Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete


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Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete

I’m very excited to say that my in-laws have officially booked flights to visit us next month. But traveling to Panama isn’t for the faint of heart.

If you’re not an avid traveler, you’re probably going to run into some stumbling blocks along the way. Heck, even if you are a regular traveler, you’ll probably run into your share of quirky issues. The difference is that it might be a little easier for the regular traveler to know what to do when things do happen.

As most of my loyal readers know, we’ve become more routine international travelers over the years. Between living in Panama with a few visits back and forth to the U.S. every year as well as the cruises we enjoy so much, we spend a lot of time flying.

My in-laws, on the other hand, don’t do a lot of flying. And with them traveling to Panama to visit us, we want to help ensure that their trip goes as smoothly as possible.

Initially, I was going to create a guide with information and photos for them to take with them on the trip. I took a lot of photos throughout the airports when we recently came back from our trip to the U.S. to help with this mission.

But then I realized that there are probably a lot of readers that could benefit from this as well. So I’ve decided to make this into one awesome guide to help out anyone traveling to Panama. I’ll take you through some things to be aware of, preparations to take beforehand, and how the airports and flights will flow. My hope is to get you from the U.S. to Boquete without too many headaches.

So let’s get started!

One or two days involved in traveling to Panama?

The closest commercial airport to Boquete is Enrique Malek International Airport (DAV) in David. This is a little less than an hour away from Boquete. However, the chances of you finding a flight flying directly into David are slim to none.

Almost all flights will first fly into Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama City before taking the hour flight to David.

That means you have some options with getting to Boquete:

  • Book a reservation from your hometown airport to the David airport. Just know that you’ll likely be flying through PTY to get there.
  • Book a reservation from your hometown airport to PTY in Panama City. Then book a separate reservation from Panama City to David.
  • Book a reservation from your hometown airport to PTY in Panama City. Then have a driver you hired beforehand drive you straight to Boquete (or rent a car)
  • Book a reservation to San Jose, Costa Rica (ie on Southwest). Then book a separate flight from San Jose to David.
  • Book a reservation to San Jose, Costa Rica (ie on Southwest). Then take the bus from San Jose to David

Here are a few thoughts. First off, I’d skip traveling through Costa Rica for now. We had fun passing through there and even took the bus from San Jose to David once, but that was pre-COVID. Every country’s entry requirements are different and they’re constantly changing. Until we get back to normal, do yourself a favor and just focus on abiding by one country’s rules instead of two. It’ll save you some heartaches.

That leaves you with a few options and how you choose to roll is a matter of personal preference. We’ve done them all and they all work.

Driving from Panama City to Boquete

When we first scoped out Panama in 2017 on a sort of recon mission, we had rented a car so we could drive across the country to check out the different places. Now that we’ve been there and done that, I wouldn’t do it again. The insurance is stupidly expensive on car rentals here and driving in Panama City is not considered fun by most ex-pats because of how crazy busy it is there.

That said, it’s still an option and it’ll take you about 6-8 hours to drive from Panama City to Boquete.

If you don’t need a car while in Boquete (or plan on just renting one when you get here), you can also hire a driver to take you from Tocumen airport to Boquete. The nice thing is that if you don’t speak a lick of Spanish, that can make life a lot easier for you. You get your baggage, walk outside, and a guy’s standing there holding a sign with your name on it.

Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - Luis Arce
Luis Arce… awesome guy!

You don’t have to worry about anything else. He/She handles everything and gets you to wherever you’re staying in Boquete… easy peasy. In some cases, you might even get to Boquete sooner than if you were flying to David.

You can find different drivers offering various prices but we’ve been very happy with Luis Arce who we’ve used a couple of times. He charges ~$500 per carload. So you can either just go yourselves and pay that price or he can work on finding others to share the ride. If that happens, then the cost per person drops. Great guy, extremely responsible, and speaks English.

There are several other drivers that ex-pats tend to rave about as well. Marc Vargas is a name that I’ve heard quite a few good things about, for instance.

You could also take the public bus from Panama City to David for cheap. However, I’m not recommending that during these times.

Flying from Panama City to David

As of this writing, Copa Airlines is only flying from Tocumen airport to David once per morning daily except Tuesdays and Thursdays. That means you’re likely going to be spending the night at a hotel in Panama City and catching your flight to David the next morning.

