Buying a Car in Panama 3

JK's New Red Baby

JK’s New Red Baby

No one sane would call me a super-shopper. Neither would they say I know squat about cars. However, I just bought one here in Panama, and I’m quite pleased with both my new Red Baby and myself. At a certain point it behooves one to face the reality of the situation: my scooter was fun, but it wasn’t cutting it in meeting my needs.

Yes, I had cooked up an elaborate system of backpacks, bungee cords and baules (trunks) by which I could get $100+ worth of groceries home on it. And yes, it did get me to town and back safely. And yes, I might be old, but I’m strong, and I was doing OK on the scooter. And it was fun. It also made me feel forty years younger when I drove it.

Extra Cargo Space

Old Red Baby with Cargo Space

The operative word there is “when.” The bugs at dusk and dawn ruin my fun, so I stay home. I don’t like driving it after dark, period, so I stay home then, too, unless there’s no help for it. Also, I’m not keen about taking it very far, as it’s tiring. Once I drove to Pedasi, and once I went to Los Santos. I’m glad I did, but the pundits were right – it’s a bit far for a 125cc machine. I can’t drive it when it rains, because (a) my glasses don’t have windshield wipers, (b) the roads get slippery, and (c) it’s not a pleasant experience – the raindrops sting, I wind up wet, and I spend the whole trip worrying about safety. So, no driving in the rain.

For two years I have worked within these limitations, and a third rainy season is almost upon us. Now a lot of people in Panama simply ride the bus or take taxis. I have done that. But I  don’t want to do it any more.  I want to go where I want to go when I want to do it; I want to be able to bring back large quantities of stuff – stuff that won’t fit in a backpack.

So I bit the bullet and bought a car.

The first challenge there was financial. Cars cost more in Panama than they do elsewhere. Import taxes, you see, and whoever pays them initially, they get passed along ultimately. However, I’ve been saving my pittance for a couple of years. First challenge met. The second was finding a suitable vehicle.

Where to Find a Car in Panama

There are essentially four options for finding a used car in Panama. CraigsList Panama is similar to CraigsList Anywhere, and you can read it in Spanish or English. You can click a button for your choice, and most savvy sellers list their stuff in both languages.  Also you can put the power of the internet to work for you and get notified of new listing using an IFTTT recipe.  How to do this is covered in my post Employ Millions at No Cost- Put the Internet to Work.

Encuentra 24 is THE place for selling almost anything online in Panama, but many ads are just in Spanish. One drawback is that nearly everything for sale is located in the City of Panama (Panamá).

Your third option will be the local or nearby dealers who sell used cars. For example, there are none in Las Tablas, but Chitre is only a 40 minute ride down the road.

And finally, but certainly not to be overlooked, there is word of mouth. Talk to everyone you know and tell them you are looking for a car. You will be astonished how many times someone will call to say their friend/cousin/neighbor has one for sale.

How to Weed Your Options

As I said, Super Shopper I’m not. And I know nothing about cars. I can barely tell them apart, unless they are different colors. But I do know about two other things: research on the internet and friends with mechanical know-how.

So, when I saw a suitable looking car, I immediately Googled “reviews for (make, model and year).” If I liked what I read, then I Googled “recalls for (make, model and year).” If it passed that test, then I looked at prices in Miami and California (because if I imported it myself, it would leave either of those places and that seemed like a good starting point for a fair price minus the import costs). I figured 20,000 km/ 15,000 miles per year would be pretty average and anything higher was a deal breaker for me; anything lower put the car on my short list.

But perhaps the most critical criteria on that list was whether the make of car was common in my area. If not, I moved on. Why? Because I know too many expats with Fancy Foreign Cars who have to take taxis because they can’t get parts for said FFCs.

I found a small SUV I really liked the look of. It was cute, had really low mileage (kilometrage?), looked clean, and had only two previous owners. Both were essentially Little Old Ladies who only drove to the grocery store and kept it in the garage the rest of the time. So I called the current L.O.L. to chat and get the VIN number, which I forwarded with all the other details to my mechanic friend. If he gave me the go-ahead, we would set up an appointment to view the car.

Now that sounds simple enough, right? Let’s put a wrench or two or three in the gears.
The car was (of course) in Panamá. That’s four and a half hours by car from where I live. Too far to walk, and too far to take the scooter.
Also, any transfer of paperwork would have to be done in the municipality where the SUV was registered. That’s how it’s done in Panamá. (And no one I know believed it could be done in a single day.)

