Depending on where one draws the boundaries, David (dah-VEED), the provincial capital of Chiriquí province, is the second- or third-largest city in Panama (pop. 140,000). It’s the lowland hub for visits to the highlands and other parts of western Panama and has the largest concentration of visitor services in the region.
David is a bustling, congested commerce and transportation center for Chiriquí province, which has the most productive farmland in the country. Every year the city hosts the Feria Internacional de David, an enormous agriculture and livestock fair that draws participants from around Latin America, Europe, and even Asia.
Few foreign visitors who aren’t into farming or business spend much time in the city. Though David was settled by the Spanish in 1602 and has a history of indigenous inhabitation far older than that, few traces of all that rich history remain, and most of the contemporary buildings and byways are utilitarian at best. Its lowland location is close, but not close enough, to the coast can also make it wiltingly hot and humid.
Those who spend much time on this side of the country, though, will likely have to spend at least one night here. Fortunately it has decent places to stay and some good eats, and even a few city-style diversions. It can offer a good change of pace after time spent in the boonies.
Although there has been local concern in the last couple of years about a rise in youth gangs, David is a pretty safe and mellow town. I’ve walked all over the place at all hours of the day and night and never felt threatened. Davideños are generally easygoing and cordial, and there just isn’t enough tourism here for scams and rip-offs to be a serious concern.
But David is a growing city, and visitors should keep their city smarts about them, particularly women traveling alone. Also, streets beyond the center of town are poorly lit and deserted at night.
Getting to David
David is the transportation hub for all of western Panama, with good connections to the highlands around Volcán Barú, Bocas del Toro, the Costa Rican border, and Panama City. It has a large bus terminal, a small but growing international airport, and outlets for major rental car agencies.
By Air: David’s airport (off Avenida 3 de Noviembre/Avenida 4 Este, on the way to Pedregal), formally known as Aeropuerto Internacional de David “Enrique Malek,” is less than five kilometers south of downtown. The airstrip is being lengthened with the idea of making the airport a true international hub. If all goes as planned, flights between David and the United States may be offered by the time you visit. This may affect the schedule of regional flights as well; be sure to check ahead of time.
The only domestic service is between David and Bocas del Toro (Isla Colón, about 20 minutes, US$60) and Panama City (about one hour, US$106). Those who want to fly between David and Changuinola now must catch a connecting flight on Isla Colón. For all other destinations within Panama, passengers must go through Panama City.
Aeroperlas (tel. 775-7779, www.aeroperlas.com) and Air Panama (tel. 316-9000, www.flyairpanama.com) service these routes. Air Panama also offers three weekly flights to and from San José, Costa Rica (US$106, 10:30 A.M. Mon., Wed., and Fri.).
By Bus: David’s busy Terminal de Transportes is east of downtown on Avenida Estudiante, which begins near the corner of Avenida 2 Este and Avenida Obaldía. Buses for destinations throughout Chiriquí province and the rest of the country leave from here.
There’s a left-luggage facility (6 a.m.–8 p.m. daily) near the Caldera bus stall. Travelers can leave backpacks here for US$0.50 a day, US$1 for larger suitcases.
There’s a stark Internet café (7 a.m.–6 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 7 a.m.–4 p.m. Sat., closed Sun.) in the bus terminal that offers Internet access for US$0.50 a hour. Those in need of visa-sized photos can have them taken here for US$1 for a half-dozen prints.
By Car: David is just south of the Interamericana. Depending on road conditions, it takes about 7–8 hours to drive the nearly 450 kilometers between David and Panama City at a reasonable clip with few stops. It takes a little over an hour to drive between David and the Costa Rican border crossing at Paso Canoa.
The road is a mostly well-maintained divided highway from Panama City to Santiago. From Santiago to David, it’s mostly a two-lane road, though it’s recently been repaired and now features the occasional passing lane.
The drive between David and Santiago is through lovely countryside, with little but farmland, blue sky, and, close to David, rolling hills that lead to fog-shrouded mountain ranges in the distance. Passengers should keep their eyes open for the occasional mammoth waterfall pouring down from those mountains. Drivers should keep their eyes on the road.
Consider stopping for a break east of David at the Ngöbe-Buglé artisan stands set up along the Interamericana near the town of Tolé.
There are few gas stations between Santiago and David; fill up before driving anywhere in western Panama.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition