Getting Around In Panama

The United States is an automobile-obsessed country. The main reasons for that are the place is HUGE and public transportation outside of major metropolitan areas is practically non-existent. You NEED to have a car or a truck in the U.S. or you’d be house-bound.

It’s a bit different here in Panama. Sure there are cars and trucks. In Panamá (they don’t use the word “City” when referring to the capitol and largest city in the country) it’s nearly non-stop grid lock 31. (That’s 24/7 combined). It’s nearly that bad here in David (dah VEED), too. But cars are expensive here, especially compared to the States and the prices for used cars are shocking. Gasoline and diesel fuel are expensive here, but automobile insurance is ridiculously cheap.

While the number of cars in the cities is staggering, not everyone owns a car. In my old neighborhood there are two dozen homes. Of those, only six have cars! And I believe that’s typical of most of Panama outside of the gringo havens of Boquete and Volcan here in Chiriquí.

So, how do people get around here? Lots of ways…

First of all, they WALK! And I mean everywhere! They don’t just walk around in town, they walk around in the countryside. The main road through the country is the Interamericana and as you drive or ride through it on one of the huge, air-conditioned buses you’ll see people walking along in the middle of nowhere. I mean there isn’t a house in sight for miles and no little roads branching off of the main road, either, yet you’ll see people walking along determined to get who knows where? The indigenousNgäbe-Buglé who live way up in the mountainous comarca often have to walk miles before they can get to a road where they can board a bus to get into David for supplies.

There are a lot of motorcycles and motors scooters around, but they don’t come close to how many people use bicycles as their main form of transportation. Over on Isla Colón, Bocas del Toro, there are probably more bicycles than cars, and in my old neighborhood nearly half of the homes that don’t have an automobile have at least one bike. The guy who mowed my lawn in La Barriada strapped his weed-whacker to his bicycle and rode over from Bugaba, about six miles away, to find work.

Boats are another form of transportation here. Over in the Bocas del Toro archipelago the only way you can get to Isla Colón is to take a water taxi…

water taxi_Fotor

They will not only take you from the mainland to the island, but they’ll whisk you around to the various islands in the archipelago or just from one place to another as you’d use a regular taxi.

There are also dugout canoes used over in Bocas…


Boats are a much-used method of transportation in Guna-Yala, the San Blas archipelago…


And deep into the rain-forest of the Darien the Emberá depend on dugouts and the rivers to get to their isolated villages and bring in tourist dollars. Some of these canoes are quite large…


The public transportation system in Panama is remarkable. Buses and taxis will take you pretty much anywhere you want or need to go. There are very few “chicken buses” here…old converted U.S. school buses. When I first moved to Panama they were phasing out the ubiquitous “Diablos Rojos” in Panamá for new, modern,  and totally unremarkable buses like you’d find in the States.


The “Diablos” had character, though, and I think much of the vibrancy of the city was lost when these were consigned to the dustbin of history…


There are still a few of these around, though not colorful like these. The buses running up to Gringolandia (Boquete) are still yellow and say “School Bus” on the front over the windshield, and the bus from David to Soloy in the Comarca are the same. The reason for the Boquete buses are that there are so many people up there they need the school buses for the capacity. The most common buses here, and are on most of the routes in the country are the air-conditioned, 30-seat Toyota Coasters



The school buses for the Comarca, though they might not have the volume of passengers to fill all the seats they sure need the room for when the indigenous come into David to do their shopping…


The buses that travel from David to Panamá are generally these…


Huge, air-conditioning so cold you could store meat, which may be how the company views its passengers, playing movies along the 7 hour trip (knock off an hour for the late night express bus). When I went to Panamá recently the fare, each way, with the Jubilado (old fart) discount was $12.65. The bus from my front door (literally my front door) into the terminal in David is a 60¢ fare. In town there’s no discount but it’s not a big deal since the fare is just 35¢.

Did you know it’s against the law to own a yellow car in Panama? The color yellow is reserved solely for taxis and they’re EVERYWHERE!

taxiMany of the taxis are pickup trucks like this one over in Bocas del Toro…I used the local ones here when I made my moves…

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Of course you can FLY from David to Panamá for about $100 each way and it only takes a bit more than an hour, but you don’t get to see a damned thing on the way.

So, that leaves one last way people get around in Panama…the horse. It’s STILL a mode of transportation in this country. When I lived in Potrerillos Arriba there was a guy a couple of houses down the dirt road who was a carpenter. In the morning he’d load his tool bags onto his horse and off he’d go to work. And just the other day this guy rode in to town to use the ATM at the Banco Nacional!




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One response to “Getting Around In Panama

  1. Great post Richard! Did not know you cannot have a yellow colored car. We did see a yellow Hummer in David a while back and I wondered if they made them paint there catr?

    BTW you can also fly into Bocas Del Toro and the San Blas now.
    Last we heard R/T to Bocas from David was $70.