For any traveler visiting an unfamiliar city, the logistics of transportation can often be a headache, and more frequently than not, a necessity that is easily forgotten until the last moment. Panama City in particular poses an interesting challenge for newcomers who may be unfamiliar with the city’s chaotic jungle of highways, byways, one-way streets, and maniacal drivers.
While Panama City is in the process of aggressively tackling a subterranean metro project, as of mid-2012, public transportation is limited entirely to a vast network of both public and privately-owned and -operated buses. Since I typically only spend a few days at a time in Panama City, I have not invested much time in attempting to understand how in the world their crazy bus system works. When I say crazy, I don’t just mean chaotic – these buses actually look crazy.
Covered in murals depicting everything from Jesus to Bugs Bunny to Midwestern farmland, a fleet of privately-owned buses endearingly nicknamed “Red Devils (Diablos Rojos”) cruise around the city, mixing their lurid colors into the other traffic. At any given moment there are hundreds of buses traversing the city – yet in all the time I’ve spent in Panama, I have never seen a map of bus routes (formal or informal) or a clearly-labeled bus stop. Looking to the locals doesn’t provide much comfort, either.
The most common behavior I’ve observed of Panama City bus-riders is that they will actually hail a bus as it goes barreling down the road – and once they’ve boarded, neither the other passengers nor the driver seems to mind if they choose to ride home hanging halfway out the door while cruising at 40 mph.
Like a secret family recipe passed down through generations, hailing one of these Diablos Rojos seems to involve a level of innately-Panamanian skill that I, as an outsider, will most likely never achieve. However, there’s still a saving grace for us foreign visitors: the international symbol of personal transportation, the yellow taxi cab!
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but the typical taxi experience goes something like this: hail cab, get in cab, give driver destination, arrive at destination, pay. It’s a mutually-beneficial exchange for both parties. Well, such is not the case in la Cuidad de Panama. Hailing a cab in the city often goes something more along the lines of this: hail cab; driver will crack his window about 4 inches; remain on the curb and quickly shout your destination at said cab; cab driver will either give a smug nod, roll up window and wait, or simply look away, roll up window, and drive off.
If you are lucky enough to get the former response, hustle yourself into the cab before your ever-generous driver changes his mind.
Yes folks, cab drivers in Panama City must first approve of your destination prior to even letting you enter their cab. If you are a jaded city-dweller like myself and not accustomed to this local practice, your first experience with rejection may be a tad unnerving. How dare this cabbie refuse to drive me to the mall! I am a paying customer! But such is life in Panama City.
Once you find yourself a friendly cabbie willing to give you a lift, he will most likely extend his generosity to others as well, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing a cab with 1-3 strangers who happen to be heading to a destination near yours. If you’re not in the mood to share, most cab drivers will accept a few extra dollars in exchange for a private ride. Considering an average trip runs $5 or less (assuming you are traveling between common landmark destinations within the city), an extra dollar or two isn’t a steep price to pay if you prefer the extra security. On the flip side, if a friendly driver invites you to be the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th rider in his carpool, use your discretion. As a young lady traveling alone, I tend to decline these generous offers and wait until I can score a private chauffeur.
Panama City is full of diverse neighborhoods, urban jungles, historic ruins, and impressive architecture. It’s a capital city begging to be traversed by the urban explorer. So whether you’re a careful planner or an impulsive adventurer, don’t let Panama City’s spiderweb of city streets and idiosyncratic transportation deter you from experiencing the best of its offerings. While your first taste of rejection may be a little disheartening, a unique sense of achievement awaits the traveler who successfully masters the art of scoring a ride in Panama City. Plus, you’ll have some great stories to bring home.
Panama City – keeping egos in check, one cab at a time.