If you go this route, here’s something interesting to know. The option to book your flights in one reservation from your hometown all the way to David is simple – click book and you’re done. But here’s the thing, it’s usually a lot cheaper to book that small Panama City to David flight as a separate reservation. For some reason, when you put it all together, they up-charge you a good chunk of change.

And, even if you book everything as one reservation, you’re still required to get your bags at Tocumen airport and then go through security again anyway for your next flight. Look, I don’t make the rules, I’m just telling you what I know.

The only other airline flying back and forth between Panama City and David is Air Panama. The nice thing is that they’re flying to David 1-3 times a day depending on the day of the week with flights as late as 4:15 pm. That means you can possibly book your reservation so you don’t need to spend the night in Panama City.

The downside is that they don’t fly out of Tocumen International Airport (PTY) where you are likely flying into from the U.S. Instead, they fly back and forth out of Panama City Albrook Airport (PAC). It’s about a 20-30 minute drive from PTY to get there… not the end of the world, just a little bit more to add to the day.

Again, whatever works best for you.

Staying at a hotel near the Panama City airport

If you’ve chosen a path that leads to you staying overnight near Tocumen airport (PTY), the nearby airports that a lot of ex-pats tend to stay at are the Riande Airport Hotel or the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport.

We’ve stayed at both and they each have their good and bad but either should do you just fine for a night. The pool at the Riande looks nicer (though we didn’t have a chance to swim in it), but I prefer the Crowne Plaza’s rooms and atmosphere.

There are other hotels you can check out to find what you like. Those just seem to be the most popular ones that I hear talked about among the expat community.

Plan on using a hotel shuttle if offered, Uber, or a taxi to get to your hotel and back to the airport.

Transportation from David to Boquete

Except for the case of a hired driver taking you directly from Panama City to Boquete, you’ll need transportation from David airport to Boquete.

There are a few options to make this happen:

  • Find a friend
  • Take a taxi
  • Take an Uber
  • Hire a driver beforehand

If you’re staying with someone in Boquete, obviously getting picked up from them is generally going to be a nice way to go. It’ll take a little stress out of your trip. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay for a ride.

If you speak decent Spanish or want to get that Panamanian vibe, go with a taxi. It’ll likely run you about $35 more or less and there will be plenty of drivers around at the David airport.

Uber’s a little newer here in David and came around at exactly the wrong time (right when the pandemic started). However, you’ll sometimes see a few cars floating around in the app. If you’ve got the app installed, give it a shot and see if anyone’s available. The cost will probably be cheaper than a taxi at around $20 to get you to Boquete.

Hiring a driver beforehand can also be helpful. You can find the contact info for drivers by posting on any of the expat Facebook groups. I mention a bunch of those groups in my post Moving to Boquete or Visiting? The Ultimate List of Tips!! where you’ll also find a lot of other great info.

A hired driver will be a more costly option but can be good if you don’t want to go a different direction for some reason. For instance, when we first moved here, we had the three of us plus a total of 6 suitcases and our backpacks. Hiring an English-speaking driver in a van just made things a little less stressful so it was worth it for that one time ($50 per person).

Phone preparation for traveling to Panama

Ok, you have everything booked… what a pain in the butt! Now it’s time for something a little easier. When traveling to Panama, you’ll want to do a few things on your phone to get yourself prepared to visit.

Cell service when traveling to Panama

The first thing is that you’ll want to do is figure out how you’ll get phone service. Depending on your current cell phone provider, you might already be able to just use your phone when you get here (some T-Mobile plans or Google FI, for instance). That makes life a lot easier.

If not, your carrier may let you schedule dates you’ll be out of the country ahead of time. They’ll charge you stupid rates of maybe $10/day like Verizon does, but if convenience wins over money for you, setting that up beforehand can be an easy way to go.

You could also opt to just connect to WiFi spots and not have cell phone access anywhere else. That means you’d be set at airports, hotels, some restaurants or stores, the place you’re staying in Boquete, etc. That’s tough and not something I have the courage to do but to each his/her own.

If you decide to go the WiFi route, please be sure that you have a VPN installed and in use for security on your phone. I highly recommend NordVPN and it’s what we use on our computers and phones. It’s secure, inexpensive, and easy to use.

