For my first 7 months of living in Panama, I did everything I could to avoid driving. Just being a passenger on the roads was scary enough, and I didn’t want to take the responsibility on of being a person who was responsible for making split second decisions of how to navigate the mad-house that is Panama driving. My wife, who is Panamanian, had no more of a desire to drive than I did. Panama City makes it incredibly easy to avoid needing a car, and you can get around everywhere you need to go for less than owning a car would cost you. One of the early articles on this blog, Getting Around in Panama City, talked about ways to navigate the city without owning a car. In the past, when we had went outside the city, we had always went with someone who had a car. However, when we went to visit El Valle de Anton for my wife’s birthday, I knew that my days of car free driving were going to have to come to an end.
Renting a Car
Before we could drive, we needed to get ourselves a car. There are plenty of car rental places in Panama City, so it wasn’t challenging to find a place. In fact, there was a Hertz right down the street from where we live, so I was able to walk and pick up a car. Base rates for rental cars in Panama are cheap. I think our car was about $23 per day, and I know that in other places you can get it cheaper (we sacrificed price hunting for convenience). Where rental car companies get you here is on insurance. Unless you have insurance through your credit card (some credit card companies offer this as a perk, so check with them), the rental companies will usually make you pick up a fairly comprehensive insurance package against liability and damage. This can often cost more than the price of the rental. Sometimes if you put down a high deposit with them, they will let you take the car without insurance. But these deposits can run several thousand dollars, and if some crazy Panamanian driver hits you, you’re out all of your money. I was more than happy to pay for the insurance. I even took all of the optional coverage they offered. If they had given me the option to get my car cased in a giant layer of rubber, I would’ve happily paid that too. The extra money was worth the peace of mind of knowing I would be financially covered. It ended up costing us about $120 for a two day rental.
Driving in Panama City
The first thing I did with the car was take it up the street and park it in my apartment complex’s garage so we could load in the luggage. This should’ve been easy, right? Well in Panama, nothing is easy. Parking that car in my designated spot in the garage is one of the hardest parking jobs I’ve ever had to do. Of course the spots are tiny, especially by American standards, and the person with the spot next to me parked their car with the wheels over the line making an incredibly tight fit between the car and the big cement pillar on the other side of my space. It took about 10 minutes, but I managed to park the car without needing to take advantage of my new fancy insurance policy.
Our first stop on our journey to El Valle was to drop our cat off at the vet so he could be boarded (don’t ask why we couldn’t just leave the cat at home. Long story). This required us driving deeper into Panama City than we would have had to otherwise. This wasn’t that bad, as the only main road we needed to take to get to the vet was Via Brazil. For those unfamiliar with Via Brazil, it is a main road that cuts through a lot of the city, and in certain parts, is basically a parking lot at all hours of the day. This is especially true right by my house, in the direction of the road that heads towards Obarrio and MultiPlaza (from Transmistica/Tumba Muerto). This actually made driving less scary, as I just stayed in my lane, moving at 5km/hour until I reached my turn.
Once we dropped the cat off, we had to get out of the city on the way to the interior. This was a little more daunting a task. It didn’t help that it was raining, but driving through the city was just about as crazy as I pictured it in my head, even on a Saturday where there was supposedly less traffic (Panama City still sees a ton of weekend traffic, especially on Saturdays). I think the biggest challenge of driving in Panama is that there is no method to the madness. In some places like New York City, even thought drivers were more aggressive than most places, there seemed to be a logic to all of it. In Panama, it seems like anything goes, and people just drive to the beat of their own drums. This is especially true when people go through one of Panama’s many roundabout circles. Below is a diagram about how the traffic flow in these roundabouts are “supposed” to work.
The cars that have “bien” written next to them are using the correct routes, while the cars that have “mal” written next to them are using the wrong routes. As you can imagine, the “mal” routes are the ones most heavily used through these roundabouts. Especially common is the route where drivers forget they are entering a circle, and just cut straight across as if they are driving on a street without a roundabout, usually causing several cars to have to swerve with near-miss collisions to get out of the way. I managed to survive the circle of deaths with minimal scares.
