There are many of you who make the plans to come down to Panama but face the age old question of whether to cab it or rent a car. Just in case you decide on the later, I am going to provide you with some tips on driving here.
Keep one digit on the horn at all times, and use it.
This is important. A horn honk can mean many things, but people don't generally use their signal lights here. That means to make a lane change, they just turn toward you to let you know they are pushing in. If you are not in agreement with their proposed move, or cannot slow down to let them in, your horn will be required, probably a longer honk. A quick honk can mean anything from hello, go, stop, move, the light is green, or look out, here I come, really fast!
Do not drive too fast.
This is important for the reason mentioned above. With no signal light use, you can be hurtling past the slow moving traffic making great time, when suddenly and without warning, a car pulls out in front of you, or blows an intersection only micro millimeters from you. Serioulsy, slow down.
Stop signs are not stop signs.
Stop signs, like all other rules in Panama, are only suggenstions. It is important to know that not only are there times that the traffic with the stop sign takes the right of way, and the traffic without is forced to stop, but that you will be forced to take the right of way at the stop sign and the traffic without will unexpicably stop for you. I have never seen a yield sign here. Ever.
Don't hurry off at the green light.
You will get honked at, but it is important to look both ways at the green light. Panamanian green lights often last until it has been red for a several seconds.
Potholes are more important than pedestrians.
Cars have the right of way here. Pedestrians are on their own and run around like they are playing the old video game Frogger. Eyes wide open dodging traffic for their very lives. Panamanians may not slow down for a person, but they will slow down for a pothole or a speed bump so be careful. If they don't suddenly brake to almost 0 kph, they will swerve and run other cars right off the road to avoid any inconvenient jostling inside the automobile.
Single turn lanes often turn into 2, 3 and even 4 car wide turn lanes, and it is just the person with the widest eyes and the most courage who gets to push into the steady flow of traffic next. The lines on the road usually mean nothing, and the city hardly cares about repainting the faded ones, so 2 lanes of traffic turn into one, 2 into 3, and when there are 5 lanes, you just pick a line and stay between the car on the right and the car on the left. One expample of a common occurence is on a left hand turn, there are 2 direct lanes, and of course a turn lane on the left, there will be a car turning left from the right lane. Another reason for wide eyes and care, not speed.
Red lights are a great place to text, check emails, read a book, or conduct some business. You often sit at a red light for 4 red lights, and the best thing about it is, if you are preoccupied by your favorite novel, someone will always give you a honk when it is time to move.
Entering the flow of traffic.
There is a ton of construction in the city. Perpetual construction season. The traffic is bottlenecked, redirected and generally, just over crowded. This makes it absolutely imposible to enter traffic by sitting with your signal light on and waiting for an opening. There just never will be an opening. Never. Don't worry, the traffic waiting behind you will inform you of this by using their horns. They may even be courteous enough to pull up on your left side and push a hole into the traffic for you. The proper procedure is to push your nose into the flow until you force a car to stop, creating an opening. Do not attempt this with the Diablo Rojos, they will just smash you.
Taxi's / Buses
Taxis are pushy, to say the least, and they just aren't good drivers. Almost every crash you will see involves at least one taxi. Even our Mitsubishi has a couple nice yellow stripes on it. Be careful around a taxi. Diablo Rojo's are the old painted school buses. They WILL run you over, so let them go by unless you really want an adrenalin rush. The city bus drivers are a little more courteous, but you will run into the odd one that is obviously piloted by an ex-Diablo Rojo driver.
Learn the limits of your automobile.
Driving in this traffic takes skill. If you are a bad driver in Canada, or the USA, don't attempt it here. You need to know where the front of your car is, where the back is, where the sides are. Traffic gets tight, people push you around and at times, you will need to push back, and for that you need to know the limits of you car. If you're a race car driver, or a gamer, you'll have a great time!!
Ok, it's at this point in the aricle that I am going for a drive to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Back in a couple hours ;)
FREE FOR ALL.
No parking? No problem.
Curbs painted yellow and signs with an "E" with a cicle and cross through it indicate no parking. That is just a suggestion, much like a stop sign.
Have a map or Nav.
There are very few signs indicating direction, speed limits etc. It is a great idea to have a nav system that property indicates street directions etc, as there are tons of one ways, some of which change direction at certain times of day!! Google maps works well on your iPhone or android. Apple maps are very very bad in Panama. Wrong street names, missing streets, and no indication of direction. A free ap is Waze. For iPhone, androids, and blackberries, it provides an ok map and lets you know where traffic hazards and police are. You can program a route and it will take you there safely, around the hazards.
In the city just drive normally or even slower. Be careful. On the highways, the usual speed is 80 when you are not sure. There are often police posted every 3 or 4 KM's so when you are passing one it is best to slow to 80 and maybe even 60 as there are many 60 zones that are not clearly marked, and not seeing the sign is no excuse. There are also 100 zones but few and far between. A helpful tip is to keep a 10 dollar bill in your passport or International drivers license. It may not be there when the officer hands it back, but guaranteed it saved you a bunch of hassle.
...and last but not least, when your finished your beer, just turf it out the window, someone might pick up the can for a few pennies... I'm kidding, it's illegal and dangerous!