Are You Sure That Ride’s Right For Panama?

I knew they had imported furniture from the States in a forty foot cargo container, but I wasn’t sure about the vehicle. When I saw them drive up in a bright yellow Nissan truck, I momentarily assumed they must’ve purchased it in Panama. Then it hit me, no one here would buy a yellow truck except someone with a license to drive a taxi.

“We call her Tonka” said the woman with a smile. “We think she’ll be perfect—four wheel drive and you sit up high.” I almost couldn’t speak but what could I say to someone who was so happy? A bubble above my head started forming and screamed “maybe you should have spoken to me first!”

Most people who move to Panama assume the vehicle they have at home will do well in Panama and I always tell them, maybe not.

Driving in Panama is different and what type of vehicle is best here is based on a different set of data points.

Shipping Costs  

desk with calculator coins laptop glasses

Add up the costs – it may not make sense to import a car from home.

For the clients who do ask, I begin by cautioning them to consider shipping costs. The good news is that if you have done the work to acquire Pensionado status, you have the right to bring in a vehicle, tax free, every two years. But, just because you are not taxed doesn’t make shipping the vehicle a good idea. If your used car is worth $20,000 and it costs you $2,000 to ship, you may want to consider buying locally as opposed to paying 10% of the car’s value just to get it here. If you haven’t gotten Pensionado status, then you’ll have import taxes and duties at the dock and that will add up to a whole lot more.

Selling the existing vehicle at home and buying something once you are in Panama is generally the best option, but not always. There are a lot of things to weigh.

Too Big For Panama

American and Canadian automobiles, sports utility vehicles and trucks tend to be bigger and it’s often times hard to accommodate them in Panama. Parking spaces are smaller and closer to each other. I have seen American trucks that couldn’t back out of a parking space because the width between the rows was simply too tight.

Buy a big car in Panama and you might need to brush up on your parking skills…

In Panama, we don’t have the luxury of wide center lanes and forgiving road shoulders. Smaller vehicles tend to perform better unless you are going to be driving off road. If you are living on a dirt road or you do a lot of off-roading you might want to consider one of the popular vehicles in Panama with four wheel drive.

Parts And Repairs

The United States dominates the automobile market and consequently many of the vehicles and parts are designed for consumption in the States. If you bring a vehicle designed to be driven in the United States or Canada, you very well may not be able to secure parts when repair is needed and repair will be needed. People generally find parts on eBay or they get them from the manufacturer, but by the time all that has happened and you have incurred the cost and time of bringing in the parts, you’ll be asking yourself why you imported the vehicle.

Orange Car Beach

Mid-size SUV’s are popular in Panama

The majority of vehicles in Panama are Toyotas, Hyundais and Kias and that is what mechanics are commonly trained to repair. Drive anything else and you may not just be hunting for parts but also for someone to do something with the parts.

Cars sold in the United States have been required to have catalytic converters since 1975 but that is not the case in Panama. I know we should be more concerned about toxic emissions, but as a country, we don’t have any environmental requirements so there aren’t very many catalytic converters or people who can repair them.

Getting Dinged

It doesn’t matter what you drive, you are going to get dinged. Rocks in the roads, trucks carrying loose loads and infrastructure that would not be up to code in the United States or Canada will result in nicks. If you love your car, baby it and keep it pristine, Panama might not be the place.

When you are dinged, or bumped, we don’t consider it the way you might somewhere else. I paid my car insurance the other day and it rang in at $126—for the year. We don’t make as many claims as you might in another country, but we also don’t pay thousands of dollars annually in insurance. I urge people to consider a nice, but less-than-perfect ride and then chill.


Tropigas Panama petrol board prices

Buying gas in Panama doesn’t have to break the bank!

We pay about 80 cents for a liter of gasoline, which comes out at $3.20 a gallon or about a dollar more a gallon that what you can purchase it for in the US. 

While a dollar a gallon adds up, it’s not just the cost of the gasoline, but also how much gasoline your vehicle consumes. 

Panamanian vehicles consume much less than so many of the gas guzzlers designed for the American highways.

Resale Value

You can probably get a much better price for your vehicle in the United States. In Panama, the value on a clean, perfect car is not what it is in Canada or the States. Remember our cars are dinged and we don’t have the stomach to search for parts or a mechanic and pumping a lot of gasoline is not attractive.

Hey Taxi

I noticed the other day the owners of the yellow Nissan truck were driving a Toyota Hilux and I asked them about the new ride. “We sold Tonka,” they said, “and for a pretty good price. We just got tired of people waving us down on the street because they thought we were a taxi. We drove to Bocas del Toro and ripped out the shocks. It took four trips to Panama City before we got everything taken care of so when a guy who owned a couple of taxis offered a reasonable price we took them up on it.”

The color yellow may have saved my friends, but I still wish they had asked me before shipping in a vehicle. I pretty much always suggest just buying one here!

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