Another challenge in Panama City is that everyone seems to think that “driving lanes” are also a synonym for “parking spaces.” Taxi cabs are particularly notorious offenders of this. It is not uncommon to experience for a car to be parked in one of the driving lanes. And I don’t just mean waiting there for a couple of seconds while they drop someone off. I mean parked, as in not moving and no plans to move anytime soon. Sometimes the drivers aren’t even in the car. We experienced quite a few of these during our journey out of the city. You may be thinking “okay, that’s not so bad, just stop and somebody will let you into the other lane.” But that’s not how we roll in Panama.
Letting someone into your lane is a foreign concept for most Panamanians. The second they see you merge into their lane, they’ll do everything to possible to keep you from getting in front of them. On a rare occasion you’ll find a driver that is kind enough to slow down and let you go ahead of them. Much more often, someone will speed up and violently honk their horn at you to let you know that there is no way they are letting you into their lane. In fact, horn honking is so common on the Panama streets, you would think that drivers needed to honk their horn every 60 seconds, or their car would explode or something. You will just have to wait your turn patiently until you have some sort of break from the car flow, and put your pedal to the gas and dart into the next lane. This was especially nerve racking for us when trying to merge into different roads. The route of of the city is theoretically only one road (you don’t ever have to turn when you get on Transmistica), but there are so many different merges onto different sections of the road that it is definitely still intimidating. This was probably the closest to death we felt on our drive.
Driving in the Countryside
Once you cross the bridge and get out of the city, the drive does get considerably easier. There is only one main road outside of the city that cuts through the entire country, so all you have to do pretty much is stay straight on it. That doesn’t mean that driving on the Carretera Americana isn’t without it’s challenges. The road changes types a lot along the way. It will be a wide highway in one section, and a narrow road cutting through the middle of towns in other sections. You’ll also find sections that are very hilly and curvy, where you are basically driving up and down the side of a mountain. In these sections, you need to watch out for the trucks and buses that will come barreling around corners with their wheels fully over the divider and in your lane. Make sure to stay as far right as you can in your lane so that you can avoid them. The road to El Valle (when you get off the highway, especially had this issue. It is only one lane in each direction, and there were plenty of times that I was driving half in the shoulder of the highway to avoid a truck coming down the mountain.
When I got to El Valle, it was definitely a more peaceful, slower form of driving. But since it’s Panama, it too had it’s quirks. Particularly, it was a complete change in who ruled the road from Panama City. In the city, the road is the domain of the cars, and if you are a pedestrian, you better wait your turn if you don’t want to end up as roadkill. But in El Valle, bikes and pedestrians ruled the road. People biked everywhere, and would often bike in the middle of the road at a leisurely pace, and would make absolutely no effort to move if a car was coming up behind them. If you are in a car, you are expected to wait until the lane going the opposite direction is free, and then pass the bikers that way. People would also just walk in the middle of the road with no concerns for cars coming at them, and just expect you to get out of the way. This was a nice change from the city, but still presented it’s own challenges. Still, there’s only so much you have to worry about when driving at 10km per hour.
On the way back to the city, I got to experience the “fun” of Panama Sunday afternoon returning to city traffic. And by fun, I mean the absolute horror. This is the big problem with Panama’s “one road.” When things are good, it works fine, but if there is ever any issue (which is often), you have absolutely no alternative to get back to the city besides sitting and waiting. I’ve been told there is always a lot of traffic coming back from the city on Sundays, but my trip had it worsened by a bad crash by the Westland Mall, and that that Sunday was the end of a week long school holiday (Panama’s holiday culture is going to be a topic in a future blog post). So what should have been a two hour drive, ended up taking four. By the time I got home, I was definitely ready for my driving time in Panama to be over.
What I Learned (Did I Learn Anything?)
So what did I learn from my trip? That driving in Panama is as crazy as I imagined it, and I am definitely happy to be living a car free life. I imagine if I have to get a car one day, I’ll eventually get used to the driving (plenty of expats do drive, and they seem to be doing okay), but it is not something I am looking forward to. Renting a car for an occasional trip out of the city is something I will do from time to time, but other than that, it’s all cabs, buses, Uber, and the metro for me.
To read more about my trip to El Valle de Anton in my vacation guide.