Bus Travel in Panama
In a mostly rural country where only one in four households owns an automobile, Panamanian buses deliver an essential and inexpensive—not to mention enriching—means of getting around the isthmus.
For only a quarter (Panama uses the U.S. dollar) you can enjoy a truly Panamanian institution: the charmingly yet ludicrously painted diablo rojo—Panama’s workhorse of intra-town and intra-city public transit.
Despite being dubbed red devils, the buses are psychedelically decorated from the entire color wheel. In all of Panama, only the quetzal—a beautiful bird found in the country’s Western mountains—can outdo the red devil’s
intense burst of color.
These urban quetzals, prowling the streets with the roar of 20-year-old diesel engines, are actually refurbished American school buses.
The Toyota Coaster—something between a puffy van and a squashed bus—connects just about every other destination with Panama City. Running at regular intervals to and from Panama City’s Albrook Bus
terminal, and costing roughly $1 to $1.50 per hour of travel, the Coasters pack passengers into extra seats folding out from seemingly everywhere inside the bus. If luggage cannot be bungeed to the roof, the doorman deputizes baggage handling
to whomever has a free lap.
For the 440-kilometer trip from Panama City to David, a few air-conditioned, coach-style buses have been introduced. Some boast televisions and DVD-players to temper the 6-hour, $15 express journey.
If you take one Panamanian bus ride, forsake the flight from Pacific-side David to Atlantic-side Bocas del Toro and instead join the locals for an hourly $6 David-Almirante Coaster (after arriving at the Caribbean
port town of Almirante, a $3 water taxi will finish the trip to Bocas). The well-paved but curvy journey over the rugged continental divide and back down to sea level again takes you from balmy to chilly to balmy in just three hours, not
counting the 20-minute break at Rambala where you can join the bus driver at a roadside restaurant for a bowl of sancocho, the national dish of chicken soup spiced with cilantro. The stunning views down the Pacific- and Atlantic-facing
slopes, within minutes of each other, will ward off napping.
A little Spanish practice and a dash of geography homework will be rewarded with both savings and a high-wattage window into Panamanian society. In the words of Eric Jackson, editor of The Panama News, “If you
haven’t grooved to cumbias and tamboritos on an air-conditioned Coaster, you have been deprived of one of the joys of Panamanian popular culture.”