Getting Around in Panama City

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, one of the main ways that my wife and I were able to save money when moving to Panama was to go from owning two cars to owning none. Many ExPats that live in Panama City end up doing the same, either for cost, or because driving in Panama can be truly scary for an ExPat. Panama has a wide array of transportation options available to residents who don’t own a car, but getting around can be complicated to a new ExPat, particularly if you don’t speak Spanish. I will discuss the various transportation options, but there’s one thing you’ll need to know first.

Addresses? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Addresses 

One thing you’ll learn very quickly is that buildings in Panama do not have street addresses. You cannot simply say “take me to 28 Garcia Street,” as there is no such thing as street numbers here. Streets do have names, but even then, that will not often be that helpful. While most people will know the names of major streets (Via Brazil, Via Argentina, Transistmica, Calle Uruguay, Ave. Balboa, etc), they will have no idea if you tell them the name of your average side street. In fact, sometimes the names streets are known for are not even their real street names. For example, the street officially known as Ricardo J. Alfaro Blvd. is commonly known as Tumbamuerto. Tell a driver Tumbamuerto, and they’ll know where it is. Tell them Ricardo J Alfaro Blvd, and they likely won’t have a clue.

Confused yet? I was when I first came to Panama. Even now, while I know my way around a lot better, I still get lost in this city. So how does one find their way around in this city? By using neighborhood names and landmarks.

The first thing you should know about your destination is the name of the neighborhood that it is in. Any taxi or driver will know the name of all major neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods themselves are not that big. So if all you know is the neighborhood, you’ll get close. The next thing you need to know is the name of your destination. If it is a popular/well known enough destination, you won’t need anything more. Your driver will know where it is. This includes malls,well known hotels/buildings, and popular restaurants/clubs. If they’ve had to take someone there more than a couple of times, they will know where it is and how to get there. If you are trying to get to a lesser known location, you will need to be able to describe it by the street it’s on, or major landmark it’s near. Doing that, your driver should eventually be able to find their way. The more landmarks you know that are near your destination, the better chance a driver will have of finding it. Once they find the landmark, if you know where you are going, you can usually direct them from there.

So what are the way’s to get around here? The most common way for ExPats to get around is by Taxi. While dealing with taxicabs in Panama often make ExPats want to pull their hair out, they are usually the most cost and time effective way to get from point A to point B, especially if where you are going is not conveniently located along a bus route or the metro line. The process of taking a cab in Panama is unlike anything you will have seen if you are used to taking the cab in the US, Canada, or anywhere in Europe.

Taking a Taxi

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While cabs are everywhere on the street in Panama, the process of getting of a cab is more complicated than you would think. First, there are some basic things you need to know about the cabs in Panama: They are unmetered, they can and will choose not to take certain fares (this is technically illegal, but taxi drivers regularly do it anyways), and they will take multiple fairs in the same ride, so you could be riding with strangers.

It is usually best to have a general idea the direction of where you are going, because then you can go to the side of the road that would make a taxi more likely to pick you up. Since taxis are unmetered, they get paid by the location they are taking you, not the distance traveled or amount of time it takes them. Therefore a cab is less likely to take your ride if it involves them having to make a long and time consuming U-turn. So once you are on the proper side of the street, you hail a cab by sticking your arm out, and lightly flapping your hand up and down. If a cab is available, he will pull over to the side of the road and roll down his window. That’s where you’ll tell him the neighborhood that you are going to. If he wants to take you, he will nod his head and you get in. If he doesn’t want to take you, he will say “No,” and role up his window and drive on.

Once you get in, you tell him the location you are going. You will be able to tell from the look on his face whether he understands or not. If he doesn’t know the location, that’s when you start describing where it is near. “Cerca de” means near, “A lado de” means next to, “enfrente de” means across from, and “la misma calle de” means the same street as. Once he’s figured out where you’re going (most taxi drivers really do know the city well, and can find the location without too much help), he’ll let you know, and you’ll be on your way.

