I was in Panama in February/March of 2013 and I here are my thoughts about the possibility of taking a bus from the airport to the city and vice versa.
There ARE public buses linking the city with the airport. A few years ago the municipality decided to introduce a real metropolitan transit system called „MetroBUS”. As a result of this a brand new fleet of Volvo/Marcopolo buses was bought. These buses are safe, clean, and fairly comfortable. They are equipped with an A/C system, which is a great thing when an outside temperature exceeds 30 degrees. It is very cheap to move around by transit. In 2013 a regular fare was 0.25 PAB/USD. There is one problem, however. It is NOT possible to pay a fare by cash. You can only make payments by using a MetroBUS proximity card. In early 2013 the card cost 2 PAB/USD. It is a pre-paid card, so it has to be topped-up with some amount of money before using it as well. Once you run out of funds, you just need to top it up. It is possible to check the card’s balance online on MetroBUS website.
A bus stop is located just a few hundred metres away from the airport. It takes literally only a few minutes to walk there. The buses to the city ply frequently, I’d say every 10-15 minutes.
They are different bus routes to the city, but for all of them the final destination is Albrook Terminal, which is a main transit hub in Panama City. Next to the Albrook Terminal there is an Albrook Mall which is a huge shopping centre with tons of different shops.
If you want to get to the city as quickly as possible you should wait for a bus that will display a „Corredor Sur” route. These buses will take you straight to downtown. They drive on a toll motorway hence the fare is higher. Instead of 0.25 PAB, your balance will be charged 1.25 PAB, but I think it’s worth it, as it saves a lot of time and there is no need of taking another bus from Albrook to downtown.
The most important message is: MetroBUS cards CANNOT be bought at the airport. I bought a card from the police officer patrolling the street outside the terminal. He sold me a card with some profit, but still it was much cheaper than taking a taxi. I met one traveler from Israel whom in order to purchase a card had caught a taxi to the nearest shopping centre and from there she had taken the bus.
If you plan to take a bus from the city during the peak hours, it can take up to 2 hours to get to the airport on a regular route (0.25 PAB), so be cautious and plan ahead.
MetroBUS cards can be bought and topped-up in a MetroBUS booth located in Albrook Terminal as well as in other locations in the city. For up-to-date card and fare prices and balance inquiries go to the website I posted. It is only in Spanish but it’s easy to find all the info even if you’re not familiar with the language.
Traffic in Panamá City is chaotic. The drivers tend to be aggressive, changing lanes and overtaking liberally. Pedestrians need to be alert when crossing the street as stop signs may not mean that cars will stop to let you cross. Additionally streets tend to have differing names quite randomly. Names on maps may not be what is labeled on signs or what locals used. Using local landmarks may be the best way to navigate.
There are taxis everywhere in Panama City, you'll never have a problem getting one, just wave your hand and there will be one in a second. They will sometimes stop to pick up other fares along with you, they will honk at you if they think you are looking for a taxi.
We took one Sunday morning from El Trapiche to Casco Viejo, the charge was a mere $3 and as an added bonus our driver was entertaining and even gave us a mini tour of Casco Viejo before dropping us off. From Casco Viejo to the Causeway it was $8, taxis don't have meters so it's helpful to have an idea on how much they should cost. Supposedly they are supposed to carry a map with the rates but I don't recall seeing it posted. We used the same driver to get back to the airport, $40 from the Causeway to the hotel to pick up our luggage and then to the airport. We probably overpaid by a few dollars, it should be around $28 from the hotel to the airport and less than $12 to get from the Causeway to the Doubletree but it wasn't so overpriced that I felt fleeced.
Although I'm sure there's some way to get to the city on public transportation, we opted to take a taxi from Tocumen airport (PTY) which is the international airport. We went outside the terminal to the taxi ranks and asked what the fare was from someone official looking, the man loading the taxis said it was $28 to the Doubletree which was in line with what I read before leaving home. While I couldn't find a taxi rate chart, there apparently is one and the fares should be standard from point a to point b. The taxi ride only takes 20-25 minutes in good traffic. Our driver didn't know where the Doubletree was but he asked on the way out and found it with no problem.
The colorful buses adorned with graffiti like paintings, multiple hood ornaments and christmas lights are known as Diablo Rojo or Red Devils. I wasn't brave enough to jump on one of the crowded sweaty buses that I had no idea where it was going but should you be, the ride costs only 25 cents. One of our guides, when we asked about the cleaner city buses that had no one on them, said that people prefer to ride the red devils because they are cheaper, 25 cents compared to 75 cents.
I must have seen a hundred of these buses but I never took a good picture of one, just this one at night.
Walking is not something most Panamanians do, the hotel staff looked at us kind of funny when we asked if we could walk here or there. From our hotel to El Trapiche it was maybe 15 minutes on foot but they suggested we take a taxi. Drivers are a little crazy in Panama so proceed with caution if you do go on foot!
The city is building a metro / subway system and are slowly phasing out the diablo rojos and replace them with modern buses. The new buses currently service the same routes as the diablo rojos (and look decent) but I heard that they will eventually be rerouted to connect people to the metro system.
I took a picture of the proposed metro system, which is planned to be completed in 2013.
I just went to Panama City in December 2011. From what I've been told, the taxi prices are based on zones and # of people. Also, you can hail a taxi even if it is not empty. They will pick you up if you are going in the same general direction.
My friend and I are not good at bargaining and my Spanish is almost non-existent. Since we were not using taxis too much and the price differencial does not seem too much when split between 2 persons, we did not bother to bargain unless the price sound exorbitant. I jotted down all the prices for your reference - they are for 2 people and these are probably tourist prices rather than local prices.
