Driving in Panama can be stressful, especially for those of us hailing from places like the Unites States and Canada. Being an Australian myself, I definitely experienced somewhat of a cultural shock upon first hitting the roads. I soon came to realize, however, that the cultural differences between driving in Panama and driving elsewhere are not only manageable, but at times preferable!
As someone who has driven in Panama for many years, as well as in Latin and North America, I can confidently say that I feel safer behind the wheel here. While Panama driving etiquette is daunting at first, the fact is there aren’t nearly as many (major) accidents in Panama as we see burden the headlines of the North. Sure, we have fender benders and traffic jams (almost entirely in the city) but when it comes to high-speed accidents that end in tragedy- well, they just don’t happen that often.
Such a lack of major accidents is, I believe, due in part to the same distinctive driving manners of Panamanians that initially stress foreigners out. Once you understand these differences at their root you will be better able to handle and even appreciate them. Here- the key cultural differences I’ve noticed, why they exist, and how you can better cope.
Aggression is in the eye of the beholder
Foreigners often see Panamanians as aggressive drivers, though by Latin American standards they are not. When someone around you speeds or cuts through traffic, remind yourself that they’re not being rude- just driving the way they were taught. One lesser-known positive side effect of this is that Panamanians, for all their so-called aggression, actually pay attention when behind the wheel. Whereas other cultures are infamous for multitasking driving with other vital tasks (texting, putting on lipstick, yelling at the kids) Panamanians seem to learn early on that if you’re not paying attention- you’re going to crash.
Put the phone down and buckle up- or pay up.
Using your cellphone while driving in Panama is strictly prohibited- as is not wearing your seatbelt in the front seat. These are two laws we can all applaud- and thank for Panama’s impressively low accident rate. It’s an indication of the cultural attitude about driving- in that it’s something that requires your full attention. Because it grew so rapidly, Panama City became somewhat of a hodgepodge of traffic, confusing streets, and potholes. No worse than other major cities like New York- but, for whatever reason (and one that I’m thankful for) Panama seems to take in-the-car safety more seriously. (Now, if they would only extend that philosophy to the potholes…)
Don’t hate the honk.
In Panama, a honk can mean virtually anything- from: “Hey, I’m passing you!” to “You’re sexy!” to “We’re stuck in traffic and bored, so let’s honk!” Of course, it can also just mean: “MOVE,” but this is not always the case. If someone’s honking around you, don’t get stressed about it, because chances are it’s not even in your direction. I’ve actually grown to appreciate (some of) the excessive honking in Panama. It’s more than once that I’ve been grateful for the “heads up” honk of a car in my blind spot. As for the “honking parties” that are known to happen in traffic jams, you may need an Advil afterwards- but isn’t there something heartwarming about misplaced camaraderie?
Street signs aren’t really a “thing” here, especially in the city. Panama grew so rapidly that no real system for directions was ever put in place. For the most part, people get around by landmarks rather than street names. If you tell someone to meet you on “Calle 12” they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. Say “the street next to the statue of Einstein’s head” and they’ll get it immediately. Honestly, there’s no silver lining to this one. It’s just something you have to get used to. And you can forget about Google Maps (they don’t seem to update enough to be truly helpful) but another smartphone app has often been pegged a lifesaver. It’s called Waze- a free GPS app you can download on any smartphone. It’s gotten me out of a fair share of messes.
Always carry your passport.
Really, this is true for all aspects of traveling in Panama but it is especially important when driving. La policia will occasionally perform random sobriety checks on the road- especially at night. If you don’t have your passport, this could be a major hassle. Technically, the rule is that foreigners are allowed to drive with their country-issued license for the first 3 months as a tourist in Panama, after which you’re supposed to get a Panama license. I know many expats who “forget” this rule without a problem- but you didn’t hear it from me.
Have the right attitude!
Navigating a foreign country- even one as friendly as Panama- is going to be a learning experience no matter what! Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your navigation of Panama be. So buckle up, enjoy the ride, and look forward to having your own “I was SO lost in …..” story to share at the dinner table.