Another option is to get a SIM card from a Panamanian provider here. You pop that into your phone and that provides you a Panamanian phone number. You’d be charged international rates to call back to the U.S. from a phone number they wouldn’t recognize anyway, so I wouldn’t recommend that. However, with the data plan you get, you could contact friends and family at home through messaging apps like Facebook Messenger.

You could get an overpriced plan and SIM card at Tocumen airport in Panama City or wait until you’re in Boquete. You can simply walk to town and get setup through carriers such as:

I pay $39.22 (taxes and fees included) for each of our phones through Tigo. That’s per month and includes unlimited data… much cheaper than what you’d get through using some of the U.S. cell phone providers’ “traveling abroad” plans. But again, this is cost versus convenience so do what makes sense for you.

Apps to install and setup

Unless you’re a proficient Spanish speaker, when traveling to Panama, you’re going to want to have some apps prepared and ready to go on your phone. Here are some recommendations…

Google Translate (Android / iOS)

Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - Google Translate

This is a gimme, but I need you to do one other step before just installing it and calling it a day. I want you to download Spanish to be available offline (your phone’s default language such as English is automatically made offline). That way, regardless of whether you have cell phone service, you can still use the app to get help if needed.

On Android, just click on the hamburger menu in the top left of the app (the three stacked lines), select “Offline translation”, and then find and select the download icon for Spanish under “All available languages”…

The steps should be similar for iPhone as well.

WhatsApp (Android / iOS) / Signal (Android / iOS)

If you don’t already know this, almost the entire world does most of their communication through WhatsApp… except for the U.S. Ironically, WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, a U.S. company.

Anyone you talk to here will communicate via WhatsApp. If you’re exchanging phone numbers or calling a taxi, it’s all done through WhatsApp messaging. Begrudgingly, I recommend that you get the app setup and installed so you can communicate as needed.

The reason I say begrudgingly (which spell check has now corrected for me twice!), is that Facebook has faced some pressure lately on some privacy changes they’ve made to WhatsApp. It’s still safe to use and they’re not able to hear your calls or anything like that (that’s encrypted), but they have more wiggle room than they should.

Regardless, it’s still the go-to app here and likely will remain that way.

In the meantime, a lot of users are switching to more privacy-centered apps such as Signal (another is Telegram). We each have WhatsApp and Signal installed on our phones. If I can communicate with someone through Signal, that’s the route I’m going. If they don’t have the app installed, I’ll fall back to WhatsApp. I suggest you use a similar approach.

Uber (Android / iOS)

Uber is not everywhere in Panama, but it’s big in Panama City. It also just started in David at the beginning of the pandemic (oops).

Whether you’re heading to a hotel in Panama City or trying to get around in David, Uber is generally less expensive than a taxi. But even if you have mixed feelings about using the app and undercutting prices on already-cheap Panamanian rides, there are two reasons to have it installed when traveling to Panama:

  • If you don’t speak Spanish well, Uber helps you get around that. All the information on where you’re going is in the app so confusion is alleviated.
  • You can use a U.S. credit card. For small rides, this isn’t a big deal, but for something like David to Boquete, it’s helpful. And because the transaction goes through Uber, you won’t be charged foreign transaction fees on your credit card.

Google Maps (Android / iOS)

I know, you already have this one installed. And that’s good because it’s good to know where you’re at, what’s around, or where you’re going.

But, do you have offline maps set up on it? In particular, since you’re traveling to Panama, do you have maps of Panama set to be offline?

No? Well, let’s rectify that. If you’re on an Android phone, click on your profile picture in the top right of the Maps app. Next, select “Offline maps” and then “Select your own map.” Pinch and zoom to find the area to select and then hit the “Download” button. For Panama, I needed to do three sections to get the whole country.

The steps for iPhone users should be similar.

As a side note, I also have MAPS.ME installed (Android / iOS). It’s a great alternative to Google Maps and makes offline maps much easier to download than Google’s method.

Kayak (Android / iOS)

This one isn’t a must, but I love this app. Kayak is a fantastic place to look and book your travel plans (flights, hotels, cars, etc.).

However, there’s a piece of functionality that’s become so essential in my travel plans… it’s called “Trips.” In a nutshell, whenever I get an email receipt for travel I booked (like a hotel or flight reservation), I forward it to a Kayak email address and it automatically groups everything together and adds it to a trip for me (because it knows my email address). So simple.