When hailing a taxi, don’t take the easy route and take a taxi that is parked outside a hotel/mall/popular ExPat destination. They are almost always insanely overpriced. A hotel cab will try to charge you $15 for a ride that a regular cab will charge you $3. Stay away from those at all costs. There are a few taxi stands that do not rip you off, but if you are thinking of taking one, always ask the price first.

Paying for Your Taxi Ride

This is another thing that should be simple, but paying for your trip is anything but. That’s because since taxis are not metered here, prices are also negotiable. There are technically rates that cab drivers are supposed to charge, but like the rule about not being able to turn down a fare, these rates exist purely in fantasy, not in reality. You can find the official rate chart here, but it is not followed.

To be honest, you are going to get ripped off on taxi fares when you first get to Panama. We call it getting “gringo’d.” Taxi drivers can spot a newbie from a mile away, and if they think you don’t really know how cheap cabs are in Panama, they will try to rip you off. I had a friend who when she first moved to Panama, was paying $10 for rides that should’ve cost $2 or $3. This will happen to the best of us, and takes some getting used to. But if you follow a few tips I have for you, you can get prevent getting ripped off most of the time.

The key to effectively dealing with taxi cabs is to never ask the driver the cost of the ride. When you ask him, you give him time to make up a fare that he thinks you are going to pay. Instead, at the end of the ride, as you are getting out of the car, just pay him the amount that you think the ride should cost. This sound’s crazy, but it almost always works. My wife and I do this, and it’s only a handful of times the driver has asked for more money, and it’s usually only about $0.50. However the driver will usually not challenge you, because he realizes that you know your stuff, and he can’t take advantage of you like you were a tourist. So how much should a cab ride cost?

Most ExPats can safely operate with the “$3 dollar rule.” The $3 dollar rule states that if you are taking a cab ride for one or two people, you can safely give the cab driver $3 for a ride within the city center, and he will almost never give you a problem. Sometimes you may be overpaying $0.50 to a dollar, but a lot of ExPats find this easier than negotiating over a few cents. I would define “center city” as Plaza Edison, El Camen, El Cangreco, Obarrio, El Dorado, San Francisco, Punta Pacifica, Bella Vista, La Cresta, Viejo Verantillo, Curundu, La Alameda, and any other areas  near these. Any ride you take leaving from one of these neighborhood to another one of these neighborhoods should be within the $2-$3 range. Albrook mall should also be $3 from most of these neighborhoods.

If you are going a little farther in the city, it can be a cost a little more. Casco Viejo can be $4-$5, unless your neighborhood is close. The Amador Causeway is usually about $5-$8, depending on how far down the causeway you are going. Other areas further away can be more expensive, sometimes significantly. Taxi drivers will often raise heavily raise fares to take you outside the normal zones. These scenarios are one time you should break my rule about not asking the price beforehand. If you are going somewhere out of the ordinary, make sure to negotiate a price with the cab driver before you get in the car.

Even following these steps, you may find times when cab drivers try to rip you off. Like many other things in Panama, this can lead to a negotiation. Don’t feel like you need to accept the cab drivers first offer. If the taxi driver says “cinco,” feel free to respond back “no senor, no es cinco, es tres!” You can usually negotiate the cab driver down to the correct rate, or at least closer. However, if a driver becomes belligerent or aggressive, the smart thing to do is just pay them what they asked for. Most taxi drivers are good people, but there are a few bad apples. We have not had any bad experiences ourselves, but I had a friend who actually got physically assaulted by a cab driver over a fare dispute. So if you run into this situation, particularly late at night. be smart and err on the side of safety.

A few other notes:  Cabs only accept cash, and usually don’t give change. So make sure to have exact change with you. When you move here, I recommend bringing with you at least a few hundred dollars in one dollar bills, along with some rolls of quarters. Also, taxi drivers charge more for additional passengers, rides on Sundays, holidays, and after 10PM. So if you get in a car with 4 passengers at 11pm on a holiday Sunday, expect to pay more than $3 for your ride.

