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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Taking a bus to Panama's interior

Last week, Thursday afternoon to be exact, I got dropped off at the bus station, ready to take a bus to Penonomé, which I'll be telling you more about in the upcoming PFR Location Report and Video. Because it was the middle of the week and the family needed the car, plus I wanted to update my experience with taking a bus to the interior, I decided to go car-less. So, now I'll tell you all about it.

The Albrook Bus Terminal

First, if you're planning to take a bus, it's always a good idea to get dropped off at the Albrook Bus Terminal, which is connected to the Albrook Mall. Parking at the bus station is ridiculously expensive. The last time I checked, it was 3 cents per minute, which ends up costing about $43 per day. I was told once (by a bus terminal security officer) that I could park in the mall parking lot, but when I returned a couple of days later, I got blocked in by mall security, who claimed that I needed to pay them for watching my car the last couple of days. After a heated argument, mall security backed off, but I'll never again leave my car in the mall parking lot.

Everyone's preparing for the holidays

So, back to my most recent adventure. I got dropped off at the terminal, which actually looks a lot like a mall inside, with its numerous stores, kiosks, and food court. The Christmas tree was up and people were scurrying about, making their way back and forth between the terminal and the attached mall. The fact that it's attached to this huge, major mall, makes this place so convenient.

That little catwalk leads from the terminal to the mall

I always explain to people that if you live in one of the small towns in the interior, you're never more than a bus ride away from major city shopping. At the Albrook Mall you'll find a movie theater, a bowling alley, a casino, a hotel, and tons of stores, both on the lower end of the cost scale and the high-end. A Gap opened up recently, and we just realized during our most recent trip, that there's even a Gymboree. My wife was practically doing cartwheels. She loves that place. 

Inside the terminal

So, if you moved to a place like Penonomé, a short, 2-hour bus ride could see you spending the day at the mall, doing just about everything your heart desires. 

Once you enter the terminal, you'll need to locate the ticket booths, or boleterias, and find the window with your destination listed above it. Sometimes, if you're headed to a small town, you'll have to take a bus that passes it and then just get off at your destination. All of the major towns have ticket windows though.

This way to the ticket counters

I found the window for Penonomé rather quickly, but ran into a little bump in the road once I got there. I try to be positive in all of my blog posts and articles, but every once in awhile, I need to make you aware of a serious issue. The guy at the Penonomé window tried to scam me. I'm telling you this so you don't run into the same kind of problem. I've been to towns all over Panama by bus, and this was the first time that I've run into this problem, so I don't want you to think that everyone is out to get the gringo or anything like that. But you know how it bad apple...

I approached the window and told the guy that I needed one ticket to Penonomé. He wrote down the cost of the ticket as $5 and then started pointing at my bag (which was just the size of a regular suitcase, larger than a normal carry on bag) and then wrote $5 down on a second ticket. He was trying to tell me that I needed to pay $5 for myself and $5 extra for my bag. I got mad, shook my head, and told him that I've traveled all the way to Las Tablas for $9 and to Aguadulce for $6, so there's no way I'm paying $10 to go to Penonomé, which is closer than both of the other towns. He insisted that I needed to pay for my bag.

The scam artist at the Penonomé ticket counter

Some of you reading this, especially when comparing this price to what you'd pay for a Greyhound in the States, are probably thinking that $10 isn't bad for a bus ride. And it's not when you think of it that way. But the problem is, if we allow these scam artists to get away with this, they'll just keep doing it and pocketing the cash. 

I got mad and walked away, telling him, "That's cool because I write everything down and I'll be sure to tell people about it." I got on the phone and called my wife (just to make sure things hadn't changed since my last bus ride), and her coworker, who travels to Penonomé all the time, got angry and said that the cost is $5 and no one has to pay extra for their bag. So, while I was on the phone, I turned and took a photo of the guy at the booth. Suddenly, his buddy in the next window started talking to him (probably warning him that I was taking a photo). The guy at the Penonomé counter called me over. He said, in Spanish, "Ok, $5, but you have to hold your bag in your lap."

I knew he was full of it, but at this point, he wasn't going to admit that he was scamming me, so this was his way out of it. I paid $5 and didn't have to hold my bag in my lap.

Now, let me just make it clear that this isn't a Panama thing. This is a douche bag thing. It could happen in any country. The Panamanians I told about this, were appalled and angry. My wife's friend is dating a Colombian guy, and she said the same thing happened to him. He's not a gringo, but because his Colombian accent immediately alerts people that he's not Panamanian, people have tried to scam him. So just watch out, and please, realize it's not a reflection of the great Panamanian people. It's just a con artist at a ticket counter and I hope someone important reads this and fires his ass.

My $5 ticket ($5.25 actually)

Your ticket should look similar to the one I posted above. Notice that it has $5 written on it and it also states the cost for anyone getting off the bus prior to Penonomé, so for example, if you took this bus and decided to get off in Santa Clara, you'd pay $3.95. Most people getting off prior to Penonomé, already know the cost and don't buy a ticket from the counter. They just get on the bus and pay in cash when the get off at their stop.