When I’m ready to travel, I have an outline of my entire plan in chronological order and can click through to see all the details, including the original email. This is great when traveling to Panama and back because there are usually a lot of different travel entities involved. I can even share the itinerary with friends or family who need to know our specific plans.

Another great feature is that the app syncs and keeps your plans available offline. So even on the plane, I can see what time our next flight is or find whatever I need to know. The app also provides useful notifications like flight check-in reminders, gate changes, baggage carousel numbers, etc.

Another popular alternative to Kayak is TripIt and I’ve used that before, but I just like Kayak better… and it’s 100% free.

Helpful Spanish phrases when traveling to Panama

Although Spanish is good to learn if you’re moving to Panama, I understand that might be a lot to ask if you’re just visiting. However, just because I’m a nice guy, I thought I’d throw in a list of phrases that you might find helpful. It’s not all-encompassing, but that’s what Google Translate’s for!

  • Do you speak English?¿Tú hablas Inglés?
  • Could you speak more slowly, please?¿Puede hablar más despacio, por favor?
  • I don’t speak Spanish very well.No hablo español muy bien.
  • I don’t understand.No entiendo. [An example could be “No entiendo ‘nuevo'” to explain that you don’t understand what that word means]
  • More slowly, pleaseMás despacio, por favor.
  • I am learning SpanishAprendo español
  • I don’t speak (or understand) Spanish well.No hablo (o entiendo) español bien.
  • My Spanish is not very goodMi español no es muy bueno
  • Excuse me, can you help me?¿Disculpe puede ayudarme?
  • Nice to meet youMucho gusto
  • The check, pleaseLa cuenta, por favor
  • Do you take credit cards?¿Aceptan tarjetas de crédito?
  • How much?¿Cuánto cuesta?
  • Where is the bathroom?¿Dónde está el baño?
  • Help!¡Ayuda!
  • I don’t knowNo lo sé
  • SIM cardtarjeta SIM
  • Stop [when on the bus] — Parada
  • Here is my stop. [when on the bus] — Aquí está mi parada.
  • The next stop is mine. [when on the bus] — La próxima parada es mía.
  • How do you say…Cómo se dice…
  • See you [as in “see you later”] — Nos vemos
  • It’s okEstá bien
  • Have a nice dayQue tenga lindo día
  • How’s it going?¿Cómo te va?

Documentation needed when traveling to Panama

These are unprecedented times we’re living in. Dealing with international flights during a pandemic is not something the world is used to doing.

We’ve personally experienced flying back and forth between the U.S. and Panama a few times so far during COVID times. From a humanitarian flight last July to our more recent flight last month, it’s gone from scary to a lot more relaxed. The airlines are still being careful, but it’s not as crazy as it was during the unknown at the start of the pandemic.

And along with those procedures constantly changing and adapting, so are the requirements needed to enter different countries. As of right now, here’s what you need to know:

Negative COVID test or proof of vaccine

Up until recently, traveling to Panama required that you provided proof of a negative antigen or PCR test taken within 48 hours of arrival in Panama. That was a real pain to do in the fall of last year, but it seems to be easier lately with more options available in the U.S. In some places, it might be free and in others, it might run you a little bit of dough (they make the test free and charge you for an “office visit” or other garbage).

Panama also started offering the option to take the antigen test at Tocumen airport when you arrive. The cost is $50 and I’ve heard a lot of good feedback that it’s quick and easy to have done.

The problem with that option is that if you test positive while there, they put you in a “quarantine” hotel for a week or two. Personally, I’d rather not take that chance and would rather know where I stand before I left from the U.S. So taking the test in the U.S. has been the route we’ve been going each time.

However, just last week, Panama has announced that you will now be able to present proof of being completely vaccinated instead of a negative COVID test. That’s a big deal! I know some folks are either opposed or not worried about getting the vaccine, but for those of us that get the vaccine and travel a lot, this will make life a lot easier.

We’re still waiting for the final details to be presented, but you can find more information in the travel guidelines on Panama’s Tourist site.

