Driving In Panama 101
Updated: Apr 12, 2019
First Time Driving In Panama City…
It’s easy to whine about Panama. Whine about the heat. Whine about traffic and cars cutting you off on the road. Whine about slow drivers, rude drivers, and inconsiderate drivers. It’s easy, in moments of cynicism, to think the worst of Panama, how everything is just falling apart, how hopeless and desperate it has all become.
It’s easy to sit in your car, with the air conditioner beaming on your face, staring at stalled cars on the right, on the left, in front, and behind you and get angry at the garbage heap on the side of the road. And wonder just how long did it take to graffiti the bus (locally known as diablo rojo) on your left, then hate on this obnoxious motorbike guy with his leather jackets in 90 degrees heat, literally a foot away from hitting your car bumper. It’s easy to sit and think this city has totally gone to the hounds. Well… until you remember how dysfunctional and chaotic traffic situations in other countries can get, then realize, this is heaven. There are better reasons why thousands of other expats, and myself are clinging on here.
Driving in Panama has a sense of adrenaline rush, pressure, it is a fight for every road space you can get especially during the rush hour. Sometimes it evokes very strong feelings. But it will take a moment to get used to it, before it gets better, and then it will be part your daily life.
Some advice for new drivers in Panama to keep it local, bearing in mind distance here is measured in kilometers, not miles, the culture, and Panamanians road courtesy.
At all time while driving, the Panamanian traffic laws, require you to have your driving license, passport or proof of residency, proof of insurance, and proof of vehicle registration. In the case the car is rented you need the contract and necessarily documents from the hiring company. Sometimes, the police will ask for an insurance claim form, have your copy just in case.
Every car on the road in Panama, is required by law to have a third party insurance policy. Generally this is for protection against the claims of other people, but not you. You will be responsible for your own damages. For a peace of mind, check out other comprehensive policies available, to avoid taking on such responsibilities.
Safety On The Roads
Like many countries, it is illegal to use you mobile phone while driving. Drunk driving is fairly common especially over the weekends and Friday nights. Watch out for drunk drivers trying to race on the roads in the night. It is illegal. Occasionally, and during festivities, you will encounter police with breathalyzers at different road points.
Road Marks And Signs
Not all roads are marked, many traffic signs are missing, and speed limits are rarely shown. Where they are indicated, more often than not they will be ignored. Be cautious, and follow your best instincts.
A left blinker means you’re about to turn left, in Panama many drivers will not indicate, and until you are a foot away, you will then realize the driver is actually turning. Some drivers—especially taxi drivers—will stick their arm out of the window to indicate they are about to turn, stop, or do something… be on the lookout. After certain level of driving experience in Panama, you will develop natural instincts to make better judgements.
Intersections and pedestrian crossing.
The first days it will be challenging, even chaotic at the roundabouts… repeated honks, and sometimes beeps will go off very frequently. Once you observe the pattern and calculate other drivers’ actions, it will be easier. Always keep right and stop to let the pedestrians cross the roads. Look out for pedestrians crossing from between cars or alighting from buses, then crossing the road. And keep in mind to slow down near a bus stop.
Motorcycles will slide in out of nowhere, you will only spot them when they are in front, or on the side of your car. In Panama a guy pushing a cart in the middle of the road is treated as a motorist.
Several intersections have working traffic lights. Running the red lights or not stopping at all at the traffic lights is not uncommon. On Sundays, the lights do not work in most intersections, and when they do, most drivers will not follow the rules. In this case, the driver on you right side will always have first priority.
A common joke here in Panama that “the horn is the most important part of your car after the breaks” because, when the green lights go on, simultaneous beeps will go off—usually to the driver at the front—as a sign it’s time to go… You will need your horn, it’s a Panama-must-have at the traffic rights.
Depending on the app you use, maps could vary. Some apps still have the old Panama maps, where the roads were closed or changed years ago. Waze has the most accurate maps for Panama. It is also very detailed on the traffic updates and police stops. Panama does not have addresses but this app will take you to the exact restaurant or building you want. Download it for free on your phone and you can use it as your personal guide.
If you are driving in Panama City, watch out for two toll-roads, Corredor Norte and Corredor Sur.
The most popular is Corredor Sur, mostly used to access Tocumen airport. A Panapass is required to pass on these two roads. Every car in Panama is expected to have an electronic sticker on the windshield.
The tollbooths automatically scan the electronic stickers on the car’s windshield and charges to your account which is typically pre-paid. You can recharge Panapass easily, through a credit card, or in many other outlets, including Rey and Super 99 supermarkets in Panama.
Fines will be incurred should you pass through the tollbooths without paying for it. Ensure you are topped up, if you are driving in Panama City through any of the Corredors.
Panama traffic is un-predictable. The pattern is not something you can easily get familiar to. With that in mind, plan your schedule ahead. If you plan on last-minute rush, it will not cut it here. One day you could have a smooth sail on the road, the next day, same time, same road, would take you an hour, even two. Avoid Panama City center during peak-hours, on weekdays there is severe traffic congestion and long traffic jams.
Designated parking spaces are almost nonexistence. Cars are parked on the sidewalks, on the streets, on the roads—one of the main causes of congestion especially in Panama City center—even in the middle of the road. If a car breaks down in Panama, it will be repaired right there. Don’t be surprised to see mechanics fixing cars in the middle of the road.
Finding a parking spot is ridiculously difficult, especially if you do not know where to look. Circling around blocks and neighborhoods to find parking is not surprising. However, some buildings have designated parking spots, but sometimes they can be full too. Do not be afraid to walk. A free parking spot, in the area close enough to walk can be found almost every single time in Panama. Try it.