Arriving to Tocumen Intl. Airport you may still be a bit surprised at the sight of the sprawling metropolis that is Panama City. More skyscrapers than coconuts, this modern urban center is less wild jungle and more comparable to being the Dubai of Latin America with its own man-made island creations just off the coast of downtown.
Ok, so you’ve found your way through customs and are exiting the airport when you will be bombarded by taxi drivers and registered Airport taxis. So now you are wondering, if you haven’t already planned ahead, what is the easiest and safest way to the city given that the international airport is located about 20 minutes outside of downtown to the east. There is no shortage of transport options in Panama – so here we will review the various options to help you decide what is best for you:
1. Taxis (Yellow Cabs + Airport Taxis)
The Airport taxis are definitely safer than the yellow cabs and at least you are guaranteed a registered driver with a license and insurance. I can’t say the same for the yellow cabs. In many cases, the taxi driver doesn’t actually own the vehicle, but has rented it for the day to try and make some extra cash so there is potential that he may not have insurance, the vehicle registration, or even a license. I’ve gotten into a car accident with a taxi driver that had none of these. It’s not all negative though, if your Spanish is good enough you can attempt to negotiate for a cheap rate, but standard fare in a yellow cab is about $30-40 or more to anywhere in the center of the city.
The Airport taxis are typically vans that try to fill up before leaving so you won’t necessarily be the only one in the car and will most likely have to pay at least $20 anyways.
Taxis only accept cash and if they see the opportunity to rip you off they will take it, so if you’re not in the mood for haggling and paying in cash then steer clear of these options.
Yes, Uber exists in Panama and it has exploded onto the scene with great success. Due primarily in part to the fact that every Uber driver must be a Panamanian citizen, have a license, proof of insurance, and prove that registration of vehicle is current, it has definitely drawn a greater sense of trust. Not to mention, the fixed rates and non-haggling approach to taxi service coupled with the ability to use PayPal or credit card to pay for it. Uber is by far your safest taxi service option in Panama, but they are not exactly allowed into the airport due to their dislike by the Airport Taxis. Usually, there are a handful of Uber drivers waiting just a few minutes outside the airport so it shouldn’t be hard to find one, but you never know and could wait around 30 minutes or more for your uber to arrive. The average Uber ride costs approximately $30 to arrive to downtown. If you get stuck in traffic then we’re talking more!
3. Bus/ Metro/ Subway
The public transport system in Panama is lackluster, but to its credit it has come a long way with various expansion projects already under construction. To take the bus, you must have a metro card, which can be purchased just outside of customs from an automated kiosk. The ride into town costs $1.25 and takes anywhere from 1-3 hours depending on traffic. In order to get to the bus you must leave the airport grounds entirely and head out to the highway where there is a bus stop at the main roundabout as you exit the airport. Look for the bus that says Albrook or Terminal which will take you to the main bus terminal in the city.
In terms of the subway, aka Metro, Panama has come a long way and now has a functioning underground in the center city. Rides around the city cost $.35 but the line out to the airport is still under construction. I just met with Oderbrecht engineers (the construction company responsible for the metro line) who informed me that the airport line will not actually even go all the way to the airport, but be located 1km away. This line will be complete by January 2018 in anticipation of the International Youth Conference to be held in Panama. There are future plans to eventually connect the metro directly to the airport, but this will not occur for some years.
4. Private Chofer Services
The safest, most comfortable option by far is to hire a private chofer service. As an international business hub, Panama caters to international executives which in turn has allowed for top of the line chofer companies to emerge. If your interest is being driven around in a Lincoln Navigator with white glove service, no problem. Additionally, there are a large number of group transport options that provide vans (max 11 ppl), coasters (max 23 ppl), or full coach buses. If you’re travelling in a group this is by far your best option and most affordable once you calculate out per person. To book either a private chofer or group transport option a bit of planning is required, but rates are preset and no transactions need to occur once on the ground, removing that sometimes stressful element.
For top notch private transport services to and from the airport or just around the city I recommend Highlife Panama, providing excellent and punctual service for the group on the budget or high end private chofers for the luxury ride. Feel free to check out their services at www.highlifepanama.com/transport-panama