Affidavit that you’ll stay COVID safe after traveling to Panama

Another requirement in place when traveling to Panama is that you fill out an affidavit before entering the country…

Prior to check-in, all incoming travelers will be required to complete an Electronic Affidavit (sworn statement) agreeing to:
• Comply with all sanitary control measures outlined by the Ministry of Health of Panama.
• Provide localization information for residence while in Panama.
• Confirm that you are healthy (no symptoms of any respiratory illness) and that you have not been exposed to COVID-19 within the last fourteen (14) days.

Panama Tourism Site – https://visitpanama.com/information/travel-guidelines/

This was a hot mess when they first introduced it. You can either do it out online before your flight and receive a QR code to present or they’ll give you a hard copy on the plane to fill out. It’s great in theory, but I don’t think they have everything rolling the way it should be.

Sometimes I could get the online form to work and sometimes I couldn’t. On our last trip back to Panama earlier this month, I got it to work successfully for all of us… and then no one asked to see it.

In other words, you’ll want to go through the motions to get this filled out electronically, but it’s not a big deal to just fill it out on the plane. And even if you do get it filled out, it seems like it’s not that important for anyone to see.

You can get to the form at https://login.panamadigital.gob.pa/Registro but I suggest you check out the affidavit instructions on the Panama Tourism site first.

Customs declaration

This one’s an easy one because you don’t need to do anything beforehand. While you’re on the plane traveling to Panama, the flight attendants will pass out a form for you to fill out. It’s a one-page document and you only need one per household (if you have the same last name).

All you’re doing on this form is declaring if you’re bringing anything unusual into the country. The form will walk you through everything and what you might need to declare. Hang onto this because you’ll be presenting it to customs after you pick up your luggage (if you checked any).

Proof of outbound flight or other means of exit

As a tourist, you’re not able to stay forever and Panama wants proof that you’re not planning to do that. That can be as simple as having your return ticket or email confirmation of your flight out.

Immigration won’t always ask to see this, but if they do, you better be prepared to present it.

Thoughts on packing for traveling to Panama

I’m sure you can find some guides all over the internet on packing and can figure a lot of this out yourselves. Just remember that Boquete is generally about 75° F daily with overnights usually in the lower to mid 60’s. But you should also account for hot temps of any other areas you might be traveling to (beaches?) and cooler areas (i.e. airplanes).

So I’m just going to mention some other things you may or may not have considered bringing for on the flights and at your destination:

  • A pen for filling out the forms on the plane I mentioned
  • Hand sanitizer / Disinfectant wipes for the planes (though they have been handing out wipes on most flights now)
  • Travel/Neck pillow – if you plan to sleep on the flights
  • Snacks for on the plane, at any hotels, etc.
  • Your Kindle Paperwhite or other eReader
  • Cash, including a fair amount of one dollar bills for tipping (bellboys, restaurants, etc.)
  • Layers for the planes – we get cold and usually have a couple of layers to add or remove as needed
  • An external battery to keep your cell phone charged during travel if you have one
  • A pair of pants (for any activities like horseback riding or hiking)
  • At least one long-sleeve shirt or light sweatshirt for cooler evenings
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Bathing suits if you’re planning on going to the beach
  • Phone charging brick and cable so you can plug in once you get to wherever you’re staying

Bear in mind that Boquete is not a place where you’ll be dressing up a lot. It’s a very casual town and you can probably skip all the unnecessary formal wear. If you’re not moving here and only spending a week or even two, you can probably get away with a carry-on if you’re selective about what you bring.

On the note of how much cash, that can vary based on a few factors. One is obviously how much you plan on buying while there. Some places take credit cards and some don’t. But if you don’t have a credit card that covers foreign transaction fees (most don’t), you’re going to get dinged hard here. I have some of my favorite credit cards here and I note the ones that exempt foreign transaction fees.

Be aware that the ATMs here generally charge about $5.25-$5.75 to use… with a maximum withdrawal of $250 per transaction. That can add up real fast.

So, unfortunately, I can’t give you a good number on how much cash to bring. Hopefully, you can determine a good number based on this information though.

Arriving at Tocumen airport in Panama

Finally, we’re onto the fun part… getting to Panama! Let’s talk about what to expect when you arrive at Tocumen airport.

Where you start off at the airport is going to depend on what airline you flew in on. The key though is that once you get in the airport, look for the overhead signs that say “Equipaje” (“Baggage Claim”). Regardless of whether you checked a bag, that’s the direction you’ll want to head. Follow the signs closely because there are places where it can get confusing.

