Updated: July 4, 2017
In this post, I describe many aspects of driving in Panama
- Driving Safety in Panama
- Getting around Panama City
- The Rules & Laws for Driving
- What You Really Need to Know
- WAZE app
- Speeding & Speed Limits
- Police Checkpoints
- About Car Accidents
Driving in Panama is a pretty safe and easy thing to do.
The roads are generally well maintained and there aren’t usually alot of other cars on the road.
Driving In Panama City
The exception is Panama City. (Also, driving to Almirante, more on that later)
Driving in a big and unfamiliar city is always daunting. And Panama City with all its traffic, pedestrians, erratic taxis, and vendors can be a scary place to drive.
We never used to drive in Panama City. Now we feel more comfortable driving there. The WAZE app has help us feel much more confident driving here. We can now find our way from place to place in the city easily.
We used to ask a taxi if we could follow them to our destination. Keep that option in mind if you find yourself lost when driving in Panama City. Taxis are happy to do it, for the price of a fare, of course.
Typically, even now that we are experienced, we park our car at our hotel and leave it there til we leave. In the city we take taxis, uber, and the subway. You might want to do the same, especially at first, in Panama City.
Beware Rush Hour & Holiday Traffic – Panama City
Timing is critical if you plan to drive into or out of Panama City. You will be stuck in unholy traffic if you attempt to travel across the Punte de las Americas (the bridge linking Panama City to the Inter-Americana) during rush hour. Many workers live outside the city and commute into their jobs every day.
On major holidays, Panama City empties as everyone goes back to their hometowns to celebrate. When the traffic gets very bad, the police transform parts of the Inter-Americana & other impacted roads from 2 way roads into one-way roads.
At the start of the holiday, the Inter-Americana near Panama City will at times only go one way. That is, one way going west, out of Panama City. At the end of the holiday, it is reversed. The Inter-Americana near Panama City will turn into a one-way road going east, into Panama City.
For more about holidays in Panama read this post
Drive to Almirante
While it can be stressful to drive in Panama City, that stress is caused by the traffic, lack of street signs, and general difficulties navigating the city. While the mountainous stretches of road from David to Almirante can be dangerous. This because cars tend to make use of the on-coming traffic’s lane when going around curves. Usually this is not an issue since there is not much traffic on the road. However, it can be heart stopping.
Just yesterday, we were driving back from Bocas. We went around a curve to see 2 semis coming toward us. They were neck and neck. One in each lane of this 2 lane road. Thankfully, the semi in our lane made it into his lane before we collided, but it did take our breath away. In that case, it was the semi passing another semi, not a car making generous use of both lanes when taking a turn.
We have driven this road many times, and that was our most scary drive. And we will go again. But you should be aware of the danger. Use caution going around blind turns. Be aware that cars will also swerve to avoid pot holes. Also there can be fog in the highest elevations of this road. On the plus side, the views and scenery on the drive are quite beautiful
Keep in mind that there are few services along the way, so make sure you have a full tank of gas for the drive. If you are going to be catching a passenger ferry in Almirante to Bocas, be aware that the last one leaves at 6pm, so make it there before then.
The WAZE App
I highly recommend that you download the WAZE app onto your smart phone before you come to Panama.
It is useful both in Panama City, and throughout Panama. I believe it is the most useful navigation app to use in Panama. It will even give you a heads up when there are police with radar guns (hidden or visible) on the road. It tells you the current speed limit, and what speed you are traveling at.
I use the WAZE app in the US as well. An excellent app that is very easy to set up and use.
The Rules of the Road
Keep these driving rules in mind in Panama.
- No phone calls or texting while driving
- Front seat passengers must wear seat belts. The fine is $75, and they do pull people over for it.
- Back seat passengers are not required to wear a seat belt. In fact, most taxi drivers cut the seat belts out of the back seat so they can fit more people.
- Children 5 years & under must be in a car seat. But I have never heard of this being enforced.
- The law requires you to wear a shirt when driving. Seriously.
- If you run over someone’s chicken, you are expected to look for the owner and pay for it. Depending upon the age and size of the chicken and the attitude of the owner, it could cost you $5 – $15. The law won’t come after you, if you don’t.
