Red Devils and Taxis from a “Newbie Gringo”
Diablo Riojo (the Red Devil) in all its Glory
If you have ever read an Ex-Pat Forum, or the Lonely Planet, or just about any blog from a “planet-hopper” when they experience Panama City the first time, there’s one thing that will always come up ….. Red Devils and Taxis!
In a nutshell, it’s like being in the movie “Speed” on acid. More on that later…
Let’s face it, when you travel to a city that has 1.4 million people, but the roads were built a quarter million, with no subways, monorails, trains or trolleys, there’s bound to be some adventure. So let’s start with the buses or “Red Devils” as they call them here in Panama.
You remember that yellow school bus you rode to grade school with double rows all the way back with the windows that only could be pulled down half way by pushing 2 buttons toward the middle, pump gas brakes, that loud diesel engine huffing and puffin as you climb the slightest hill ?
Note…. By the way, I’m only talking to the 35-60 year olds here from the USA.
Well, this is what they use for transportation buses in Panama City and, I’m not talking about “Retro-Replicas” of the yellow school bus… This is your bus!
Today, on my way to Punta Patilla, I found a petrified Juicy-Fruit gum that I swear I put under this seat when I was in the third grade! true story.
There are literally thousands of them here! They’re all over the roads and a huge parking lot full at the Terminal in the Albrook Mall.
These buses have been improvised, though. Not mechanically too much, but the Art is amazing, with great paintings and wacky designs depending on the drivers personality. At first glance, you will know what happened to all the great airbrush painters that did your mini-van with some Salvador Dali / Cherokee/Angel/ painting in the 70’s when owning a mini-van was actually cool.
Since Panama is predominately Catholic, you see a lot of the influence outside the Buses, with colorful Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Mary paintings along with many landscape paintings of Panama.
There are so many Saint relics hanging inside you might think you’re in some strange moving church, mixed in with stickers and sayings of all kinds, skulls,with red disco or LED lights (inside and out ), demon creatures, and even teddy bears or colored dice dangling. The 4 ft high stik shift that sits high above seat the down to the floor, with leather straps and red feathers resembles Steven Tyler’s microphone at an Aerosmith Concert.
It is truly a treat for the eyes, and a nice distraction from all the “close misses” as you come barreling down Balboa ave while someone is sitting on your lap and you’re sitting on someone elses!
I must say, the Panamanians are all very cool and courteous and will go way out of their way squeezing you into their seats.
Not all have great Art. In fact, some are repainted Red & White literally with a paintbrush, and may have anything attached on the outside that was thrown in the trash that the driver deemed useful for “texture”. This could be “Phase I Primer” because you will occasionally see a new-old- just- arriving yellow school bus that will still say “Wayne County School” on the side.
Where they are going is never really clear, (especially if you don’t know much Spanish yet,) so they have a buddy that sits in the first seat or just hangs out the door, waving and shouting out “Cinco de Mayo”!!” “Cinco de Mayo!!” (or something like that,) at every stop, which seems to satisfy everyone They then jam themselves in like sardines, paying their quarter only on the way out to insure they’ve survived the adventure first.
The Drivers have to be trained, like all drivers in Panama, to honk the horn at least once every 4 seconds, even if there’s no reason to.
They also have to learn how to slam on the brakes and come within an eighteenth of an inch from all 6 vehicles around him, including the wild scooter delivery guy that” imagines” a lane.
That said, I love them. To me, it’s the most fun you can have for a quarter, and as long as you remain upright, it’s a great way to see the city.
Most Taxis belong to the driver. Most of these cars are in rough shape. The doors may not open, seats are torn to shreds. It’s like your first car you got that never ran right and it was ugly!!
If he drives a company car, he pays $20 a day to use it.
Beyond the 6-8 mini Panamanian flags stuck on the lower portion of the windshield, there’s not a lot of personality to the Taxis when compared to the Red Devils. If I buy a car here, I should put the mini-flags in the windshield. I have no reason why….. it just seems important. Plus, it’s a cool flag.
Unlike the States, there are no meters, but they can refuse to stop or take you to places that may be out of their zone, or if they just don’t like the way you look.
The pay can be different every time you get in the Taxi and travel the same distance.
You will pay more money no matter what you do if you look like a Gringo from Ohio, even if you can actually understand the zone maps and taxi schedule. Once you learn Spanish, though the price will go down substantially. You have to know how to argue in Spanish, because they will try and get more Balboa (dollars) from White, English speaking tourists.
I’ve been with some local Panamanians that can’t get a Taxi , because on that day, those particular drivers were only taking tourists because they knew that the locals knew the right price.
So if you don’t know the language, and you’re just visiting for a week or 2 , how do you take a Taxi without getting raped?
Here’s my newbie Gringo method:
1. Never ever ask “How much is it to go to…….”? Just get in and describe later. Most places have a neighborhood, (San Francisco, El Congrejo, Marbella, etc) and a landmark( restaurant, casino, etc)
2. When it’s raining, or when you really need to get some place specific (especially if it’s farther,) just get in the Taxi , and act like you can’t communicate anything until you are well on your way.
On pay, If it’s a couple of miles, give them a buck and leave like you know its right. 2 bucks if it’s farther. I do this with 1 or 2 people with me.
Never pay more than $3.
3. If it’s rush hour, and you have a few neighborhoods to pass , don’t bother with a taxi. You’re better off spending a quarter on “A Red Devil “to take you to the same neighborhood first, then take a taxi for a buck. It doesn’t matter Taxi or Bus, you’ll be stuck in traffic if you don’t have a scooter a cycle, anyway.
4. On Sundays and Holidays, you are King. The Taxis that snubbed you all week will be tripping over themselves to serve you.
I’ve been offered women, pot , advice on shopping (unsolicited) on these magical days. This is also the days that the “Spanish Speaking Only” drivers out of the blue magically speak English. Enjoy!