It only takes once to read about bus drivers getting bonuses for not killing passengers to run the other way. But even knowing that, in the end, public transportation might have been a better choice than the hell we experienced being stranded on the side of the road for 5 hours after renting a car in Panama.
And then there is everything that happened afterwards.
Today, we are going to share with you all the things we experienced renting a car in Panama, including everything that went wrong!
We’re also going to share with you what you should expect and prepare for when driving in Panama, and most importantly, how you can avoid making the same mistakes we did!
Ultimate Guide to
Renting a Car in Panama
& Driving in Panama
Road Conditions in Panama
If you’ve spent any time at all in Central America, you know that the only thing familiar about driving is that you are on the right side of the road.
- Road conditions are terrible
- Potholes and sunken sections of roads are commonplace
- People drive on the shoulder of the road
- Congestion and traffic jams are normal
- Traffic goes every which direction
- There is no yielding, right of way, or merging
- Drivers will block traffic positioning their car sideways
- Stop lights are infrequent
- Crosswalks mean nothing
- Night driving is gridlock
- Cars are in poor condition
Yeah, it’s a little lawless driving in Panama.
Cons of Driving in Panama
Driving in Panama takes strong nerves. You have to be willing to cut off other drivers and push your way ahead of them.
You have to be willing to be ridiculed by horn for every decision you make, and run the risk of being bumped, hit, or swiped.
The roads are covered in giant potholes. Potholes as big as a tire that can destroy your wheel rim.
At night, you can’t see much. Especially the hazards on the roads. Then when it rains, the potholes fill up with water and become invisible.
There is no roadside assistance. Consider traveling with more than one spare.
You aren’t allowed to leave the scene of an accident. In fact, you can’t even pull over to the side of the road. You have to stay put in the middle of traffic.
Police checkpoints are everywhere. Guards are standing in the middle of the road with machine guns and wave you down to stop, check your license and sometimes look around your car. Typically though, if you are American you are waved on without a second look.
Roads aren’t always labeled, and the names on GPS will not match the names of the signs on the road. Roads overlap each other on Google maps, so it’s never easy to navigate where you are going.
So many tolls. If you go the wrong way because the GPS sucks, you may have to go through another three tolls to get going back in the right direction.
On top of the tolls, no one is manning the gates. If you don’t have a toll sticker, or its expired or not working, you are stuck behind the gate – shamed and blocked in. On the bright side, eventually someone will pull up behind you and trigger the gate.
Pros of Driving in Panama
Not all buses have a published schedule, or route. Many are known by the locals only, and they don’t always run a tight schedule. This is Panama, not Japan.
There are simply places that public transportation does not go. Places like cliff jumps at Los Cajones and natural swimming holes like Charco Azul. Hikes and ziplining in the ancient volcano El Valle, and secret watering caves.
Driving affords you the flexibility to be early or late. You can pick the time you want to go, the time you want to leave, or even the time that you want to get there.
Freedom. Driving in Panama may be nerve wracking but you can go where you want to go without exception.
Public Transportation: Diablo Rojos
So road and driving conditions are bad, but bad enough to make you suffer on public transportation?
Diablo Rojos is the name of the buses on Panama’s public transportation system.
Would you be eager to hop on a bus named the red devil? Half the windshield will be painted decoratively with either Jesus, a devil or a naked lady, leaving the driver just a sliver of visibility. The Red Devils are also colloquially known as suicide buses, because they’ve been known to cause accidents while trying to beat out other drivers to the next stop.
I know. It sounds like an awesome adventure with four kids under eight, but we politely declined. Instead we opted to rent a car.
Now, after our worst vacation ever, I’m not sure which was the better choice.
Okay sure, the buses were supposedly decommissioned in 2013. Except the Diablo Rojos weren’t decommissioned everywhere. Just in Panama City, and even there you still see them all over.
Elsewhere throughout the country, they still rule the road.
The buses are repurposed North American yellow school buses. They have no air conditioning, still contain the small rubber benches with zero leg space, and no standing room.
They are painted bright colors with landscapes, cartoons, lewd images, dragons and fire, folk stories, beach scenes, you name it. Each one bearing the character of its driver.
A driver that gets paid bonuses for not killing his passengers. Did I already say that? It really seems worth repeating.
