The short answer: yes, in general (but with some disclaimers). Panama is considered generally safer than many of its neighboring countries, and the government does its best to capitalize on the increasing levels of tourism. Because of this, it’s in the economy’s best interest for the Panamanian government to keep crime to a minimum, and they’ve also instituted a tourism police so that visitors have designated officers to help in case they’re needed.
Thus, the usual warnings apply – stay in touristic areas, being aware of pickpockets. Research the most sketchy neighborhoods in advance and make sure you know where they are on the map so that you can avoid them. And of course, don’t walk alone at night. Simple guidelines to follow, and Panama City will be a lovely experience on foot.
Read our detailed guide: What to do in Panama City
Panama Public and Local Transport
When in Panama City, you’ll be able to take advantage of the first underground metro system built in Central America – appropriately-named “El Metro,” the system currently has 2 operational lines with additional lines planned. Line 1 runs North-South, between the central Albrook station and San Isidro. Line 2 runs East-West, between the stations San Miguelito and Nuevo Tocumen. It costs approximately $0.35 per ride, and it paid for with the same transit card which you would need to use for….
The MetroBus is part of the expansion of the Panama City internal transit system, and is intended to replace the fascinating, exciting, ubiquitous-yet-dangerous presence of “chicken buses,” or refurbished old USA school buses which are painted crazy colors and haphazardly serve the general populous’ transit needs. That said, you’ll see chicken buses around, but remember that the MetroBus is a nicer, cleaner, air-conditioned vehicle for the same price. We’re just saying. You’ll use the same transit card which you use for the subway, which must be preloaded – cash not accepted.
Taxis in Panama are complicated. Unlike in most other cities, the likelihood of the taxi driver knowing the location of your address is slim (addresses in Panama aren’t really a thing, anyway). Instead, rely on popular landmarks like famous hotels or monuments, and first, know the name of the neighborhood you need to get to.
That said, it’s just as important to worry about how the pricing is going to work. Taxis in Panama are unmetered, so you’ll need to settle on a price with the driver before you get in. Ask the owners of your accommodation for advice in knowing approximately what the routes you’ll be needing are charged, so that you can be reasonably confident you’re not being ripped off as an ignorant tourist.
As usual with taxis, avoid hailing one off the street as you might be flagging down an illegal or unauthorized driver, which poses dangers, both for your wallet and your physical health. Instead, call a taxi in advance from a reputable company. Or, just make things easier for yourself and choose Uber – the price is fixed, and they have GPS. Simple, easy.
Buses in Panama
Buses are generally the most popular method of travel throughout the country, and you should be able to bus to just about any community that is also accessible by car. While you can still take the aforementioned “chicken buses” to just about anywhere, there are plenty of more modern, reliable options (the chicken buses are mostly just very chaotic, and you can never guarantee whether the driver will follow safe driving practices). The website https://thebusschedule.com/pa/ is fairly reliable for an idea of timetables.
If you are starting from Panama City, the main bus terminal Gran Terminal de Transportes will take you just about anywhere. Many buses nowadays will be more modern, with reclining seats and A/C. For popular long-distance routes, it may be a good idea to reserve tickets in advance. In many cases, simply arriving at the station a bit early should be enough.
For a safe, convenient and comfortable option, you can use a private car transfer like Daytrip
Boat transport in Panama
If you are going between coastal cities, or staying in one of the several popular archipelagos off the Panamanian coast line, you may opt for the water-bound option of transport. In some areas, boat services, ferries, and water taxis are well established and run frequently (such as the route from Almirante to Bocas del Toro). Otherwise, if you plan to go between communities which are less-frequented, or which do not have scheduled services, you may need to hire a boat or wait for a cargo/merchant ship going your way.
If you opt for the latter option, it’s important to a) know the price of gas so that you can negotiate a price effectively, but more importantly b) understand the risks of drug trafficking. Panama is very much in the middle of the channel which transports drugs between South America and the USA, and cargo/merchant ships understandably play a very large role in this trade. If you board a ship which is not part of a licensed transport service, you run the risk that that boat will be transporting illegal contraband, and even being associated with someone carrying drugs in Panama (not the carrier yourself) can be punishable with up to 15 years in prison. Choose your vessels wisely.
Trains in Panama
…aren’t really a thing. Except for one – an adorable and historic option called the Panama Canal Railway, which services Panama City to Colon (the only route available). The train is vintage and runs daily, and exists largely for the enjoyment of tourists. So if you’re going between these two major hubs, consider opting for this unique carrier.
Panama does its very best to make transport for its tourism industry as simple as possible. When outside the capital, opt for the buses for ease and reliability, and when traversing Panama City, take advantage of the beautiful new transport system!