Taxis are inexpensive, safe, and plentiful -- except when it is raining during rush hour and it seems that every worker heading to, or leaving, work is trying to flag one down. Quite often, a taxi will stop for another passenger if he or she is headed in your general direction, but the driver will usually deliver you to your destination first. Taxis charge $1.25 to $2 (65p-£1) for most destinations within Panama City, but confirm the price beforehand as the "zones" that taxi drivers use for price reference are vague. Taxis from the city center to the Amador Causeway will run you about $5 (£2.50). Unscrupulous drivers may try to charge you more, especially to and from the Amador Causeway. Tip: Some taxis work directly for a hotel, and rip off guests by charging up to three times the going fare -- and they're not going to budge when you contest the fare. These are the taxis that await guests directly at the front door. Simply walk out to the street and flag a taxi down for cheaper fare.
Panama City is not easy to navigate on foot because of its interweaving streets, streets that are not signed, and lack of recognizable landmarks for visitors. Also, many neighborhoods aren't within walking distance of each other. To get around without a fuss, take a cab.
On the other hand, the best (really only) way to see Casco Viejo is on foot so that you can savor the neighborhood's colonial architecture, visit a museum, and stop for lunch. Avenida Balboa has a long seafront walkway that starts near Punta Paitilla and ends at the Mercado de Marisco (the fish market). The Calzada de Amador (Amador Causeway) was designed for walking, jogging, and bicycling, with some 6.5km (4 miles) of landscaped pedestrian trails.
The traveler in Panama City will feel more comfortable getting around by taxi than by bus. There are no printed bus routes, but the name of the bus's destination should appear on a sign in the front window. Panama City is supposedly overhauling its public transportation system, as the city's famous "Red Devils" are replaced by a modern fleet of coaches, but these plans have been in the works for years without any visible progress. Red Devils are retired U.S. school buses that drivers individualize with electric graffiti art, flashing lights, and other knickknacks, and they are driven until the wheels fall off. Though emblematic of the funky, vibrant culture that makes Panama what it is, Red Devils are often in the news for crashing and other unsafe practices, and "devil" drivers are notorious for their recklessness.
You do not need or want a rental car while visiting just Panama City, considering how economical taxis are. Admittedly, there are a lot of destinations and attractions outside the city, and independent travelers who desire a vehicle to see the sights on their own will have better luck renting at one of the airport terminals and heading straight out of the city on a well-signed thoroughfare. Pay attention to every sign on the road because some road signs are small and easy to miss; other times there is no "official" sign for a turnoff, but a couple of commercial signs with the town name, giving you only a vague idea of where you are. Travelers who have a basic command of Spanish and who can ask for directions will have the easiest time. Bring a good map and ask the rental agency exactly how to get to your destination.
There are car rental kiosks at both the Tocumen and Albrook airports (car rental agencies at Tocumen are open 24 hr.; Albrook rental agencies are open 8am-6:30pm), and each agency has a few locations in town. If you are renting a car to visit outlying areas such as the canal, Portobelo, or the Panamanian interior, have your rental agency show you, in detail, the quickest and most efficient route to your destination.
Tips for Drivers in Panama City -- If for some reason you must drive through town, consider the following advice:
- Prepare for abrupt stops when cars turn into or cross your lane, especially on wide avenues such as Balboa. You as a driver should be aggressive in this sense, too, and nose your way into oncoming traffic when making a left turn or merging into traffic -- other cars will slow down for you, but this is a maneuver that is best learned from watching other drivers.
- Many streets are unsigned or not named, and often a one-way street is only advertised by the fact that all parked cars face one direction. First-time drivers in Panama City make a lot of U-turns and last-minute decisions, so don't lose patience.
- Keep cool under pressure and don't panic if an unexpected turn takes you into a spooky neighborhood. Have an open map at hand, keep your doors locked, and pull over if you need to find a route to get you headed in the right direction again.
- Cross walks in Panama City are poorly marked to non-existent, so most pedestrians J-walk (or rather run) across the street when the coast is more or less clear. Keep this in mind if you'll be driving in Panama City because the last thing you want is to have your trip ruined by an unfortunate accident.
- Do not leave anything inside a parked vehicle.
- On some busy streets, a raggedy, self-styled "parking guard" might ask to watch your car. Pay him or her around 50¢ (25p). Some parking guards will demand payment of $1 or $2 (50p-£1) before you leave your car in neighborhoods such as Casco Viejo or Bella Vista.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.