Apart from the recent news coverage concerning tax havens, any first thoughts of Panama will no doubt bring up the Panama Canal, and much as though this immense wonder of the modern world was always designed as a major piece of transportation infrastructure, this really is all about cargo ships, rather than transporting people, although of course no visit to Panama would really be complete without actually taking some sort of trip on (or at least along) the canal itself.
So what are the best ways of actually getting around Panama, including getting around the urban jungle of Panama City itself, travelling along the Panama Canal and then also getting lost inside some of Panama’s heavily forested interior?
Panama City is one of those cities that has done a lot of sprouting upwards rather outwards in recent years, given the various constraints of the local terrain, and the city has also invested heavily in a range of public transport schemes, including most notably the first heavy rail metro system in Central America.
Panama City has historically been served by two different airports, with the main international airport being situated at Tocumen. Although the metro doesn’t extend out this far, various different local buses are available, as are taxis.
Note that taxis in Panama City operate on a zonal system, rather than by metered fare.
Panama Canal – Car or no car?
It may come as a surprise to learn that there is a railway which was also built running alongside the Panama Canal, and this has been used for various different logistical purposes over the years. Now it also runs as a passenger service, aimed largely at tourists, but still passing through breathtaking landscapes and man-made wonders at the same time!
Various different options are also available for cruising on the Panama Canal, and sometimes these can even include Panama packages on full sized oceangoing cruise ships that then head off elsewhere. You can still just about squeeze in a partial trip as a day excursion, but for a full trip in a cruise liner, most people will instead choose to start their itinerary in a place like Miami or San Diego.
There is also a major highway running alongside the canal from Panama City to the northern port of Colon, and regular buses are available here as well.
For venturing anywhere else within the country of Panama, a hire car might be moderately useful, and it’s the same old question about cost versus relative flexibility and convenience. However, there really are very few roads in Panama outside the capital Panama City, and you might find it almost as easy to get around using a bus of some form, whether it’s an organised tour or scheduled service.
There’s no shortage of day hiking opportunities which can be done as an out and back trip from Panama City, but we really don’t think a hire car is necessary for this. Your own decision here will depend on how deep into the interior want to go, and what other local options are available at the time.
The adventurously minded might also want to head out to the Pearl Islands by boat, direct from Panama City. This island group has been popular with a number of survival reality TV programmes, and it is an easy excursion from the city.
No need for anything relating to the Panama Canal.
- Take to the waters – either on the canal itself (see above), or to various offshore islands.
- for a truly unique experience, see the Panama Canal by train – although this is popular with tourists, it’s also a commuter route (no need to get a packaged tour).
- Endless excursions available from Panama City to explore natural wonders – no car needed!
- Zoned taxi services in Panama City – can often be very good value.
- Ample bus services in Panama City, including some express bus lanes.
- Panama City metro – largely useful for commuters, but can also give access to some tourist sites.
So, ultimately, should you rent a car in Panama City? There’s certainly no need for it, and you may well find that you can see a great deal more without bothering. This makes Panama City one of our more surprising “no” verdicts.