Difference between revisions of "Panama City"
Latest revision as of 22:51, 12 May 2018
Panama City is the national capital of Panama, as well as the provincial capital of the Panama Province, and largest city of Panama. It is the most modern city not only in Panama, but the rest of Central America. Panama City has been an incredibly popular tourist and retirement destination, particularly for U.S. and Canadian citizens, due to city prices being cheap compared to most other places. Recently, Panama City has been given the unofficial title of The Dubai of Latin America, due to the recent rapid influx of skyscrapers, high-rise buildings, and increasing number of wealthy people in the city.
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 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 find many ethnic stores (mostly Chinese and Indian), in certain parts of the City. Panama city has been developed following a USA model. It means going from A to B by car or taxi. There is public transportation like a metro and a system of (metro) buses. However to walk from A to B is unusual if the distance is more than half a mile. The only exception to this rule is the former European part (Casco Viejo) and Avenida Central where walking is possible and even common among the locals living there.
Tocumen Internation Airport (PTY)
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 which operates flights to/from various cities in the Caribbean, North, Central & South America. In the U.S. they only serve Boston, Chicago, Ft Lauderdale, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York-JFK, Orlando, San Francisco, Tampa and Washington-Dulles. Additional flights to other U.S. cities are operated by United on a codeshare basis.
Other airlines that fly to Tocumen are:
Getting from Tocumen to the city center is easy by taxi. It costs $25 to $30, which can be reduced to $10 if you can find two other people to share with. Depending on traffic, the route and the hour of the day the trip can take between 20 minutes to well over an hour. Uber is another cost effective option to get in and around the city, and has a flat $25 fee to/from the airport. Traffic varies widely, so if you can, try to book a flight that will allow you to avoid rush our traffic. With traffic, a 30 minute drive to the city center can stretch to almost two hours.
Getting to the center by bus is not too complicated. There are modern, air-conditioned buses which cost $1.25 to get to the city center from the highway near the airport (5 minutes walk, well-marked). These modern (metro)buses only accept fare cards, not cash. Not for sale on the bus or in the airport. However, the bus is usually full of people going to and from the airport, so you might be able to find someone willing to pay your fare with their card and you can pay them back in cash. You can buy fare cards (2 USD) at Albrook terminal, but also at metro stations such as plaza 5 de Mayo (the place to get off if you are going to stay at Casco Viejo).
There are also independent buses frequently serving the route between the airport and the center. These buses cost the same $1.25, but take cash. Watch and listen for 'Terminal', meaning Albrook bus terminal. They also stop at Plaza 5 de Mayo and other places along the Corredor Sur route. More details regarding how to catch the bus to & from the airport
The diablo rojo red devil buses (or chiva buses) no longer serve the airport, although they are still common in the city.
Gelabert/Albrook Domestic Airport (PAC)
Domestic flights leave out of Gelabert/Albrook Airport (IATA: PAC) ICAO/MPMG, 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 major carrier here is AirPanama . (Aeroperlas regrets to announce the decision to cease operations in Panama as of this 29th of February of 2012.).
Panama Pacifico International Airport (BLB)
There is a now third airport in Panama City, Panamá Pacifico (BLB), formally Howard Wilson US Air Base. It is located about a 20minute drive (US$15~ taxi, US $7-9 Uber) from the city center - you cross over the Panama Canal en route. You can get there also by "chicken bus" or "diablo rojo" from Albrook Bus Terminal very cheap. But you have to have Metrobus card, which costs 2 US$. At the Albrook terminal you have to go to Exit 11 or "Salida 11" (located near food court) and pay at the exit by this card just 0.1 US$. Then take bus to Veracruz, in the bus you have to pay 0,7 US$ in cash. This bus will drop you in about 500 meters from the airport.(May 2015). An Uber from AlBrook bus terminal (free wifi!) is US$7, which is a good alternative to the bus.
It has been newly opened to the public, and currently there are only two airlines operating from it - Veca Airlines fly to/from San Salvador twice weekly (Mondays and Fridays), and Viva Colombia fly to Bogotá (daily) and Medellin (4x weekly). These flights may not show up on the airfare search engines, it is best to check the companies’ individual websites. Viva Colombia currently offer fares to/from Colombia for under US$100 (if you book a bit in advance), much cheaper than other options. Be aware that there is not much in the airport as of January 2015 since it has been newly converted to civilian use - there are no shops, no currency exchange, no wifi, (Update Nov 2017: One coffee shop), so consider this before travelling out. But if you will come by bus you will see near the bus stop there is a gasoline station "Terpel" with a cafeteria and a small shop where you can have a lunch or a coffee before your flight.
