Wide Eyes, White Knuckles, and an Exasperated Kia – Driving in Panama

So you want to drive across Panama? Let me tell you, driving in Panama is an experience. Buckle up, kids. (Oh wait, it’s Panama, so you CAN’T!)

On Monday evening, Christine, Clayton and I went to pick up the rental car, all packed and ready to leave Panama City for the country. In my infinite wisdom, I had scheduled the pick-up time to be during the height of rush hour. This leads me to believe that despite months of planning, hardships can come right down to just plain lack of common sense. Brilliant.

Our car for the week was to be a little white Kia Picanto. With exactly one lesson in manual transmission driving under my belt, I’d opted for the more pricey automatic. Still, the car came out to about $5 a day – it’s the added insurance costs that get you, but all in all, a really affordable option for a car for the week (provided you have a credit card that will cover half the insurance cost). Our Kia had about 30,000 kilometers on it at the start, and seemed to be in pretty good shape.

We swung by Zach and Christine’s apartment and just managed to fit in all four passengers and associated luggage. A bit cramped but with high spirits, we set off for Valle del Anton, a mountain town south west of Panama City and about two hours of driving in the best of times. However, being rush hour in Panama, this was not the best of times, and the entire trip would take closer to four hours.

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Now that’s the face of bravery.

I gripped the wheel with white knuckles as we entered the chaotic streets of the city. During rush hour, the roads seem more like a giant free-for-all than a sensical societal structure. Stop lights were suggestions. Lane demarcations disappeared completely in the crush of cars and motorcycles. The sun set quickly, and suddenly my field of view was a blaze of flashing lights in a sea of steel. Many people in Panama have tripped out their cars with different colored flashing lights, blinking brake lights, and crazy colors. Coupled with the blaring of all manner of horns, I was in sensory overload. We finally made it to the interchange to get on the Pan-American highway, and I felt like I was in a spaghetti knot. Everyone was slowly merging into one giant vehicular mass, and I quickly learned it was “do or die”. Boldness was the name of this game, otherwise you’d never get anywhere, and need to subsist purely on the foodstuffs that were being sold by people walking up and down the aisles of traffic pushing carts. Yes, in the middle of the interchange. Talk about business-savvy.

To make matters worse, the unfortunate shortcomings of the Kia were felt almost immediately. Automatically reaching for seatbelts in the back seat, Zach and Christine fell victim to the bizarre fact that there just aren’t seatbelts in the back seats of Panamanian cars. Well perhaps there are, but I never saw any. The law only requires seat belts in the front seats, and we spent a while theorizing why the back seat belts would be actively taken out. We came up short – sort of like the safety standards. The windows began to fog horridly, both inside and out. The windshield wipers were pitiful and just smeared the smog around a bit, and we couldn’t figure out what setting on the inside of the car would dehumidify. Clayton kindly sacrificed a shirt in our efforts for clear vision.

Things were a bit easier once we reached the highway, though throughout all my driving experiences in Panama, I don’t think my comfort level ever dipped below “constant, mild panic”. As it was dark, we didn’t see much on the way to Valle del Anton, though as we approached the town through the mountains we had great views of a fantastic lightning storm in the distance. That night I also learned that rest stops aren’t a thing in Panama, but hey, ditches in the middle of nowhere are everywhere. How lucky.

Having arrived to Valle del Anton safely, I couldn’t rest on my laurels for long. There would be a few long haul drives on this trip. Clayton and I would tackle the six hour drive to Boquete, the four hour drive to Almirante, and the final eleven hour drive back to Panama City on our own.

We left for Boquete on Wednesday morning. Following the advice of our bed and breakfast host, we took a shortcut through the mountains. The weather was gorgeous, and as we twisted and turned up the steep slopes, we passed little towns bedecked in flags and banners. Our best guess was that it was a celebration of a saint, but we can’t be sure. The vistas that greeted us from the tops of mountains were breathtaking, and we felt on top of the world.