The longer you are in Panama, the more comfortable you will get with handling the taxis. There is a learning curve for everyone. Even for my wife, who is Panamanian and fluent in Spanish, she still had a learning curve when she moved back to Panama from the US. So expect that. But the longer you’re here, the better you’ll do. You also may end up making your own list of reliable taxi drivers. If you have a driver who gives you good service, he will happily give you his phone number to call for a pick up. They usually only charge you a small fee to pick up at your house. You can also use Yellow Cab and Easy Taxi, who have dispatch services, who can send a car to your house as well. Their cabs are usually in better shape than cabs you get on the street. I have a friend who swears by them. 

You will figure the cabs here out. Just realize it takes time, and be patient as you adjust to the city.

In addition to cabs, there are several other ways to get around Panama City.

Uber

My wife and I in an Uber car taking part in a contest for a free weekend getaway. We won!

My wife and I in an Uber car taking part in a contest for a free weekend getaway. We won!

Uber is a new service in Panama that recently started in April. My wife and I use it sometimes for longer trips, to take us to destinations that cabs may not want to go, or just when we’re feeling lazy. For those of you who aren’t from a city that currently has Uber and aren’t familiar with it, Uber is a service that you request a car using an app on your smart phone. It uses your phone’s GPS to identify your location, and lets you know how far out the closest car is to you. When you request a car, you can track the driver to see where they are and follow them until they get to your location.

Uber has some definite advantages over taxis. First, they will come to you, so you don’t have to worry about finding one in the streets. All of their cars are new, comfortable, and guaranteed to have AC. The cabs here, by comparison, are often basically cardboard boxes on wheels. Some don’t even have a front end, let alone AC. Uber drivers also cannot reject a destination, and the rides are metered. So you don’t have to argue about a fair or worry about being ripped off. The ride bills automatically to your credit card, so you never need to carry cash. They also have bottled water in the car available to you at no charge.

When it comes to price, Uber rides are usually more expensive than cabs for shorter trips, but cheaper for longer trips. Uber charges you based on distance traveled and time spent in the ride. They charge a $1.75 base fare, plus $0.43 per kilometer and $0.20 per minute. They also have a $4 minimum fare. So on a short trip, one within the taxi cab $3 zone, you will end up paying more with Uber. Sometimes it may be $6 or $7 for a fare that would cost you $3 in a cab. However, on longer trips, Uber is usually a better deal, since it is metered, and cab drivers usually highly inflate longer trips. For example, when we go to the Miraflores Visitor Center at the Panama Canal, we always use Uber. The ride usually costs us about $10, while cab drivers usually want $15-$25. The same goes for trips even farther out. Uber has recently implemented flat rate fares for areas such as Gamboa anf Colon, so they are not as cheap as the once were. However, they are still usually a better deal than a taxi. For example, the flat rate to Colon is $80, while cabs can charge up to $150. However, be aware that while Uber will take you anywhere, they only pick up from where they have cars in range, which is usually just the city. So if you go somewhere far out, mostly likely will have to make other transportation arrangements to get back home.

Uber does have a few drawbacks, besides the potential higher price. While Uber attempts to find you based on your GPS location, it’s not always accurate, and drivers will often call you to confirm your location. That means to reliably use the service, you at least need to know enough Spanish to describe your location, as very few drivers speak English. Also, while I have never had a driver that I felt intentionally tried to rip me off, I have had a few incompetent ones who took us longer routes because they didn’t really know where they were going. Since the ride was metered, we were on the hook for their mistakes. After each ride, you are required to give drivers a 1-5 rating, so you can rate drivers accordingly if they mess up. There is also an option on the Uber wesbite to request a fare review for a poor ride. I’ve only done that once, but I got my ride fully refunded.

On the positive side, Uber loves their promotions, so you can sometimes get free/discounted rides when they are offering one. For starters, they give you a free $10 to use when you sign up if you enter someone’s promotional code. That person also gets $10 free once you take your first ride. If you haven’t signed up for Uber and would like to try it out, you can use my code 2ZH9A. It would help me out, and you’ll get $10 for free as well. In addition to the referral and sign up bonuses, Uber seems to always be sending out promotions. Make sure to read any emails they send. They’ve randomly sent us an additional $10 credit, they sent us a free ride anywhere for the 100th anniversary, and they had a whole week where you could request a special “Nissan Xtrail” that would take you anywhere you wanted for free. My wife and I have our own accounts, so we get double the promotions when they offer them.