There's a once daily train service between Panama City and Colón operated by the Panama Canal Railway Co along the Panama Canal. The train goes out to Colon in the morning and return to Panama City in the late afternoon. It's mostly a freight train, but it has a very nice passenger car. Sometimes the train ride offers views of the Panama Canal and the tropical rain forest. Since the train leaves early in the morning and returns in late afternoon, you may want to consider whether you want to spend the whole day in Colon, which has an unsavory reputation or take a bus back to Panama City which runs much frequently. One way train fare Panama City - Colon costs an exorbitant 25 USD. The Colon train station is in the middle of no where.
Make sure you have arranged for some transportation upon the return of the train to Panama City. Evidently, some taxi drivers take advantage of the tourists who have been dropped off at the train station without pre-arranged transportation.
Most tourists will arrive via the international airport at Tocumen, where most of the major international rental car agencies have offices in the terminal.
The most important thing to know is that Tocumen does not have a dedicated "rental car return" area that is expressly signed and marked as such, as at most international airports. Instead, the first section of the curb on the right in front of the terminal is the rental car area even though it is not expressly signed as such. This is where you will be taken to do the initial walkthrough on the vehicle you are renting, and this is where you are expected to return the vehicle at the end of your visit.
The main route from the airport to Panama City is via the Corridor Sur tollway. It is a well-designed, well-maintained controlled-access road that runs about 20 km (12 mi) from Tocumen to Panama City.
Corridor Sur (and its counterpart, Corridor Norte) both use a system of RFID electronic cards for payment on which you must deposit cash in advance, then tap the card against a panel with blue LED lights on the side of the toll booth to open the toll gate. Most rental car agencies can sell you a toll road card (although it may not be loaded with enough cash, which they will warn you about) or you can buy one at the first toll plaza about a mile from the airport at Ciudad Radial. Any lane that is marked as a "RECARGA" lane is one that is supposed to be staffed with a human cashier who can credit more value to the card. Panama toll plazas block closed lanes only with cones or gates at the plaza itself and don't properly cone off closed lanes well in advance. Expect wild last-minute lane switching, especially at night, as drivers swerve into lanes that are open. Also look out for cashiers trying to scam you if they think you are a tourist (see the "Stay safe" section below).
The western end of the tollway passes through a tunnel and then connects to a flyover which connects to the Cinta Costera/Avenida Balboa corridor which runs through the city.
Corridor Norte is incomplete and is currently difficult to reach from Tocumen. It also uses a different card than Corridor Sur, meaning that most Panama City drivers have to maintain deposits on two cards to get around the city. After years of delays, the eastern extension of Corridor Norte is finally under construction. It will eventually connect to Panama Highway 1 about 2 km (1.2 mi) north of Tocumen. Corridor Norte is far less scenic than its southern counterpart; its primary advantage, when finished, is that it is a less congested route for bypassing Panama City in order to reach the Panama Canal or destinations beyond.
Panama City has a modern Bus Terminal. It is called Albrook or simply 'Terminal' by locals. It is the main Hub and well organized. The terminal is linked to the Albrook metro station and next to the domestic airport. 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.  Bus schedules can be found online.
Whenever leaving the terminal by bus, you will be required to a pay a ten cent exit fee to go through the turnstiles. The fee is paid through a rechargeable card that can be purchased in the terminal for $2.00 plus one dollar to be loaded on the card. A passport, or some sort of acceptable identification is required to purchase the card. There seemed to be no problem passing the card back so multiple travelers could pass through the turnstiles on one card. But, whether this is officially approved is unknown. Alternately, it may be possible to pay another traveler ten cents for the use of their card, thus avoiding the need to purchase the rechargeable card. The ten cent fee is not collected upon arrival at the station by bus.
The bus to Gamboa is located in a section of the bus terminal separate from most of the other buses. Make sure you are in the correct section for your destination by asking before you go through the turnstiles. If you buy a ticket in the main terminal, they will tell you which gate the bus is leaving from.
A big mall adjacent to the bus terminal offers practically all that a traveler may want: showers, cinemas and plenty of shopping and fast food restaurants, etc.  Restrooms in the mall and bus station charge 25 cents. In the mall, there are sometimes restroom attendants who will make change. However, in the bus station, a quarter is usually required.
By Ferry from Colombia
For some time in 2015 a ferry used to run twice a week from Cartagena, Colombia to Colón, a 45minute bus or taxi from Panama City. The crossing took approximately 17 hours, and a seat cost US$113, while a bunkbed was US$180 - check the ferry website  for more info.
NOTE: this ferry run only for a few months and then stopped. As of January 2016 there is no ferry service Panama - Colombia.
Most people who want to travel from Colombia to Panama by sea opt for private vessels. Some charging as much as 500 USD per person for the (one -way) voyage (info Feb 2017).
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. 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 $25 plus tolls if you take the Corredor Sur highway. Taxi fare from Tocumen international airport to Panama City is $30.00. 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).
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.
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.
As of April, 2014, there is a new Metro (subway) system in operation. It is a clean and economical way to travel. There is currently an extensive police presence (April 2014) at the Metro stations and on the trains. Safety is good. As on all public transit, be aware of pickpockets, especially when leaving and boarding crowded conveyances.
