You may have heard horror stories about driving in Panama, but it’s not as terrible as you might think. Yes, there are several factors that make traffic and driving throughout the country intimidating, but there are some things you can do to prepare yourself to navigate Panamanian roads. Keep reading to learn more about the factors that can make driving in Panama challenging, how to read road signs, the problem with other vehicles, speed limits and speeding, how to deal with police checkpoints, some essential need-to-know information, and more.
If the mere thought of driving through a big city like Chicago or Los Angeles during rush hour traffic leaves you sick with dread, then maybe driving in Panama isn’t for you. If, however, you’re a little adventurous and willing to work to put yourself into the right mindset to handle anything that comes your way, you’ll be fine. And if you’re from the U.S. or Canada, you’ll find most of the rules of the road are very similar to what you already know.
Speaking of what might come your way, there are some hazards that you will run into if you’re spending any time driving in Panama. They may include:
Confusing road signs
Non-existent road signs
Motor vehicles without tail lights
A lack of places to turn around if you make a wrong turn
Roundabouts where no one follows driving rules
Missing manhole covers
Roads without curbs
Poor night visibility - no or old paint and no cats-eyes
Traffic lights will often not exist, even where you’d expect them most. Traffic is heavy, other drivers are undisciplined, the streets are poorly maintained, and traffic signs and signals are often missing.
Traffic roundabouts are common and you should always be extremely careful when entering and exiting one. Drivers will be very assertive and most will seem to fail to follow any type of traffic rules when it comes to driving in a roundabout.
Road Rules and Regulations
When you’re driving in Panama, keep these rules of the road in mind.
Don’t make calls or send texts while driving.
Drive on the right, just like in Canada and the U.S.
All front seat passengers have to wear seat belts. You will be pulled over, and the fine is $75.
Back seat passengers do not have to wear seatbelts.
Children 5 and under have to be in a special car seat but it’s unknown how much this law is enforced.
You must wear a shirt while driving. At all times.
If you run over a chicken it’s expected that you will find the owner and pay to replace it. This might cost you between $5 and $15.
When driving in Panama you must carry:
A valid driver’s license from any country (see section about driver’s licenses).
Your passport or Cedula if you are a resident.
Proof of liability insurance
Current registration for the vehicle.
No matter where you drive in Panama, you WILL be subject to police check points and you must be ready at all times to show the required documents.
Under Panama’s laws you are also required to carry an accident report form and a driver’s manual. This is generally not enforced.
Speed Limits and Speeding
Typical speed limits on city streets will range from 35 to 30 km/h and highways will average 100 km/h. You will notice that all speed limit signs and road signs, and most vehicles’ speedometers/odometers are shown in Kilometers.
Be careful and pay attention for signs! Speed limits change often on the Inter-Americana and there aren’t a lot of signs. You don’t want to miss the change and be pulled over for speeding.
The best advice is to assume the limit is lower in areas that are built up with houses and/or businesses.
When driving, always have your passport, Cedula (Panamanian ID card if you have one), your country’s driver’s license or Panama driver’s license, and your International Driver’s Permit. If you are stopped by police you will likely be asked for those documents.
As for your own country’s driver’s license, it is valid in Panama for three months. Be prepared to show your passport’s Panama immigration entry stamp to ensure you haven’t been driving for longer than three months on your country’s DL. After three months you must obtain a Panama driver’s license.
The government agency which is responsible for vehicle registrations and licenses is called the ATTT, or Autoridad del Transito y Transporte Terreste.
It’s illegal to drink and drive in Panama. Your blood alcohol content must be 0.0 and if you fail a Breathalyzer test you can result in your arrest, a fine, and vehicle impoundment. In fact, even a small amount of alcohol in your system could get you in a lot of trouble.
Renting a Car
If you don’t have a car but don’t want to use a taxi, why not rent a car? The base prices of car rentals in Panama are cheap, and as long as you have insurance coverage on your credit card you can save the money since you won’t have to buy it from the car rental agency.
Always check the car closely before you drive off the lot. Take photos of any existing damage and make sure you show any damage to the staff at the rental office.
Everyone who drives in Panama is required to have third-party basic liability insurance. The trick is that not all insurance companies in Panama will insure a foreigner’s car. Those that do will need you to provide a copy of your passport, driver’s license, title, and registration.
Your insurance premiums will be calculated based on your Panama driving record. Premiums will go up if you’re in an accident where it’s your fault.
You should definitely download the Waze app if you plan on driving in Panama. It’s useful throughout the whole country, and is the most-used navigation app for drivers in Panama.
If you’re in an accident, the law requires you to move your car, if possible, if your vehicle is disrupting traffic. In most cases, though, people leave their cars at the scene of the crash until the insurance company rep and the police arrive. In many cases the car insurance representatives show up sooner than the police and can help you take photos and fill out the accident forms.
If an insurance company rep doesn’t show up at the accident scene, you will have 72 hours to file a claim at the insurance office with the appropriate documents.
Use the left lane to pass slower cars unless a sign prohibits it
Yield to pedestrians (if on foot. do not rely on this)
Drive at night, just watch out for cars without taillights
Don’t parallel park if the curb is painted yellow, or if there’s a no parking sign (an “E” with a red line through it)
Don’t expect to get away with speeding
Don’t text or talk on your phone while driving
Always carry your ID and driver’s license
Don’t drive if you’ve been drinking
Expect cultural differences from other drivers
Driving in Panama City
One of the great things about Panama City is that it’s easy to get around without a car if you really don’t want to drive. If, however, you would like to try to navigate the city on your own, just be aware that traffic is just unbelievable in PC, and remember our tips. Mostly, watch out for roundabouts…no one seems to know how to navigate these properly.