How to get around Panama by Bus
Being one of the most developed Central American countries (thanks for much international influence due to the canal) Panama has a good bus system set up for local and regional trips. We chose to get around Panama by bus because it was the cheaper option – by a few, about 500 dollars, compared to flying. However, what we saved in money we lost a little in time (and comfort).
Panama City – Bocas del Toro
After our overnight (ish) flight from Vancouver, we were running on little sleep. As we arrived in Panama City, the city was engulfed in a heavy rain and thunder/lightening storm. We caught a taxi to the main bus station, Albrook. Your other alternative is to Uber – though we didn’t have the app because Uber doesn’t exist in Vancouver… Albrook is located about 30 minutes from the Panama City Airport, we paid US $25. Make sure you specify Albrook Bus Terminal, as Albrook is also a mega mall.
Our original plan was to purchase our overnight bus ticket to Almirante (where you catch the water taxis for Bocas), drop our bags off at the lockers (many stated they were hard to find but good directions are here), then catch a bus to the Canal. With the rain and our sleepy selves – we just sat in the terminal and waited for our bus.
Bus to Almirante (Bocas del Toro)
When you enter the terminal, turn toward the ticket windows on your left. There will be a sign that says Bocas. The bus is actually going from Panama City to Changuinola, but Almirante is the stop you want. The guy at the ticket window either didn’t speak much English (not that our brains were working well enough to attempt the miniscule Spanish that we speak between us) or just wasn’t very friendly, but he simply pointed to a list of bus times and prices. Make sure you have your passport – they need to enter your information on the ticket. We paid about $30 each for a one way.
Behind the ticket window is a waiting room, be sure to be here about 15 minutes before your bus leaves – someone just calls out the bus destination. Also make sure that you have a quarter (yes, thats all $0.25) with you to pay the attendant to scan you through the turnstile with their bus pass.
The bus will make a few stops along the way to let people on and off. There are 1-2 (I think I slept through the 2nd?) longer stops at cafes for food and bathroom break – they pretty much force you off the bus – but its good to stretch and use a proper toilet.
Your arrival at Almirante will, hopefully, come quickly. It was about 0530 am when we arrived. We felt like we had just been left in the middle of nowhere (but with many other people). There were numerous taxis to take us to the water taxis for US$1 a person.
Almirante to Bocas Town on Isla Colon
This part is technically a “water taxi” but lets pretend its a “water bus.” The first “bus” was at 0630 am. It cost us US $6 each for one way. Again, make sure you have your passport as they need this for tickets. The “buses” are powerboats with benches and a surprising amount of space underneath for luggage. They staff are lovely and take your luggage for you. The ride is nice and calm to start and quite pretty as the sun was just starting to rise. They make you wear the life jacket (I was impressed with this, having been in Bali over the summer and their lackadaisical approach). Once we were mostly clear of land, the water was pretty rough despite the calm weather, I was happy to have the life jacket to cushion my back on the hard wood benches as we bumped along. The ride is about 30 minutes.
Bocas del Toro – Boquete
Sadly there is no direct public bus route between these two popular places. If you are set on taking the public bus system, catch a bus from Almirante (same place you were dropped off) to David then from David to Boquete; this trip in total will take about 5-6 hours.
We took a shuttle bus direct from Bocas Town to Boquete, with Hello Panama for US$30 per person. The price includes the water bus ride from Bocas Town to Almirante. The shuttle makes one stop at a roadside cafe with a public toilet. This ride took 3.5 hours and offered some amazing views, moving from the coastal low lands into the mountainous region. The shuttle dropped us off outside Mamallena Hostel at the main town square, which was perfect for orienting ourselves.
Hello Panama also offers a shuttle in the other direction, if you are planning on visiting Boquete before Bocas.
Boquete – Panama City
Boquete – David
Catch the Boquete to David bus outside of Mamallena Hostel in the main town square. There are many buses ranging from funky refurbished yellow school buses to nice Greyhound style. They leave about every 30 minutes, if not more often. It was about $5 per person to David, the journey took about an hour, though I had read online trips were anywhere between 30 and 45 minutes (our bus seemed to pick everyone up).
The last bus running Boquete to David leaves at around 10pm. So if you are planning to take an overnight ride from David to Panama City, make sure you know when to leave Boquete.
David – Panama City
The Boquete bus dropped us at the main bus terminal in David. There are plenty of signs pointing towards ticket windows and plenty of transit staff who will gladly point the way. Tickets were US$19 each. Again – have your passport handy. The buses leave about every hour until 0100 am then start again at 0600, taking about 7 hours to arrive at Albrook in Panama City. There are 3 compaines: Padafront, Cinco Estrellas & Terminales David-Panama. It doesn’t matter with which company you ride. There is 1 long stop, again at a roadside cafe.
These little local buses, basically vans, from what I could deduce, are owned and operated individually or by a small company. They do have set routes that are often displayed at the top of the windshield. Obviously cash only at the end of the trip. Sometimes I wondered if they made up prices as they went – however they were always fair! They try to squeeze in as many people as possible so be prepared to be cozy with someone!
We caught one of these little buses to Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach) from the park in the middle of town. The park seems to be the main hub for catching these buses. The drivers are good a recruiting, if you look like a tourist they will ask if you are looking for a ride. For more details, read my section on Playa Estrella here.
We caught a few of these buses around town seeing as our accommodation was a little out of town. If you walk past the town square, you will see a store with 3 large Balboa beer bottles on the sign; this is where to catch the local buses. There are many different routes, so do a little research first. The drivers are quite used to tourists and will likely know where to drop you if you tell them where you want to go, I would brush up on your Spanish though! For more on our little journey to The Lost Waterfalls Hike, click here.
We didn’t actually take the bus anywhere in Panama City, however we had planned to! I did some research on getting to various locations, and let me tell you, they have a very thorough system. We could have taken the bus from the airport, to the Canal, to the old town Casco Viejo and back to the airport! One thing to note: to ride the bus you must have a buss pass to scan, you can ask a local if you can give them cash to scan you in, pending on your Spanish…
Panama by Bus Tips
- The national buses are modern and similar to a Greyhound bus we would see at home (I was a little surprised by this). The seats are comfortable and recline – bonus for those overnight rides! These buses have toilets on board, but for #1 only! The long haul journeys do have built in stops.
- The regional buses vary between pimped out old school buses (seriously, you will see some and be reminded of the MTV show “Pimp Your Ride”) to less new Greyhound style.
- The buses (particularly the modern ones) are an ICEBOX. They crank up the air conditioning, because it is so humid? Not sure why, but I was so cold most of the ride. I wore 3 layers on my top, used my scarf and towel as blankets, wore pants and 2 pairs of socks! I know I’m soft being from Vancouver, but I’m still Canadian! We known cold!
- They often play movies, in Spanish of course, but very loudly. Bring headphones or ear plugs.
- There is no way to purchase tickets online and most tickets can only be bought day of – that being said, they may add another bus if the route is sold out.
- This website was quite helpful to see departure times/schedules/etc.
- The Hello Panama shuttle allows you to book ahead of time, online.
- These blogs helped a lot with planning our trip:
Happy Bus Adventures!
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