I made a trip through Panama with the car from Panama City to Boquete, Palo Seco, Santa Fe, Pedasí and to the San Blas Islands. There are also buses going around the country but with the car it’s much easier, you are more flexible and able to find unexplored places where buses are not going. The decision of renting a car or taking public transport depends on your budget, timetable and places you want to visit.
I would like to give you an impression about exploring Panama by car. In this country, people are also driving on the right side of the street, so I thought: “Easy! Driving like at home!” Yeah… if there wouldn’t be these non-written driving “rules”.
This is what I learned:
You have to drive more aggressively and selfish if you want to move forward.
Patience! The traffic is sometimes chaotic, so stay calm.
Avoid the rush hours in Panama City (mornings and afternoons) or you will get stuck for hours in the traffic.
No one really cares about speed limits or other rules as long as there is no police in sight.
You have to drive almost the pace of the speed limit otherwise the other drivers get impatient and honk at you.
Priority rules don’t really exist. Usually a driver who wants to enter the street, is not waiting until there is space for him/her. They just drive and you have to brake if you don’t want to crash into them. And if you want to enter a street you should do the same: try to squeeze into a space somewhere. If you wait until someone is making space for you, the drivers behind you start honking (yeah honking is a thing there).
There are a lot of police check points (they only checked my driving license and passport). Most of the roads are in a bad shape: they are bumpy and have a lot of (sometimes huge) holes. People try to drive around these holes (you should also, if you don’t want to wreck your car), so you have to double pay attention to the other cars and the road.
You will see that the conditions of the roads are much better during the day, therefore try to avoid driving in the dark. Close your door from the inside if you are stuck in traffic or drive through a sketchy area, especially when its dark.
This may sound a bit terrifying, but it really isn’t. If you keep in mind paying more attention to the other drivers and to the condition of the road you should be fine and able to enjoy your drive. On the countryside there is not that much traffic and people drive more relaxed. I drove a lot through Panama, I had a lot of fun on this trip and I would definitely do it again!