The Panamanian Way?

I have traveled a bit in my life through various countries and locales and have always been a bit wary of taxi drivers, particularly when I stand out (whether through language, accent or clothing) as an obvious foreigner or tourist.  So as not to offend anyone, I won’t mention which specific countries I have had bad experiences in, but suffice to say I have encountered a few “rogue” drivers.  I have been charged outrageously high fares, been driven in circles to drive up the meter, suffered through rude and sexually harassing language, been driven the wrong way down a street to save time, and once even had a taxi driver attempt to drop me off at his Cousin’s hotel on the opposite side of the city hoping I wouldn’t notice that it wasn’t the one I had requested to go to.

I’m not sure if my experiences were because I had the misfortune of encountering an unlikely number of “those drivers” that all of the travel guides warn you about, or because I did most of my previous traveling as a young college student, often alone or just with a friend.  When I once asked my hosts in a country south of our borders why I always had some sort of annoying problem with taxi drivers when my male counterparts did not, I was told with shrugged shoulders that giving foreign women a hard time was just “part of the culture”.  Hmmm.  Whatever the case may be, as a family with children traveling in Panama, we have been surprised by how friendly and helpful all of our drivers have been so far.  Possibly it is because we are traveling with young children, in particular an opinionated two-year old who likes to loudly voice his opinion about whatever it is that we are doing.  Maybe everyone takes pity on us?  Or, it could just be the “Panamanian Way”.

After our harrowing ride getting to our hotel in Panama City on Friday night, we awoke early-ish (but not quite refreshed) Saturday morning.  After a lovely breakfast of fruit, toast and tropical juices on what must surely be the most serene patio in all of the city, we ventured out with the kids to explore Casco Viejo – the Old Town of Panama City.

Balboa Inn


It was a hot and humid day.  My husband doesn’t fare well with humidity (even though he’s originally from Texas – go figure), and even the short walk to the main street had him looking like someone had sprayed him with a hose full of hot water.  After some difficulties finding a taxi which met our specifications of having seat belts for the kids (see my last post –, off we went.

Casco Viejo was fascinating.  From the main part of Panama City, you drive through a very sketchy looking area which we had been warned multiple times to avoid on foot.  From there, you emerge onto a little peninsula.  This area was specifically chosen by the Spanish Crown to be the site of the new Panama City (after the last one was destroyed by pirates) and was founded in 1673.  It’s location, surrounded by reefs which are exposed during low tide, was meant to deter enemy attacks and house the wealthy behind walls away from the other “less fortunate” citizens of Panama (this is all according to the little tourist map given to me by our hotel).

The area seems to be undergoing a major renovation.  Parts were stunning, and others dilapidated but still picturesque in their disrepair.

Panama City

Panama City

Panama City

Panama City

We wandered around for a while, locating a couple of landmarks on our little map and taking a few photos.  My husband was wilting, and my daughter was beginning to moan.  She generally isn’t one to complain about physical ailments, but she was mentioning that her head hurt and she felt weak. I suspected that she might be a little dehydrated after our long journey and disembarkation into such a warm climate after leaving the long and intolerable polar vortex behind.  I pulled out our water bottle and tried to prop her up a bit with long drinks and encouraging words, but frankly she didn’t look great.

I parked the husband and kids down on a bench in the main plaza of Casco Viejo and wandered over to a little mini-market to buy some cool drinks.  My husband sat watching the kids and spoke with a man who normally works as a tour guide in the area but was without any paying customers at the moment.  Even though my husband assured him that our weary group didn’t have any inclination to do a walking tour of Old Town, the man stuck around and conversed with all of us anyway.  My two year old chased birds around and pointed out all of the stray dogs to us.  My daughter looked at little souvenirs set up for sale on nearby tables and checked out the comfort level of each bench in the plaza.  I was hopeful that the break would give them all a second wind, and we could go check out the inside of the Cathedral.  After a couple of rounds of caffeinated and sugary beverages, interesting conversation and decent people watching, I waited to see if everyone would perk up.  They didn’t.

