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The highway from El Valle to the Pan American Highway can have surprises for an unsuspecting driver

Transportation in Panamá may not be quite as civilized to a citizen of the United States would be accustomed. Many people who visit Panamá plan ahead and use experienced local drivers, Uber, taxis, or buses to navigate the streets and highways of the country. In eight visits to Panamá, I have gained some insights on a country that is almost schizophrenic in its society. To understand the ‘why’s’ of Panamá, it is easier to compare it to a more familiar place to United States citizens, like Oklahoma.

Transportation IN Panamá Versus Oklahoma

Panamá is about half the size of Oklahoma, but with almost the same population. Panamá has 132 vehicles per 1,000 people, and Oklahoma has almost six times that number (765 vehicles for every 1,000 people.) Personal ownership of vehicles is much less common, especially outside of Panamá City. Taxis and buses are the most common transportation for the working class of Panamá. 

Road signs can be more of a hunting experience for the driver

Because Panamá is smaller than Oklahoma it naturally has fewer roads. Streets in small communities may have some main roads that are paved, but those that are paved are narrow with no gutter or curb, and the farther away from a primary road and/or a resort area, the more likely the road is unpaved.

Outside of the few highly used highways between significant communities, most paved roads in Panamá consist of a thin layer of asphalt on a graded road base. This results in roads that can develop cracks and potholes relatively easily. Maintenance of these roads is limited and potholes are a part of life in driving in the country.

Panamá City: Experienced drivers only

In Oklahoma, it is common to have a maintained gravel road; however, in Panamá, these types of roads are rare. This is probably due to a lack of funding to maintain unpaved roads, and conditions in the tropics that make roads slimy, muddy, rutted trails that quickly become overgrown.

Colorful buses are part of Panamá‘s roadway experience

The rule in Panamá is driver beware. Even on the Panamerican Highway, potholes are common and some have the potential to do significant damage to a car if an unwary driver hits it. Unlike Oklahoma, there is not a larger federal government where tax dollars collected in more populated states are funneled back to increase road maintenance.

The quality of roads in Panamá, like so many other things, is determined by what is absolutely necessary, not what would be best.

[NOTE:  Thanks to my guide and friend, Will.  This post is dedicated to Carole Poling, a classy and adventurous woman who will be missed.]