Tocumen to El Congrejo - $35 + toll of $2.50. This is the one I am very iffy about. I thought I confirmed with the taxi driver that the fare was $25, but he said I heard wrong when we arrived at the hotel. It was late, we just paid him rather than attempting to argue.
El Congrejo to Albrook Airport / Albrook Airport to Multicentro Mall- $10. We arranged for the taxi to pick us up at 5am, so we were told that we'll be charged more. It appears the regular price is $5. We actually asked him to pick us up for the return trip for $10, but again probably had to pay more because he had to come and wait for us.
David Airport to Boquete / Boquete to David Airport - $35 (we heard you can probably get there for $25-$30). We arranged for the same driver to pick us up a couple of days later. He actually arrived more than 15 minutes earlier than the arranged time.
Multicentro Mall to Amador / Amador to Casco Viejo - $10. Not sure what is the true price for 2 people. I am going to guess $5 to $7.
Casco Viejo to Cinta Costera - $2.
Multicentro to Mercado del Mariscos - $3. One guy quoted $5 on the return ride, so we just said thank you and found another cab.
Multicentro Mall to Tocumen - $25 (same driver as the one who drove us to Albrook and he was going to cover the tolls. We decided to pay him a bit extra for the tolls.)
Hope this helps to at least establish some upper limits / tourist prices.
Just west of the Albrook Airport, you can find the southern terminus for the Panama Canal Railroad. This railroad runs from here across the Isthmus to Colon and offers passenger service with one 0715 daily departure. The railway was originally completed in 1855 and was the World’s first transcontinental railway. Return time from Colon is 1715.
Taxi fares we paid during our visit in Dec 2007.
-from Bella Vista area to Via Espana/Argentina (El Cangreho area ) : $2 USD
-from Hotel Riande Continental to Albrook Mall : $2 by taxi on the street day time, $ 5 in the evening; Hotel charged $ 10 for the same trip.
-from Bella Vista to Old Panama : $ 4
-from Old Panama to Multi Plaza mall: $ 2
-from Multi Plaza mall to Bella Vista: $2.50
-from Bella Vista to Restaurant Bucanero in Amador: $4 daytime; $8 at night from there back to the city.
-from Bella Vista to Tocumen airport: $16 to 27, what a range .
-from Bella Vista to Multi Centro Mall in Paitilla: $1.50 ; we've been quote $5, of course we didn't take it.
Usually within 50 cents, I didn't even bother bargaining. Average price within the city is still $2.
Must confirm price before getting into the taxi, most drivers will quote you tourists rate especially the ones with newer cars.
We just got back from PNY . The rates above still stand.
From central Pny to Albrook Mall, for example, is 2 $ max for 2 persons. There are still honest taxi driver out there :) and one of them quoted us $ 1.75 for the trip. Local folks do not and will not pay over 2 USD for that distance.
Others are still very much out to scalp tourists. Example : a taxi guy quoted us 5 USD from Albrook mall to central Pny. LMAO of course we walked and went with another taxi.
Taxis are on a fixed base system with most close destinations at $1 and a maximum of $3 for destinations in the suburbs. Amazingly the taxi drivers are mostly honest and all instantly know how to get to where you want to go. I definitely recommend taking taxis in PC.
The local buses are known as "diablo rojo" Red Devils and each is painted with a unique airbrush design. For actual transportation, taxis are so cheap that you should use them. However these buses are a must see sight in themselves.
Diablos Rojos, the Red Devils - are one of Panama's institutions.. however they are not a sports team but... public buses. Colourful public buses I should add: they are revved-up school buses painted with graffitis of different colours, often with scarlet, crimson, ruby, and cherry tones. It's their owners who spend a lot of time (and money) decorating them. They are a wonderful sight.
Watching one of those buses is like going to a contemporary art museum... really fantastic. Do hurry to Panama if you want to see them... there are runours that the local authorities have plans to buy new and anonymous city buses, and that these old Red Devils will all be replaced. What a pity!
getting to Panama by road from Colombia is impossible.. Although there's a natural land bridge between the two countries, the Panamerican highway stops right near the border and there's a road gap of about 80 kilometres. The official reason someone gaves us is that panama wants to protect itself from the diseases that could enter the territory is there was a road. We found it very little credible, since diseases do not travel by road.
The only two safe ways into Panama are either by boat or more ocmfortable by plane. We flew - we chose aerorepublica (which is partner ofcapa airlines), which has daily direct flights to Panama city from cartagena... so that we did not have to backtrack through bogota again. it wasn't a cheap flight - colombian airlines are rarely cheap - but they have modern planes and are reliable.
The general rule of thumb here is to ignore all taxi drivers that say this! "Hey Buddy" seems to be how all North Americans get greeted.
Anyway, here's the scoop. Always flag down a taxi from the street. Never use one that is waiting for you outside a hotel or restaurante - these are the drivers that prey on the un-informed looking for a $10 or more score in taxi fare. These drivers usually speak really good english and that's another tip-off.
The only place you will want to use a taxi that's waiting is when at the airport and coming into the city. It's a flat rate. About $27 per person I recall.
Fare: The basic rate across the city is $1! Yes, ONE DOLLAR! Add $0.25 more per person in the taxi and a little more to the base rate for longer trips. Note: Fares seems to vary by $0.25, so if you are charge $1.25 instead of $1, just pay it.
July 2008 update on taxi fares:
Taxi fares went up recently. The old rates no longer apply. New base rate is $1.25 and it's now $0.50 for an extra person. It's also $0.50 to cross zones when it was only $0.25 before. Enjoy.