NOTE: I am not an old Panama hand, merely a pair of fresh eyes linked to what is, perhaps at times, a relatively insightful mind. Since I don’t plan another Panama trip until next year at the earliest, I will depart the forum for awhile, but want to leave something constructive to help pay back you fine folks for your pre-trip advice. This article includes some of the tips you provided – I don’t claim to have come up with everything myself.
Many people warn you how scary it is to drive in Panama City, but nobody tells you why it’s scary or how to make it less so. I aim to fill that gap.
Navigating Panama City by car is very doable with the right mindset and preparation, but it's not for everyone. If the thought of plowing through L.A. or Chicago at rush hour puts a knot in your stomach, leave the roads in Panama's capital to those who roam them for a living and who know the customs and shortcuts.
Several factors make traffic throughout the country formidable:
1) Fast drivers.
2) Slow drivers.
3) Confusing road signs.
4) Nonexistent road signs.
5) Vehicles without tail lights.
6) A lack of easy places to right yourself if you start in the wrong direction. A mistaken turn might mean a 20-mile detour.
Intimidated yet? There's no need to be. If you have managed big-city jams elsewhere, you can do it here. My advice:
1) Keep your tranquilizers and Tylenol handy in the glove compartment. There will be no chance to pull over and retrieve them from the trunk.
2) Forget everything you learned in driver's ed. The best advice someone offered before my trip: Be aggressive. You may have to look *and* leap at the same time. That's not how we're taught, but in Panama City, you are probably safer if you are a bit *unsafe*.
Prepare for a test of wills. In stalled, bumper-to-bumper traffic, you want to move into the lane to your left. You creep forward with your turn signal on. A car already in that lane but a bit behind you matches your speed; he’s not gonna do you a favor. Too bad for him. You will get into that lane.
This is no place for courtesy. If you handle your car in the way that got you that safe-driving insurance discount, you may get rear-ended.
Turning onto a busy road? Show the patience you do in the States, and you will spend your entire vacation on that one patch of asphalt, enraging the natives lined up behind you. Spot any kind of a gap in the traffic, take a deep breath and floor it like hell.
The best piece of advice I ignored?
3) Get a GPS. You can borrow one from your car-rental agency. Not being a gadget guy, I sneer at folks who rely on them in the States, but sure longed for that little thingie in Panama.
To my knowledge, there are no detailed, printed street maps of Panama City. Google Maps and the Autoradad de Turismo site (http://sig.atp.gob.pa/) provide great maps online, but they probably work better on screen than in print.
I am unsure how a map would help, anyway, given the lack of road signs. Bumper-to-bumper traffic that doesn't budge for several minutes can frustrate you under the best of circumstances. The anxiety soars when you worry you might be pointed in the wrong direction – and may have to force your car into a turning lane to get into gridlock that faces the correct way. A GPS might solve this problem.
4) Retorno will help you. If you went left when you should have gone right, look for a green sign that says, "Retorno," found on busy four-lane roads like Avenida Diaz and Corridor Sur. A turning lane will branch off, usually to the left. That lets you reverse course. Next to your GPS, Retorno is your best friend in Panama City traffic.
5) Build into your schedule a couple of hours to get lost, at least until you gain some familiarity with traffic patterns. Conditions in Panama can confuse even the best drivers. If you win the traffic lottery and have a smooth ride to your destination, use your early arrival to explore a local market. You are probably in a place you've never seen before. There's plenty to poke around and do with the extra time.
6) Drive at night. This goes against everything you’ll read, which will warn of drunk drivers after dark (as if people only pop open a six-pack when the sun goes down). The real risks of nocturnal driving are the vehicles that lack working taillights. If you’re not attentive, you won't know they’re there until you hear the crunch of your fender on theirs. Also, night makes it tougher to see the rare highway signs, lit only by drivers' headlamps. But I gleefully accepted the tradeoffs to have a mellower trip on the truly open road, with traffic much thinned out from the daytime free-for-all.
7) Be cautious around bus stops. I bet more accidents happen here than at any other spot in Panama. You will share the road with all manner of public transportation and private vehicles which pull over into the temporary lanes that forms at shelters, everything from taxis to minibuses to the colorful Diablo Rojos (which, with their elaborate paintings and flashing neon, are school buses gone wild). The buses may hide a smaller vehicle that could dart into your lane as you approach. As you near the stop, move into the passing lane if possible.
8) Via Centenario is often as useless as nipples on a bull, at least as of this writing (April 2011). On paper it looks like an easy bypass of Panama City for those going between Corridor Norte (the four-lane Colon toll road) and the Pan American Highway (Interamericana) to the west. However, construction narrowed the road to two lanes – both going the same way, a direction that seemed to change every day or two. If you pick the right day, happy travels. If you pick the wrong day, bull's nipples. Don't count on that road until told differently.
