Go to the Albrook bus station, buy a ticket, and get on the bus to David. Simple, right? Well…. not exactly. Since I have written instructions for a number of people over last few months, I figured maybe I’d just write them here for everyone. I am doing this from memory so please, if you see something incorrect, or have more info to add, or photos, or anything, please leave a comment or contact me.
Albrook bus terminal is on the west side of Panama City near the canal, near the smaller airport where you catch regional flights, and is right next to the huge Allbrook shopping mall. It’s a very large and active bus terminal with many kiosks and stores, and a large food court at one end. Buses to everywhere go from this terminal.
Go to the ground floor (the upper floor is for arrivals) and look for the ticket windows along one wall of the long, busy hall. Then, look for the signs at these windows for your destination city. The bus to David costs around $15.25 (if I remember correctly) and one leaves about every hour from early morning to maybe midnight. There should be a schedule posted behind the ticket agent. When you get to the window present your passport (and a passport for everyone traveling with you), request the number of tickets you want to buy, and the ticket agent will take your money and print your tickets.
Your ticket(s) will have your name(s) on it, the time the bus leaves, and your assigned seat number (asiento). It will also tell you which gate the bus leaves from (but I have found that this is not always correct).
Next, you need a Rapi Pass card so you can get through the turnstile to the boarding area. As far as I know, this is only a Panama City thing. I have never needed this in any other bus terminal. There is a kiosk for this not far from where you buy your ticket. Again, you will need to present your passport to buy a card. It is rechargeable so keep it if you ever expect to be back again. When it’s time to go out to the boarding area, just swipe it over the sensor on the turnstile.
There is a waiting room behind the ticket windows. I usually ask someone to be sure I have the right room, but a big doubledecker blue bus outside or something similar that says “David Panama” on the windshield is a good indication that you are in the right place.
Expect to board the bus 20-30 minutes before departure time, and I’ve found that the buses are usually very prompt about leaving at the expected time. There will be a man to check your luggage in the compartment under the bus. Be sure to keep your ticket stub because you will need to present it at the other end to get your luggage back.
–> Take a sweater, blanket, jacket, fur coat and ear muffs! Just kidding, but bring something because they often get the air conditioning cranked up and it may get very chilly.
The trip is long, 7 – 7 1/2 hours but as comfortable as they can make it. The majority of the buses are new with large comfortable seats. They often show movies on board. You can never tell for sure what else will happen but it’s common that people get on the bus to sell drinks and snacks. I’ve seen a jewelry salesman ride from one stop to the next, giving him time for an extensive presentation complete with games and prizes to get people going. I’ve also seen beggars, people with religious messages, and a guy selling newspapers.
The bus will stop midway in Santiago at a cafeteria so everyone can get off for a rest break and a bit of food. They are usually there for 20-30 minutes so you have time to eat, but don’t wander too much and waste time. There will also be vendors with sweets, handicrafts, and perhaps other interesting things.
Then, closer to David there is a checkpoint. The officials will get on the bus and check everyone’s ID so get out your passport. I’ve seen them just glance at everyone, and once I’ve also had them quiz me on when I entered the country, where I’m going, and how long I’m staying. The stop is routine though and happens on every trip, whichever direction you are going.
By the time you get to David, it feels good to get off the bus. The luggage system is interesting. A guy gets in the compartment, takes out one suitcase or package, checks the tag, hollers out the number, and the owner comes forward with their ticket to claim it. Then, he takes out the next suitcase or package… It’s not the most efficient system I can imagine but it works and eventually everyone gets their luggage back. There will also be taxis waiting for the bus, so you don’t have to worry about finding one to take you on to wherever you need to go.
I prefer the bus to the plane. It’s certainly much more affordable. It’s a long ride but by the time you arrange your schedule to make a flight, wait around at the airport, take the flight, and get out of the airport with your luggage it’s only a few hours more on the bus. And, with the money you save you can pay for a hotel in Panama City and get on a bus whenever it suits you. I enjoy seeing all the activity at the terminal, the Diablo Rojos which are still fairly prevalent, the view over the Bridge of the Americas of the canal, and I like seeing the beautiful countryside go by. If you plan for the hours and bring something to do, it isn’t bad at all.
Getting on the bus in David is a lot easier. There always seems to be a guy waiting to help you with your luggage, point you to the ticket window, take your luggage around to the bus, and do whatever else he can to make it easy for you (he’s trying to make a living so give him a tip). Wherever you are going, don’t hesitate to ask for help. I’ve had complete strangers go out of their way to get me on the right bus, even physically walking me to the bus and handing me off to the helper.
I found a few videos if you want to get more of an idea of what Albrook terminal looks like. The numbers are the lengths of the videos.
2:00 video – a very good look at the bus station with the ticket booths (note the schedule posted on the wall), the buses, and the general look of the place
2:26 video -a tourist in the terminal, on the bus, and showing some of the sights as he leaves the city.
2:22 video – just a short one of the terminal, and some of the street outside
9:53 video – a much longer but well done video which shows quite a bit of the terminal, as well as other sights in Panama City.
3:00 video – a look at the bus terminal in David
Well I think that’s the best of the related videos I found, and all I have to say on the subject at the moment! One of these days when I’m back there I’ll update this with photos and videos of my own.