Flashback to being 16 and getting behind the wheel for the first time. I still remember the thrilling feeling of hitting the accelerator and the look of terror on my mother’s face as we jetted off into a busy intersection, wheels screeching and my adrenaline pumping. It was a moment of complete bliss.
At the age of 24, I found myself having déjà vu as I set off on my first drive in a foreign country. I was a little apprehensive about navigating the busy streets of Panama, and besides the dizzying traffic, there was another potential hazard: it was also my first time driving a manual transmission. Thankfully, Panamanians drive on the same side of the road, because I’m not sure I could have handled an additional complication.
My first couple times on the road had their ups and downs – I certainly wasn’t used to the frequent blare of horns and darting, speed-loving mopeds, but within a week I was comfortably cruising around, oblivious to the beeps and honks, and blending into the chaotic dance that is Panamanian rush-hour traffic.
For the most part, the driving experience in Panama City is much like driving in any big city in North America. Rush hour requires patience and lots of caution, and you have to maintain an acute eye for darting pedestrians.
Something that surprised me, however, is the ubiquitous returno, or legal U-turn in Panama. They are everywhere, and super helpful if you have a tendency to get lost. For North American drivers well-practiced in scanning for nearby police before pulling a not-so-legal “Uey,” it’s pretty liberating to know you can about-face almost anytime you’d like.
Another slight difference is that, due to the rapid growth of the Panamanian economy and infrastructure, you will often find your most-used roads under construction. While Panama City is a pretty direct and easy-to-navigate place to drive, it takes a while to learn the alternate routes and side streets to avoid construction and traffic hot spots. This also puts a damper on the effectiveness of GPS systems, as many Panamanian streets have undergone a name change or expansion recently.
When hitting the open road, you will most likely notice some unconventional vehicles – trucks filled with cattle or trailing produce from their over-stuffed carriage, cars that wouldn’t have passed EPA inspection 10 years ago, and of course, the famed city buses, the Diablo Rojos. Try to keep your eyes on the road, or at least allow them to pass before you get an eyeful, because these vehicles have a questionable grasp on the driver’s safety manual.
If you’re planning a week-long trip to Panama and hoping to drive, I think your best bet would be to hire a taxi on your first day to give you a tour of the city and main roads. This will give you a jumpstart when you venture off on your own, and provide you with some points of reference in case you get lost! This is also probably a good idea for recent arrivals making the move to Panama, and at an affordable cost –– most rides within the city will cost you less than $5.
Driving in Panama is definitely something to ease into. Don’t feel like you need to jump in right away, especially during times of high traffic. Wear your seatbelt, ready yourself to be on the receiving end of a few honks, and get ready for an adrenaline rush!