Differences between the International Airports of Costa Rica and Panama
I recently flew from Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama. While I have lived in Central America now for more than nine years, a number of distinctive differences struck me as I traveled between the two international airports this past week. For many tourists and those considering a move to either country, these observations seem worth sharing.
The International Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica
San Jose, Costa Rica is Costa Rica’s capital city. 45 minutes outside San Jose is the neighboring city of Alajuela, which is where the international airport actually sits. It’s called Juan Santamaria International Airport.
The International Airport in Panama City, Panama
Panama City is the capital city in the country of Panama. Tocumen International Airport is considered to be on the edge of the city, and is also a 45- minute drive from downtown Panama, depending on traffic.
Three Advantages Costa Rica’s international airport has over Panama
Costa Rica’s Juan Santamaria International Airport is cleaner. I’m a detail person and notice things in the bathroom stalls and in the corners of the floor where dirt often accumulates. Bottom line, Panama has more dirt. But this aligns with the general outlook and attitude toward cleanliness and orderliness between the two countries. Costa Rica wins on those counts every time. Panama’s government started an anti-trash campaign in the past several years for good reason, as it’s one of the top complaints by almost every visitor and expat moving to Panama. While the trash in Panama has decreased, it still has a long way to go. This is very noticeable in Tocumen International Airport, especially when you’ve just landed from squeaky clean Costa Rica.
- Costa Rica’s international airport feels more organized and tidy, thus appearing more ‘put together’ when you walk through the doors. What I mean by that is that there are fewer ‘rough edges’, if any in Costa Rica than in Panama. For example, both airports have been undergoing construction or improvements. But in Costa Rica, if an area is under construction, it’s marked clearly with cones and tape. There are no gaping halls in the walls awaiting something to be fixed, or wires hanging from the ceilings or open electrical outlets. This is a pet peeve I have with Panama – and not just in the airport. My latest trip to Panama – this past Saturday – revealed that some improvements in the baggage claim area are STILL in progress since my last trip – 11 months ago. This is typical in Panama. Generally, the international airport in Costa Rica (and the country in general, in my opinion) present themselves to the visitor in a way that’s more aesthetic.
Costa Rica’s Customs process is easier to navigate with your luggage. Costa Rica’s system is simple – multiple lines for multiple lanes. As you approach, it’s easy to see the shortest line and you can head that way. Often, the Customs official is at the start of the line, collecting and checking your paperwork before you enter. Very efficient. Panama, on the other hand, is like a fricking cattle call. One long line that weaves back and forth across a large space (not counting the separate line for airline officials and diplomats), and at the end, if the Customs staff are in attendance (which often they are not), they will direct you to whichever line is open. This is confusing for everyone, as there are Customs lanes in both direction, so it’s a lot of coordination. God forbid that a customs official is NOT there – which often is the case – because then you have to keep an eye out yourself, which can be frustrating when you’ve got a bunch of locals behind you yelling at you when you don’t see a lane that has opened up quickly. The feeling in Panama’s Tocumen International Airport related to Customs is chaos.
Three Advantages the International Airport in Panama has over Costa Rica
Panama has a brand spanking new interchange at the PanAmerican Highway for entering (and exiting) Tocumen International Airport. It’s gorgeous with wide lanes, beautiful landscaping, it makes sense, it has great signage AND it works. This is a huge improvement over the infrastructure that existed during the eight years I lived in Panama (until early last year). So, hands down, Panama wins in this category, and I say, way to go! Costa Rica’s infrastructure for getting in and out of the Juan Santamaria airport is confusing and needs to be updated.
- Panama’s new immigration system is smart and efficient. I haven’t seen this in other countries, but evidently, Panama’s airport administration did some best practices research in reformatting their incoming immigration system at Tocumen, and I have to say – it’s brilliant! There are three lines – clearly marked with easy to find and read signage – one for Panamanians, one for foreign residents (who have a legal visa), and one for visitors. When I came through on Saturday, it worked like a dream. Way to go, Panama!
- Panama is building a second passenger terminal, estimated to be open…someday. Knowing that the Panama Canal opened…ahem…two years behind schedule, it’s hard to have much faith in the timeline being advertised for the new terminal’s opening. That said, it’s clearly made significant progress and once it is open, it will make Panama’s Tocumen International Airport hands down the largest and most sophisticated transportation hub, architecture-wise, in Central America. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a while. But it’s fun to see the progress.
My International Airport Preferences: Panama versus Costa Rica
Panama wins in terms of connectivity, number of flights, and number of restaurants. Flying through Panama is super convenient in terms of connecting to every capitol in South and Central America and numerous cities in North America.
Costa Rica wins in terms of passenger comfort – it just feels more sophisticated and relaxed to me, with it’s small coffee shops. Plus, Costa Rica has great customer service and a cleaner atmosphere, which as a North American, I appreciate. Plus, it’s got some great unique shopping which I check out almost every time I’m there – in particular a great jewelry designer down at gate 11.
So, it depends on how and why you are traveling and what you’re looking for. But, these are my recent observations. I hope they’re useful to you in your travels!
More about JuliAnne Murphy, the Author
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Book one: What to Know Before You Go.
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Pura Vida from Costa Rica!