Eventually, the baggage claim signs will lead you to a location where you’ll be heading downstairs… get in line. But before you do, it might be good to step off to the side and get out all the documents you’re going to need:

  • Passports
  • Negative COVID test results or proof of vaccination
  • COVID affidavit
  • Customs declaration
  • Proof of outbound flight
Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - Stairs to baggage claim at PTY

There will be an employee at the top of the stairs and he/she will let you know when it’s your turn to head down.

Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - COVID review at PTY

At the bottom of the steps, another employee will let you know when it’s your turn to talk to a “health worker” (not sure what they’re actually called). These are the folks that will want to see your passports and your COVID results or vaccine proof. They might also ask for your affidavit… or they might not.

Once you’re done with this process, you’ll head in the opposite direction of the tables. This is the immigration area. There’ll be signs for tourists, residents, and Panamanians. You’ll want the one for tourists (turistas).

As you can see, the lines (or lack thereof) made for a good day for us…

Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - Immigration and customs

The immigration officer will need your passport and customs declaration. He/She may ask you some basic questions like:

  • Are you here for business or pleasure?
  • What are you planning to do while in Boquete?
  • How long are you staying? They might ask for proof of exit plans as well (your flight out of Panama).

Once you get through customs, you’re off toward the baggage area (even if you didn’t check any bags). You’ll also find another line right there to exit through security. Get your suitcases first if you had any and then get in line for security.

At the front of the line, an employee will direct you to a booth to head to or one of the security employees may wave you over. The security person may ask you for your passport. They’ll also ask you to put all your suitcases, backpacks, handbags, purses, etc. on the belt. They’ll all pass through the x-ray machine which you can then grab on the other side once the security person gives you the ok to pass.

That’s it – you’re now ready to get out of the airport. Head to the doors marked “Salida” (“Exit”) where you’ll take a quick left to make your way to the airport exit.

Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - Exit out of PTY

At this point, you can head outside…

Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete - Outside of PTY

This is where you can meet your ride, catch an Uber, get a taxi, or find your airport shuttle.

Flying from Panama City to David

Good news! Traveling to Panama City was the hard part. Now you just get to hop on a short flight to David (if that’s the option you chose) and then make your way up to Boquete.

With flights between Panama City and David a little less frequent right now, we’ve been spending a night at a hotel in Panama City before heading to David. The fun part is heading back to the Panama City airport from the hotel. On the past couple of trips, we’ve taken an Uber because the shuttle service started too late in the morning for us.

Unfortunately, when we’re traveling to Panama, we generally each have a giant suitcase plus a backpack because we’re usually spending a month or longer in the U.S. So picture all that luggage. It makes me laugh when we request an Uber and this shows up…

One small Uber for 3 passengers, 3 suitcases, and 3 backpacks!

Somehow though, our driver miraculously fit everything in the car! It’s only a few minutes to the Tocumen airport anyway so it’s not that big of a deal.

Two airlines fly between Panama City and Boquete: Air Panama and Copa Airlines. Air Panama goes between the two cities but they fly out of Panama City Albrook Airport (PAC). I haven’t flown out of that airport yet so I can’t give you much information on that trip.

So I’m going to take you through flying out of the Tocumen airport to David. Most likely, you’ll be flying on Copa Airlines since that’s the only airline running between Tocumen and David right now.

When you get into the Tocumen airport, head over to the Copa Airlines check-in area to get your boarding pass and any needed bags checked. After that, you’ll make your way to the left of the Copa counters. You’re looking for a staircase on the left-hand side. It’s easy to miss but there are a few vending machines in the area as well. You’ll see the stairs going up more easily but you’ll want to use the stairs to the left of those to go downstairs.

When you get to the bottom of the steps, turn left where you’ll see Banco National de Panama. You want to go out the exit doors to the left of the bank. That’s correct, you are actually exiting the airport (I didn’t design this place!).

Ok, you’re outside – hang an immediate right following the sign that says “Vuelos Nacionales” (“Domestic Flights”). You’ll be looking directly at a wall marked with the same words. Head into the door to the right of that sign for domestic departures.

Welcome back into the airport!