You Must Carry
- Your Passport (or cedula if you are a resident)
- Valid driving license (from any country)
- Current vehicle registration
- Proof of liability insurance
If you drive across Panama, will encounter police check points and you should be ready to show your ID and/or license. I talk more about these checkpoints below.
By law you are also supposed to carry these in your car
- An accident report form
- Driver’s manual ($50 fine if you don’t have it)
I have never heard of anyone being asked for either an accident form or driver’s manual. We have never had them in our car.
Drinking and Driving
It is against the law to drink and drive in Panama. I believe the allowable blood alcohol content for driving in Panama is zero. There is not alot of public pressure against drinking and driving.
If you are caught drinking and driving, you will be fined and may have your vehicle retained. I have seen drunk driving check points a few times during some hard-drinking holidays. But such check points are not common.
However, years ago while I was driving through Paso Canoas, an obviously drunken driver suddenly appeared in front of me. Surprisingly a police car immediately pulled it over. A very pleasant surprise.
What You Really Need To Know
Speed Limits & Speeding
The speed limits on the Inter-Americana change often. There are not many speed limit signs so you may miss the change.
In general, if you are going through an area with a noticeable increase in the number of houses and/or store fronts, assume the speed limit has dropped. The maximum speed on the InterAmericana is 100 kilometers an hour (i.e., 62 mph). The speed limit through more densely inhabited sections of the road can go down to 60 kilometers an hour. In other areas, the speed limit drops to 80 kilometer an hour. The changes don’t always make sense.
It is yet another reason to download the WAZE app. It displays the current speed limit and indicates the whether you are traveling above that limit.
Getting Out of a Speeding Ticket
If you are stopped for speeding, please don’t try to bribe the officer not to give you a ticket. Even if it works, you are simply encouraging that officer to stop more foreigners, whether they are speeding or not. Plus, in my opinion, it just makes the whole Panama experience seem a bit yucky. Just pay the ticket. (See below for link on how to do that.)
You can of course, protest the accuracy of the radar gun. Just the other day we were stopped for speeding. However, my husband had just been looking at the speedometer so he knew he was well under the speed limit. He denied that he was speeding, and the cop said okay and told him to drive off. It looked to us like the officer was still figuring out how to use the radar gun.
I have heard some people suggest telling the cop that you will protest the ticket in court. Since he or she will then have to appear in court, perhaps the officer will decide not to give you the ticket. We tried it once, and the police officer just looked at my husband and gave him the ticket.
It is the custom in Panama for other drivers to warn you of upcoming police speed traps by flashing their headlights. If someone flashes their headlights at you, especially during the day, slow down! There is a cop with a radar gun ahead. It is a very friendly and helpful costume.
If you do get ticket, learn how to pay a traffic ticket in Panama’s Chiriqui Province.
On A Tourist Visa
If you are on a tourist visa, you can only drive for 3 months – even if you have a 6 month tourist visa. You cannot legally drive for longer than the first 3 months of your tourist visa.
A tourist used to be able to renew his or her visa quickly by checking out and back into the country, but no longer. Read about new rules for Panama Tourist visas.
Police Check Points
Because Puerto Armuelles is so close to the Costa Rica border, we have alot of experience with the custom police (Adunas) check points.
There is one checkpoint between Puerto and the Frontera (the border town of Pasa Canoas). And one between the Frontera and David.
The reason for the checkpoints is not to catch expats with expired visas. They want to catch criminals, drug smugglers, and other such.
Most of the time the Police say, “Buenas” and wave you through. They may do a brief visual check of your car.
When they do ask for documents, usually they only check the passport/cedula of the driver. Sometimes they ask to see the driver’s license. Occasionally they will ask to see everyone’s passport.
They will look for your entry stamp to make sure your visa is still good.
My husband swears that if you wear sunglasses while at the check point, they never ask to see your passport.
Sharing the Road – Other Drivers
Assume everyone on the road is 17 years old. That is, a new driver.
You just never know what another driver will do in a tight spot. I have now realized how much most of us picked up about driving while in the back seat as kids. It seeped in.
Many people here are the first generation in the family to drive.
Driver’s education is not required in Panama. Most people learn by driving. On the same road you are driving on. Everyone must pass both a written and driving test to get a drivers license.
