By Foot, Taxi and a Bus Ride

Upon arriving in Panama City about a week ago, using the local buses appeared daunting. The city was entirely new. Getting anywhere accurately without a taxi  appeared virtually impossible.

I’ve done my share of drifting on foot for hours and kilometers.  During these jaunts, my legs have felt the tropical-heat-induced soreness.  I  usually end up falling asleep for a bit upon returning to my hospedaje.

Prior to yesterday, I’d jumped on local buses twice, only to find myself lost and needing to hail a cab which is as easy as taking a step or two along a sidewalk.  Taxis in Panama City are ever-present and affordable.  Within city limits it costs between $1 and $3 depending on the distance and how well  you haggle, which isn’t a tough game like in Managua. Actually, one time, I’d thought I’d agreed to $2 when the fare came out to $1.50.  There are über-honest taxi drivers in Panama City.

Some tourists feel they’ll be threatened while riding on a packed bus.  A Colombian girl who lives here said that the buses are dangerous.  I’ve ridden about seven of them and haven’t noticed anything shaky.

No one has noticed my wallet bulging a bit in my front left pocket, nor my camera in the right.  I do usually get a couple of quick and perplexed looks when people notice the flash.

I wanted to get a bus to Tocumen International Airport, which is located about 24km or 15 miles south of Panama City’s center.  I deemed this the only way of getting in touch with Spirit Airlines, the ultra-cheap, no frills carrier.   I wanted to talk to someone about the potential manipulation of my return ticket.

I would end up needing to spend more than half a day to get contact information that I couldn’t find online.  I only got their limited office hours along with a phone number that’s available only for 12 hours during the week.

Let me not digress: the airline’s client detachment is not the purpose of this post.  The motive is to tell you about a local bus experience.

I first took a $2 taxi passage to the bus terminal where it was quick and easy to locate my bus to Tocumen.   I was told that it would take about forty-five minutes.    The bus left the terminal at 1:30pm.  It must have stopped more than 50 times along the way.

There was one isle separated by a row of seats on either side.  The row on the right crammed two to a seat while the row on the left squeezed three.

The seats were wooden.  Leg room was compromised.  The bus didn’t seem to have shocks. For the first time on this trip my lower back became sore for a short stint.

I was near the back.  I couldn’t read or write due to bouncing.

As the bus moved, the wind nullified the hot and humid afternoon feel.  When the rain poured intermittently, riders closed the windows, instantly causing an uncomfortable stuffiness.  I would have rather been drenched or more than likely just a little bit wet.  I thought: I’m not a Panamanian.  I’ve chosen to live by their rules.  How would these folks endure sleet or a freezing, windswept rain?  Maybe Panamanians who have relocated to northern climates  feel another type of discomfort that affects them like this sticky, musty, crammed feeling is consuming me.

The driver, while shifting one of his grand eight-speeds of gears, didn’t seem to be achieving Zen with the brakes.  It appeared that he was hitting them with force.  It was especially discomforting in stop-and-go traffic and when people were getting on and off at every 50-meter or 164-foot stretch.

Finally, after consulting fellow passengers, they told me that I was at my stop.  The time was then just minutes shy of 4pm.  It took me almost two-and-a-half hours to reach the airport from the bus terminal that was located just 15 miles away.

Sticky and exhausted but relieved, I paid the driver $.25.   Yes, a quarter.  The alternative was a $15 taxi ride as it’s the airport and outside of city limits.  I rationalized:  You sure get what you pay for.


4 responses to this post.

  1. I’m up to about nine local bus rides in Panama City so far. I’ve been getting bolder and bolder with this endeavor. The one described above has been by far the worst, although yesterday I was on a much shorter ride that was quite uncomfortable. For me it’s only a couple of handfuls of rides. Imagine how it must be for the many people that have to do during for two rush hours daily? Often there is super-tight standing room only. Brutal!

    At the airport I got the info that I needed to contact the airline as I couldn’t find it online. Because Spirit Air dubs itself as the ultra low fair airline of the Americas. They live up to their name. I’ve managed to get in touch with them by phone. The agent was very nice and polite while assuring me that all I need to do is call to easily change my ticket for $110 if I so desire.


  2. Posted by Mama on March 16, 2011 at 23:06

    The bus ride sounds awful. Did you get anything taken care of at the airport?


  3. Posted by Shane on March 16, 2011 at 20:13

    You pay peanuts and you get monkeys! How did that bus ride compare to MagaBus?


    • Megabus is way more comfortable. You wouldn’t find a vintage North American school bus cramming as many people in as possible in the states. I took two more of those buses today, one across town and one back. The first one was empty as the driver was bringing the bus to the mechanic. It was relaxing. The other was on the way back and it was jammed. During parts of the ride I was claustrophobic and wanted to just get out and get a cab but there were too many people to plow through. I couldn’t even get the camera out of my pocket as I was pressed against people, not a fun memory. Anyway, this is how the average Panama city dweller commutes.


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