You now get to go through security. Plan on throwing any bags, wallets, cell phones, etc. onto the belt to be passed through the x-ray machine.

Before you know it, you’ll be in the waiting room where you can sit and await your flight. Feel free to bring up my blog to read while you’re waiting there!

As of this writing, Copa has been boarding from the back to the front of the plane and they call out the rows accordingly. Be aware that sometimes it’s tough to understand the announcements because they don’t use an intercom.

Here’s the best part.. you thought you were going to just jump on your plane, right? Nope.

When your row is called, you’ll present your boarding pass to the employee at the desk and then head through the door out of the airport… again. This time you’ll be herded right onto a bus. Hop on and enjoy the ride!

The bus will drive you to your plane where you’ll likely head up a staircase and around a bend leading you right onto your plane… how’s that for an adventure?! Nobody ever said traveling to Panama was going to be easy!

But that’s it – relax and enjoy your quick flight. Hopefully, they’ll provide you with a disinfectant wipe, bottled water, and a bag of those delicious fried plantains as a snack. On our last trip, I was disappointed that we got yucca chips instead… boooo!

Yuquita Chips

Welcome to David airport!

You made it! You’re about an hour away from enjoying beautiful Boquete! Don’t worry, this one’s pretty quick.

As of right now, your plane isn’t going to be landing right by a terminal. Instead, you’ll head down the portable staircase off the plane in the middle of the airport… start walking. The good news is that it’s a beautiful area. The bad news is that it’s probably going to be pretty hot out there!

Time to wait in line to get your temperature taken…

Then you get to wait in line to pick up your suitcases. If you don’t have any checked bags, you can skip this line.

After you grabbed any checked suitcases, head to the main airport and out the door where you can grab a taxi, Uber, shuttle, or whatever transportation you have lined up.


I’m not going to kid, traveling to Panama isn’t the easiest trip to make. I do hope though that you find it worth it once you get to Boquete. It’s a beautiful little town with so much to offer!

If Panama’s a country you’ve been considering moving to, please consider taking a trip here as part of Jackie Lange’s Panama Relocation Tours. You’ll tour the country on a private air-conditioned bus and get a feel for the pros and cons of each place most ex-pats considering moving to (no punches pulled). This is one fantastic way to know if Panama’s the right place for you.

And if you’ve already decided that Panama is the right place for you, check out the Panama Relocation Guide. This is an ever-changing online guide to help answer your questions and give you the resources that you might struggle to get elsewhere. If you’re looking to make the transition here as smooth as possible, you’ll want this.

Well, that turned out to be one heckuva long guide to help prepare you for traveling to Panama. I hope you found this information useful!

If so, consider signing up for my mailing list where you’ll receive a weekly email with more great info like this. I’ll even send you some cool spreadsheet templates that I think you’ll enjoy!

Plan well, take action, and live your best life!

Thanks for reading!!

— Jim

17 thoughts on “Traveling to Panama? The Ultimate Guide in Going from the U.S. to Boquete”

  1. Whew! Almost seems easier to stay at home. However, I’ll brave it. I’ll be there in a couple of weeks. Thanks for the explicit help!

  2. We are considering becoming expats in either Costa Rica or Panama. We’re familiar with CR but not Panama. We are definitely waiting until the covid chaos is closer to the end. It is a similar pain to simply return to the US as well. The testing and such is just all extra expenses we are avoiding. (Where we live has been 99% normal the entire time so we would be in for a shock, I think!)

    We love international travel and have taken our kids all over the world. But we’re content to stay domestic for now. But that travel itch is building!

    Thanks for the write up! Panama is definitely on the short list of next countries to visit.

    1. Haha, I get it on the travel itch! I have a feeling by late summer we’ll start to see things return to a closer “normal” than we’ve had for a while now. Hopefully, doing international travel will be a little smoother then. Right now, we had to do the COVID test to get back to the U.S. (we paid $40 each here in Boquete) but got free tests in Texas before we headed back to Panama.

      Depending on your view on the vaccine, that could make it much easier down the line. It’s looking like my in-laws will not need to get the test coming to Panama since they’ve been vaccinated. However, they’ll still need to get the test before heading back to the U.S. (for now at least).

