bike touring in panama: practical information


Panama FlagPanama isn't really a cycling destination.   For most, it's just the jumping off point to South America; a place to arrange a flight or boat ride across the famous Darién Gap.   While Panama's not likely to make anyone's top ten list of cycling spots, the biking is pleasant enough and the Panamanians are a fun-loving people always ready with a smile.

cycling routes and roads in panama

Road conditions on the Panama section of the Pan-American highway vary greatly.  Some sections are in perfect condition, with a wide shoulder for riding.  Other sections are badly pot-holed with rough surfaces and almost no shoulder. Traffic is not too heavy until you draw nearer to Panama City, where the highway is clogged with trucks and buses.

Panama is a fairly hilly country, with some challenging climbs, made worse by the oppressive heat.


We used Reise Know-How's detailed Costa Rica-Panama map.  

finding a safe place to sleep during your bike tour

ANother great camping spot at a rural school in Panama.Panama has got plenty of choices for accommodation in all budget ranges.  But if you find $10 for a dorm bed a bit steep, you'll want to contact couchsurfers or make the extra effort to find a camping spot.   On our way to Panama City, we camped twice at rural schools, pitched the tent in a friendly local's back yard and even found a luxury camping spot next to the pool at a small hotel.  Just ask around at shops or the Police Station and someone will help you out.

keeping your stomach full 

A tasty breakfast at a truck stop in Panama.You'll never find yourself far from a well-stocked supermarket, so self-catering in Panama is easy.  Many foodstuffs are imported from the US, so here's the place to splurge if you've been missing something from home.  Along the Pan American Highway, there are a number of restaurants catering to truckers and travelers-- prices are reasonable, portions are generous and there's always a big cooler full of ice water in the corner.  In larger cities, Chinese restaurants are the best place for a cheap meal.

cost of bike touring in panama

Although not as expensive as neighboring Costa Rica, Panama isn't exactly a budget bicycle tourist's delight. A simple vegetarian meal at a Chinese restaurant will cost around $3.  A hotel room will set you back at least $15.  We didn´t spend much in Panama thanks to a combination of couchsurfing,  self-catering and camping.  Our daily average was $8 per person.

safety issues

Panama City has got a bad reputation for crime, but police generally patrol areas frequented by tourists.  Rural areas are generally safe.  

crossing the Darién Gap

The road comes to a halt at the Darién Gap, so you've got two choices:  Fly or take a boat. Surprisingly, flying is the cheapest way to get from Panama to Colombia.  

crossing the darién gap by boat
Plenty of
sailboats ferry backpackers between Panama City and Cartagena, passing through the beautiful San Blas Islands on the way. Costing around $375, it’s a pricey 5 or 6 day trip. Keep in mind that some captains hit cyclists with an additional $50 charge for bringing a bike on-board.

Check out the following sites for information on boats plying the route between Panama City and Cartagena: Luna’s Castle, Hostel Mamallena or Zulys Backpackers Hostel.  They've got the most up-to-date information on planned sailings and can put you in touch with boat captains. The “Stahlratte” gets many positive reviews from travelers.

boat-flight combination

Much more adventurous, and potentially cheaper if you bargain well, is a boat-flight combination.  This is the preferred choice of many locals, but it is uncommon for foreigners to travel this way.   

First, you'll have to get a flight out to Panama’s Caribbean coast close to Colombia.  Then you'll have to hop on a series of lanchas (small boats) until  you make it to Colombia.  

Flight: Panama City – Tubal (Panama): $65: TACA flight leaves from Albrook (Regional) airport Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at 10:00 AM. and arrives at 11:00 AM to Tubal.
Boat: Tubal – Obaldia: $25: 1 hour
Boat: Obaldia – Capurgana (Colombia): $12: 1.5 hours
Boat: Capurgana – Turbo: $24: 2 hours

Note:  You will be at the mercy of potentially unscrupulous boat captains who can basically charge what they want, knowing you're stuck in the middle of no where.  Prices indicated are what locals normally pay and we can not verify the accuracy of this informatio , as it is not based on first hand experience

flying across the darién gap

A quick flight between Panama City and Cartagena will be your guaranteed cheapest option.  Aires Airlines, a discount Colombian airline, is the best way to go.   We paid $145 for the one hour direct flight to Cartagena.  Baggage limit is 30 kilos per person, and excess kilos are charged $4 per kilo.  With a few smiles and some friendly small talk, you may be able to get out of paying any extra fees.

You must book your flight on-line to get the cheapest rate.  The Aires website doesn't always work well, so if your reservation doesn't go through the first time, keep trying.  

There's a toll road linking downtown Panama City with the airport.  Although there are plenty of signs forbidding cyclists to ride there, nobody stopped us.  

We wrapped our bikes in bubble wrap, but were told they should be boxed.  Again, with a few smiles and profuse apologies, they took the bikes.  

Cartagena's tiny airport is almost smack dab in the middle of the city.  Arriving late at night and cycling to a hotel should not be a problem.

Any advice or questions about Biking in Panama
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Tour Update
Cycling Around the World: Biking Panama 

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