Each bus has been christened with a specific name, painted on the side and easily distinguishable from any one of the other thousands of Diablo Rojo buses in Panama.
But, they do have giant wheels that can survive and beat up any size pothole on the road. That very specific detail is going to be critical in the next couple paragraphs.
Private Transportation: Rental Cars
Alternatively, you can rent a car. The main airport in Panama, PTY, offers on and offsite car rentals from tons of big name car rental companies.
Renting a car in Panama is fairly cheap. Just $193 for an entire month was the lowest rate we were quoted for our vacation. However, the fine print stipulates that you are required to purchase liability insurance.
Just like in Costa Rica, this insurance is not optional. There is no way to get out of it. Some people will tell you they brought a letter from their car insurance, or their credit cards, but the truth is they will not accept it.
We tried three different car rental companies and none would waive the additional and exorbitant fees.
Plan on this liability insurance increasing your rates no less than an additional $250 per week long rental.
Private Transportation: Private Rental Cars
There is a third choice. A local, private car rental company.
This was our choice for transportation.
The perk of doing this is rates are cheaper and insurance isn’t required. Cars are still insured, as far as we were told. We were assured over and over and over again not to worry because the car we rented had full coverage.
Stranded in Panama
When it came down to it though, were left completely on our own.
Turns out, Panama doesn’t have roadside assistance.
Turns out, roadside assistance provided by rental companies is a sham.The emergency numbers they give you don’t work. Nothing works.
And, as it turns out: roadside assistance provided by private rental companies is also a joke.
This is called foreshadowing. When we give you a hint of what’s about to come. First the potholes, and secondly the insurance.
Our Story Driving and Renting a Car in Panama
This is what happened to us.
We were only one week into our 5 week trip to Panama and we chose to rent a car from a private rental company.
Essentially that means a local point of contact rents out cars that locals own and want to rent out when they leave the country for extended periods of time.
Panama has a huge expat community. In part because of income tax laws, and in part due to its location in the world.
We actually rented a car from the same person we rented the house from. We were assured the car had full coverage and not to worry if anything went wrong.
We were assured that we had a local contact that would take care of everything.
Until, the night we needed him.
About 15 minutes away from our home in Panama, our leisurely yet at the same time chaotic drive home, took a turn for the worse. The right side of the car slumped and we heard an ugly rhythmic thumping sound coming from the tires on the passenger side of the car.
I wasn’t sure what to think. In more than 20 years of driving I’ve never had a breakdown, a flat tire, or an accident.
Gabriel pulled over and immediately we could see that the front passenger tire was flat. Either the tire was in wretched shape to begin with, or we hit a pothole and the shocks didn’t absorb the force of the trauma.
Considering what we’d experienced driving throughout Central America during our travels we weren’t exactly surprised. Driving is hazardous! Fortunately, the car came with a full size spare and in a few minutes we were back on the road.
We reached out to the owner as a courtesy to let her know, and to figure out what to do next. But, not 5 minutes later we felt the now familiar rhythmic thumping and pulled over yet again.
The spare was fine, but now the back passenger tire was flat! Two blowouts! Yeah, we couldn’t believe it either.
When we reached out to the owner again, she responded: “Whaaaaatttt?” Then she told us to reach out to her local contact and disappeared. We didn’t hear from her again, at all, not even once, during the next harrowing 5 hour ordeal.
What Did We Do?
Left completely on our own in a foreign country, first we waited. We didn’t actually think the owner of the car would completely abandon us. At first, we were confident she would respond to our text messages, answer our calls, or do something; anything to try and help.
But she didn’t. We waited for two hours for her to help us. We waited two hours for nothing.
After two hours, we started making phone calls. We called our insurance only to find out we didn’t have coverage outside our home country. Actually, yes, I did call them prior to the trip but apparently I talked to someone on their first day on the job.
We tried to reach out to other local car rentals to see if they were aware of roadside assistance available to us. Easy answer: nope.
We googled and googled and googled, and found out that although we were very alone on the side of the road, we had experienced something that just about every other person who comes to Panama experiences.
See above: Road Conditions in Panama.
In the end we reached out to a a wonderful couple we met at church the previous Sunday and they came to our rescue.
