Transportation Options In Panama City And Beyond—Chaotic But Rewarding

The Metro, city buses, and diablos rojos

Using public transportation to get around in Panama City and in the interior of the country might, to the uninitiated, seem too complicated to take on. Many buy their own cars, which is understandable, as that’s what most people have been doing in their home country before retiring in Panama. I know many people who have gone this route but continue to rely on public transportation to get around.

Issues of traffic and infrastructure notwithstanding, there are several reasons why you might be more inclined to use public transportation over your own car. In my case, I use Panama’s public transportation—the Metro, city buses, and diablos rojos—because they are easy to access, inexpensive, and offer me adventure and a chance to interact with locals.

New York, Chicago, Boston, Moscow, London, and Paris all have urban trains. The L in Chicago, the subway in New York, the Tube in London… But in the Latin countries I have been to, the public train is always called el metro.

Mexico has a well-established metro that was considered old when I first rode it in 1960 as a kid with my parents on vacation. It goes all around one of the biggest cities in the world, on several different lines.

Medellín, Colombia, has a fairly new metro system with cable cars going off the main line up into neighborhoods built on hills so steep they can’t accommodate cars. You can take a cable car to one of the various stop-off points on the hillsides and get off to walk around.

The Metro in Panama was being voted on in legislature when I was here about 10 years ago, and now it is a reality. So far, it consists of one 10-mile-long line with 14 stops, but a second line is in the process of being built. I walk out my door in Carrasquilla and within eight minutes, am at the Fernández de Córdoba Metro Station.

I have ridden a few metros elsewhere, but have never gotten as familiar with one as I have with ours here in Panama City. Each station has two entrances about a block apart. To get in and out of the system, you have to swipe your card, pass through a turnstile, and go up or down a series of escalators. You are only charged upon entering, although you still have to go through the motions of swiping your card upon exiting. The trip between any two points on the line costs 35 cents. To add money to your Metro card, simply insert cash (no more than US$50 is permitted) into the machine.

In addition to the Metro card, there is also a kind of 3-in-1 card that grants certain privileges like use of the bathrooms and waiting areas in the terminals. It also lets you ride the Metro buses, which are modern and air conditioned. For only 25 cents, you can ride all around the city. Keep in mind, however, the buses don’t accept cash and you will have to use the card to get on.

The Metro has 10 seats in each train car. They are supposed to be reserved for older people, pregnant women, and those with young kids. The platform is usually full, however, and with the surge to get onboard that inevitably occurs each time the train pulls in, it’s seldom that I, an old guy, can get a seat. But it’s no big deal… The train moves fast and within minutes, you are at your destination.

The other day I was on a very full train and, as the girl in front of me got off at the platform, the doors closed and caught her left foot between them. Her shoe was loose enough that it fell off inside the train while she was stepping out of it. I reached down and picked it up as she pounded on the doors futilely hoping to get them open again. I held up her shoe and pointed in the direction the train was heading, hoping to convey that I would meet her at the next station. I got off there, shoe in hand, and waited for the next train. Apparently she hadn’t understood my message, because she did not arrive on the next train and never retrieved her shoe! It is interactions like these that I would be missing out on if I were to rely on the use of my private vehicle.

Now I am not as young as I used to be, and climbing stairs is difficult for me. Yesterday, when arriving at my home station, the escalator was broken, so everyone just trooped up the stairs. From the level of the tracks, there are 58 steps to get to the next level up, 52 to get to the turnstile, and another 58 to get to street level. That is a lot of steps for an old guy who had a triple bypass a few years ago, but I made it. Minor inconveniences like are to be expected when using the Metro. Truth be told, it was probably good exercise for me.

Buses to the rest of Panama, and beyond

The rest of the country beyond Panama City is known as el interior. To access it, you must go through the Gran Terminal, also known as Albrook Station, as it is attached to the modern Albrook Mall. At the terminal, booths sell tickets to almost any destination, including internationally to Costa Rica and beyond. One can mount a bus here and in a few days (and who knows how many stops) arrive at the Mexico/Texas border, or so I’m told.

Stop at any booth and tell the attendants where you want to go. If they aren’t selling a ticket to that destination, they will point you in the direction of someone who is. I can’t imagine transportation being cheaper than it is in Panama City… That, as well as the traffic conditions, is another reason why people who own vehicles often continue to use public transportation.

To get from the Gran Terminal to the border of Costa Rica costs less than US$20. If you are of retirement age, don’t forget to ask for your discount—generally 20%. From Albrook to Davíd, a town close to that border, they quoted me US$15.50, but after the discount I paid only US$12.40 for a newish, double-decker bus that left at midnight and arrived at 7:45 a.m.

From the same Gran Terminal to Las Tablas in Los Santos province it is five hours and costs US$9.75, but I pay just under US$8 for a one-way ride of 175 miles.

Also, leaving from the terminal and going almost everywhere are what locals lovingly refer to as diablos rojos (red devils). These are old, retired school buses from the United States that are gaining a second wind as informal transportation here in Panama. Express buses fill up at the station and go directly to whichever town they are headed for. Non-express buses are available too, and the make many stops as they chug along Panama’s streets. I took one to Arraiján the other day, offered the driver US$1 as I got off, and got 30 cents in change!

I love people and enjoy interacting with them. Using public transportation is a great way to achieve such interaction. The other day in the terminal, I met a family of a woman, her daughter, and two little girls, both with their hair done up à la Pebbles. I asked one of the girls if they were sisters and she said, “No, we are family!” The younger woman explained to me that they were cousins.

It costs 10 cents to get on a bus, and it is accessed only with the card mentioned before. The young mother asked me if they could use my card to pass through, and I had no problem giving up the 20 cents for them to ride. The little girls just ducked under the turnstile (legally, I assume). I asked them which bus I needed to take to get to where I was headed. One of the 6-year-olds grabbed my hand and said “Soy tu guía” (I am your guide). She took me down the row of buses towards mine, which made the small favor I did them well worth the trouble!

I have spoken with Panamanian adults who seem amazed that I use public transportation here and wonder how I can make my way around the country by myself. With a basic knowledge of how transportation works and the courage to approach the friendly locals for advice, I don’t find it difficult at all.

Deryl Fisher