A quick web search will show you that most people advise foreigners to hire a taxi, in lieu of renting a car, when traveling to and touring Panama City. And there are several good reasons for doing so:
- Taxis are readily available
- Roads in the city are heavily congested with aggressive drivers
- Bus stops are everywhere and rides are cheap
- Poor signage
- Lack of parking
For all of these reasons, and I was scared to death, I decided to forgo renting and utilize taxis. Here’s my story and the reason I ultimately decided to rent a car two days into the trip:
(Quick note: TripAdvisor forums have some great advice on renting a car in Panama, close to 300 posts! http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g294480-i1194-k4789180-Renting_a_car_in_Panama-Panama_City_Panama_Province.html)
The night before I left the States, I thoroughly read through all of the above. I learned a lot. I knew that I should not pay more than $30 for a ride from Tocumen Airport to majority of city hotels. I knew that I was to walk right past the groups of locals holding signs and make my way to curb. And I knew that I should not follow anyone out to the parking lot. Well, what did I do? I panicked. That’s what I did. Full-on brain fart and all advice went right out the window!
Walking out of customs was what I imagine celebrities encounter on the red carpet, people screaming and yelling, pulling, trying to get you to look at them. I was exhausted and extremely overwhelmed so spoke to the first friendly face I saw. He was a small, elderly gentleman with a huge grin and a taxi sign. Taxi, ma’am? Si, senor. Before I knew it, a younger, much taller, larger man grabbed my bag and started walking quickly away from us. So fast, I could barely keep up.
Immediately, I think of the TripAdvisor Forums that warned this would happen if I didn’t go directly to curb. Damn it, I’d fallen into their trap, but had to fix it. The next piece of advice was to get the price set before entering the cab, because once in, you are a captive audience, and the drivers won’t let you out of car until they get what they want. I can do this, I think, so I continue to ask him ‘how much, do you know the hotel I am going to? Speak English?’. He completely ignores me as a I struggle to keep up. Finally, we go out the side door of the airport into a parking lot but it is semi-lit and away from idling taxis. As I am walking through rows of cars with this stranger, I am thinking I have lost all of my senses and am walking right into a trap. Leave, Michele, it’s just clothes! Finally, we stop at his taxi and he places my bag in the trunk, closes it and turns to me and says ‘Cincuenta’. ’50? No way, thirty!’. He looks at me bewildered and says, ‘too far, too far’. I start to think, well, I don’t know where the heck we are, maybe he is right. But I kept going back to TripAdvisor warning me that this was all a game to take advantage of tourists. So again, I say ‘Thirty!’. He counters with ‘Cuarenta!’. I repeat ’30!’. He then says no, and starts to get angry so I pound my fist on his trunk and say ‘give me my bag back’, and then he says…’okay 30′.
I get my price and make the decision to get into the car towards hotel. He is angry, I am praying that I make it alive and he starts yelling – ‘Autopista, Autopista, Autopista, Si? 10 dollah, 10 dollah. Quick Quick’. I just shrug because I have NO idea what he is talking about. He starts yelling it faster and faster and I realize he is talking about an upcoming exit. So I agree. It’s a toll road. We get to the attendant and he says to me ‘ten dollah’. I see the 90 cents toll sign but I watch him give the money to the attendant so I assume it’s
something I am not aware of, or more than likely they are in cahoots, so I sit quietly, just praying the hotel is nearby. And really, my life is worth more than ten bucks. No arguing and a few minutes later, we pull up to the hotel. I breathe a HUGE sigh of relief and climb out of car.
Miguel, I soon find out is his name, offers me a tour the next morning. I immediately say NO! And he says ‘I treat you good, you come with me’. He then goes to front desk and gives me a phone number and says he wants me to call. Um, yeah, okay.
Taxi ride number one was the pits and cost 40 bucks. Taxi ride number 2 was uneventful but $20 RT to a place not too far away. He was a kind gentleman and asked if he could give me a tour for $40 the next morning. I agreed since he mentioned several places I wanted to see, including Miraflores locks (Panama Canal) and Cerra Ancon (mountain with views). Towards the end of my tour the next morning, Mario (as in Mario and Luigi, he tells me) asks if I want to go shopping. I am not a big shopper but thought it would be interesting to see so agree. Few minutes later as we are driving up to a shack guarded by security with a huge uzi, Mario turns to me and says, ‘If anyone asks, you are here on a cruise!’. Ummm..okay?? Thankfully, the guard does not stop but as I walk around the duty-free shops, I can’t help but think one of the security officers is going to identify me as a non-cruise guest and I’ll be on the next Locked-Up Abroad episode. I run to the car and instruct Mario to take me back to hotel. $60 with tip.
So $120 in taxi fares in two days, felt like my life was in jeopardy twice and knew I could do a better job myself. I didn’t even get into the aggressive driving with the incessant beeping. I immediately reserved a rental car the next day and forged my own path, putting my life back in my own hands, where it belongs!
Driving my own car was just as crazy. Stay tuned and I’ll fill ya in!