Driving in Panama, it’s an adventure. And maybe the bus is a better option, and here’s why.
I still believe that the bus is the best way to discover Panama, but if you think you’d better drive yourself, here are some of my experiences and observations. My housemate in Panama has a car, and it’s true that it comes in handy for shopping. Not for speed: a trip of 120km/75 miles will make you gain not even 10 minutes when you go by car, compared to the bus trip. That’s less time than needed to find a free parking spot at the destination.
Drivers license and immigration
When you arrive in Panama, you will get your stamp at the airport. For many visitors, that set the timer for the 180 days they will be allowed in the country. There’s, however, one big issue when it comes to driving: even while you are permitted in Panama for 180 days, your drivers’ license will only be valid for 90 days.
That is why, at the many police checkpoints you might encounter, you will not be asked for your driver’s license solely but also for your passport. The agent will seek the date of entry and check if that wasn’t over 90 days ago. Because, even while you are still legal here, you might be driving in Panama without a valid license (and so no insurance).(1)
Driving in Panama, avoiding potholes
Depending on the season and the political will when you visit Panama, you can have the smoothest routes or the most challenging imaginable road. Except for the Pan American Highway, most parts of the country at some points have significantly deteriorated roads. Driving a motorcycle can prove very challenging. The road between Sona and Santiago, for example now (May), can be driven in about 45 minutes, but it’ll take you over an hour in December, to avoid breaking the car in the deep and broad holes everywhere.
Drunk driving in Panama
On Friday evening and Saturday, it seems in my experience that there are – more than on other moments – many drivers on the road that should have been taken their keys away by the last barman that served them. With bicycles that have no light, and pedestrians in the dark, that creates a weird and dangerous cocktail.
Accidents do happen, often
People overtake on double yellow lines, in curves without vision, and at high speed in town centers. So yes, many accidents do happen. When driving in Panama, even more than other places I’ve been, staying calm when you’re behind a slow driver is critical. And when you start overtaking, make sure that no other car in the other direction is about to do the same.
Keep your distance from a bus. They stop often and abruptly. The whole bus system in Panama is based on that promise. So many cars are a little distracted and end up rear-ending a bus that makes a stop to load passengers.
Blue Hearts on the roads of Panama
When you drive in Panama, you’ll see blue hearts on the road. These indicate a lethal accident took place at that exact location. Once you start noticing that, you’ll find how many deadly accidents occur in this country. And that’s not counting the animals:
Animals roam freely
On every road, from the smallest dirt road in the countryside to the 6-lane sections of the Pan American Highway, you’ll notice that animals are trying to cross. Dogs, cows, and even the legendary chickens who cross the road. Adapted speed and permanent alertness are not optional.
(1)While I do my best to validate information, this is in no way legal advice. The very gentle people of Sertracen (the local DMV in Panama), as well as the incredibly knowledgeable(…) police here, will be able to update and verify your specific case.