One travels to run away from routine, that dreadful routine that kills all imagination and all our capacity for enthusiasm.
~Ella Maillart ~
In this section I’ll give you some idea of what you do when you arrive at Tocumen Airport. I offer this because as I was killing time waiting for PM I saw several people with the “deer in the headlights” look. Tocumen Airport is one of the easiest airports I’ve ever been in but you might experience a little culture shock if it’s your first time in Panama:
1. Upon arrival and while clearing customs, if you don’t speak Spanish if you have a polite attitude and treat others with kindness people will be willing to help you. The person at the customs desk likely speaks some English or might even be fluent. Most Panamanians will tell you they do not speak English well, but really they speak better English than most of us can speak Spanish. If you get someone who speaks to you in Spanish, yelling in English at the top of your lungs just makes you a boor (I actually saw this in a small drugstore in PTY in the last week). Ask for help when you need it, attempting some key words in Spanish with a bit of charades will get you further. Side note: We had many a laugh when PM composed a sentenced by adding “o’s” to English words because it sounded more “Spanish” and surprisingly many of the taxi drivers that we used spoke perfect English while we were traveling about PTY;
2. If you have a lot of stuff with you there are people renting carts once you get to the luggage carousel. Unlike many airports in North America there is a fee for this service. Keep in mind that these gents are just trying to make a living and don’t be appalled when they ask for $3.00, this is a lot of money for Panama. If you do want one make sure that you have some small USD on you for payment, or here is a perfect opportunity to use up that US coinage you’ve been saving. Truthfully, if you don’t need a cart, don’t take one as you will see further on it’s only a few steps to get outside the airport building;
3. Once you gather your luggage from the carousel at PTY Tocumen Airport be ready to be ignored when you get to the X-ray machine before exiting the arrival area. Simply put your bags, including your purse on the belt while the workers look at their phone or gossip and walk around to the other side to retrieve everything. If you wait for them to tell you to go ahead you’ll be there forever, this is normal. Even though they all look like they’re not paying attention someone nearby is watching for anything unusual;
4. When you emerge from the secured area you’ll be in the public arrival area. Depending on the time of day and number of flights arriving this small area can be very crowded. Panameños believe in departing from the arms of their family and arriving into the arms of loved ones and this means a whole village will travel many miles by bus to be in attendance. The best thing to do is to keep on moving to the left into the larger open area;
5. To the left is where you will also find the bathrooms if you need them and at the end of the corridor is a small kiosk that sells snacks, hot dogs and beverages. Take the time to grab a bottle of water if you don’t have any for your trip into the city;
6. Car rental agencies are also along the corridor to the left of the arrival area. If you’ve reserved a car at the airport this is where you will find your agency. If it’s your first time driving in Panama you may want to acclimatize yourself with the driving conditions and arrange for a car rental from your hotel, Albrook Airport (which is closer to the roads out of PTY) or take a bus from Albrook Terminal to the outlying beaches area where there are several rental companies catering to tourists. If you don’t want to rent a vehicle using cabs and buses are very cost-effective;
7. To take a cab from the airport you would also keep to the left. There are several English-speaking fellows offering rides in the white tourist vans or cars. They will be holding up a card saying “taxi”on it. Expect to pay $20-$35.00 for the ride depending on where you are going. Ask the price before you leave to avoid being surprised at the end of your trip. Don’t forget to tip the fellow that has helped you into the taxi (a dollar will do) and make sure your gear is securely stowed before doing so. If you walk out of the arrival area sometimes there are yellow cabs parked looking to take passengers back into the city but the prices aren’t much different, although they might be more open to negotiation. Alternatively, you can go upstairs to the departure area to see if there is a yellow cab dropping off a fare. These will be more open to negotiation as a cheaper fare is better than no fare at all for the return trip to the city;
8. Once you arrive at your destination whether it be a hotel or private residence, get your bearings, drink lots of water, have something to eat and rest. The temptation might be there to do everything at once but relax, it’s your vacation and there’s always tomorrow!
If you’d like to offer any of your personal experience about arriving in Panama or anywhere else for that matter, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you…in the campo.