It was time to head back to the hotel for more water and relaxation in a cool room.  We gathered ourselves up and headed down the street to hail a cab.  The first one that pulled over blocked honking traffic for roughly two minutes while he did a 20 point turn to back though a crowded intersection and position himself right next to us. He then gave us an opportunity to practice our shaky Spanish as we explained that we needed seat belts for the kids.  The driver listened patiently then very kindly pulled the back seats forward and got out the belts from where they had obviously spent the majority of their lives.  Great!  We were all set!

Sort of.

Next we asked how much he would charge us to go to our hotel – The Balboa Inn.  (In Panama, as most other Central American spots, there are no meters in the taxis.  You simply inquire before sitting down what the driver will charge you to go to a certain place.  You agree on a price and off you go!)  The driver looked at us with a confused expression.  “Que?”

“El Balboa Inn – es un hotel“, I added, thinking maybe that we were mispronouncing something.

The driver looked around and immediately waved down another passing taxi.  “Do you know where the Balboa Inn is?” he asked, to which that driver answered emphatically, “No”.

Crap.  We had committed a TOTAL rookie traveler mistake – not taking the card with the address on it when we left the hotel.

What followed was a test of patience.  Mine, because I really just wanted to get my kids back to the hotel so I could pour some more water down everyone’s throat, and the driver’s, who continued to ask everyone who passed if they knew where our hotel was.  Interestingly, he asked each person in Spanish first if they spoke English, and then (even if they answered “no”) if they knew where this hotel might be.  Maybe, he thought if they spoke English they would know where these gringos are staying?  I was sure that at some point the man would become frustrated with the situation, and move on to another easier fare – but no.  He asked the Grandma hobbling by with a walker.  He asked two college age girls.  He asked two men who might have been German.  He asked a fruit vendor pushing a little cart.  He asked a mom walking by with her baby.  He finally asked two city police officers on bikes, who also didn’t know.  Eventually, we ended up calling the hotel on my cell phone – which we weren’t even sure would work in Panama yet (it did!).  Everyone (I am referring to the now ginormous crowd of people who were gathered around us trying to solve this problem together) cheered when the proprietor of our apparently little known hotel graciously offered directions to the taxi driver via my phone!  Yay!  We were on our way – and all of this extra work for an already agreed upon price of $2.50.

Taxista Nicole

Next up, after spending a few hours resting, we hired Taxista Nicole.  After we flagged her down and confirmed that her amazingly sparkly clean taxi met all of our requirements, we were off to a restaurant overlooking the Miraflores lock on the Panama Canal.  I told her that I enjoyed riding in taxis owned by women much better than men because they tended to be so much cleaner (true).  This seemed to please her, because she then began a lighthearted laughing rant about how slovenly and disgusting male taxi drivers are, and added that they really should be ashamed.  She then gave us a royal tour of the American district that you drive through before you get to the lock.  This is the area that used to be an American military base, and it also houses a beautiful Administrative building that has mural paintings of the canal.  Before you roll your eyes and think to yourself that she was running up the meter while doing this – remember that our fare was agreed upon in advance.  She also offered to pick us up from the restaurant when we were all done, as she was nervous that some unscrupulous driver might charge us more.  We took her up on the offer, and enjoyed a tour through a different part of the complex on the way home.

Next up, we flew to David, and caught a taxi at the airport to go to Boquete – approximately a forty minute drive.  We had a ton of suitcases etc, plus two kids and as always that perplexing seat belt requirement for the kids that all Panamanians think is crazy.  This guy didn’t bat an eye.  He turned to my husband once we were all safely wedged into the car (including an open trunk so packed with our stuff that there was no possible way anything could fall out), introduced himself with complete name, and added a “mucho gusto”.

The next problem?  We once again had departed without a clear idea where our next destination was.  Boquete is a town with no real addresses.  Instead, you describe you location as “200 meters past the Hotel Ladera and just in front of the other bridge” (that’s our address right now – seriously).  Of course at that moment, we didn’t actually know that, we just had a name of the apartment “complex” which consisted of only 4 apartments and was little known in Boquete much less by anyone from out of town.  No problem!  The driver proceeded to call everyone he knew who was from Boquete, anyone who ever visited Boquete, or even anyone who had any relatives in Boquete.  Since we now knew that our phones worked, we also attempted to contact the landlords but to no avail.  With a combination of his limited information from his sources, our recollections from a map we had seen months earlier, and a last minute call from our landlords, we managed to find our way there.  The driver wasn’t even miffed that he had driven an extra ten minutes in circles while trying to find the place.  He shook all of our hands and wished us the best of luck before driving away.

