Having traveled all over Central America, I must say that I am extremely impressed with public transport in Panama.  In the capital, they are currently finishing up phasing out their old privately run bus lines, which were composed of run down American school buses, painted over with a variety of garish colors and scenes depicting everything from scantily clad Viking women, to super heroes, to portraits of Jesus. The best paint jobs feature all three in hilarious proximity – I literally saw one bus with a painting of a large-breasted woman, next to Spiderman, next to Jesus. Top marks. The insides of the buses are often decked out with neon lights and feather boas.

Panama City, Bus

A Diablo Rojo with a busty lady 

The amazing novelty of these Diablos Rojos (Red Devils), as they are known (though I couldn’t get a good explanation why since only a few of them are red), quickly wears off when you have to use them for routine transportation, since they are loud, spew diesel fumes, and are highly prone to breakdowns and delays.  In their efforts to modernize, the city recently opened its first metro line, which only costs $0.35 a ride, and has a fully operational fleet of rapid transit buses, with dedicated routes and stops, that run on a fixed schedule.  Though it is worth noting that it is common knowledge here that the metro needs to charge much more to be sustainable, and the 35 cent rate was probably set by the out going president as a way to force his replacement (from another party) to be the bad guy who raises the rates.

These efforts to modernize and improve the city’s transport also extend to the major bus terminal for the city’s inter-urban buses, the Albrook Terminal (Not sure where the name comes from but it’s a safe bet that this Albrook fella was a gringo).  The terminal, which connects to a major American-style shopping mall, has air conditioned waiting rooms and utilizes the same multi-use transport cards as the city buses and the metro, to cover the $0.05 tax that is charged to those taking inter-city buses.  This replaced the old system, in which each passenger had to pay in exact change, and while a staff member was assigned to stand there all day and collect the nickels, they did not give out change.  My friend recounted the time that he was rushing to catch a bus and only had a quarter rather than a nickel.  He asked for change and was rebuffed, then he tried to pay too much, and was again rebuffed, and finally in desperation he tried to pay for himself and the 4 people behind him, still to no avail. Central American efficiency at its finest.

Panama City, Albrook Terminal A host of Diablo Rojos parked at Albrook Terminal in Panama City 

Despite all of the impressive progress that has been made in terms of modernizing the transport system in the capital, and the fact that Panama is worlds ahead of Honduras (where I have spent most of my time in Central America) in terms both safety and efficiency, bus travel here still presents some awesome quirks that you just don’t get with American buses.  Thus, while you don’t get the bus preachers (literally standing in the aisles proselytizing for entire trips about some guy named Hay-Suss), or the dude transporting a box of live chickens, or a goat in a sack with its head poking out, you still come away with some entertaining stories.

On the long bus rides here, you can actually get a double decker bus with air conditioning, which is just like a Megabus, except with badly dubbed American movies being played at full volume, often on repeat.  We had the pleasure of watching Need for Speed (or Fast and the Furious 7), 5 times on 2 bus rides on our trip.  I for one was captivated by Michael Keaton’s (and his voice over actor’s) mesmerizing portrayal of DJ Monarch (Listed in Wikipedia as “a reclusive and eccentric host of an “underground” supercar race competition”).  On these buses, you also have bathrooms, though they make it very clear that they are just for going #1, and the doors don’t really close well.  Apparently a PC volunteer my friend knew once decided that he didn’t need to hold the hand rail while peeing and when the bus lurched he was launched out the door and ended up on the laps of the people across the aisle, still mid stream (I imagine this led to quite the uncomfortable bus ride for all parties involved).

Capira, Chame

Content to wait

All Michael Keaton sightings and bathroom foibles aside, when traveling by bus in Central America, what really matters is to enjoy the little things, like one bus driver we had on the last leg of our way to a rural community.  He was a true master of the art of indifference.  The bus was supposed to leave at 8 am, but we waited for an extra 45 minutes to wait for exactly 2 more passengers to show up, while he sat on a bench doing literally nothing to entertain himself, but with a look of contentment on his face normally reserved for Buddhist monks upon reaching Nirvana.  In these situations you’re only options are to get pissed off, or to take a step back and just admire the tenacity of the squat, mustached, pot-bellied man in mandals (man sandals). Or you can sit back and recount the entire Need for Speed movie from memory, since you’ve just seen it 5 times in two days.#ckpm{position:absolute;clip:rect(431px,auto, auto,431px);}