Getting around Panama is relatively easy compared to other Latin American countries, and major roads are well-maintained and delightfully free of potholes. In Panama City, taxis are the best way to get around: they're cheap, and you don't have to deal with the stress of chaotic city driving. I don't recommend buses, as their routes are confusing, they can be dangerous, and you'll get everywhere much faster by taxi. Panama City (except for the Casco Viejo neighborhood) isn't the best place to explore on foot, as most major tourist attractions aren't within walking distance from each other.
If you're traveling between cities or destinations, you can do so by bus, plane, or car. If you'll be driving, most destinations are off the paved and well-maintained Pan-American Highway. Once you get off the highway however, some secondary roads can be a bit rough. To enter or leave Panama City, you'll take the Puente de Las Americas or the newer Puente Centenario.
Bus travel between cities is relatively cheap, but slower than driving. Nearly all buses from Panama City to other destinations depart from the Terminal de buses by Albrook Airport.
Aero Perlas (tel. 315-7500; www.aeroperlas.com) and Air Panama (tel. 316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com) are Panama's two carriers, servicing most destinations in the country. Air travel is safe and quick. Because of rising fuel costs, however, air travel isn't as cheap as it once was, and prices are rapidly increasing. Check their websites for schedules and fares.
Driving in Panama allows you the most flexibility. Renting a car costs about as much as in the U.S, and gas is a little more expensive, so while this isn't the cheapest option, it allows you to enjoy the scenery, adhere to your own schedule, make pit-stops, and visit destinations away from your hotel. Generally speaking, speed limits in Panama are about 60-80 km/hr on major roadways and slower on secondary roads. You'll want to stick to this limit, as police speed traps are common, and you don't want a speeding ticket to put a damper on your trip.
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. Tocumen Airport car-rental agency phone numbers are as follows: Alamo (tel. 238-4142; www.alamopanama.com), Avis (tel. 238-4046; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 263-8777; www.budgetpanama.com), Dollar (tel. 270-0355; www.dollarpanama.com), Hertz (tel. 238-4081; www.hertz.com), National (tel. 238-4144; www.nationalpanama.com), and Thrifty (tel. 264-2613; www.thrifty.com).
When renting a car in Panama, you must purchase two basic insurances. The agency will also offer a variety of other full-coverage options, but generally, your credit card rental insurance should cover you, and you really only need the obligatory insurances.
Keep in mind that, depending on your destination, it's sometimes better to get a four-wheel drive vehicle, as some of Panama's roads are unpaved and rocky. If you're staying close to Panama City or all your planned destinations are right off the Pan American Highway, you should be fine with a two-wheel drive.
Although most Panamanians drive stick shift vehicles, automatics are readily available at all car rental agencies, though you should expect to pay a bit more. Generally speaking, renting a car in Panama should cost you between $40 and $80 (£20-£40) a day, depending on the kind of car and how you reserve. For the best deals, book through an online agency, such as Expedia or www.hotels.com. You can also book directly through the car rental agency's websites, as booking ahead of time generally gets you a better rate. The agency will give you a road map upon car rental.
Some distances are as follows:
Panama City to Colon: 1 hour
Panama City to Gamboa: 25 minutes
Panama City to Portobello: 1 1/2 hours
Panama City to Carti: 3 hours
Panama City to Boquete: 7 hours
Panama City to the Azuero Peninsula: 7 hours
There are also car rental agencies in David, Colon, and other popular tourist destinations.
Bus routes between major and minor destinations in Panama are frequent and relatively inexpensive. Expect to pay about $2 to $4 per hour, depending on your destination. Panama City's bus terminal is located adjacent to Albrook Airport. It's not necessary to reserve your tickets ahead of time unless you are traveling on a holiday weekend or during December or Easter week. Be sure to arrive at the terminal at least 45 minutes ahead of time. Long-distance buses are air-conditioned, comfortable, have an on-board bathroom, and usually show several movies. Shorter routes tend to use smaller, less comfortable buses, but are usually air-conditioned. If your route is 4 or more hours, the driver will make a pit-stop about half-way through for lunch or dinner.
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.