Driving in Panama

Driving in Panama is always an adventure. It does not matter where you used to drive, whether it was Quebec City or Bangladesh; Panama traffic norms will test your reflexes. As simple as it may seem, the best way to avoid an accident is to make driving your number one priority. Here are a few more tips to navigating the Pan-American Highway. Returno – A returno is a gap in the highway median that can be used to make a U-turn. On-ramps and off-ramps are few and far between in Panama so drivers should quickly become familiar with them. Be aware: unless otherwise marked, U-turns on the highway are dangerous and illegal. Even the marked returnos can be dangerous. Stay safe by waiting for an appropriate gap in traffic. If you feel the returno is not a safe place to pass due to a hill or curve in the road, keep driving, there will be another.  

Often returnos in busy areas like the Coronado intersection are closed on weekends. In this case, cars are directed away from these hubs to safer locations, where traffic is then controlled by a police officer. When retunos are closed, respect the cones; driving through a closed returno is especially dangerous as the oncoming traffic is not expecting you!

Speed limit – In Panama the speed limit on the highway typically ranges from 60kph – 100kph, however, signs marking the limit are not consistent. One indication that the speed limit is about to drop is a school or the beginning of a town.

There are two signs that suggest the speed limit has changed, without saying by how much. These signs are: Reduzca La Velocidad (reduce your speed) and Resuma La Velocidad (resume your speed). The general rule when there is no hard number posted as the speed limit is to drive 80 kph on the open highway and 60kph though towns.

Speed traps – Police in Panama typically sit in the shade where the speed limit has dropped, entering or exiting a town. Currently there is a nation-wide campaign that hopes to mitigate speeding. Life-size cut outs of a police officer standing in front of a motorbike with a radar gun, appear along the highway driving from Coronado towards the interior. The officer imposters are easily recognizable for a couple of reasons: 1 – their motorbikes do not touch the ground and 2 - they might be the only officers in Panama sitting in the sun. While drivers might not be fooled, these signs are a good reminder to slow down. It is better to arrive late, and alive.  

Signage –Road signs are lacking anywhere you travel in Panama.  From street signs that have faded or do not exist, to one way signs that were never posted. Some roads have lines that are current and correct, while others have old lines that are confusing and misleading, some even have both! Take it slow and pay attention.

The Third Lane – When there is traffic on the highway, you might notice cars beginning to creep out on to the shoulder.  Though some drivers use the shoulder to get around traffic, the maneuver is actually counterproductive, slowing the flow of traffic. Bus stops, bridges and other hazards on the shoulder make drivers who use this lane a danger to themselves and others on the road.  

Waze App- Waze is a traffic navigation app available for smart phones. The app is a helpful tool offering a GPS navigation function that helps you get to where you are going using audible step-by-step directions. The app also provides real time traffic reports, with user input that helps them generate the fastest routes. The downside of the app is it tracks user’s routes only by speed; thus, the routes recommended may be questionable. You can trust Waze users in Panama are driving up one ways, over medians or down dirt roads and though rivers. So use your judgment! If you do not think it looks like a good idea, turn around and Waze will re-route you on the fastest alternative route.