9) To get from Tocumen airport across Panama City to the Puente de las Americas bridge and the Panamanian interior to the west: Take Corridor Sur (a toll road that skirts the southern edge of the city), cross the Avenida Balboa Viaducto and exit onto Avenida de los Martires. The bridge is a few kilometers up the road. If you see an Esso station on your left and a lot of greenery (Cerro Ancon) on your right, congratulations! You are going the right way. (Corrections are especially welcome here; I am going by memory and the map looks like a plate of spaghetti).
10) West of Panama City, the Interamericana becomes a pleasant highway to drive, but presents its own challenges. Between Panama City and Santiago (I didn’t venture west of there), the four-lane, divided road seems as smooth as many in the States. The 110-kph speed limit in rural areas allows drivers to cut loose a bit. Some of them treat the limit as merely a suggestion – and a silly one at that.
I believe you will encounter a much greater range of range of speeds than you do on similar roads in the U.S. On any American Interstate, you may have to endure Formula One wannabes that blow past you and weave in and out of traffic. Panama's leadfoots make ours look like Grandpa in a Model T. But match their pace, glance away and risk ramming into a tiny truck wheezing to climb a hill at a quarter of your speed.
The top limit can suddenly drop to half or less as you approach the numerous rural bus stops. Be as cautious around them as you should be around their Panama City counterparts.
11) When a driver in the oncoming lane flashes his bright lights at you on the Interamericana, slow down. He may be warning you of a police checkpoint ahead.
I wish I had known this before I reached Divisa, the junction of the Interamericana and the road to and from Chitre and Las Tablas. Cars inched past an officer posted in the center of the road, but he motioned for me to stop. He asked for my license and my passport and, pointing to his radar gun, indicated that I had been doing 86 kph in a 60 kph zone.
I am surprised I was going *that* slow.
One-hundred kilometers per hour translate into only 62 miles per hour. On roads of similar quality in the U.S., most drivers do 70-75 mph, where it is legal (or almost). I found it tough to keep my foot off the accelerator.
Sometimes, you might be able to frustrate an officer into walking away if you pretend not to understand Spanish. That wasn't going to work here. This policeman spoke enough English to tell me I must return to Santiago on Monday to pay a $100 fine.
I could pay him $50 now and be done with the matter. Other travelers had warned of policia on the take along the Interamericana, waiting to extract bribes from idiot Gringo leadfoots. I must have been the answer to his prayers. When I told him I had only $40, he agreed to accept that. What upset me most is that I probably could have gotten away with giving him a lot less.
On my next trip through the area, when an oncoming driver flashed his lights, my foot went to the brake. The same checkpoint yielded a different result. The officer (another one this time) held onto my passport and license in silence for about 15 seconds, as if grasping for something, anything with which to charge me. But he let me go.
Thank you, flashing-lights driver.
12) Insurance. How much you buy depends, to me, on your comfort level. The more nervous you feel about driving in Panama, the more you’ll want to load up on coverage. In order to rent a car in Panama, the law requires two types of insurance: the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), covering damage to the car, and Rental Liability Protection (RLP), to pay for third-party bodily injury and property-damage claims. Your credit card may provide a CDW *if* you use the card to pay for the rental. The optional policies take care of damage to the tires and windshield, provide roadside help if needed, decrease or cut out your deductible and boost your level of third-party coverage.
Without any first-person accounts that said, “This insurance saved my bacon” or “It didn’t do what it said it would – what a ripoff!,” I took only what was required. Many people and guidebooks advise you to buy the whole package. To me, there is no right or wrong answer. It depends on where you’re going (big cities or rural areas), and, as I said earlier – you and your personality.
Despite all the auto-related aggravations and panic attacks that occurred in Panama, I am glad I rented a car – my first experience with driving outside the U.S. and Canada. Before my trip, 95% of my worry went toward the perils of the Panamanian roads. Will I have an accident? Will I hurt someone? Hurt myself? How will I get from place to place in one of the world's worst places to drive? Those concerns carried over to the journey itself once I saw that the horror stories weren't far off.
Another downside: Driving insulated me from experiencing more of the lives of typical Panamanians. Bus travel is a great (if temporary) equalizer. Sure, when I went by bus in other countries, I would disembark and go to a nice hotel to check my stock quotes online while my seatmate might head for a shanty and wonder how to pay his bills, but for the hours we were together on the bus, we experienced the same thing. The more you want to mix with the locals, the less you’ll want a car.
Yet having an auto meant freedom and the ability to pack more activities into the trip. For me, that was the worthwhile bottom line.
13) Unlearn the Unlearning. The postscript I never expected to write: Two weeks after picking up my rental at Tocumen, I finally had a close call. Not on the chaotic calles of Panama City – I had already left the country – but on the laid-back byways of my own hometown. Still thinking “look and leap,” I nearly pulled into the path of another car.
What I said about forgetting everything you learned in driver’s ed: When you get back home, it may take you a day or two to revert to your old driving ways. You’re not in Panama City any more.
You no longer need to carry the Tylenol.