April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, August 18, 2008

Coaster Ride

Part 3 in the "What is your commute like?" series...adventures in transportation with Peace Corps volunteers in Panama.

In this addition, let us look at a really common form of transportation in Panama...the Coaster Bus. In terms of size here is a breakdown of public transportation options here in Panamá:

  • Big bus (like a Grey Hound bus)- These run the big city to city routes that serve lots of people. Some have air-conditioning that will freeze your toes and many show movies...mostly either copies of what is in the theater (I just saw Batman 2 times...once in the theater and then on the bus the next day) or some old violent action film. Vin Diesel, the Rock and such "actors" are common bus fare.
  • Diablo Rojos (retired and highly decorated but rundown school buses from the USA)- these run in and around Panamá City and the surrounding towns. They are cheap and can be scary in how full they fill up....like 3-4 adults and 3 kids to a seat and the aisle crammed full of standing passengers. No A/C.
  • Coasters (small buses with bench seating maybe 1/4-1/3 the size of a school bus)- These serve popular routes in towns and out of towns to surrounding communities. Can be standing room only full for short trips, but longer trips only the seats will be filled...well maybe one or two more people sitting on buckets. May or may not have A/C.
  • Chivas (pickup trucks with benches in the back) - like the video in Part one of this series. Chivas serve communities that need 4 wheel drive to get there or have too few people to warrent a coaster. No A/C.

The video below was taken on my coaster ride between Port and Santiago. Before you watch you should know that the coaster is practically empty when I first get on. It fills up as we go along, stopping frequently to let people on and off (sometimes stopping every 15 feet because anyone can ask to get on or off literally where ever they want to...arg). This video was shot when the coaster is at its almost fullest state. By the time I get off almost 1/2 of the people will have gotten off before me.

This is really common in Panamá. I have ridden standing up for a good distance, but am lucky that where my common stops are the bus is not too full...so I pretty much always get a seat. I have also see men give up seats for women and older men....especially for women with children. I have seen strangers take bags or babies onto thier laps to help out other passengers. I have had other women offer to hold my bags on the rare times that I have had to stand. The one and only time I have gotten stuck sitting next to a guy who was rather intoxicated I could tell that the other passengers were watching out for me...and when a seat opened up they aided me in moving away from him. It can be quite a friendly place to be on those buses.

In terms of carrying stuff...since this is the common method of transport, bringing cargo with you is quite common and readily accepted no questions or usually no charge (something big like a mattress might get a charge if the driver is cranky that day). People and drivers are quite helpful with cargo and I have never had a theft problem yet...knocking on wood even as I type.

Overall, the bus system in Panamá is cheep and easy to use. It is not always fun...and occasionally quite squishy...but always ready and fast. Where in the USA can you travel 120 miles for $7.50 on public transit with no pre-planning? Makes me not want to come home to my beautiful vegitable oil drinking VW Beetle....almost. Stay safe out there. Please use your seatbelt...seatbelts are not common here and I miss them a lot.

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