Driving in Panama — A True Adventure

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Nine months ago when I first moved here, I drove like an American.  I remember coming to a complete stop at an intersection near my home and immediately being honked at by the car behind me.  At the time, my reaction was “What the heck!?  Why are they honking?”  Now I have no reaction.  If I reacted every time a car honked at me on the road, I would be a trembling mess.
When Nikki Giovanni said love is the only true adventure, she’d obviously never driven in Panama.  For sure, driving in Panama is an *adventure* — and I use this word as a euphemism for *disaster.*  Between the other drivers, roads under construction, closed avenues, and rubbernecking past the daily car accident, navigating city streets feels like conquering a chaotic obstacle course.  Breaking, swerving and merging all seem to occur simultaneously.  Dodging street vendors and hefty potholes takes special attention.  So does driving behind someone distracted by txting or talking carelessly on the phone with little regard to the road you’re both sharing.
Chalk that up to a regular day.  Heaven forbid you’re caught in special circumstances like a seasonal flooding or that you venture out during “quincena” — one of the two major paydays each month.  Then you might as well surrender all expectations, give up hope in trying to arrive at your destination on time, and carefully start calling to apologize for being late.  Don’t worry.  “Tranque” as an excuse, although totally overused, is still absolutely acceptable.  Even the best planners — myself included —  get thrown off-schedule by unexpected road closings or the world’s worst gridlock.

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Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad drivers here.  Even worse — a number of them are employed as city bus drivers.  In my experience, they are the most dangerous of all.  Unlike little, yellow, tin can taxis, buses are huge and carry lots of people.  But this doesn’t hinder their hack handlers from squeezing, merging and speeding in a way that both manipulates and ignores the traffic around them.  Do not play offense with them; they are bigger and stronger than you and they will win.
If you’re not much of a driver in the States, it’s safe to say you’ll hate driving here.  My advice to you: get a chauffeur.  If you have the means, I highly recommend it.  Personally, I do not have the means; plus, my personality isn’t that of one to be driven.  I like the challenge of finding my way around, getting through, getting away with things, getting by.  If you prefer to drive yourself like I do, then prepare to be surprised.  Every single day I see another driver do something shocking I’ve never seen before.  The day I feel totally confident in anticipating Panamanian driving behavior will be the same day I create my own accident.
And, trust me, accidents do happen.  My brother was in a serious wreck last month and spent several days in the hospital.  About one week ago, a friend of a friend was killed while driving his scooter.  It’s no exaggeration when I say driving in Panama is a matter of life and death.  The result is that I’ve actually slowed down, chilled out and heightened my awareness.  I strive to keep calm and carry on.  When someone cuts me off, I remember that arriving one second sooner is not more important than arriving safely.  In the meantime, I’m searching for a middle finger bobble head.  This will help me keep both hands on the wheel rather than having to lower my window to flip the bird.  Safety first!
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6 responses »

  1. The first time we arrived in Panama and we were driving into the city in a van, my wife kept screaming because of the traffic. I finally had to tell her to please not scream because it was causing the driver to drive even more like a Panamanian, the more she screamed, the worse he drove! Stop signs do not mean stop, they just mean the first to the intersection goes through first.
    Double yellow lines do not mean do not pass, just pass at a much higher speed because you have less distance to do so. And on and on!

  2. We knew we couldn’t live in Panama City and deal with that on a daily basis. We’re in David and even I can manage here. Good luck in the big city! Hopefully when they get the subway finished it will help a bit.

  3. Laura, I luv your pic of the Diablo Rojo bus! Those are a crazy but cheap form of transportation for the poor locals in PTY, and definitely works of art and cultural icons! Too bad the Panamanian gov has decided to ban them. My friends have told me that the new gov busses don’t provide any better service and usually are more expensive for the poor riders. They also told me that some of the old Diablo Rojo buses are being dismantled and the painted doors and sides are being sold as works of art! I definitely gotta check that out next time I’m in PTY! Maybe I’ll get some of that very cool art to hang on my wall here in California!

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