high-rise buildings on the road into Panama City from Bocas del Toro

How to Get from Bocas del Toro to Panama City

What’s the best way to get from Bocas Town in Bocas del Toro to Panama City? By bus, plane or private transfer? Including mistakes to avoid, and how I did it! You can also do this trip in reverse from Panama City to Bocas del Toro if you’re heading in the other direction!

About Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is probably the second most famous archipelago of islands in Panama after the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala). Bocas del Toro has become increasingly popular with tourists due to the recent boom of the tourism industry in Central America, and its proximity to Costa Rica.

It’s fairly easy to travel to Bocas del Toro from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica (that’s how we did it!) and we met a lot of travellers along the way who were just taking a quick weekend out of their Costa Rica travels to dip their toes in the water of travelling in Panama. The two fellas I was travelling with did this exact thing and headed back to San Jose when I travelled on to Panama City.

We stayed in Bocas Town on Isla Colon, which is generally where most people stay or keep as their base when they visit Bocas del Toro. It’s also the easiest place to start your journey to Panama City. Wherever you travel from, your trip of course will begin with a boat ride back to Panama’s mainland. You will be able to take a direct boat from some other islands in Bocas del Toro, or you may need to take a water taxi to Bocas Town to begin your journey from there. But don’t worry, I’ll walk you through all of the options below!

About Panama City

Panama City is, of course, the capital of Panama, and a must-visit if you want to lay your eyes on some of the only high-rises in Central America. You’ll also likely need to stop over here if you want to take a tour of the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala), or visit some of Panama’s incredible national parks. By all accounts I’d say it’s well worth a visit, and you can check out where to stay in Panama City here.

Bocas del Toro to Panama City by Transfer

Now, I’m not going to tell you that I suffer from separation anxiety because that would sound pretty lame, but I will tell you that before this trip I’d been travelling with the same two boys that I’d met in San Jose for almost two weeks and, well, travelling alone again was going to feel weird. (Two is a lifetime in travel-land, if you know, you know.)

This is one of the reasons I decided to pay for a “private shuttle” from Bocas to Panama City rather than trying to wing it myself with the public bus. Another reason is that you have to book your bus ticket in person, and I wasn’t willing to get all the way to the mainland only to find that bus tickets had sold out. But, more on that later.

The easiest way to get a transfer from Bocas del Toro to Panama City, you can ask in your hostel or accommodation (many of them will have contacts to help you book this transfer), or visit the dock. In Bocas Town on Isla Colon (the main island in Bocas del Toro) there are a bunch of travel agencies at the docks eager to sell you a ticket to wherever you want to go. I personally booked my transfer through my hostel, and the owner gave me his number and told me to call him if anything went wrong.

Having travelled through the majority of Central America already, I thought I knew the deal. Some random guy turns up in a minivan and collects a bunch of foreigners, then drops them off at various places whilst you try not to fall asleep and miss your stop.

That wasn’t quite how it worked here.

For starters, of course, your journey begins on a boat. When I arrived at the docks I was given a bus ticket, told not to lose it, and pointed in the direction of a boat. There were various people going in various directions on the boat, and when we arrived at the boat terminal in Almirante there was basically chaos. There was just a mass of people, bags, and random taxis pulling up. All of the tour operators had disappeared on their boats back to Bocas to pick up some more people.

Well, good thing I already had my bus ticket in hand!

The guy who reserved my transfer had told me not to pay for a taxi under any circumstances, because it had already been booked. I tried asking around the taxi drivers, but they simply said, no proof, no taxi. So, I paid, because it was only $2 anyway, and politely texted the guy from the hostel to let him know. He called me and practically bit my ear off, telling me I shouldn’t have paid, but realistically I didn’t see any other option.

So, top tip: always have cash in small change for emergencies like these!

