Adventures Central America Panama

A Lesson Learned from a Taxi Driver in Panama

September 15, 2017

Guest post by Daniel Caracciolo

When you travel, not every experience is amazing and not everyone you meet has your best interests in mind. Traveling South America for the last 10 months means I’ve had my fair share of not so pleasant experiences. I’ve been robbed twice, once at gunpoint and the other with a knife. I’ve had countless people try to rip me off (and some succeeded.) These situations haven’t deterred me from continuing to travel, however, they have made me slightly more cautious on occasion. I now have a small voice in the back of my head whom I try to listen to. This voice tells me when I feel something’s not right, to keep walking, or not trust someone – and that’s a good thing right? Well, I guess as a whole it is, though sometimes it makes me judge too quickly or assume wrongly. This happened in Panama, my next stop after just being robbed in Colombia! Here’s the story…

Daniel getting a haircut

Right before it started to rain that day, I got some locals to help me out with a haircut!

My partner Bailey and I had set out to explore the city that day. We walked for hours, wanting to see the other side of Panama City. The day was going smoothly until a large storm came out of nowhere. We ran for cover and took refuge under an overpass. I decided it would be best to wait out the storm as we had plenty of time to get home before dark. However, it rained for hours and we began to wonder what our next move would be (we weren’t keen on sleeping under the overpass that night!) Catching a taxi was our only option but we knew trying to barter while it was raining so heavily was going to get us the raw end of the deal.  

After waiting a while longer we finally decided we had no choice but to try to find a taxi we could barter with. We slowly started heading towards the main road. It took a few short sprints hiding under anything we could until we made it somewhere we could take shelter and negotiate a deal. Our situation was looking up, we had found cover from the heavy rain and were close enough to the road to take our time negotiating.

I began to look around, suddenly realizing that in our desperate dash for shelter we had ended up in a dangerous looking part of town. People around us were eyeing us and yelling out angry slurs. We knew we needed a taxi fast. Holding my belongings close I managed, frantically, to get one drivers attention and he pulled over. He offered us a ride and in desperation we jumped in without asking “how much.” 

The skyline of Panama City

A view of Panama City – it really is amazing

When we entered the taxi we were not alone, a woman and her child (also soaking wet) shared the backseat with Bailey. I began trying to negotiate a deal but the driver refused to give us a price. I continued to ask and he began to act suspiciously. At this point that voice in the back of my head was letting me know that something was up. I turned back to Bailey and mumbled (so that only a person who spoke fluent English would understand) that he must have wanted to rip us off but didn’t want to say it in front of the local woman. Although this was the situation we had tried to avoid earlier, I figured that it was better than getting robbed.

As we drove, I noticed that the streets got dirtier and rundown buildings became part of the decor. Pulling over, the lady and child exited the car on a small side street. Once they left, the driver began saying that this area was very dangerous and that we wouldn’t want to get out – letting us know that our belongings would not be safe and neither would we. Knowing this, I again asked for a price and he again refused. This was strange as metered taxis are not used in Panama City and a price is always negotiated directly with the driver. His voice seemed sneaky and his words seemed threatening; the atmosphere in the car turned quiet.

Worry filled the void of awkward silence. The thought of what could happen began entering our minds. I was already thinking that my camera was gone, my wallet, and Bailey’s phone. I started to get really frustrated, I wondered how I got myself into this situation again. I was angry at myself and taxi drivers in general and thought “this is why I always use Uber.” My voice hardened as I gave directions to the taxi driver. He simply followed them and with every right or left turn we drew closer to our hostel.

A building on a street lined with palm trees in Panama

The tourist areas of Panama are very safe, we just happened to wander too far.

Everything became familiar: a park we had explored a day earlier was on our left. I was still nervous that everything wasn’t as it seemed. We arrived back at the front of our hostel. The mood in the taxi relaxed and the cab driver smiled as me and Bailey looked on in slight shock. We had made it and the only thing we could think was how grateful we were to be back!

My only worry then was that the ride might cost more that we budgeted, but at least we had made it home with our belongings. I asked “how much”, nervous to hear to exorbitant price. But he simply turned to me, smiled, and asked for $3 USD. I was shocked. Even worse, I felt so bad. I had assumed this guy was trying to take advantage of some tourists but instead he only intended to help us. I gave him $5 in the end and left that taxi feeling ashamed. Four days earlier I had been robbed and this driver had restored my faith in humanity.

I look back on it now and am still l confused as to why he acted so strangely and why he insisted on not telling us the price. My only guess is that it he was reminding me that, even in a foreign country, help is only around the corner and some people have the best intentions.


About the Author

Guest author Daniel and his partner Bailey

We’ve been traveling Latin America for more than 10 months now

Daniel is a full-time traveler and blogger originally from Australia. He is currently in Latin America, and has been for nearly a year! Along with his Canadian partner Bailey, the two quit their jobs and are now on a (hopefully) never-ending journey around the world where they share what they’ve learned and loved on their blog Destinationless Travel. They hope to inspire others to travel long-term as well as share the beauty of the world with all of their followers.

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