A rechargeable Metro fare cards can be purchased from automated machines in the stations for $2.00. The card is "loaded" with additional money to pay the fare. Fare cards purchased in the Metro station can also be used on the Metro buses. However, fare cards purchased in the Metro stations cannot be used to pay the exit fee (ten cents which can only be paid by card) when leaving the international bus station by bus. However, rechargeable fare cards purchased in the international bus station can be used for all three purposes.
The Metro travels from the Albrook Mall/International Bus Station, through Panama City, to the town of Los Andes, a distance of about 13 km. Most of the route of the Metro is away from the beach and tourist areas. The Cinco de Mayo stop is closest to Casco Antiguo and the fish market. However, a walk through a somewhat questionable area and the crossing of a busy highway is required. It is probably best to wait to cross the highway with a group of Panamanians who are making the same crossing. Avoid the densely packed neighborhood adjacent to Casco Antiguo by walking along the nicely landscaped open area next to the ocean. Walking in this area is best avoided at night.
The best place for changing cash Euros or other currencies than USD is in the banking area one block North of Iglesia del Carmen metro station along Via Espana and Via Argentina.
High quality Panamanian 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.
If you're on a tight budget and want to eat like a local, try one of the numerous food stalls in the city. There are for example various in Perejil. Just sit down and tell them what kind of meat from the counter you want, they will serve you the meat with various side dishes, like rice, lentils a small salad or fried plantains. Such a plate would cost you between 3$ and 5$. Also you can order Soup, which usually contains tasty meat and various vegetables and is served with a plate of rice. The soup will cost you between 2$ and 3$. You will also get a glass of water with every meal.
There're also 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 Poli (Corner of 26th and Avenida Sur) A very crowded, noisy restaurant, mainly for single males who eat solid Panamanian food and drink cheap bottles of Balboa beer with ice while sitting in a pair of darkened rooms filled with revelers. Do not miss the delicious fish soups and the bistec picado, both for under 2 USD each. In addition, the Garlic Chicken is perfectly baked and in a light garlic sauce... The Bistec Entomallado is also a Panamanian speciality and perfectly cooked and sauteed. Prices seem average at first but the portions are quite large- an order of fried rice ($7.50) easily feeds 2 to 3 people, and is quite tasty. Would recommend paired with wonton fries, and lots of whatever savory sauce looks like soy sauce but isn't (only mildy salty). The place can be difficult to find - It's Avenida Sur Nr. 2 (Cuba) and a short talk from the 5 de Mayo subway station.
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.
Be careful in the Panama la Vieja ruins area. There is tourist police, but do not wander into adjacent neighborhoods alone (even in the day) and certainly not in the evening. Casco Viejo is relatively safe also after dusk, but here as well do not wander into adjacent poor neigborhoods like El Chorillo (especially not at night).
Stay out of Santa Ana, Curundu and San Miguel. When driving, doors and windows should be locked.
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. 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 the United States, Canada, and western Europe.
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 is the equivalent to saying "charge me anything you want" as you're telling him you don't know what to pay. From El Dorado to Via Argentina, some have been told the fare is $5, or $10, or $20. The real fare for one person is much closer to $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 four times the price.
Some taxis at the main bus station prey on visitors as well. 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. The reason? 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.
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 (most of the time). Otherwise, you'll be stuck for hours waiting. If you have visited Europe, you will recognize that this is the same way that people cross the street in central Rome (and certain other southern European cities).
Beware the ATMs and their tendency to "cancel" transactions at the last moment while still debiting money from your account. Try with a small amount of cash first if you must use an ATM, otherwise only get cash by walking into the bank with your passport and card.
There are occasional stories on the Internet about police in Panama City allegedly attempting to shake down tourists for bribes, although it appears that in those situations, the tourists usually did commit some kind of technical infraction in plain view of a police officer. This is better than more corrupt countries like Mexico where the police will simply make it up. In any event, it is a good idea in general and especially as a tourist to drive carefully so that the police won't get an excuse to pull you over. One thing that is unsettling is that many Panamanian police regularly carry automatic rifles slung around their shoulders, as opposed to the convention elsewhere of packing pistols as sidearms and carrying rifles or shotguns in the trunk.
Beware of an ongoing scam at the toll plazas on the tollways around Panama City. If you are obviously a tourist driving a rental car (i.e., you don't speak Spanish well, you don't look Panamanian, and you are well dressed), and you pull into the "RECARGA" lane to purchase or recharge a toll road card, the cashier on duty may either demand an excessively large sum or deliberately undercredit the card's account before opening the toll gate. They are well aware that as a tourist, you don't have all day to sit there and argue with them while the recharge toll booth lane backs up (and everyone behind you starts leaning on the horn and yelling at you). Thus, you may end up paying as much as five or six times the current toll to get to and from the international airport.