We made it to the bus stop in Almirante in just a few minutes, and more chaos ensued. There were a lot of locals, mixed with a lot of travellers, a mass of people, and several buses with no signs. All of the travellers were talking amongst themselves, of course, and we ascertained that two overnight buses would go to Panama City. One at 4 o’clock, and one at 4.30.

It seemed as though it was still possible to buy a ticket for the bus (which, by the way, was the main leg of the journey and cost about half of what we’d all paid for our transfer), but because of the utter chaos I was glad to already have my ticket in hand.

The 4 o’clock bus came and went, and I sighed a very slight sigh of relief when another bus of the same company turned up not long before 4.30. 

The bus stop in Almirante is not much more than a small building on the side of the road, with several buses parked outside and people spilling everywhere. There was a bathroom, but the lock and light were both out of order, and there was nowhere to buy food. It seems like chaos when you first arrive but it did seem like all of the buses that were supposed to come did come; you just have to ask around for your destination and look out for a bus turning up vaguely at the right time for your ticket.

Anyway, what ensued was a 12-hour bus ride (actually, randomly, sat next to someone I met on a party bus in Nicaragua) with a screaming child in the seat behind us. The bus also broke down for around an hour somewhere around 10pm. But, we got on our way again after an hour or so, and arrived at Albrook bus terminal (next to Albrook Mall) in Panama City at around 5.30am.

Click to skip straight to Arriving in Panama City

Bocas del Toro to Panama City by Public Bus

So, if you want to take the public bus from Almirante to Panama City, I recommend you read the section above about taking a private transfer; they are basically the same thing, except that the transfer will arrange everything for you, and going DIY, well, of course, you have to arrange everything yourself.

Buying your own ticket for one of the local buses (there are two per day, a day bus and an overnight bus) is definitely the cheapest option. You could take a water taxi or boat from Bocas Town to Almirante for $6 when I was there at the beginning of February 2024, and the price on my bus ticket was $29. Add the $2 taxi from the dock to the bus station, and that makes your total $37. That saves you $13 on the $50 I paid to the guy in my hostel for the transfer (and the $2 taxi that I had to pay anyway).

I don’t necessarily regret paying that extra, because of the security I had that I definitely had a ticket for the bus, but if you’re feeling adventurous then you could save a little money by organising the public transport yourself.

The bus leaves from Almirante bus stop (which is a short ride from the town itself), and arrives at Albrook bus terminal in Panama City.

More about Panama: The Best Beaches in Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro to Panama City by Plane

There are also direct flights from Bocas del Toro to Panama City, if you really are in a pinch. I never recommend taking flights for short distances, because it is so bad for the environment, but it is for sure the fastest way to make the trip!

The domestic flight from Bocas del Toro to Panama City runs several times per day with Air Panama between Bocas Del Toro Airport, in Bocas Town, and Panama City Paitilla (also known as Albrook Airport) which is right there in Panama City next to Albrook bus station. Don’t get this mixed up with Panama’s main airport, Tocumen International Airport, which is inconveniently far out of the city!

Arriving in Panama City

If you arrive in Panama City by plane, you will probably arrive during the day and have no problem taking either a bus or a taxi to your accommodation. The daytime bus arrives in Panama City at around 8pm, so you’ll also have no problems with onward travel there, (although I’d recommend taking a taxi or Uber – don’t get on a bus alone at night!).

When we arrived at the bus station in Panama City, totally dazed and exhausted from the crying-baby-situation, so many people set about ordering Ubers that I decided to just clamber into a cab. (Reason 106 to carry cash on you!).

Again, I feel like I should always say that cabs can be less safe than Ubers, but it’s generally quite easy to spot which are the legit ones because they’re all the same colour (usually yellow) and you’ll see the drivers chatting to one another. That doesn’t mean that it’s definitely safe, but it’s much safer than getting into the car with some random dude.

Anway, happy travels in Panama! And maybe you’ll see a new article soon: How to Spot a Dodgy Taxi in Latin America…

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