So when should you use Uber over a traditional cab? My wife and I use it whenever we have a long or hard to get to trip, if we are going somewhere late at night, or any day we are feeling run down and want the convenience/comfort of the Uber service. It also works great for when we have English speaking relatives in town who are not staying with us. When my dad and siblings came to visit, we were more people than could fit in one car, and my dad and siblings were staying at a hotel. You can adjust your Uber pick up location to be anywhere, not just where you are at, so we would set the pickup location as their hotel, and call the driver as he was on his way to tell them where they were going. Our guests never had to worry about knowing anything about where they were going, and the experience was simple.

While we still use taxis most often, Uber is definitely a good alternative, especially if you don’t mind sometimes spending a little more.

UPDATE: Uber has now implemented surge pricing in Panama, where during times of high demand/low availability, the raise the rates (could be 1.5x, 2.0x the normal rate or more). There will be a little lightening symbol at the bottom of the screen when Uber is in surge pricing. During these times, it usually becomes cost prohibitive vs. taking taxis.

The Metro

My wife and I taking the Metro for the first time

My wife and I taking the Metro for the first time

Panama made international headlines this year when it became the first country in Central America to have an underground Metro system. The Metro officially opened in April, and while it has only been operational for a few months, so far the results have been very positive. The Metro is quick, clean and cheap. The cost per ride is only $0.35, making it one of the cheapest metros in the world. There is currently only one line of service on the Metro, but Line 2 has been commissioned and work is expected to start in September. I believe that line is supposed to be operational in 2017 or 2018.

We do not use the Metro often because there is not a stop close to where we live, but there are stops convenient to several ExPat areas. The line currently starts at Albrook and ends in Los Andes. It currently has 12 stops, with two more expected to open soon. They were supposed to be completed in August 2014, but I have not heard any news of them being operational yet. So for those with close access to a Metro station, this is definitely a great way to travel around Panama.

The Metro runs from 5am to 10pm daily, and the whole 13.7 km line takes about 23 minutes from end to end. That’s super fast for Panama, where rush hour traffic can cause you to get stuck for an hour or more trying to go some places. In order to use the Metro, you need to purchase a 3 in 1 Metro Card, which you can also use in the bus terminal, and on the buses. You can find the metro route here. You can also learn more about the Metro by visiting the official website.

Buses

Panama City has a robust bus system that can also be used to get around the city. There are two type of buses you will commonly see around Panama City. The first are the new, modern, Metro Buses. These buses are air conditioned, and are similar to buses you would find in major cities in the US. The other type of buses are called “Diablo Rojos (Red Devils).” These buses are converted school buses that are owned by individuals and painted with all sorts of crazy colors and designs. The government has been trying to phase them out and replace them with the Metro Buses, but they are still fairly common. Both types of buses cost $.25. You can use change in the Diablo Rojos, but you must use a Metro Card to use the Metro Buses.

I’ve only had experience with the Metro Buses. They are a comfortable ride, and there are a lot of routes that can take most people where they need to go. The destination of the buses flash on the front of the bus. You will find that many buses go to Albrook, which is the central bus terminal. This is where people from outside the city transfer into city buses to travel within the city. You can take a bus from the Albrook Terminal to anywhere in the country, usually for only a few dollars. There is even a bus that goes to Costa Rica, which some ExPats take to make “border runs” to renew their tourist visas.

While the buses in Panama are generally safe, property crime does sometimes occur. If you decide to ride the bus, I would recommend that you not carry much cash/valuables with you, just as a precaution.

