Now, I'm not talking here about driving in Panama City. That's an entirely different story, and one which, frankly, I hope never to be able to write because I never want to have that particular experience. This is the low-down on driving elsewhere in the country, which is much more manageable but comes with its own set of things to think about.
First, a car. There are buses, but everything is so spread out when you get outside the city -- you're really going to want a car. If you're staying a long time, you can buy a used car pretty reasonably, but be careful: not all mechanics are created equal, and you're going to want to do some research and follow a trail of ex-pat recommendations to make sure you're not getting a piece of junk.
For short term, renting a car is easy and affordable. I recommend Gold Coast Auto near Coronado -- Rob is a great guy and he takes good care of the cars and his renters.
Gas is expensive, but that's getting to be true everywhere. Pull up to the pump, tell the attendant how much money you want to spend, and he'll fill it to that limit.
When you enter the country as a tourist, you are allowed to stay for six months -- however, you are only allowed to drive for three of those months. If you want to keep up your driving permission after that, you will need to go to Costa Rica for a few days or something.
If you're thinking you'll just take your chances, I'll warn you that they won't get you very far. The police are constantly setting up road blocks. Usually we get checked, but sometimes we get waved through. Sometimes they just look at our license, sometimes when they see it's a foreign license they demand the passport (where they make sure you've been here less than three months). It seems that every time they set one up, they're looking for something different, but don't risk it. During the day it'll be more about license checks, but at night they check for drunk driving, and every driver takes a breathalizer on the way through the checkpoint.
Now, this is Panama, which means you might be able to bribe your way out of whatever trouble you're in. Lower-level police officers don't make a lot of money, so $20 goes a long way in those cases. However, if they're above that, you could lose your license or even the car.
On new year's eve, my boyfriend's dad's friend was in an accident. My boyfriend's dad drove the car all the way to the city to the hospital -- but he was way past his three-month driving limit, and he had not yet gotten his Panamanian license. He was pulled over, and despite the emergency, the cop was ready to take his car away for this infraction. Luckily, the victim's wife jumped in (in fluent Spanish), gave the cop $40, and saved the day.
We've found, in general (despite the Spanish-speaking in the anecdote above), that a good way to avoid this whole mess is to just pretend you don't speak any Spanish (especially easy if you truly don't!). Well, first, keep your paperwork in order, then if they try to tell you you were speeding (when you weren't), just play dumb, and usually they get tired of messing with it.
Another thing to be careful of: if you're the designated driver and you're stopped and asked to blow, they might still try to tell you you're over the limit. Demand to see proof. This happened to my boyfriend, and they refused to show him when he asked and just waved him on.
You don't have to carry your passport with you, but you do need to carry a copy. If you're driving to the west side of the country, there is an official stop at one of the province borders close to David. First, an officer checks the license, and when he sees it's foreign he calls out the immigration official, who asks for the passport. In our case, we had our actual passports with us -- I'm not sure if he would have accepted a copy, so if you're making that trip you might want to carry the real thing. Local police officers (as in during the random road blocks) will accept the copy.
The PanAmerican Highway is in pretty good condition. Other roads, even through Coronado, aren't that great. You'll be faced with lots of potholes, speedbumps, and dirt roads. For this reason, I would highly recommend renting or buying an SUV or pickup rather than a smaller car.
Watch for pedestrians (often carrying bags of groceries and small children) on the side of the roads -- a lot of roads don't have very big shoulders. And watch for other drivers. I can't stress that enough.
Drivers can get crazy everywhere, but we've seen some downright dangerous, senseless driving around here. My boyfriend recently watched in horror as the car behind him passed him and the loaded truck in front of him on a curve up a hill. Luckily, there was no car coming the other way, but this isn't the first time we've seen a stunt like that.
Sometimes you'll see a car backing up (on the shoulder) of the highway. Sometimes a car will make a turn around another car that is waiting to turn. You aren't supposed to U-turn, but sometimes people do -- so when you get to a turn-around point, you'll have some cars trying to follow the turnaround and others trying to U-turn, which makes it especially tricky if you're coming out of the turnaround, thinking it's clear, and the car behind you U-turns instead of following the turnaround. In short, don't assume that anyone is going to follow the rules or even common sense.
Despite all of the headache, driving in Panama is a great option for the freedom it gives you. A 30-minute drive can turn into a couple of hours if you're trying to catch the crowded buses. We still take the bus into the city, usually, since inexpensive taxis can take you anywhere you want to go there, but for around the beach area we love our vehicle.