Where you buy your $1.10 RapiPass card

After receiving your ticket, you'll need to buy a RapiPass card, if you don't already have one. This card only serves the purpose of getting you through the turnstile that leads out to the buses. The card is rechargeable and costs only $1. So, you'll need to buy the card and then put at least ten cents on it to get you through the turnstile. I paid $1.10 because I knew that I'd only be going through the turnstile once. You only pay when boarding the bus, not when returning later. 

This is what the card looks like

To get through the turnstiles and out to the bus area, you simply place the RapiPass card atop the turnstile. Usually there's an attendant handy to make sure everyone passing through has a card. If you have any issues getting through, they'll help you. 

The turnstiles leading out to the bus boarding area

Now, this is where you definitely want to be careful. Maybe "careful" is a bad word as you're in no danger or anything, but it's typical for someone to walk up and offer to carry your bag to the bus. Or you'll hear people whistling to you and trying to call you over to their bus. The first time we (Marlene and I) traveled by bus, we made the mistake of letting someone take our bags and lead us to our bus. He asked where we were going, we told him Aguadulce, and then he proceeded to carry our bags to one of the old Diablo Rojo-style buses, like you see just beyond the turnstiles in the photo above. 

We didn't know the difference. Marlene is Panamanian, but had been living in the U.S. with me for the 8 years prior to this. So we sat down on the hot bus, with no air conditioner. The worst part was the guy took our bags and placed them in the middle of the aisle, way back in the rear of the bus, and we were seated about halfway down the aisle, so we had no control over who might've been fishing through our bags. Marlene suddenly said, "Hold on a second." She got up and left the bus. When she returned, she told me the big, beautiful, air-conditioned bus parked in the next spot, was also going to Aguadulce. So, we grabbed our bags and switched buses. 

The bus I took to Penonomé

I'm telling you this because there are usually several buses heading to the same destination. Don't let yourself be tricked into sitting on an uncomfortable one. Sometimes you'll have to settle for a small, Coaster van, like the one I took to Penonomé this time around, but at least it will have air conditioning. On this Coaster bus, my bag was put into the bottom compartment of the bus without anyone questioning whether I'd paid $5 extra (didn't have to hold it in my lap). So it had definitely been a scam.

On the way back from Penonomé to Panama City, I rode on a larger, really nice bus, with a TV in the front playing concerts and music videos in Spanish, which brings me to another point. Be prepared to listen to salsa and tipico music, as most buses will have this music playing. If that bothers you, you'll want to bring headphones with your own music. Some buses will play movies (especially the ones going as far as David) but there's a good chance the movie will be in Spanish (sometimes they'll be in English with Spanish subtitles).

The inside of the bus to Penonomé

Something else you should be ready for, is frequent stops all the way to your destination. If someone isn't yelling "Parada!" the word that lets the driver know they want off at the next stop, then the bus will probably stop anyways to see if anyone wants to get on the bus. The driver searches for potential passengers the entire way. The trip to Penonomé in a car should take no longer than 2 hours, probably a little over an hour and a half. It took the bus 2.5 hours. 

To places that are close to Panama City, like Coronado, Penonomé, and Aguadulce, the trip is one straight shot (other than the short stops I just mentioned). When you're headed to farther destinations, like Las Tablas, Santiago, or David, you can expect the driver to stop somewhere along the way. You'll usually be given 15-20 minutes to get a snack, use the bathroom, and purchase souvenirs.

The Penonomé stop

When I arrived at Penonomé, I was dropped off at the area you see in the photo above, which was the final destination. People from Penonomé were smart enough to yell "parada!" at more convenient locations. Since I didn't know where the final stop was, I just rode it until the end, then found myself walking through the busiest part of town (nowhere near where I wanted to be). 

This is the case in many small towns. Places like Aguadulce don't have a terminal. You will literally just be dropped off at a bus stop, just a bench. From there you'll either need to walk, take another bus, or hop in a taxi to your hotel or wherever you're going. Some of the more popular destinations, like David, Las Tablas, and Chitre, will have small terminals full of taxis ready to take you the rest of your way. 

Then, in some small towns, like Pedasi and Portobelo, the bus will take you most of the way, then you'll need to finish your journey in a second bus or a taxi. To get to Pedasi (one of my favorite towns) you take a bus to Las Tablas, then walk (or take a taxi) over to a different bus area, to catch a small Coaster-style bus to Pedasi. To get to Portobelo, the bus will drop you off in a town called Sabanitas, where you'll then have to switch to a local Diablo Rojo bus that will take you to Portobelo.

Also, when departing small towns and heading back to Panama City, it's common to just pay the bus driver or his assistant when you're on the bus (instead of purchasing a ticket at a terminal). This was the case when I returned home from Penonomé. I boarded the bus at a bus gathering spot right on the Pan-American Highway (asked to make sure I was only going to be charged $5) then paid cash on the bus. So don't be alarmed if you can't find someone to pay prior to boarding the bus. 

I hope this article helps a little bit and doesn't confuse you more, haha! Don't worry. Taking buses to Panama's interior is very easy and is usually a very affordable alternative to driving or taking a plane. 

Thanks for reading (and don't forget to go check out,