Getting Around Panama: Taxis, Uber, And My Experiences

This App Solved One Of The Most Annoying Things About Getting Around In Panama

My last ride in a yellow taxi in Panama was, sadly, typical. I flag down a decrepit yellow sedan, stick my head in the window, and ask the driver how much to get to Casco Viejo. Now, I know the fare should be no more than three or four dollars, but he looks me up and down and makes note of my broken Spanish and blurts out the absurd sum of ten dollars. “Ridiculous,” I sputter. “Three dollars,” I tell him indignantly.

He rolls his eyes and tells me no way. “Seven dollars,” he counters.

“Do I look like a tourist?” I ask him.

“Well… yes,” he says. He flashes a condescending grin.

“Four dollars,” I tell him.

He shrugs and snaps back, “Five dollars. Get in if you want. Get out of my way if you don’t.”

I am already late, so I get in angrily and slam the door. Off we go, down toward Avenida Balboa. Both of us are angry now. I’m angry because I know I’m getting screwed just because I am a foreigner. He’s angry because he couldn’t screw a foreigner. We’re off to a grand start.

When traffic brings us to a halt moments later, as it invariably does this time of day, he reaches for the volume dial on the radio. Two giant speakers directly behind my head start blaring obscene reggaeton at levels more appropriate to a nightclub than a small enclosed space. The distortion is so severe that I can barely make out the lyrics, but the gist of the song is something about physically abusing women with large posteriors. The bass rattles my spine. I ask the driver if he could turn it down a tad. He mutters under his breath and grudgingly obliges. But only partially.

I take stock of my surroundings. Springs are protruding from the upholstery. There are no handles to roll down the windows. There is no air conditioning and apparently no shock absorbers either. It feels like I’m riding a mule over a rocky mountain trail.

Sharks circling in David, photo by Futureexpat
Sharks circling in David, photo by Futureexpat

When we hit Avenida Balboa and start moving again, he guns the accelerator and begins weaving in and out of traffic like a stuntman in a Die Hard movie. And honking. And cursing. Then he takes a call from his girlfriend, puts it on speaker and holds the phone up to his face. The conversation continues until he abruptly swerves to the curb in front of an attractive young lady with her arm outstretched. She gets in the front seat.

Before I can object, we have veered off Avenida Balboa and into an adjacent neighborhood. The honking continues. The traffic builds again. We are now moving (slowly) in the opposite direction of my intended destination. I object. He ignores me. The young lady peers over her shoulder and looks at me pitifully. About 10 minutes later she hops out, hands the guy a dollar, and goes on her merry way.

Nearly 40 minutes after I get into the cab, we arrive at Casco Viejo. The journey, even accounting for traffic, should have taken no more than 20 minutes. I emerge from the car completely disoriented, my head throbbing and my shirt soaked with sweat. For this experience I have the pleasure of paying US$5, twice as much as a local would pay. A wonderful way to begin the evening.

That was the last time I ever got into a yellow taxi in Panama.

Over the years, few things about traveling outside of the United States have annoyed me more than dealing with meterless taxis that predominate in many parts of the world and the criminals who often pilot them. The so-called “gringo tax” that we are charged for the privilege of going about our business makes my head explode. And it’s not the sums involved. More often than not, it’s only a few dollars. It’s the principal.

So when ridesharing apps like Uber and TuChofer arrived in Panama, I was one of the earliest adopters. After using them for a few months, I determined to never get into a yellow taxi again. And I haven’t.

For the uninitiated, here’s how they work (I use Uber for the most part, but they all function pretty much the same): If you have a smartphone with a data plan, you open the app and tap a couple times to hail a ride. Nearby drivers will see your request, your location, and your phone number and accept the fare. The app then notifies you that a car is en route, estimates how long it will take to get to you, and send you the name of the driver, the make and model of his car, and the license plate number. There’s even a little map that shows exactly where your car is at that moment and plots its progress in your direction.

Twilight of the traditional taxi companies in Panama
Twilight of the traditional taxi companies in Panama

In downtown Panama City, I have rarely had to wait more than three or four minutes for an Uber driver to reach me. And when they do, I am invariably greeted by a polite driver (a fair number of women even) who has been vetted by Uber and passed a criminal background check driving a clean, late-model sedan with working air conditioning. Some of them even have complimentary bottles of water in the cup holders.

I can either tell the driver my destination or enter it into the app. A fare estimate is available before we begin the journey if I want to check it. I can tell the driver to take whatever route I wish, and he or she will not stop to pick up anyone else. At the end of the ride, no cash changes hands. Not even a tip. Everything is charged to a credit card on file with the app. The journey is about as pleasant and seamless as possible for Panama.

No more gringo tax. Everyone pays the same, regardless of race, religion, or national origin. The rates are often a little higher (by maybe 20%) than one would pay for a yellow taxi, if one knew the precise rates that locals pay, but there is no arguing or bargaining involved. Most of my short-hop rides around the financial district and El Cangrejo have been in the US$2 to US$4 range—about what a foreigner has to pay for a yellow taxi given the gringo tax.

I have mixed emotions about Uber as a company. The people who run it seem arrogant and intent on squashing anyone or anything that gets in the way of their quest for global domination, but the drivers in Panama who work for them seem content with the arrangement, so who am I to judge? It’s a small price to pay for eliminating the annoyance of dealing with the pirates in the yellow taxis.

Peg Fairbairn
Panama Insider

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