What You Need to Know About Driving in Panama

Considering taking to the road in Panama?

The key is just to drive slowly and take it all in. Once you master it, exploring Panama is a breeze, and there is so much more to find on your own than you’ll get to on local transportation.

OK, let’s get the required stuff out of the way first. In Panama, you can drive legally on your foreign driver’s license for the first 90 days only—even though you can be in Panama legally as a tourist for 180 days. Strange but true.

My first piece of advice, whether you are renting or buying a vehicle, is to make sure it has high clearance. I didn’t do that, and I often scrape the underside of my car just driving around the area where I live in the city of David. Roads in Panama are not always constructed like those in North America. Drop offs to the shoulders of the roads can be eight inches or more, limiting roadside parking to high-clearance vehicles only.

You must always have the official driver’s handbook, proof of insurance, registration, and accident forms in the vehicle. In addition, if you are just visiting Panama, you should always carry a copy of your passport and driver’s license.

With police checkpoints throughout Panama, you will often be stopped. You’ll be asked to produce these documents. Smile and say, “Buen día” (good day). If you are not a Spanish-speaker, practice saying, Yo no hablo español, lo siento. (I don’t speak Spanish, sorry.)

If you get pulled over with an infraction, do not bribe police. Accept the ticket and pay it at the proper government office.

It is illegal to use a cellphone while driving and, in many areas, U-turns are prohibited. Speed limits change frequently, so pay attention to signs. If you are entering a small village or town, reduce your speed even if you don’t see a sign saying to do so.

School zones in Panama do not display signal lights, so use common sense when you see schoolchildren about. Also, when you see local buses stopped ahead to let off passengers, approach with care.

Basically, in Panama outside of the bigger cities, the pedestrian has the right of way over a vehicle. And even though it’s risky, I often see people walk out in front of traffic, assuming that vehicles will stop to allow them to cross a street. Be vigilant, and expect the unexpected.

Having gotten that out of the way… Now you are ready to drive in Panama.

Gas station attendants here will fill up your tank for you. The ceiling price for gas is set by the government and is adjusted every few weeks. The proper way to say, “Fill it up, please” in Spanish is “Llénelo, por favor.” Most gas stations will take credit cards as well as cash. Also, if the attendant checks your tire pressure or cleans your windshield, it’s courteous to give them a cash tip.

Panamanians are sticklers for keeping their vehicles clean. You will find car washes everywhere. Most all are just small mom-and-pop places where you pull in and, for $6 or less, get a detailed hand-done car wash inside and out.

Most drivers in Panama are good and courteous.

Most drivers in Panama are good and courteous, but sometimes you will find drivers making double left turns with you, cutting you off, or driving slowly. Just shrug it off, take a deep breath, and drive on. Defensive driving is the way to go in Panama. Knock on wood, I have had no close calls or accidents in the five years I have been driving here.

In downtown areas where cars are allowed to park on both sides of a street, you often find that the driving lanes are very narrow. When someone blocks the road you can be delayed for several minutes amid honking horns until the owner of the vehicle decides to move it.

Getting around is just a matter of patience and fortitude.

The only issue I still have is unexpected potholes, dips in the roads, and uneven surfaces. Traditionally, big potholes are signaled to drivers by a kind passerby spraying a circle around the edges or placing something vertically in the hole that you can’t miss seeing. During rainy season potholes seem to open up everywhere, and in Boquete, for instance, newly paved roads have no manhole covers. Be cautious to avoid those holes, which can be as deep as 10 inches. My solution is not everyone’s, but I just avoid driving at night when I can’t see those pesky hazards.

As far as cost goes, I don’t usually spend more than $40 for gas a month. I make sure to always keep up with oil changes and repairs too. Registration is $19 for inspection and another $31 a year for a new plate. My car, now 10 years old, costs me only $361 in insurance (with good coverage). When I compare that to people who take taxis and local transportation every week, I have found that I am spending less but am able to get around and see more.

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