Yesterday my husband and I went to Chitre, about 30 miles north of where we’re living, to shop for things we can’t find here in Las Tablas. We took two buses and four cabs, and the total bill came to about $12.
When we decided to relocate to Panama, we also decided to do it without our own set of wheels. (My husband’s bicycle doesn’t count!) So we’re gaining great experience with Panama’s system of public transportation, and it’s surprisingly good.
There are buses that go from one end of the country to the other, buses that travel between major cities, and little local buses that scoot around everywhere. The long-distance buses travel on a regular schedule, and you can pretty much count on a bus every hour.
And then then are the taxis. Some days it feels as if there are more taxis than people, with yellow vehicles everywhere on the roads.
Best of all, both forms of transportation are amazingly affordable.
The Albrook Bus Terminal is the hub for all the cross-country buses. You can travel from here to David or on into Costa Rica, to Las Tablas, Chitre, Penonome, Santiago, Divisa and other locations.
The terminal is huge, and each destination has its own ticket window. Tickets are very affordable, with pricing based on distance. Last year we paid $13 apiece to go to David. Fares to Las Tablas are $9 and change (although only $6 from Las Tablas, which I don’t understand).
Be aware that you have to go through a turnstile to get onto the loading platform. It costs a dime, but works by scanning transit debit cards. If you don’t have one and don’t want to buy one, you have to negotiate with someone to pay them the dime and have them swipe their card for you.
The buses are comfortable, air conditioned coaches. Buses to David show movies en route, and others usually have some sort of music playing. If you’re traveling west from Panama City, you can anticipate at least one rest stop at a cafeteria about halfway along your route.
Towns of any size have a terminal for the national buses, but the more local buses just stop along the main thoroughfares.
Yesterday we traveled to Chitre, about 30 miles north of us. The fare was $1.50.
The Chitre buses have their own little terminal on the edge of town, and a couple of regular stops in town (one of which is half a block from the national bus terminal). But Panamanian buses are pretty casual. If you see your bus coming you can generally flag it down almost anywhere along its route.
By the same token, if you want to get off just shout “Parada!” and the driver will pull over.
The local buses are small (think VW microbus, but longer).
In towns of any size, most of the local buses line up behind a sign reading Parada de buses. In smaller towns they’ll generally stop in the square, or centro near the church. And, of course, anywhere along their route you can flag them down or ask them to stop to let you off.
When I was house hunting I took the bus from Santo Domingo back to Las Tablas (about three miles). The fare was 35 cents.
These buses are often crowded, and frequently carry more passengers than they have seats for. Nobody seems to mind.
Of interest to me is the number of unaccompanied children who ride these buses. It’s how they get back and forth to school. Nobody seems worried about safety — and why should they when most of the bus riders and the driver all know each other. It’s easy to spot the regular bus riders because the driver stops at their houses without being told.
Panama’s a very friendly country. When you get onto a bus, you greet everyone with Panama’s all-purpose greeting, “buenas!” If there’s an individual you actually know, you greet him or her individually as well.
Although friendly, Panamanians generally won’t move out of your way. If there’s a window seat available and someone’s sitting on the aisle seat, don’t expect them to move for you. Just squeeze on by.
They’re everywhere, but that doesn’t mean you can flag one down easily. Often an empty cab is on its way to pick up someone who’s called. If you’re going to be in the area for any length of time, start writing down phone numbers for cabs (they’re prominently displayed on the door). When you need one, give a call.
Here in Las Tablas, when calling a cab you tell them where you are by starting with the name of the town, then the “urbanization” area. Addresses here are not what we’re familiar with in North America.
I have friends who rented a house at the beach. When calling a cab, they would mention “Playa Uverito” and then the name of their house, “Casa Blanca.” Yes, may houses here have names.
If I’m at the grocery store and need a ride home, I’ll call and tell them I need a cab at Las Tablas, Super Centro Rosa.
From home, I state “Las Tablas,” then the name of my “urbanization” and the house number (I’m in one of the few areas that has house numbers!).
Cabs are inexpensive, generally running $1.25 to go from any point in Las Tablas to another. It’s a bit more if you’re running errands and the cab has to wait while you go in to pick up your laundry, for example.
Panama City is divided into zones. Before getting into a cab you should be familiar with the zone you’re in and the one you’re going to, know what the fare is supposed to be, and hand the cabbie exact change. Otherwise you’ll end up paying too much.