They took one of our tires to a friend that has a business fixing tires and rims and after a lot more back and forth and switching of rims and tires, we finally got home.
5 hours later.
Still nothing from the car owner, we went to bed exhausted, frustrated and angry.
In the morning, now 18 hours later, we still hadn’t received a call, text or message from the owner. We sent her a text and let her know we got the car back home and that we were pretty upset and needed to speak with her.
24 hours later, she finally reached out with a text, “I figured you sorted it out.”
Her local contact also took over 24 hours to reach out to us, after multiple text/phone calls. He told us it was our responsibility to purchase all new tires for the vehicle.
All new tires.
Repairing the Car
Realizing at this point that the insurance was a fraud, and the local point of contact was worthless, we set about finding a repair shop.
We either could fight about getting a refund for the car rental, which surely didn’t seem promising, or see about fixing it and chalk it up to a loss.
Turns out every other shop on the side of the road is a rim and tire repair shop. It took a few days, but in the end we got it taken care of.
We. Us. Alone. No help from the private car rental.
And, we were stuck with a $150 car repair bill.
Renting a Car in Panama vs. Public Transportation
So what’s our Panama car rental advice? Which is the best choice?
The most important factor in deciding to rent a car in Panama or drive in Panama rests solely in what adventures you want to have in the country.
Buses are slow and time consuming and the distance between sights is vast. Combining public transportation with distance creates a timetable that wouldn’t appeal to anyone.
But, if you truly want to experience all that Panama has to offer, a rental car is definitely the way to go.
Regardless of what you choose, both driving and taking public transportation will provide you an experience with Panamanian culture that is highly unique to Latin America.
But, if you truly want to experience all that Panama has to offer, a rental car is definitely the way to go.Regardless of what you choose, both driving and taking public transportation will provide you an experience with Panamanian culture that is highly unique to Latin America.
If you opt to go with a renal car, whether private or through a rental car company, based on our experience, we’ve got two recommendations.
- Don’t trust strangers
- Get private renter’s insurance
Private Renter’s Insurance covers complete rental protection on your rental car.
- The costs equate to a few extra dollars a day; Easy to justify and a great deal, compared to the $40+ offered through car rental companies.
- Claims are paid within 3 business days.
- Zero cancellation fees prior to the rental period.
We recommend Rental Cover. They have nearly 3,000 reviews and average 4.8 stars from satisfied customers who tout their honesty, reliability and transparency.
Coverage includes major and minor car repair including, but not limited to:
- Cracked Windshields
- Lost Keys
- Flat Tires
- Broken Headlights
A month ago I would have scoffed at the idea of buying extra insurance. While I don’t think additional car rental insurance is necessary in your home country, I do think it’s a travel must when driving and renting a car in Panama – or anywhere in Central and South America.
If you use our vetted link through Rental Cover, we will receive a commission off your purchase, however you will not pay any extra.
Private Renter’s Insurance
See, if we’d had private renter’s insurance we would have had roadside assistance.
If we’d had private renter’s insurance, they would have replaced our tires.
With private renter’s insurance we wouldn’t have been stranded on the side of the Panama autopista for 5 hours, hungry, abandoned, feverish, tired, angry, claustrophobic and all the other feelings and emotions that come with being trapped in a broken down car with no where to go.
If we’d had private renter’s insurance we wouldn’t have been out $150 to fix someone else’s car that deserted us.
Private renter’s insurance also would have helped us when we came back from Los Cajones and found that someone had side swiped the car while it was parked. Yeah, that happened too.
And maybe, with private renter’s insurance, we wouldn’t now be calling our family Christmas trip to Panama the worst vacation ever.
► For Kids: What better way to learn how to change a flat tire than on the side of the freeway in Panama? Adventures to remember, amiright?
When did you learn how to change a tire?
► What We Learned: No one is going to help you, but you.
What’s a travel fail that your family has experienced in a foreign country? From losing our Go-Pro at the bottom of a cenote to breaking an escalator at the Louvre, we’ve had our fair share (coming soon).
► Nap-Time Version: Ultimate Guide to Renting a Car in Panama & Driving in Panama including what you should expect and prepare for and how you can avoid making the same mistakes we did!
Check out all our adventures in Panama including feeding monkeys on Monkey Island in Panama and celebrating Christmas on the beach in Panama!