If you think howler monkeys in the surrounding hills can stir-up quite the commotion, they're nothing compared to what puts the rumble in the concrete jungle of Panamá City! Red Devils are the fiends reeking havoc through streets of the capitol; appropriately called Los Diablos Rojos though scarlet, crimson, ruby, and cherry are hardly extent of tones.
Vivid and vibrant, these magnates of the capitol's public transportation system might just be the city's greatest attractions by default. The revved-up school buses are everywhere; cultural icons with their colorful murals and decorations. Even if you manage to track down the Contemporary Art Museum, exhibitions pale in comparison with what's constantly on parade through the streets.
As a fan of street graffiti, usually found in rather shady areas of metropolitan cities, finding shade and pulling-up a ledge was enthrallment for watching these motley machines flash their masterpieces in motion. Many Caribbean islands and Latin American countries have colorfully painted vehicles, but nothing compared to these capitol femme fatales.
There's some amazing local talent using the skillful art of air-brush painting, but that's hardly the extent. Drivers add their own personal touches with accessories that would disgrace efforts from MTV's hit show, Pimp My Ride. Mag wheels, tinted windows; stereo systems that could wake the dead - and if you think daytime spectacles are eccentric, wait until darkness when all the neon flares-up both inside and out.
Visual overload is nothing compared to the sensual or audible. Aside from mounds of garbage lining downtown streets, Los Diablos Rojos are undoubtedly the city's other greatest source of pollution; belching black smoke through customized chrome exhaust pipes. With no such things as mufflers, mass-reverberations are thunderous!
These transportation beasts prowl like the hounds of hell; Pandora's boxes on wheels enticing the multitudes. Forbidden folly has never been so inviting or assaulting. Curiosity was piqued and twisted from how the endless fleet bursts through streets at a heart-pounding pace.
Getting mowed-down in the crosswalk is a game of chance like some anonymous sport. Near-misses are met with cheers and precautionary scoldings; foreigners not exempt from the high-stake terrors of gambling with eternities.
And just think - all this stems from the sidewalk anecdote, without even engaging a Beelzebub tryst. Go on, compromise your travel piety and hitch a ride. I dare any traveler to try and resist temptation. Like a flirtatious Catholic school girl, contrition is half the fun, even on a permissible, frequent basis.
Haunts and Jaunts of the Devils
Between taxis and walking, a traveler could totally avoid helter skelter of Los Diablos Rojos, and miss-out on one of the city's most authentic experiences. Budget bangers won't hesitate throwing caution to the wind when realizing these buses peruse the entire metropolitan area, and no where costs more than 25¢ for the ride!
Baptism by fire can start upon arrival at the airport. Otherwise, expect to haggle with taxi and van drivers wanting no less than $15 for shared rides into the city. Bus stops are an easy 10-minute walk beyond the terminal along the highway; ones heading towards the capitol collecting on far side of the circular turn-around.
Scanning the open countryside, I saw the beacon approaching from far off in the distance. Locals were all eyes and ears as to my purpose, assuring all buses would pass through Albrook Station; main terminal of the capitol. Allowing me to board first insured a place to sit, with bag crammed under the seat. I breathed a sigh of relief, and quickly melted into the ambience of Panamá.
As previously described, this mode of transportation is not for the timid or anyone in a hurry, regardless of where you're headed. Ride between the airport and Albrook took about 90-minutes in heavy mid-day traffic while making innumerable stops and dodging road construction. Supposedly there's express buses along busier routes, but there's no way to distinguish between the two even if asking locals.
For all the glory of outer embellishments, interiors are lacking to the opposite extreme except for ample stereo systems. First of all, they're school buses; uncomfortable to ride under even the best conditions. Seats are mangled, there's little leg room, and just like former school days, ones over the wheelwell are last to be claimed.
Panamanians think nothing of cramming three to a seat, before aisles fill-up. There's also little recognition for letting passengers off first before others begin boarding. Excuse the peccadillos, and at least be thankful there are no pigs or chickens to further crowd conditions. These are city folks!
As likely the only gringo onboard, expect to feel like the main attraction; helpfulness disguising curiosities. Here's where basic Spanish becomes essential, whether waiting to board or determining where to exit. I suppose there's a method to the insanity, but figuring-out the foux pas happens too frequently after the fact.
All buses supposedly have major destinations and routes posted somewhere on windshields. Good luck trying to spot these on the fly when all that's seen is an outburst of chaos and color barrelling-in. Barkers stand in the door calling-out stops, and reeling-in passengers, literally. Unless there's multiple passengers to exit or board, don't expect even much of a rolling stop.
At some point in-route, most every bus passes through Albrook Terminal and Plaza Cinco de Mayo. The narrow road which separates the terminal from the mall is a continuous stop for buses heading into the city. It's much the same for Diablos whizzing around the plaza, but here's where things got real interesting.
Even with these two main stops listed on windshields, there's absolutely no way to tell which direction the bus is headed. Further adding to confusion are the loop-around intersections, and the fact that individual routes are extremely long!
On my first day in the city, not familiar with where anything was, I caught a bus in Plaza Cinco de Mayo; hoping to reach Albrook Terminal. There was no way to determine that's where the bus had just came from. 30-minutes later, when realizing we were half-way back to the airport on the opposite end of town, I was more than miffed!
Not knowing how long route would extend before heading back towards Albrook, I exited, crossed the highway, and caught a bus heading back into the city. Service was limited because of Good Friday. Buses were beyond overcrowded, and it was hard to see locations while standing. Between this, and the reckless weaving and near-miss collisions while drivers jockeyed for positions at stops, it about scared the hell out of me!
It took the next couple of days to semi-grasp my bearings within the city, and figure out how to use the transportation system without getting lost. Unless you're really observant for what's going on, and have a keen sense of direction, avoid trying to board buses at Plaza Cinco de Mayo, period! Here's other logistical factors to be aware of:
-- Short-hops are easiest between the neighborhoods of La Exposición, (from anywhere north of Cinco de Mayo) and El Cangrejo because streets follow rather direct courses, and are mostly one-way. Via España heads towards downtown; Avenida 1a Sur/Perú and Avenida 3a Sur/Justo Arosemena run towards El Cangrejo. Avenida 6a Sur/Balboa runs along the waterfront in both directions.
-- If staying anywhere within this central area, or the neighborhood where my hotel reviews are located, buses back to the airport pass along Avenida 3a Sur. Whether it was paranoia of the locals or more fact than fiction, they did not recommend waiting at stops in the dark, with luggage for early morning departures.
-- All buses are pay as you exit, never costing more than 25¢. In fact, shorter routes cost less, whether driver gives change back or not.
Mules in Horses' Harnesses
In trying to convert Panamá City into a modern luxury destination, the Devils' days are numbered; ultimate outcome likely no more dubious than with current problems of pollution, accidents and even fatalities involving public transportation.
There's nothing fuel efficient about these school buses; Panamá also gripped by rising oil prices. Independent drivers can no longer survive, but also can't raise fares when they primarily exist to serve a destitute public. Frequent strikes by owners and drivers, as well as outcries for assistance, will not go unanswered.
Beginning next year, the Panamanian government plans on switching to standard buses like found in most cities. Minimizing pollution will be a plus, but its hard to fathom how much else could change any time soon because the entire system will need overhauling, including private entrepreneurs becoming city employees.
To my knowledge, there's been no mention on what will become of Los Diablos Rojos. Panamá City won't be the same without them. I guess if cities around the world can be inundated with painted cows, these Latin American degenerates are certainly worth a parade, too whether parked or on the prowl.