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However, our Kia didn’t share the same attitude. Despite only having 30,000 kilometers, suspension was a distant memory. Potholes in Panama were unreal. Deep and sudden, they dotted the road without rhyme or reason, and by the end of our travels our backs were sore from all the bumping and jolting despite my best efforts to avoid them (or at least slow down for them). The little Kia also wasn’t a fan of steep inclines either, aka, Panama itself. The little transmission did its best, but we had to help it by turning off the A/C on particularly steep inclines. Whether it helped or not doesn’t matter – we felt better doing it, despite the sweat trickling down our broken backs.

Entering the highway brought relief from the sharp turns and single lane roads, but little else. Potholes were a problem on the highway too, and Clayton pointed out several that would easily kill a motorcyclist. On top of this, people drive fast on the Pan-American highway. Really, really fast. But perhaps my perspective is skewed, since in the whole of Panama, the fastest speed limit I saw was 110 km/h just outside Panama City. Most of the country oscillated between 50 and 80 km/h on the highway (30 to 50mph), which was really slow. Since I was too afraid to speed and get caught in the numerous speed traps we saw, it felt like other cars were racing by, even if they were just going at a more sensible speed. Speed limits would change fast and often without warning, and Clayton and I surmised that perhaps that was on purpose to catch speeders. Indeed, there were a lot of police out and about, and we saw several people get caught. We watched as one policeman was sitting in the shade on the side of the road, and pulled over the truck in front of us by simply pointing at the truck, then the side of the road, indicating he should pull over. And it worked.

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The wildly exciting views off the Pan-American Highway in Central Panama

My anxiety at being pulled over only increased when we encountered checkpoints. Not being able to speak any Spanish, the idea of trying to explain myself in any fashion didn’t appeal. I’d read some horror stories and heard lots of warnings about bribes.The first official checkpoint we passed through was on our way to Boquete in eastern Panama. I nervously gathered all my documents in hand as our car crept up the queue. I felt infinitely better when the policeman smiled and waved at a baby in the car in front of us, and then I felt just silly when the policeman simply glanced at my passport, yawned, and waved us through. Even when Clayton drove through a checkpoint outside Almirante without stopping and the policeman had to flag us down, we never had any issues whatsoever. I suppose it’s always good to be cautious and prepared, but over-worrying is not necessary.

The majority of our time on the Pan-American highway was uneventful. It’s flat, though there was never one location in Panama where I couldn’t see a mountain at least in the distance. The highway became a gradual uphill for miles and miles as we approached Boquete and neared the Highlands.

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Look how calm I seem.

As useful as GPS is (I can’t imagine traveling without it, spoiled millennial that I am), it can certainly lull you into a false sense of security. Late for a coffee tour in Boquete, I blindly followed the GPS instructions through the town towards the coffee farm. The narrow street suddenly rose sharply and turned to gravel, and in my infinite wisdom I kept the car plodding along up the street, not really knowing what else to do. The road got bumpier and bumpier, gravel kicking up behind us, and suddenly, we weren’t moving anymore, though my foot was still pressing the gas pedal to the floor. This incline just wasn’t in the stars for our little Kia. Clayton got out and talked me through a ten point turn. Several older gentlemen all sitting and smoking on their respective porches watched as the two crazy Americans fiercely debated the turning radius of the little Kia. Finally succeeding in turning the car around, I watched as one of the men gave me a thumbs up and nod of approval in the rearview mirror.

The drive from Boquete to Almirante, a port city near the border with Costa Rica on the Caribbean side and our portal to Bocas del Toro, was perhaps the most eventful. The drive would take us through the cloud forests and some more remote parts of the country.

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Look at all this information that is probably important to understand!

The first part of the drive was easy, through some more remote farmland outside Boquete. It still offered up some notable events. Once, I thought a giant palm leaf had fallen across the road. Only when we were close and it suddenly shot into the bushes on the side of the road did we realize it had been an enormous iguana sunning itself. It must have been four feet, tip to tail. At one point the speed limit suddenly slowed to an infuriating 20 km/h, but it soon came to light that it was because we would be crossing a giant dam on a narrow lane road. Luckily that speed limit didn’t last long, or we’d still be driving in Panama to this day. We passed men riding their horses down the road, looking not unlike the Mexican charros. Soon enough we were driving continuously uphill as we approached the jagged mountain ranges separating us from the Caribbean. I felt like we were in an optical illusion – we could see for miles on all side, and the landscape was rich and verdant. Waves of thick, opaque clouds seemed to tumble over the sides of the mountain peaks, moving quickly yet never seeming to grow or dissipate – otherwise, the sky was a deep, jeweled blue. We commented on the accuracy of the name of a village we passed – Bella Vista.

