This past Tuesday, I was in Panama City for 24 hours during a mileage run towards re-qualifying for American Airlines Executive Platinum status. It was my first time renting a car in Central America and I saw ridiculously low prices such as $6 a day. The only other time I rented a car was in Israel where I drove into Palestine. I decided to rent my car from Sixt where I’ve previously rented from them twice in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I had a good experience with Sixt and since I have Platinum elite status, I was upgraded to an SUV.
Driving in Panama City is pretty crazy because there are hardly any street signs. One wrong turn and you’ll end up in a slum with a bunch of one way streets. The signs are severely lacking in terms of which streets are one-way or not. I relied heavily on my iPhone’s GPS for everything and have gotten lost a few times already. I got lost heading to the Miraflores Locks (Panama Canal) from Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport (PTY).
As I was heading back to the hotel from Casco Antiguo and Casco Viejo (Old Town Panama City), I decided to use the fastest route and hopped on the Corredor Sur cuota (toll) highway.
As you would know it, I missed the exit to the Aloft Panama City hotel. I re-routed to the hotel on my iPhone and decided to take the streets on the next exit. At this time, it was rush hour and the side streets were pretty much jammed. There were Panamanian police officers directing traffic at pretty much every intersection. My GPS told me to make a left at the signal light, but I couldn’t due to the fact that the Panama City police officer directed traffic to the right.
As soon as I made the right turn, I needed to turn around quickly or else I would’ve had another detour, so I made a 3 point turn by first making a left into a parking lot while crossing a double yellow line. As soon as I crossed the double yellow line into the parking lot, I see in my rear view mirror a police officer (who was directing traffic) walk towards my car.
At this point, I was frustrated because I had made so many wrong turns and missed exits. Panamanian traffic officers can pretty much change the direction of traffic going the opposite way because that’s how it is during rush hour times all across Latin America. Like I said, one missed turn can lead into a 10-20 minute detour.
I set my car into parking and turned off the ignition. The Panama City cop who was directing traffic told me in Spanish that he saw me make a left turn while crossing a double yellow lane. I was playing dumb and acted confused on what had just happened. I pretended to not understand what he was talking about with my confused face. The only English term he said was “double yellow”, then I said “Oh yes, double yellow”. He used his index finger and proceeded to wave a “No No” sign at me. He asked me for my license and I handed him my California Driver’s License. At this point, I’m thinking that he’s going to write me a ticket and I’ll be on my way.
Instead, he whistled to another police officer nearby and explained to him what had happened. I could see in my rear view mirror that he preceded to hand my driver’s license over to the other Panamanian policeman. The first Panamanian officer in full uniform then went back to his original duty of directing traffic and I can see the second officer talking to two women. I noticed that the second officer wasn’t dressed in full uniform, but had a blue shirt with a yellow vest. I didn’t know what was going to happen next and what he was doing with the two women. There was an office nearby and I assumed he was pretty much flirting with them because they were in high heels and office worker attire.
15 minutes passed by and the second Panama City cop was still talking to the two attractive women. I was sitting in the car playing with my iPhone and checking my side and rear view mirrors every few seconds to see if he would come up to me. At this point, I knew something fishy was up. Why would the original Panamanian officer give my case to someone else? And why was the second officer distracted with the two women? He basically just talking to them and holding my driver’s license.
He dismisses the two women and finally comes up to my car window after 15 minutes of waiting. He explained to me in Spanish why I was stopped by the first officer and I had a confused look on my face. The officer then said in English “infraction” and he kept saying “boleto” which means ticket. I said okay and he also asked for my passport which I gladly handed over. He started going through my passport and said in Spanish, wow you’ve been everywhere mentioning the countries he recognized like Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. I said yes, I travel a lot in my broken Spanglish. He said in Spanish that I must have a lot of money to be traveling. He proceeded to write down my license and passport details on a notepad. The notepad was basically blank and nothing indicative of a ticket.
He then mentions in Spanish that the infraction would be $750 USD (setecientos cincuenta dolares) and he kept mentioning the word “boleto”. I pretended to not know what he meant with a confused look and he asked me where I was going. He also asked me in Spanish if it was my first time in Panama City and when did I arrive. I said it was my first time driving in Panama City and that I arrived today in Spanish (more like Spanglish). I said I was going to my hotel and he asked for the address. I gave him the cross streets of the Aloft Panama City hotel. He repeated in Spanish “boleto” and pointed to a direction with his finger. He basically wanted me to pay the $750 USD ticket in a nearby office somewhere I didn’t know, but all he was doing was pointing his finger in a random direction.
I was confused and scared that he would keep my passport and driver’s license until I paid the $750. I was also afraid that if I didn’t pay up, he would throw me in a Panamanian jail. I could see it in his eyes that he was frustrated and confused with the language barrier. At this point, I said “Cuanto?” for the ticket and this is where the bribe negotiations began. He wrote down a figure on his notepad which was $150 USD. In my mind, I was like wow, that’s a dramatic decrease from $750! If I had $150 USD in my wallet, I would’ve probably handed it over. I opened my wallet and showed him that I only had $45 dollars. I said, “Solamente cuarenta cinco dolares.” He went ahead and took the $45 and handed back my passport and license. He was all up in smiles and even stopped traffic to let me back my car and finish my 3 point turn.
I was so thankful that situation ended up in my favor with my passport and license back in my possession. I need to leave the country the next day! It was an adrenaline rush and I live for moments like this. I’ve always read online about corrupted cops in Latin America which consists of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Police officers become corrupted because they work long hours with no overtime and get paid very low wages. Be careful driving in Latin America because police corruption is highly evident.
It seems like I always run into trouble when I drive into a foreign country. Last year I Almost Got Arrested At The Canadian Border While Mileage Running. Next time I’ll be sure to obey local driving laws while renting a car in a foreign country.
Have you ever been pulled over by a cop while driving abroad?