Renting a Car and Driving in Panama

Driving can be one of the ways to have an amazing experience during your visit to Panama. The secret lies in driving slowly to take it all in. Once you master this, then driving around Panama is a breeze, and you will be able to explore much more than you would with local transportation. However, there are a few things you should know before renting that car and getting on the road in Panama.

You first need to get a handle on the required stuff. Firstly, you can use your foreign driver’s license to drive legally for 90 days. Furthermore, tourists are allowed to stay in Panama legally for up to 180 days, during which time you will be permitted to use your international driver’s license only for 90 days. 

A Panamanian license is required if you are a resident.

You’ll also want to make sure that your credit card has plenty of room on it because you will need it to pay for the rental car deposit and rental fees. Most times, a rental agency will charge a deposit until the car is returned. Make sure to return the car in good condition if you don’t want to incur additional costs. To rent a car, you must be at least 25 years old. If you are younger, some rental agencies will allow you to rent a car for an additional fee.

If possible, consider reserving a rental car online, so you can suss out any hidden fees ahead of time. Even then, you should avoid getting excited about an online price; most car rental companies do not include the mandatory liability insurance in their quoted price.

Remember that it is important to book a car ahead of time and also to check the status of the vehicle before pulling away from the rental office. It is a good idea to take photos of the car from all angles and to report any spots or blemishes before leaving as well. Being careful like this will help you avoid being held accountable for any damages to the vehicle that may have occurred prior to your rental period.

You should also read reviews regarding different rental companies before settling on one. Differences in the quality of customer service are even reported between different locations of the same rental agency. Remember to consider those companies that offer the best customer experience in addition to price and quality of vehicles.

You can skip this tip if you are only planning to explore Panama City or towns like David and Boquete, but if you intend to explore a place like the Playa Venao, then you should consider renting a four- or all-wheel drive vehicle. The most common vehicle offered by mainstream rental companies is an all-wheel drive Toyota that will serve anyone perfectly well.

Why Do You Need the All- or Four-Wheel Drive?

Even though most roads in Panama are well built, you cannot escape potholes and high curbs that could damage your car if it is too low to the ground. Outside of the large towns, it is also common to come across many dirt roads. Most driveways are dirt, and driving on them during the rainy season can be especially daunting. However, you will need to spend a significant amount of money for an all- or four-wheel drive in Panama. Expect to pay between $40 and $50 a day for a big car like that.

Now that you have the perfect car, make sure to download a map of the place you wish to explore. Signage around Panama is not always reliable, so you might find your GPS particularly helpful here. If you do not have the location on your phone, you could lose the signal when you enter remote locations. Don’t put yourself in that situation.

Furthermore, it is important to note that there are various police checkpoints throughout Panama, so be ready to be stopped. You will be asked to produce your driver’s license, registration, and accident forms and proof of insurance. When stopped by the police, make sure to smile and say “Buen día,” which means “Good day.” Beforehand, you should also practice how to say “Yo no hablo español, lo siento,” which means “I don’t speak Spanish, sorry.”

If you get pulled over for an infraction, you might be attempted to bribe the officer. To be on the safe side, however, accept the ticket and make sure to pay it at the necessary government office.

Another important point to note is that using your cell phone while driving is illegal in Panama. You also need to understand that U-turns are prohibited in most of the areas. And remember to pay attention to road signs so that you understand when the speed limit has changed. Likewise, when you enter the outskirts of a city or a small village in particular, use common sense and reduce your speed even if there is no visible sign.

Outside the bigger cities, pedestrians have the right of way over vehicles. Beware of pedestrians exhibiting risky behavior, such as walking out in front of traffic with the expectation that vehicles will stop and allow them to cross.

Another area where you need to use common sense is around school zones. Most times, there won’t be any signals or special lights on display, and you will need to drive very slowly when you see school children. You should also approach with care when you see local buses ahead, stopping to let off passengers.

You should also know that lanes are very narrow, especially in the downtown areas where parking is allowed on both sides. Some drivers will even block the road, and your only option will be patience as you wait for them to move their car.

Panamanians are known for driving clean cars, so you can expect to find carwashes everywhere. Luckily, there are plenty of mom-and-pop places where you don’t need to pay more than $6 to get your car washed inside and out.

Why You Should Rent a Car

Renting a car can provide you with a certain degree of freedom that is difficult to attain when you have to rely on public transportation. You never know; you might want to go on a retreat to the mountainous region of El Valle de Anton or to Coronado for the weekend. Another added benefit of renting a car is that you can come and go as you please, without having to worry about coordinating bus schedules.

On the road, having your own vehicle means you can pull over to a small eatery when you’re hungry or stop to take photos along a scenic route. Having a car also allows you access to vital places; if you’re in some of the more rural areas in Panama, you will still be able to more easily access beaches, grocery stores, or even medical attention in case of an emergency.

Other Important Information

Now that you are ready to drive, where can you gas up? The government sets the prices for gas, and they are adjusted every few weeks. In Panama, gas station attendants will fill up your tank. Remember you can practice your Spanish by asking them to fill it up. It’s easy; you just say “Llénelo, por favor.” Your credit card will also be accepted at any gas station, so you won’t have to worry about cash. And remember to tip the gas station attendants if they clean your windshield or check your car’s tire pressure.