Taking the bus in Panama City in some ways is extremely easy, and in other ways is very challenging … especially if, like me, you know only a handful or two of Spanish words.
Here’s how to do it, everything from buying a Metro Card to getting out of town.
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If you’re looking for other transportation tips, you might find these useful:
- How to survive a long layover in Mexico City’s airport;
- Machu Picchu without a tour;
- and lots more on the Travel Practicalities page, including how to avoid scams and easy tips for travelling respectfully in Buddhist countries.
Getting a Metro Card
- Panama City’s buses, called Metro Buses, do not take cash, so your first job will be buying a Metro Card.
- Metro Cards are sold at some supermarkets as well as at the Albrook bus station (you’ll have to take a cab to get there). Keep in mind that not every place that sells Metro Cards has the capacity to charge them. You want both. Look for a Venta de Tarjeta y Recarga sign.
- Your best bet without having to taxi to Albrook is a big supermarket, but there is also a little shop near Plaza 5 de Mayo (look for the lineup on the sidewalk). At the supermarket, the Metro Bus sign will be above one of the cash registers (although likely not facing where you line up, but rather facing the other cash registers).
- Most commonly, the Metro Card register will be at the far end, and it is very likely to have a long line of people. Remember, Panamanians’ income is a lot lower than yours. Many people can only afford to charge their card up a dollar or two at a time.
- A Metro Card costs $2, and then you can add however much money you think you’ll need on to the card.
- Most city rides cost 25 cents, although the cost is $1.25 if you travel along Corredor Nord or Sur or go to Tocumen International Airport (this latter route takes about two hours from Albrook).
Taking the bus in the city
- Look for bus stops on the major streets like Balboa or Central avenues. In Panama, like in Vancouver, locals line up politely for their bus. This is a necessity in Panama, where the demand far outweighs the supply, particularly at rush hour.
- You need to wave down the bus you want. The buses don’t have numbers, but the route is on the front window. You’ll need to know your streets a little to get around. If you’re not near a bus stop and you see the bus you want coming, you can wave it down. The driver is likely to stop for you.
- When you get on the bus, there is a card reader behind the driver’s right shoulder. Just hold your Metro Card up (put the little square on the back of your card toward the machine). The machine will beep, and the cost of the ride and your remaining balance will flash on the screen. You can use the same card for more than one passenger. Push your way through the turnstile and find a seat (note the front seats are reserved for people with disabilities).
- To get off the bus, push one of the red buttons on the poles. If you realize that the bus is about to turn, for example on to one of the freeways, and you should have gotten off at the last stop, smile at the driver and indicate your error and he’ll likely let you off before he goes too far.
- If you want to transfer to another bus: when you exit, flash your card at the card reader at the back turnstile, and you’ll have 40 minutes to take another bus without charge.
What about those crazy buses blaring music?
- These are the diablos rojos or red devils. If you want to sample a ride on one, you’d best be quick because they are being phased out (and when they are all gone, the cost of a Metro Bus ride will rise to 65 cents). Each diablo rojo bus is owned individually. They are decorated to the taste of the owner/driver and help to attract passengers. They often travel with their door open, to give occupants a cooling breeze.
- Diablo rojo rides cost 25 cents (cash!) in the city, more beyond depending on distance traveled. You pay when you exit the bus; the driver will have change. If you are travelling with a bag of any real size, leave it by the driver (the seats and aisles are full enough of people … there is no room for your backpack!).
Going further afield
- Almost all buses, whether they be Metro Buses or diablos rojos, go to and from Albrook bus station (Gran Terminal Nacional de Transporte). Getting to Albrook is easy — just hop on any bus that says “Albrook”.
- If you’re going to Panama Viejo, the stop is on the outer section at the north end, near the yellow wall of the mall building (see below). There are a number of other places in the city to catch a Panama Viejo bus, particularly along Avenida Balboa.
- However, some destinations are not reached via Metro Bus. This is where things can get a little complicated. Bring a dime per person, your destination written on a piece of paper (preferably clearly printed in Spanish), and plenty of smiles.
- Buy tickets for major cities in Panama as well as Costa Rica (the Tica Bus) at the ticket booths in the middle of Albrook. They’re clearly labelled, and you’ll be given a ticket which shows your exit / waiting room number. Sometimes you show your ticket to the bus driver, sometimes you don’t need to; keep it handy just in case.
- To get to the Miraflores locks, Pedro Miguel lock, Summit National Park, and the Summit Botanical Garden and Zoo (i.e. animal rescue centre), you will need a bus headed to Gamboa. There is not a bus labelled Gamboa.
- Go into the interior of Albrook bus station and walk all the way toward the north end (look for the big Plaza Norte sign pointing you north). There is a food court here – KFC, McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, but also the local Nico’s, a better choice if you’re hungry. Keep walking all the way to the end, past the Burger King, and then turn right. You will see a sign marked for exit (salida) 12. This is your door.
- There is a set of turnstiles and a ticket booth. To get through the turnstiles you need to pay a 10 cent tax. Most people do this with their RapiPass card, which is, sadly, not compatible with the Metro Card system. If you plan on a lot of trips, buy a RapiPass card. You can get one at exit 12 or at booths within Albrook.
- If this is your one big adventure on the bus and you won’t need a RapiPass, then have a dime handy and convince someone to swipe you through the turnstiles with their card in exchange for your dime. This can be done with big smiles, apologetic looks and no Spanish other than “muchas gracias”.
- Many people told me that the Gamboa bus would say “Gamboa” or “Coop SACA” on it. It did not. But keep repeating “Gamboa” and your destination (show them your paper if you’re not confident of your pronunciation) and someone will point out the correct bus. Panamanians are very kind and helpful.
- The bay at door 12 fits about four buses. For me, the Gamboa bus was the furthest bus. And yes, it was a red devil.
- Show the driver your paper with the destination on it to make sure he knows where you want him to stop. Thank him profusely. Squish into a seat (if you’re lucky).
- It is about 10 km to Miraflores locks, and you can see them coming easily though a window. The museum building is tall and white, and you can see the locks behind them as your approach. Once you’re off the bus, you’ll need to walk across the bridge to your left about 15 minutes to get to the locks building. Watch for crocodiles beneath the bridge!
- The Pedro Miguel lock is about another 5 km further. Don’t be alarmed when the bus goes into a small residential neighbourhood before it returns to the highway. Your next major landmark is a big sign marking the entrance to the Summit National Park. A few kilometers further you’ll pass a sign for the Radisson Hotel and Golf Club on your right.
- About 2 km beyond that is Summit Botanical Garden and Zoo. There’s a parking area on both sides of the road, and you’ll see this sign:
- Pay the driver as you get off the bus. The cost is 65 cents to the botanical gardens. But if the driver has been really kind to you, as mine was, return the change to him.
Getting back to Panama City
- There are only vague schedules for the return trip. Ask around to get an approximate time, and return to the bus stop (right across the street from the Summit entrance) at least 15 minutes prior to that. Be prepared to wait. A few taxis will also drive by empty of passengers (near Summit, most will be full) and you can wave one down. Taxis wait at Miraflores — negotiate your price to your next destination!
- Panama City is building a magnificent subway system, slated to open in early 2014. This system will go a very long way in alleviating Panama City’s transportation problems. The ride from Los Andes to Albrook terminal will take only 23 minutes. Right now, locals and tourists alike can try out the new subway car on a mini-tour in the middle of Albrook bus station (above).
Do you have any tips on taking the bus in Panama City? Please share!