Those traveling to Panama City, Panama, desiring a true cultural experience with the locals need to try out the public transport system, primarily made up of souped-up school buses that burst out with expression and attitude. They are known as “Diablos Rojos”, Spanish for “Red Devils”. Many buses have their own unique design, including elaborate paint jobs that are either psychedelic or religious in nature, a variety of flashing exterior lights, and some Spanish block lettering or decals. A lot of Diablos Rojos have long vertical tail pipes that help to raise the decibel level on Panama City’s congested and already noisy streets.
Tourists who come to Panama City expecting to find specific online Diablos Rojos route information or secure Diablos Rojos route maps from drivers as they would in the USA or Europe will be in for quite a culture shock: such resources are non-existent at this time. While each Diablo Rojo follows a consistent route, the traveler has to learn how to navigate the city on a trial and error basis if using the city’s least expensive public transport option. First, make sure you have a map of Panama City, which is currently available online, free, and printable at: www.panama-maps.com. Next, study the two or more location names on the windshields of the buses. These nomenclatures designate the beginning and ending destination points of the bus route. For instance, if you are in the downtown area, you’ll see the words “Via Espana” on a lot of bus windshields in huge lettering, meaning these buses cover the main drag of Via Espana. This road goes right through the touristy El Congrejo section of Panama City. When one sees the word “Albrook” below the headliner names on the windshield, it signifies that the Diablo Rojo will also stop at Albrook Terminal, the main transport terminal for both city buses and motor coaches leaving from and heading to Panama City.
If you know some Spanish and/or have a good Spanish phrasebook, you can use these tools to communicate with the locals at a Diablos Rojos bus stop. Panamanians are friendly people who will help you find such Panama City must-sees like the Avenue Central Marketplace, where you can buy just about anything, or the Balboa Monument that proudly overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Panamanian bus riders, just like the whole brotherhood and sisterhood of worldwide bus riders, look out for us globetrotters in this respect. Oftentimes, you will even run across a local that speaks the English language as well as you do, given that many Panamanians grew up in the formerly United States-controlled Panama Canal Zone.
You’ll have no problem finding a Diablo Rojo in Panama City. Their appearances are almost as frequent as the primarily white taxicabs that constantly honk at people who are waiting at the bus stops. The cab drivers attempt to snatch a two to three dollar ride from bystanders who might be in a hurry.
Diablos Rojos drivers are virtually all male. Of the hundreds of buses I saw and/or rode in, I didn’t see one female driver. The adolescent boys who ride with the drivers bark loudly at pedestrians for business, standing just inside the buses with the doors open. Just like the drivers, the lads are dressed as casually as can be, wearing light colored t-shirts and comfortable looking jeans or worn out slacks. When riders get on, they are generally not required to pay for the twenty-five to thirty-five cent ride to the barker until they exit the bus. Panamanians use American paper currency in their transactions. Even the Panamanian Balboa coins come in the same sizes and denominations as US coins; and thus, they are interchangeable with American pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters! What if you don’t have the exact fare to ride? Well, that is fine, too, as long as your US dollar bill isn’t bigger than a ten. The barker or driver will give back your change without a gripe. The change system is a throwback to another era. It consists mostly of human hands to hold the dollars and the old change makers you’d see on the waists of waitresses employed at some retro-1950’s teen hangout.
The interiors of some Diablos Rojos are as meticulously designed as their exteriors, with bright colored and groovy design schemes. Salsa or Raggaeton music is usually blaring out of the driver’s radio or CD player. Surprisingly, the older folks don’t put up any fuss over the boisterous rhythms invading their riding space. One even gets used to the barkers raising their voices at every pause in traffic when they see a potential rider. In the driver’s area, one will often notice murals honoring Jesus or a patron saint. Some drivers have put up a mini-shrine to the New York Yankees because one of the team’s best-known players, relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, is from a nearby city called La Chorrera.
Just like most large metropolitan areas in the world, Panama City’s main streets are packed like sardines. It can take awhile to get to your ultimate destination using this mode of transport. At times, streets like Avenue Central and Via Espana consist of one long convoy of Diablos Rojos.
I’ve had some interesting conversations with local riders that I’ve sat next to. If you have a long enough conversation with a Panamanian, beyond confirming that you are on the right bus and/or at what point you need to get off, the local may inquire of your marital status. Panamanians seem to really be interested in that facet of a tourist’s life.
The Diablos Rojos of Panama City are not just an inexpensive way to get around this city, which serves as one of the world’s great crossing points. These buses proclaim the pride and confidence of the Panamanian people!