      Hope you end up making it down here at some point, Scott! 🙂

    1. Haha, it might be a little much, but it should be helpful for visitors who haven’t been here before. Are you coming to visit now that you have this guide, Bob? Not sure if this would be a surprise or not, but there are really quite a number of Canadian expats here in Boquete! 🙂

  3. Jim, My wife and I visited Boquete in 2017. This fall, in October, I’m ready to return to start the Pensionado process. We’d live in Panama the best 6 months of the year, travel internationally and keep a small place in Austin Texas for as long as we can afford it. Your article was amazing and full of solid advice. It answered most of my “what about?” travel questions. Last time we rented a car in David without incident and found driving in Panama pretty easy in the countryside. We would like to rent a small 3/2 for six months beginning next January in the Boquete area. I’d like to arrange that during the October recon visit. Do you have any suggestions about renting a car beyond the 30 days from Thrifty or Budget at Malek? What about insurance coverage? I hope we will have a chance to talk, so I can follow in your footsteps (my wife Kim might be a few steps behind though…-:)

    1. Hi Bob – glad you found the post helpful. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about renting cars here for more than 30 days. We’ve only rented a car a few times here and each time was only for 1-3 days.

      My suggestion would be to post these questions in a couple of the ex-pat Facebook groups that I mention in my post Moving to Boquete or Visiting? The Ultimate List of Tips!!. I would bet that someone there has run into this before and would have some good ideas and helpful information on long-term renting of cars.

  4. Wow, if I ever travel to Panama, I’m going to use this guide Jim! Very comprehensive!

    I’m actually amazed you had pictures of so many of the little twists and turns in the process! How is traveling back to the United States? Is it any easier? I assume you need some kind of negative COVID test before you can enter.

    1. You are correct – right now you need a negative COVID test to get back into the U.S. The good news is now it’s much easier to get one with rapid results. That was a real hurdle even only 6 months ago. The other thing that’s good is that the airlines, particularly here, have been very careful and have some good safety procedures in place. That makes me feel much better when traveling.

  5. Jim, following and reading your blog has really made me want to go to Panama after I retire early. There are hundreds of countries that I could visit but I would choose Panama just because I chose to follow this blog, haha.

    Your bus pictures really remind me of the good old days where I used to take buses for long distance trips. Public transportation in America just isn’t all that good.

    1. Haha, I hope I didn’t skew your thoughts too much! It’s a wonderful country but what I love might not be the same for others. I’ve only ever taken one long bus trip (from Costa Rica to Panama) just for the adventure of it and it was actually very non-dramatic – comfortable ride and pretty easy trip… fun time!

  6. Hi Jim
    Thank you as usual for a comprehensive writeup.
    One question re the Kayak. I registered using my gmail login, how do I forward my existing flight that I booked earlier to show on Kayak?
    Thanks you.

      1. Glad you found it, Zion – yup, it’s that simple. One thing to be aware of (although this is unusual for most folks) – if you have more than one email address where you receive trip info, you’ll want to add that into your profile. Otherwise, Kayak won’t know who it’s from when you forward the email.

  7. Hi Jim, can you speak briefly about the return flight from David to Panama City? Two questions on that topic: 1. Do you need an additional negative COVID test to return? And 2. Do you have to go back through customs in Panama City upon arrival?

    I saw this on the Air Panama site today, which doesn’t look promising: “Statement from the Health Authority (MINSA) establishes that every passenger departing on flights from the city of David (DAV) must present their negative COVID test carried out within a maximum period of 48 hours at the time of boarding.”

    1. Hi Chris – as of right now (07/08/21), my understanding is that you do need a negative COVID test coming into the country of Panama that must be taken within 48 hours of your arrival in Panama (not just your boarding time, but your arrival time). Hopefully, they’ve changed that but I haven’t heard anything about that.

      And yes, you go through customs at Panama City when coming into the country. It’s very similar to the U.S. where you spend quality time waiting in line until you talk to an immigration officer who asks you a few questions about your plans in Panama. They usually speak some English too so that makes it a little easier.

      As far as your note, you are correct – you do now need to have a negative COVID test when traveling between some provinces (i.e. leaving Chiriqui). We just got back to the U.S. yesterday and killed two birds with one stone. We took our COVID test the day before our flight out of David. We then presented our negative results for our flight from David to Panama City. We then stayed overnight at a hotel and the next day we were able to present the same test results at the airport for our flight to the U.S.

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