Planning a Trip
The Autoridad de Turismo de Panama (ATP) main office is on Calle Samuel Lewis on the first floor of Edificio Central, across from the Camosa; although open to the public, it does not have a proper information center (tel. 526-7000 or 526-7100; www.visitpanama.com). ATP has three visitor centers, located at Vía España and Ricardo Arias (tel. 269-8011); in Old Panama on Vía Cincuentenario (tel. 226-4419); and in Casco Viejo at Avenida Central and Calle 3 (tel. 211-3365)
Panama City lies on the eastern shore of the Panama Canal, and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the southeast, which can disorient first-time visitors unaccustomed to seeing the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. Throw in a mesh of looping avenues and streets with two different names, or no name at all, and prepare to feel hopelessly lost during your first few days in Panama City. Visitors rely on taxis, which are safe and cheap, about $1.25 to $2 (65p-£1) for most locations in the city. Taxis from the city center to the Amador Causeway usually run about $5 (£2.50).
In very general terms, Panama can be divided into four areas: Old Panama (the ruins of the first settlement here); Casco Viejo, the city center during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the former Canal Zone; and modern Panama, with its wide boulevards, glittering skyscrapers, and impoverished slums.
At the southwest end of the city lie the Amador Causeway, Casco Viejo, Cerro Ancón (Ancón Hill), and the former Canal Zone. From here, three principal avenues branch out across the city. Avenida Central, which begins in Casco Viejo as a thriving shopping center hawking cheap, imported goods, changes its name to Avenida Central España as it passes through Calidonia, and then becomes Vía España as it runs through the commercial area and financial district of El Cangrejo. Avenida Balboa extends the length of the coast, then forks into Vía Israel, later called Cincuentenario as it heads out to Old Panama. Corredor Sur, a fast-moving toll expressway, connects the city with Tocumen Airport. Avenida Simón Bolivar (also known as Avenida 2da. Norte Transístmica) heads north to Colón; however, a new toll expressway, called the Corredor Norte, provides a faster route to Colón, eventually connecting with the Transístmica around Chilibre.
There are no beaches in the immediate area of the city -- only mud flats -- and visitors will need to travel northeast to the Caribbean or southwest to the Pacific beaches, about a 1- to 1 1/2-hour drive from the city. The following Panama City neighborhoods run from west to east.
Where the #@&!%$ Is It? -- Ah, the aggravation of finding an address in Panama City. Just like in the U2 song, this is "Where the Streets Have No Name" -- most of the residential streets, anyway. And of the streets that do have an appellation, they are either not signed or are referred to by two or three different names. Some say the reason is that Panama City has never had a postal delivery system (the postman only comes if you slip him some cash). Residents have post office boxes, called apartados, which is abbreviated as Apdo, or A.P.
Unbelievably, even taxi drivers are clueless when it comes to city street names beyond major avenues, even if they're labeled on a map. With taxi drivers, it is important that you give as much detailed information as possible such as the cross street, the closest major intersection, or better yet, a recognizable landmark -- the Marriott Hotel, for example. When asking for directions, get as much information as possible. Annoyingly, most buildings don't have numbers, so you'll have to rely on landmarks and main streets to get anywhere. If you're nuts enough to drive through Panama City, never do so without a map in your vehicle. Here you'll have double trouble because even major avenue and thoroughfare turnoffs are poorly marked. You'll most likely need to pull over periodically to see if you're still on track. Avenida Balboa runs from Casco Viejo to Panama Viejo and along the coast, and is the least-confusing route across town. Also, if you're new to driving in Panama City, it's probably best to practice during off-peak hours; you don't want your initiation to Panama's roads to be rush hour. I know this from personal experience.
All international flights, except those from Costa Rica, land at the newly expanded Tocumen International Airport (PTY; tel. 238-2700), located 21km (13 miles) from Panama City. Flights from Costa Rica to Panama City land at Albrook Airport, and there is direct service from San José to David and Bocas del Toro airports.
There are ATP visitors' kiosks inside Tocumen's arrival terminal (one in baggage claim and another through the Customs gate), with information about Panama City and some brochures; it's recommended, though, that travelers research accommodations and make reservations before their arrival because hotels are often booked.
The unit of currency in Panama is the U.S dollar, so for those coming from the United States there is no need to exchange money. Euros can be exchanged at the Banco Nacional (tel. 238-4161; Mon-Fri 8am-5pm and Sat 10am-3pm) in the arrival terminal; this bank also has ATMs in the airport terminal.
A licensed taxi from Tocumen to Panama City costs $25 (£13), plus toll fees for a total of about $30 (£15). Many hotels offer free scheduled pickup and drop-off service, or you can arrange transportation for a cheaper price -- inquire when booking at your hotel. Another option for taxis is with Easy Travel Panama (tel. 6617-4122; www.easytravelpanama.net). They offer high-quality vehicles and bilingual drivers, and cost about the same as regular taxis ($40/£20) for one or two people and $50 (£25) for three or four people, tolls included, but you must reserve ahead of time. Easy Travel offers personalized ground transportation anywhere; contact them for prices for long-distance destinations (the beaches outside of Panama City, for example).
All rental-car agencies have desks in the arrival terminal and are open 24 hours a day.
Domestic flights, flights to Costa Rica, and charter flights to the 150 or so airstrips located on Panama's islands and remote jungle areas leave from Marcos A. Gelabert Airport (PAC), which is more commonly referred to as Albrook Airport (tel. 501-9271). Albrook is located northwest of Cerro Ancón (Ancón Hill) off Avenue Omar Torrijos Herrera, near the canal. A taxi costs $2 to $3 to downtown Panama City and takes about 20 minutes. There are usually taxis waiting at the airport, although you can also cross the street and hail a taxi for a shorter wait. Rental-car agencies here are generally open from 8am to 6:30pm. Each company offers a key drop-box for customers who need to return a vehicle when rental desks aren't open.
Tip: Travelers who arrive at Tocumen Airport and plan to head directly to another destination in Panama via a domestic flight must transfer to Albrook Airport, about a 45-minute drive (or longer during rush hour) from Tocumen. A taxi costs about $30 (£15).
If arriving by bus, you'll be dropped off at the Albrook bus terminal near the Albrook airport and shopping center. A taxi to town costs $2 to $3 (£1-£1.50) and takes 10 to 15 minutes. A taxi to the Gamboa area costs $20 (£10) and takes 30 minutes.
Travelers arriving to Panama City by car will do so via the Pan-American Highway from the west, first crossing the canal on the Puente de las Américas (Bridge of the Americas) and arriving in the Balboa district of the city. Follow signs to Avenida Balboa to reach downtown. Drivers headed to Panama City from the west may also use the new Puente Centenario (Centennial Bridge), which crosses the canal near Paraíso, and avoid traffic congestion on the Bridge of the Americas. The road that crosses this bridge is also known as Vía Benedicto XVI, named after Pope Benedict XVI.
The Pan-American Highway continues east toward Colombia and ends in Yaviza, in the Darién Region. It is not possible to reach Colombia by car, and at this book's publication there were no ferries for vehicles to Colombia, although there is talk that this service might be reinstated soon.