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10 Comments

  1. Are you taking requests for future articles? 🙂 Here’s a few I’d love to see:

    – food – what food changes have you made, do you eat the same way you did in the USA, what new foods have you found, what is the restaurant experience like, do you have to watch what you eat for fear of getting sick, did you gain/lose weight when you first got there, etc.
    – weather – what’s it like, when, how do you tolerate heat/humidity/unpleasant weather, what clothes do you wear to best accommodate weather, are you ever cold, etc
    – weekend getaways – if you live in the city, do you get outta “dodge” for weekends? What do you do?
    – the canal – the best way to experience it, tips for when to go, how to go, etc
    – visitors – what do you do with visitors, what do they like, what are the best places to take them

    • Allison – funny you should mention that! I’m actually working on tomorrow’s article now, which is about things to do in Panama city. It will contain a lot of places to take your visitors, and focus heavily on the canal. We are also planning to do write ups anytime we take a trip. If all goes according to plan, we should be visiting the Gamboa Rainforest this weekend and I’ll have a post up on it next week.

      I really like the food idea. I already have some articles planned about restaurants here (both a cheap eating and a nice eating guide), but I should do one about local foods that can be bought in the supermarket. My wife and I eat a lot of them.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Just a couple of additional notes on the buses. Firstly, although “local” buses are 25c, any route to the suburbs which uses either of the ‘corredors’ (tolled motorways/freeways) will charge $1.25 (though you can alight and board another bus without any additional charge if you do it within (I think) 30 minutes). During rush hours, the metro buses are extremely overcrowded, and the sheer weight of traffic makes the journeys extremely slow. Best bet is to board at the original departure point if you want a seat, though I did find that after an hour and a half (the usual commute from Don Bosco to Paitilla) my arse was extremely painful from the un-upholstered, hard plastic seats! On the longer-distance routes, you should also be aware that the terminal at Albrook makes an additional charge (used to be 10c, think it is now 25c) to get through the turnstile to actually board the bus that you have already paid for!

  3. I’ve been using metro buses to get to and from work for more than a year now, and never seen or heard any evidence of ‘property crimes’ – in fact I’ve been surprised to see so many people with their expensive smartphones and tablets out for the duration of the trip. Not to say it never happens but I think it must be rare.
    Are you sure about the Diablo Rojo fare? I’ve only used one once in town, from one end of Avenida Balboa to the other, and they insisted I pay 50c!
    Finally – the question of taxis and safety. At work the safety guidance is never to hail a cab on the street, as there have been instances of dodgy taxi drivers taking passengers to quiet areas and robbing them. Being doubtful as to whether I wanted to follow this advice I asked around other expats I met, and I got two examples of such robberies happening. We are told only to take cabs that you order, which means you have to get some cab driver phone numbers from somewhere.

    • My wife takes the bus every day home from work, and has never had any problems. But she has had reports from several Panamanian friends and coworkers of this type of crime happening on the buses, so that’s why I mentioned it.

      As far as the taxis, we’ve been hailing them from the street since the day we got here and have never had anything close to a problem. Occasionally we’ll have a driver who tries to charge us an extra couple of bucks, or one who drives like a madman, but by and large we’ve had really good experience with taxi drivers. I have heard of the type of things you are mentioning happen before, but I think they’re probably rarer than the bus incidents. The only times we’re hesitant to hail a cab is late at night, then we’ll take Uber. But during the day, the only thing we occasionally feel unsafe about is the driving.

  4. The MetroBus web site and routes are at http://www.mibus.com.pa/rutas .

    The online route maps are not very good – they don’t show what streets they travel on, nor what the main cross streets are. When I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, I bought 2 bus books that had detailed route maps in them. They also had the morning and evening start and end times, and also how often each bus ran.

    Some of the book stores sold them, as well as the three busiest Metro train stations. They also sold a detailed system map that showed all the bus routes, including what streets they ran on, and the transfer points to other bus lines.

    Has anyone seen any bus books or system maps like what I described above for Panama City? I’m planning to move there in the near future.

  5. Nope I have never seen such a bus map in panama only what you saw on their site and a few month ago an aticle in a local paper explaining some sighlty new buses routesthat I should have kept….

  6. Would you suggest an Uber or a taxi for a ride from the airport? I imagine airport taxis really take people for a ride based on what you wrote.

    • If you have a Panamaian phone number, than UberX is the best bet. However the airport cabs are pretty good. There is a window right when you leave customs. Most places in the city are $30 from the airport.

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