Dealing with Panama City’s Taxi Drivers

Taxis in Panama City.  What a nightmare!  I’ve was living in Colombia for years, where I thought the taxis were awful, mainly because of their awful driving.  But they are awful in a whole different sense in Panama, to where I recently moved.  Here are some tips for dealing with, and understanding how taxis operate, in Panama City.

My travels all over Latin America have taught me that any country or area that is regularly frequented by a sizeable number of “Gringos” or foreigners is likely to experience taxi drivers who will try to rip off anyone they think is a tourist or visitor.   Of all parts of Latin America, the most gringo-ified bit, the city with the most exposure to the “Gringos”, is Panama City (mainly because of historic ties to USA resulting from the development of the Panama Canal).  Even so, it surprises me quite how dishonest the taxis in Panama City can be when dealing with foreigners.  Scumbags.

The problem is that taxis in Panama City have no meters.  How are you meant to know what the prices are then?  You can’t trust the taxi drivers as over-charging the gringos is clearly their favourite hobby and they actually seem to really enjoy doing it.  They all have a good laugh amongst themselves about how much they have been able to rip off the stupid gringos.  Some of the prices they try to charge are simply ridiculous – I’ve experienced taxis trying to charge me 5 times more than the normal price.  Just because I am obviously not a Panamanian.  It’s plain offensive.


How to deal with Taxi Drivers in Panama City

Panama City, Panama
Panama City, Panama - if only all Panama’s taxi drivers were as charming …

Never get into a taxi without negotiating the price first.  Flag the taxi down, don’t get into it.  Get the driver to wind down the front seat window and tell him where you are going in Panama City – ask what the price is.  Act like you are not getting into the car with him.  Ignore the idiotic people in vehicles behind that will be blowing their horns like maniacs, doing their best to stress you out.  The law in Panama is that a taxi driver can stop wherever he damn pleases, so ignore those blaring horns.  When you ask the price, the taxi driver will start thinking about the price.  “Is this gringo a tourist I can rip off, or is he an expat?” is what will be going through taxi drivers mind.  If he thinks too long, taxi driver is probably wondering how much he can get away with charging you, so after about 3 seconds firmly say to him “no me cobra el precio de turistas, vivo aqui – dame el precio local por favor”.   Whatever price he states, don’t accept it – knock at least a dollar off and tell him that is what you are prepared to pay.

I find it very common to have to flag down various taxis before finding one who will charge an honest rate.  The first will try to charge $8, the next will offer to do you a favour and take you where you are going for “only $6”, and by the time you are on taxi number 3 or 4, you’ll finally find an honest one who will drive you to your destination for $2.   What a bore.

How do taxi rates work in Panama City?  It doesn’t help that the official prices are thoroughly confusing and impossible to understand.  Rates are meant to be calculated by zones, and the number of passengers (an extra 0.25c per person).  By law, each taxi driver must display the rate sheet in their taxi – I’ve never seen one though.  None display the rates.  Here’s a brief explanation of how the rates are, more or less:

Short taxi ride of just a couple of blocks: $1.25 - $1.50.

Short taxi ride to a neighbouring district: $2

Slightly longer taxi ride crossing a couple of districts, eg. Bellavista to Allbrook Mall: $2.50

Casco Viejo to the banking sector of Obarrio: $3.

Taxi to the end of Amador Causeway or to the Panama Canal: $5.

Taxi to Tocumen International Airport: $25.

There you go – good luck getting any of these fares though.  You’ll have to flag down various taxis before you find an honest one.  At least there are a few honest taxis around in Panama City!



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