The next day, our first full day in Boquete, we decided to make the walk into town to locate the language school we would be using and the grocery store to score a few staples.  The walk into town was shall we say…stressful.  The eight year old was antsy and whiney.  The two year old was screaming to get out of his stroller already, but we didn’t dare let him out lest he dash into traffic or just generally cause a ruckus.  We made our way through the grocery store like a tornado.  My daughter was picking up every other thing on the shelf and demanding to know what it was.  My husband was impatient and kept asking me what else we needed.  I of course could’t get a good look at my list because my two year old was pulling various items off of the shelves and throwing them onto the floor.  At one point, I encouraged my daughter to push the stroller, and she somehow got her brother’s finger wedged into the sunshade that she was attempting to fold up with him in it.  He was ok, but highly pissed off and screaming, so we quickly gathered up the few things we had managed to locate, paid, and left.

As we made our way through traffic outside, my husband spots a bus idling by the side of the road.  By “bus”, I am actually referring to the little Toyota diesel 12 person vans that serve as buses here.  By the way, there are no formal “bus routes” per se, nor schedules, nor are there really any designated bus stops except for the occasional shelter made from two stone walls and a tin roof.  If you want to stop a bus, you wave your hand and they will stop just about anywhere (no rigid metro rules here).  You are expected to recognize the bus that normally drives your route, perhaps by a small sign, or the color it is painted, or if you are in the big city – the crazy lights and murals that decorate the side (my daughter called those “disco” buses).  The buses in Boquete also give a gentle little honk at you as they drive past, in case you realize that, yes, you actually do need to catch that bus that just went by.  Anyway, the driver of this bus gives my husband a little wave and a shoulder shrug, as if to say “Are you getting on?”.  My husband turns to me and says, “I think that’s our bus!”

“Really??”  I’m thinking.  I mean, we’ve been in town less than 24 hours, and I’m actually not even sure at this point where we live, except that it was really hard to find the first time.  “We have a bus?”  Of course, I was not actually looking forward to making the walk home, uphill, with a screaming kid, a pouting kid, and four heavy bags of groceries.

“Ok…” I said warily, as we scurried through traffic to the other side of the bus.  The side door opened and I was immediately struck by the improbable number of people crammed on this bus.  My next thought was, “Where on earth are we going to sit?”, and “How much does this thing cost?  Do we have any cash?” etc…  I needn’t have worried.  Multiple hands reached out and pulled the bags from my hands.  Someone very kindly lifted my son out of my arms and pulled him into the bus, while another person reached down to offer my daughter a hand.  A man, who I later realized was amazingly drunk (and not “I just had a few beers at the neighborhood potluck” drunk, but more like “I’ve been drinking for 3 days straight” drunk) got out and helped my husband fold up the stroller and get inside.  Frankly, impressive dexterity for such a high blood alcohol content – as I can still barely get the thing folded while sober.  I stepped in and realized that a seat had been cleared for us, and my daughter and son were already sitting there together.  As I sat next to them, the very friendly drunk man collected all of the shopping bags and handed them to me.  Another person made room for my husband next to him on a bench seat.  Off we went (to parts unknown).

Actually, it did turn out to be “our bus”.  Somehow, my husband had spotted the small sign on the front which referred to an area north of our apartment.  He figured the bus would likely drive past our place, and it did!  The total cost for this friendly adventure was 70 cents, which we paid when we got off.

The experience of those few rides in those first couple of days left me feeling like I had entered some sort of twilight zone of friendly people.  This was reinforced when we met with a staff member at our language school, who took the time to walk us all the way across town to my son’s new daycare, and along the way provide us with tips about transportation in Boquete.

“Absolutely, you should never pay more than $3 for any taxi ride anywhere in town.  And you should never pay more than $1 a person for any bus ride”.  I told her about our experiences so far, and that no taxi driver in Boquete had yet to charge us more than $2, even for the whole family.  She was stunned.

“You have been very lucky!” she exclaimed.

I am hoping that rather than luck, it is maybe just the “Panamanian Way”!

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