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Approaching the Highlands of Panama

Mountain driving didn’t offer much of a respite for nerves. Speeding cars, trucks, and buses remained a constant source of anxiety. It didn’t matter that we were on narrow country roads with sharp turns, drivers up here sped just as much as on the highway. I often would pull over to let them pass rather than have a tailgating friend for miles and miles. They clearly knew the roads and the rules. This led to a couple hair-raising moments as we pulled over next to sharp drop-offs or surprise ditches, but hey, adrenaline keeps you awake, right? The roads were as twisted as ever, and as we gained in altitude, the wind picked up and buffeted the Kia from all sides. The waves of thick clouds we’d seen as we approached the mountains were no longer beautiful in their distant glory – we were driving straight into them. The fog was so thick, we could barely see twenty feet in front, and soon enough, it began fiercely pouring with rain. Once we were on the way down the mountains, the rain cleared up, but I remained as vigilant as ever since the road could suddenly produce chickens, dogs, stopped chivas, or workers with machetes slung over their shoulders. At one point, I had to slow down quite suddenly as we approached a few houses and children came running out into the road, waving bunches of lettuce and hoping to make a sale. I was almost as afraid of hitting a chicken as I was of hitting a child. By law, you need to find the owner of the chicken and make reparations.

Eventually, the high state of anxiety and repetitive scenery led to much impatience for reaching our destination. Miles and miles of forest, broken up by thatched-roof houses on stilts and bus stops. We felt so far removed from civilization, though we were constantly surprised by people everywhere, walking or waiting on the sides of the road. After hours of glimpsing the Caribbean through the trees, we arrived at the port city of Almirante.

In Almirante, I got closure on the story of the machete workers we’d seen up and down the country. We’d driven by miles of banana fields, and watched as men carried bunches of bananas they’d harvested with their machetes. We watched men walk down the sides of the remote roads carrying these bunches. We’d let pickup trucks piled impossible high with green bananas speed past us. In Almirante I watched these trucks empty their loads into giant shipping containers stamped with “Chiquita”, ready to be loaded onto the cargo ship in the port. Now, whenever I see bananas in the grocery store marked “$.49 a pound”, I think of those men working in the Panamanian sun, machetes propped on their shoulders.

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Another picture from the Highlands of Panama

Our last full day in Panama meant driving almost the entire length of the country to get back to the capital. All told, it was about eleven hours of driving. We woke up at 5am in a treehouse in Bocas del Toro and had dinner in Panama City. Bocas was not a city of early risers, and we didn’t even get coffee until we arrived to Santiago at 1:30pm in the afternoon. It would have been slightly earlier, but our way was suddenly barred in Santiago by some sort of protest, religious demonstration, or accident. We couldn’t tell. The fact that we made it that far without exploding at one another remains a testament to either Clayton’s patience or my ability to keep a grumpy monologue silent. Though, Clayton’s sudden gasp of awe at a majestic bird and my ensuing near-heart attack made for a testy moment.

The final driving test in Panama was the exit off the Pan-American highway to enter Panama City. A large eighteen-wheeler had pulled off the side of the road and was blocking a clear view of the exit, so the line of green cones indicating that the exit was closed was only visible at the last possible second. I slammed on the brakes, jammed my finger into the hazard light button, then accelerated to the absolute limits of the Kia’s ability to merge back onto the highway. There had been no signs, no warnings that the exit was closed. But that was par for the course in Panama – you need to take things as they come, even if they come very, very suddenly. Never again will I take the plethora of road signs and warning lights on the US road system for granted. These are luxuries.

All in all, our entire driving experience in Panama was incredibly without incident. Driving in foreign countries is always a learning experience, and can be stressful, but it offers the opportunity to see a country on your own terms. Although I’m in no hurry to drive in Central America again any time soon, I’m very glad that we did. There is a wild beauty to Panama, and driving cross country allowed us to experience it firsthand.

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