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Panama Guide

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Saturday, May 26 2018 @ 11:37 PM EDT

Driving in Panama

Cars & TransportationDriving in Panama can be challenging for the newcomer. Understanding a few of the basics can make the transistion a little easier. Most of the driving rules and laws in Panama are very similar to those in the US. Drivers drive on the right side of the road, the traffic signals and most of the signs are identical and standard, so you won’t be in for many surprises in that respect.

But to the untrained eye and the inexperienced, driving in Panama City can appear to be utter chaos. Once you’ve been here for awhile and know what to expect, then eventually you can begin to observe patterns, and even predict and expect the actions of other drivers in traffic.

One of the biggest differences in driving here is the use of the horn. Your car was built with one, and what better way to communicate with you fellow motorists than through beeps, honks, and repeated blasts. If you listen carefully, you can tell the difference in the signals. A quick “tap” on the horn to the guy in front of you when the light turns green means “hey, wake up buddy and move out.” Taxi drivers use the “double-tap,” a quick “beep-beep” as they drive by a prosepctive passenger, and they’re really saying “do you need a ride?” If someone is in front of you and in the process of cutting you off, and you get really ticked, then there’s the “lay-on-the-horn-and blast-it-for-awhile-so-you-know-that-I’m-ticked…” The horn in your car is a vital piece of equipment, much more important than the turn signals, for example.

Another aspect of Panamanian driving is what I call the “magic hand.” The magic hand is used when you want to change lanes, but you need the guy beside or behind you to let you in. So, you roll down your window, and signal a “would you let me in?” Almost always they will let you go, basically because you asked for permission first. Since you were nice enough to ask, then go right ahead. If you had just barged in front of the guy, then you would have gotten the “lay-on-the-horn-and blast-it-for-awhile-so-you-know-that-I’m-ticked…” reply instead of a nice smile and a nod.

You have to understand that there’s a built in “lag-time” when it comes to traffic signals. If you punch it and take off as soon as the light turns green in your favor, don’t be surprised when you get t-boned by a bus at full speed. Everyone runs red lights down here. Green means go, yellow means hurry the hell up, and red means “I can still slip through…” You’ll see seasoned drivers slowly edge into an intersection once they’ve gotten the green light, and they will only go when they are sure that there is no one that’s going to barrel through the intersection at the last second.

Most accidents in the city are fender-benders, minor collisions at low speeds, and most are front to back, meaning that someone hit someone else from behind. If you look closely at the taxis, most of them are banged in from behind. This comes from “trolling” for passengers. A taxi will stop anytime, anywhere, and if you’re lucky they will put on their four-way blinkers when they pull over. If you hit someone from behind, it’s your fault, and the cab drivers know this. They have the right to stop anytime, anywhere, and they use it. So, heads up for that.

Then there’s the busses. In the US, there are laws that require school districts to buy new school busses every few years, mostly for insurance liability purposes. Most of those slightly used but perfectly fine busses are sold overseas or to groups or organizations that have different liability coverage. There are thousands of these ex-US school busses rolling all over Panama City, and they are called Diablo Rojos in Spanish, or Red Devils. The guys who drive these busses almost never own them, and they are just trying to make a living by gathering up the most passengers possible. They jocky for position, fighting between themselves, especially during rush hour, and you’ll see them pull over two or three lanes, just to pass one bus that’s stopped to load people, and fight to get ahead to get the first shot at the next bus stop. Most of that time they are not looking at you or your car.

The best rule of thumb is to just drive very defensively when you are first starting out. Don’t worry about slowing everyone else down, they will just hit you with the “lay-on-the-horn-and blast-it-for-awhile-so-you-know-that-I’m-ticked…” blast, but since you know it’s coming you can just ignore it. The best time to learn to drive in the city for rookies is Sunday morning and afternoon, when the traffic is lightest. You can scoot all over the city in just a couple of minutes, check out different routes and connecting streets, without the pressure of very heavy traffic.

Also, leave yourself additional and extra time to get where you’re going. The whole trick is finding ways to not get stressed out in traffic, and if you’re not in a hurry or rush to get where you’re going, then most of the pressure is off. Chances are, when you get where you want to go you’ll be early anyway (like a good gringo) and end up waiting for whatever Panamanian you were supposed to meet, and they will be late (as usual, like a good Panamanian…)

Always be alert for the unexpected. A guy pushing a cart down the middle of the road, pedestrians coming out from between two busses looking to cross the street, animals or other stuff in the road. Pot holes the size of Wisconsin. Stuff like that…

Ah, almost forgot about the motorcycles. Here, small little 125cc motorcycles are a standard, and they “white line” all the time, in heavy traffic. They will slide in between all the cars and get to the head of the line. Every now and then you’ll go to change lanes, and at the last second see a motorcycle coming hard through the gap. Then get knocked down and killed all the time, and for the most part would make any stunt driver proud. And, they are all over the place.

Another good trick is to take taxis to new places, if you don’t know exactly where something is, or don’t know if there will be parking. Every time I take a cab across town I learn a new little side street, how one street connects to the other, and ways to avoid traffic jams. Taxi drivers live in this traffic, and they usually know all the tricks. It’s usually worth a buck or two to avoid the stress.

Your drivers liscence from the US is good for 30 days if you are here on a tourist card. After that, you have to go down to the office where they issue drivers liscences and get a temporary permit that basically expires when your tourist card expires. If you’re going through the process of getting your resident visa as a pensionado, married to a Panamanian, reforestation, or whatever, you will be able to get some form of drivers liscence that will keep you legal. Driving without one is like a $50 fine or something, so it’s worth the time and hassle to get the permit.

Just a few highlights. Hope this helps.

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