In general the rules of the road are same as in the US. However, although the rules may be the same, what people actually do can be different. For instance, there is no consensus on how to use turn signals or emergency blinkers. Often people will put on their left turn blinkers when they are moving to the right side of the road. This is can be an helpful thing to remember.
Also keep in mind that taxis will stop to pick people up, whenever and where ever. They will come to a careening stop, sometimes in the middle of the road. Be prepared. Expect erratic behavior.
There are all sorts of regulations about what you should do in the case of an accident. For instance, neither car is suppose to be moved until the transit police arrive. It can take hours for them to arrive. For more information on what the law requires see this post in Chiriqui Chatter.
Obviously, you want to avoid being in an accident. We have been in 3 small fender benders over the years. Neither party felt compelled to call the police over a dent we didn’t care about. We were all fine with just moving on with our days. All without repercussions.
The Police Helped My Friend
An expat friend of mine was sideswiped by a bus here in Puerto Armuelles. It damaged the passenger side of her truck. The bus just kept going. She was not even sure that the bus noticed the accident.
It happened near the police station here in Puerto Armuelles. She went into the police station in a fury. The police tracked down the bus (the bus station is down the street). The police then took my expat friend and the driver to a body repair shop and the driver paid for it.
A car accident in Panama is not necessarily a tragedy. But it can be. It all depends upon who is involved and the damage done.
In Panama, there is no such thing as a no fault accident. Someone is assumed to be at fault. Most likely, as the foreigner, it is you. If a person is hurt in the accident, you and/or your auto insurance will be paying. The owner of the car and the driver, if not the same person, are considered equally liable.
If it looks like the other party thinks you are at fault and wants you to pay, you may just want to do that. Assuming it is a reasonable amount of money and no one was injured in the accident. Once the transit police arrive, no matter whose fault it is, it will take a long time to resolve.
If the worst happens and someone dies, that is simply a tragedy. No matter why it happened or who was at fault.
But putting that aside, lets look at the legal aspects and liability. In general, it is assumed that, if you are not the one who died, then it is your fault. A long court case can ensue. In the likely event that you are found guilty, you are responsible for all that person’s lost earnings, medical bills, etc. Even if everyone knows it was not your fault.
Some people install a movie camera on their dashboard to record an accident as it happens. Then fault can be correctly assigned.
To increase the odds of such a tragedy never happening to me, I never drive at night here if I can help it. Too many people walk and bike in dark clothes. Although, more and more people are wearing reflective vests when biking at night.
The rules of the road are similar to those in North America. But not everyone knows those rules.
In most places there are no traffic jams, or much traffic at all. It is easy to be safe while driving – if you assume that a driver could act erratically at any time.
The exception, as I said, is Panama City and increasingly in David. The traffic in those places makes driving a little more dicey. We drive in David, but we mostly take taxis in Panama City.
Driving to Puerto Armuelles? Get directions to Puerto Armuelles.
Although the case is somewhat unusual, it may be worth mentioning that your ID and driver’s license must be from the same country. Mine weren’t when I first attempted to hire a car in Panama: while apologizing for refusing to rent me a car, the rental company told me the police would confiscate the vehicle and leave me stranded. I was surprised, as I had used the same documents to hire cars in Colombia without problems.
Betsy, Thanks for this article; it’s very informative. I’m heading down to Panama soon and I was very surprised at the weekly car rental rates. I’m paying about $50 USD for a week for Avis our of the Panama City International Airport. Any idea why it would be so low? I was afraid that I might be hit up with astronomical airport taxes or ridiculous insurance rates to compensate for such a low weekly rate. Any insights are welcome. Thanks again.
Thank you so much for all the important information. My husband & I are thinking seriously about moving to Panama City. Can you tell me what the mode of dress is there please?
How about the safety regarding crime if i wanted to drive outside panama city
Thanks for the info about cars… Last year we bought a lage and nice car in Panama City, and after we spent a considerable sum of money on it, it works OK. Our big disappointment was that it seemed impossible to go to Costa Rica with that car, at least not through the regular frontier. We are not residents. Do you know if there is a way of going for a short visit to Costa Rica with a Panama car? Our car is now with friends in David…