When I moved to Panama City, I knew I needed three things: an automatic transmission, a good air conditioning and an SUV for cargo space. I was prepared for a dozen dings while learning the city, but the reality of driving here is not what I anticipated. In fact, it's downright respectful.
I think driving in Panama City is a form of polite aggressiveness. There's a lot of traffic, so you can seldom go fast. (Okay, I don't always love the "a lot of traffic" part, but it is what it is.) Knowing that there is almost always going to be congestion, you can't wait for an opening in traffic... you have to create an opening.
This is the part I love. If I can put the nose of my car in front of another car, other drivers are smart enough not to hit me. They may act like they don't want to let you in, but once your nose is in front of their car, they'll let you in.
Within a week of driving in the city, I was able to cross a busy 5-lane intersection without the aid of a stoplight. The hardest part about driving in Panama City is learning a city filled with winding one-way streets and very few street signs. The good news is that landmarks are how the locals navigate.
Want to know where a restaurant is? There's no need to squint to see a street sign and then attempt to translate it from Spanish into English... just follow the landmarks. "Go down the main road, turn right at the Dunkin' Donuts and then turn left on the first street. The restaurant will be on your right."
Landmarks are important in Panama City. Since street signs are not always readable (or even there), landmarks are how you navigate the city. For example, when I first moved to my city apartment, I knew that if I headed in the general direction of the tall buildings near my apartment, I would eventually get home.
A good GPS is a great investment against getting lost, but Google Maps on your smart phone will also do the trick. One word of caution, though. If you're used to driving while texting or driving after drinking...you'll need to change your ways. Driving in Panama City takes your entire concentration.
Traffic is worse on payday (the first and the 15th of the month) and almost non-existent on holidays. The roads in the city are very good. The photo of the road in this blog was taken from my apartment balcony. Balboa is a main thoroughfare, but this gives you an idea of how modern the roads are.
Driving in Panama City is easier than in Naples, Italy or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil... but for someone moving from a gentler driving climate, you may want to consider taking taxis for a while until you learn the city. But for those of you who love to really pay attention when you drive, driving in Panama City is downright fun.