Navigating a New Country: Getting Around Panama

Leia Schultz is a student at Hofstra University and an ISA Featured Blogger. Leia is currently studying abroad with ISA in Panama City, Panama.

Typical Taxi in Panama

I’ll be the first to admit it: I absolutely love to drive.  I could spend hours cruising around in my candy-apple red Hyundai Elantra, enjoying the feel of the ride and the focus of controlling the vehicle.  Of course I always opt to take the scenic route, just to have that extra time behind the wheel.  When I came to Panama to study abroad, you can imagine how much I missed having the ability to be the driver and know how I would be getting from Point A to Point B.

Learning about how to get around in Panama proved to be quite interesting and quite stressful.  All of Panama seems to be undergoing construction, which adds a further degree of difficulty in the process of getting anywhere.  The purpose of the construction is actually to improve the matter, as a new metro system is being built throughout the nation.  Until that is finished, however, I expect traffic jams, near collisions and a symphony of horn honks whenever I travel.

I have a few options to get around here, including a couple different bus systems or taking a taxi.  The traditional national buses are called Diablos Rojos (Red Devils) and are in fact old American school buses that have been wildly painted and are now driven rather recklessly throughout Panama.  Usually the driver won’t depart from the station unless the Diablo is filled to capacity and its aisles are filled with people standing.  Before you ask, no, these don’t have air conditioning, and so yes, they get stuffy.  The Diablo’s destination is painted across its front windshield, and a man hangs out of the door yelling it as well.  It only costs $.25 to ride one-way anywhere on a Diablo making it a cost efficient way to travel.

The modern public transportation system is a fleet of new Metrobuses, sleek orange and white (air-conditioned) beasts of the roads, but their use is still developing.  I was overwhelmed initially trying to navigate the huge bustling bus terminal, and as of yet there are no set time schedules for the Metrobus drivers to follow.  I learned that in order to catch the right Metrobus, you have to know where to stand in the terminal, and as a Metrobus arrives its route will flash across its front, as its driver only knows moments before what route to take.  These buses tend to become quite packed as well, so be prepared to get cozy with your fellow riders.

I’ve found that the most timely and efficient (albeit a bit more expensive) way to travel in Panama is by taxi.  There are taxis everywhere here, so hailing one doesn’t usually take too long.  It’s a good idea to negotiate and agree on what to pay the taxi driver before hopping in.   Although taking a taxi costs more than a bus, the fare is affordable, and if you don’t like the price the driver is asking then it’s easy enough to find another taxi.

After being in Panama for over three months, I feel confident in knowing how to get around to where I need to be.  When I first arrived and was confronted with the daunting task of figuring out which bus to take, I remember thinking to myself, If I can work this out I will be able to navigate any system of public transportation anywhere!  I am happy to say that, for the most part, I feel comfortable getting around Panama.  Learning how to ride the Diablo Rojos, Metrobuses and taxis has been a challenging part of acclimating to this country, but I feel so rewarded by the fact that after dealing with Panama’s transportation system I know I can handle adapting to any system, anywhere!

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