We had a wonderful week in Panamá, including Panama City and Bocas del Toro/Bastimentos Island. I just wanted to spew some info and links here for others who may be visiting and want to know how to get around by bus/rail from PTY and how to get wireless data service going using a local carrier on an eSim.
After landing at PTY, get yourself a Bus Card and charge it with a few dollars to get around for your trip. At PTY’s baggage claim area and to the left of the doors to go outside, you’ll see at least one staffed booth. I approached it and a woman inside selling SIM cards offered to sell me a Bus Card. It was $5 for the card, which includes $3 of value already on the card and you’re spending $2 to obtain the card. I tried asking her for a RapiPass, but she didn’t seem to know what I was talking about, might have been my bad. After I bought the card for $5, I told her I wanted to put another couple bucks on it, so she walked me to a red automated kiosk adjoining her booth and helped me put another couple billete on the Bus Card.
From the Terminal, I had planned to walk us 3 blocks to catch an S480, which would have taken us all the way downtown without transfers, but it was pouring rain. Instead, we walked across the first two lanes of traffic and started walking to the left down the pedestrian sidewalk and the buses. At this point, we had several cab drivers following us trying to pitch their services, but I love mass transit and refused. Sadly, it had been a long flight and before I could get us on a different bus that left from the covered/dry area attached to the airport my lovely bride had reached her end and desired a cab. We overpaid $30 including tip to go to the old town, but it was probably worth it.
I wanted to catch a Diablo Rojo while we were there and I can report they are still operating, but we never rode one – came so close though! None of them seem to be labeled and I don’t know their routes, so we opted to stick with buses and trains (Linea 1 y 2) as we were packing a lot into a couple days in Panama City.
Riding the bus… For getting a smaller local bus or a Diablo Rojo, you may need to wave them down. For most of the bigger Metro buses, they seem to just stop if you’re at a marked bus stop, but you can even wave them down if they’re in a slow area (we did this once coming back from Panama Canal). We used one Bus Card card for the 4 of us – as we boarded the bus, the first person touches the card to the yellow scanner body, pushes through the turnstile, and hands the card back to the next rider. For getting off the bus, you just need to scan the card once and then we each walked through the turnstile. For riding the trains, entrance is the same as buses, but to leave a train station you each must scan once and hand it off to the person behind you, we moved to a quieter turnstile and found hand-offs easy.
For getting to Panama Canal, it was pouring and we got on the wrong bus. Fortunately, a lovely local Panamanian woman noticed our error, took us off the wrong bus, and walked us to Estacion Cinco de Mayo – we thanked her before she walked off in the pouring rain to probably catch the next bus. She was so kind and this should help you understand how warm and welcoming Panamanians are. Once again, thank you rojo-hooded señora!
After she guided us to Cinco de Mayo Estacion, we took Linea 1 to Albrook. At Albrook station, we scanned our Bus Card to exit and walked up to the bridge to walk over the buses to the transit terminal. From the transit terminal, we picked up a RapiPass card, because I incorrectly assumed we needed one – note, RapiPass cards have the advantage of working on buses, trains, and turnstiles inside the Albrook Bus Terminal for accessing long range buses, but for accessing local buses you do not need the RapiPass.
Upon reaching the ground-level floor at the Albrook bus terminal, we walked to the far right and out to the doors to the left to board C810 on our way to Panama Canal. This is a local bus and you can board for a $0.25 tarifa using either a Bus Card or a RapiPass. For getting to Albrook Airport a day later, we took C820 from Albrook Mall/Transit Hub, which is the bus directly in front of the C810. The C820 doesn’t stop right at Albrook Airport, but it’s only a 4-block walk.
We always recharged our Bus Card and RapiPass at Albrook or PTY at standalone automated kiosks, but there’s suppose to be ways to recharge via the web and here, but we never got this to work – I got as far as entering how much I wanted put on the Bus Card and entered my credit card info, but the website always reported incorrect “BIN”. Maybe I should’ve tried a debit card instead of a credit card?
For useful apps, I trialed PTYCards for free for a week and found it the most useful for checking card balances and uses; it can look up values for RapiPass and Bus Cards. If you want a similar app with no trials, get Saldo Panamá which does the same thing but seems to time-out once in a while for me. For finding bus times and routes, I relied on Google Maps (transit option) and Moovit. I also had MiBus Maps Panamá, but found myself not using it while we were there. Finally, I also tried Metro Panamá, but found it to be the least useful; it offers info about stations, but it was unable to top-up any of my cards despite bragging this as a feature and it has a button for directions that only redirects to Google Maps.
I kept my existing Total Wireless SIM installed in my iPhone XS Max and added a prepaid data-only eSIM through Airalo. Airalo offers several options, a country-specific eSIM (what I selected), a region-specific eSIM (might be useful for folks on a cruise visiting a few nearby countries), and a global eSIM; these eSIMs increase in price. A Panamá-specific 3GB eSIM that is good for up to 30 days cost me $18. I bought the eSIM within the app and installed it before we left – it doesn’t actually activate until you start using data in the country it is activated for.The Panamá-specific eSIM allowed tethering by sharing its wireless data to my laptop and to my kids iOS devices.
Upon arriving in Panamá, the eSIM didn’t seem to work all that well. Then I went into the SIM settings and enabled “Roaming” and then it seemed to start working. While in Panamá, the eSIM mostly offered access through the provider Tigo, but on occasion I found it connected to Movistar. Tigo connectivity was good through most of Panama City; however, it only mustered a couple bars in the airplane at PTY which is several miles south of the city. While visiting Bocas del Toro Tigo’s connectivity was also good, but it was lacking after arriving at Red Frog on Bastimentos Island. If I ever make it back to Red Frog/Bastimentos, I’d try to improve connectivity by going into the SIM card settings on your phone and change the carrier from automatic to choosing a specific carrier – I didn’t bother to attempt this change until we were back in PTY and on our way home. On our Panamá-specific plan, we only used 2 GB over an 8 day trip. Even if we had exceeded our 3GB cap, Airalo offers top-up packages through the Airalo iOS app. Overall, I think you’ll be happy with Airalo and I plan to look it up for our next international venture. Oh, and if you want to price shop for a low-cost eSIM for a specific country, I found the iOS app eSIMs to be useful. DENT Wireless seems to have even better pricing, but Airalo’s excellent integration made it worth an extra $5 for me.
Related to finding Panamax ships moving through the Panamá Canal download MarineTraffic. And as mentioned above, take the C810 bus from Albrook, it brings you right to the steps leading up to the Panama Canal’s visitor center at the Miraflores lock.