If you’re new to traveling in Latin America, the idea of using public transportation can be daunting. Panama is no exception. Traveling through Panama City is always the most unnerving. The lack of maps and confusing routes can make it easy for visitor to overpay for a taxi. Things have improved in recent years with the implementation of a modern bus system, which replaced the the old “diablo rojos” – repurposed and bedazzled 50 year old school buses. There is also a new metro system, which currently consists of one line, with plans to build several others. Both the new buses and the metor use a rechargeable card that you can purchase in the Albrook Terminal. But lets say you want to venture outside the city, to all of those beautiful communities of the interior that you’ve heard so much about – this post will help you navigate rural Panama like a local!
A diable rojo in Panama City
Any large town in the interior of Panama has what’s known as a piquera. This is where all of the internal buses, cars, or chivas (we’ll get to those in a moment) gather to pick up passengers, sort of like a small terminal. In each town it’s in a different location, usually near a central market. If you’re traveling between rural locations and are not sure how to get there, you can talk to just about any transport driver at a piquera, who will indicate to you which transport to take.
Departing Changuinola, Bocas del Toro through the banana plantations
Literally meaning “goat,” a chiva is usually a small van or pickup truck, with the back covered and outfitted with lateral seats. As a young female, getting a good seat on the chiva requires technique, and usually lots of smiling at the chiva driver. If you smile enough, you may get the honor of sitting in what my Peace Corps friends call, “the hot girl seat” up front next to the driver (maybe even with a seatbelt!). If not, you are in the back. It’s best to let others board first so that you’re not shoved into the far corner. Your bags go under the seat and make sure you get a good bar to hold on to! From there, ask around to make sure someone lets you know when you’re passing your destination, and then reach your arm out and bang on the side of the vehicle so that the driver knows that this is your stop.
Cutting a new road in the Comarca Ngobe Bugle
The Longer Routes
At some point, you’ll want to trek across the country. Perhaps to David, perhaps to Santiago, or maybe you’re willing to brave the 11 hour long haul to Bocas del Toro. Whatever the case may be, if you’re coming from Panama City, you’ll inevitably start in the Albrook Terminal. You’ll need the card you’ve purchased for the metro in order to exit the terminal to get to where the buses are departing from (this costs .10 cents). Before this, you’ll need to find the counter with the bus going to your destination. Each counter is conveniently marked with the destination and will have the times for each bus that’s leaving. Contrary to the chivas and diablo rojos in which you pay upon arriving at your destination, the longer route buses in Panama require you to pay before boarding. They’ll usually have room above or below the bus to store your bags, so that you can keep the seat next to you free in order to meet friendly strangers, or have them take naps on your shoulder.
Admiring the natural beauty of the Veraguas mountains
Ask for Directions
The bottom line is that Panamanians in general are friendly and love giving directions. Even if it’s tricky to understand the directions, don’t hesitate to ask (and if necessary, get a second opinion) when heading anywhere in Panama, be it the capital city or the interior. Very few routes are marked on maps so most Panamanians rely on giving verbal directions. It’s a great way to meet people, and an even better way to get an authentic experience on your vacation!
Waiting for the chiva in rural Cocle