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Domestic flights in Panama

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Saturday, 14 April 2007 18:52
You never really know a country until you've seen it from the air. I don't care how many times you have traversed the Pan-American Highway or off-roaded it to secluded beach fronts, the true essence and landscape of a country is the part that has not yet been plowed down for your transportation pleasure. My first flight within Panama, from David to Panama City, proved this theory.
As my flight set off just before sunset, my face could be found permanently affixed to the double-paned plastic window at my side, unaware of the treat that was in store for me on this hour long quickie. I'm not talking about the peanuts and flat Pascual brand cookies, as welcomed and delicious as they were. After crossing over winding rivers that cut through lush forests before making their way out to the Pacific Ocean from David, it was quickly apparent that we were flying over the middle of Panama from where both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans could be seen at the same time! A tall mountain range formed the spine through the narrow stretch of land in-between, anchoring this thin country with enough force to fight off the two largest oceans in the world. Not your average flight!

After having arrived to David on a 7-hour bus ride from the Albrook bus terminal in Panama City en route to Boquete, the stiff leg feeling lingering in my mind begged and pleaded with the cheap side of my mind to splurge on the plane ticket. The other option of renting a car and working our way back to the city did not prove to be any more economical seeing as how the fee for leaving the car in a different town would be $168 – where as a one-way flight between the two cities is $79, including taxes. This appeased ‘cheap side' and the internet was consulted for ticket purchasing.

Panama's two major domestic airlines, Air Panama and Aeroperlas (a regional branch of Taca), offer online booking at least 24 hours in advance for flights between the 27 major airports located throughout the country, as well as flights to San Jose, Costa Rica. About 18 of these destinations can be reached daily. Both websites are easily navigable in Spanish and English, and the prices are general the same. I could not find any last minute deals or discounts, but a travel agent might offer you better luck with that. Charter flights and helicopter transfers can also be organized through private companies, including Mapiex Aero, which has set daily flights to David and Bocas del Toro.

I ran into a small problem when attempting to book the flights on the Air Panama website. After selecting two one-way flights, it would show me the price, per adult, for a round trip ticket. Always a little nervous about online purchases, I decided to move on to the Aeroperlas webpage where I had no problems booking the flights at the same price.

After checking out the prices for other flights, I was impressed! For example, in comparison with the $25 10-hour bus ride to Bocas del Toro from Panama city, the $80 1-hour flight is a steal! As is the $40 flight from David to Bocas, for those looking to avoid the 5-hour bus ride through the mountains.

We arrived to the Enrique Malek International Airport in David three hours before our domestic flight because, being Good Friday, the city of David was basically closed down, and the fall back plan of getting ourselves tipsy in a local bar was not available. I instead went to the small airport café and ordered a mind-altering substance of a different variety – one large coffee, black, with aspartame. I also ordered a turkey sandwich, which sounded like a steep price for Panama at $2.50, but turned out to be about three sandwiches in one when the French baguette was divided into consumable portions – not bad for an airport!

The rest of the David airport consists of one large waiting room with ticket booths for the two airlines in front, rental car kiosks lined up in back by the doors and a stand with travel information provided by IPAT (Panama's official tourism board). Wireless internet is not available in the waiting area.

Eventually the airport filled up with fishermen returning with coolers filled with their catches and funny farmers tans. Being with my friend from Costa Rica, we proceeded to make fun of them in Spanish, but were a little put off when a gringo sitting directly in front of us began speaking with his guide in fluent Spanish.

We were allowed to check in an hour in advance, and each person was allowed one bag of up to 25 pounds to check in, and carry-on luggage of up to six pounds. My backpack containing my laptop and several bricks was luckily not weighed, so no additional charge was issued. Red plastic rectangles resembling a child's chew toy were given to us as our reusable boarding passes, and no seat numbers were issued.

Security consisted of a check of all handbags and passing through a metal detector to catch any unfortunate soul who didn't understand the pictures of a gun surrounded by a red circle with a line through it. When the alarm would go off, people would be frisked rather than forced to go through again. So if that is your thing, I recommend a silver watch or metal belt buckle as a subtle alarm trigger.

After the security station, we were put into a smaller waiting room for about 15 minutes with two walls of large windows facing the runway as we watched our high-wing prop plane pull up with about 60 passenger seats. There was a free-for-all when it came to seat picking, but it seemed that everyone wound up content in the end.

The flight was an hour in length, and as we descended into the Panama City after sunset, the plane grew silent as everyone watched the city lights growing in the distance. After landing, our passports were checked before we were allowed to pass into the baggage claim room, which was more like claiming your bag after a long bus ride where you exchange a little stub of a piece of paper for your bag.

Unfortunately, this wasn't checked very well, and after arriving back to my apartment after the 15 minute ride from the airport, my boyfriend realized he had grabbed the wrong blue backpack. We rushed back to the airport to find it closed, but a helpful security guard took his claim, and noted the items in the bag. However, not wanting any trouble for himself, he sent us home with the “stolen” bag with instructions to return back tomorrow when the room containing my boyfriend's bag could be unlocked and exchanged for the one he had.

The next day the bags were exchanged without ado, for us at least. If your bag went missing for a period of 12 hours last April 5th, I assure you it was well cared for in your absence! Nice straw Miller Highlife hat by the way.

At this point I had grown quite familiar with the Marco A. Gelabert Airport (better known as the Albrook Airport or aeropuerto nacional). When you enter, there are two identical wings for the different airlines along with desks for car rental agencies. The lobby features an information kiosk and an ATM machine. Taxi rides to the city should run $2 to $3 dollars. As a foreigner, expect to be overcharged. Arguments over pricing can be picked at your own discretion, but remember that angry taxi drivers can really kill the mood on your first trip to a new place. With that in mind – happy travels!

A plane preparing for takeoff from the David Airport, and the view of the Atlantic ocean from our flight from David to Panama City.


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written by Ralph85 , November 20, 2009
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