My Mechanic Buddy provisionally approved the little SUV based on the VIN and other information and we plotted our trip to Panamá. Third wrench tossed in the works: although I have a Panamanian license to drive a motorcycle, I am not yet legal to drive a car. The permissions are separate, and to fix this I have to a) take a Driver’s Ed class (!), and b) take the written and driving exams again, and get another Certificate of Competent Geezerhood from a doctor. The time frame on that is a week to wait for a week-long class plus two more weeks to send the Driver’s Ed certificate to Panama and back, plus however many more days it takes for me to find someone to drive me to Chitre for the test, because I can’t get my license “amplified” locally. I will, of course, drive myself back, but I need a driver to get there.

Purchasing Logistics & Paperwork

I mention this because I needed my Mechanic Buddy to not only vet the car, but also to drive it back to Las Tablas from Panamá. Hence, we took the bus.

Unfortunately, because we wanted to get all this done in one day, the plan was to start early. Really early. Now my buddy lives down by Chitre, so the first version of the plan was that I would catch a bus to Chitre and he would join me there to take the 4:30am bus from Chitre to Panamá.

Alas. The first “Chitre Bus” from Las Tablas to Chitre leaves at 5:15am. The first bus from Las Tablas to Panamá leaves at 2am, but it doesn’t stop in Chitre. The next Panamá bus from Las Tablas leaves at 4am, but it doesn’t stop at the Chitre terminal either. Both the 4am bus from Las Tablas and the 4:30 bus from Chitre to Panamá arrive within 15 minutes of each other, however. So we compromised and rode separately.

I started my day at 2:30am so that I would have enough time to deal with the dogs, pack up the chain and padlock for the scooter and ride it to town where I parked (with chain and padlock) at the garage near the bus station and got on board early enough (3:30) to get a decent seat. The bus was one of those highly decorated numbers that make Panama such a treat. But I was so tired I just snoozed most of the way to the city, where I grabbed a cab to our meeting place.

Good Buddy checked the trucklet over thoroughly, pronounced it good, and I said, “Let’s do this.” With the about-to-be-previous owner (I paid her at the end of this process)  driving (she was familiar with the city and far less likely to kill us all) we whizzed off to the first of three stops, the office of the Municipio where she had registered it.

Before you start that process, I very strongly recommend you make certain to have the following documentation at the ready:

– The original of the registration document, and a minimum of two copies.
– The original of the title document and a minimum of two copies.
– The original of the seller’s cedula or passport id and a minimum of two copies.
– The original of your own cedula or passport id and minimum of two copies.
– Cash to give at the Municipio, Banco Nacional and Transito. As of this writing, you’ll need at least $42.

You may read elsewhere that you need a safety inspection, but that will only be for renewing the annual registration when it next comes due.  Also mentioned might be a paz y salvo, which is simply the Panamanian version of a Paid In Full receipt. That will be given to you when you get the traslado (transfer) document.

At the Municipio office, we presented the registration document, the insurance document and our identifications, plus copies. The clerk prepared the traslado document. This included a paz y salvo for buyer as well as one for seller. You want to make sure to get this because any misbehavior that occurred in the car goes with the car when it is sold. That means unpaid tickets, liens from accidents, etc. Not only that, but if your seller has some large unpaid debt such as a long outstanding cable bill or something, you may not be able to buy the car! Nor, I am told – but this is undocumented rumor – will your seller be able to leave the country. Way to make the population fiscally responsible, hey?

2) Once your traslado is complete, your next excursion will be to Banco Nacional, where you will fill out a deposit slip for $20 to the account of Registro Unico using the account number the lady at the Municipio gave you. Stand in line and give it to the teller. Clutch your receipt and head to the final stop, the Transito Office.

3) At the transito, just give them all your paperwork and let them pick what they want to use. Then be prepared to wait while they perform due diligence and print out your title.

That’s it. If you start early enough in the day and are armed with sufficient patience, you CAN do the entire thing in one day. But it does take a while and there are three stops involved.

One more thing – call the seller’s insurance provider and notify them that you now own the car. The insurance is on the car, not the driver, so it should transfer to you until it next comes due.  But if you don’t attend to it and are stopped or in an accident, there might be some difficulties.

Once we left the Transito office in a state of high glee, congratulating ourselves on having done everything in a nearly impossible single day, Good Buddy drove the two of us back through the night to Las Tablas, and now the Red Baby is sitting in my driveway. As soon as I finish Driver’s Ed and get my certificate I will find a driving friend to run down to Chitre and then… watch out, Panama!

I have bought my freedom!


For a really thorough discussion of the ins and outs, check out “Buying and Selling a Used Car in Panama” from


3 thoughts on “Buying a Car in Panama

  • 4sarge

    I somehow have missed several of your posts. Scooter riding isn’t for everyone and as you say, riding in HEAT & Humidity can take a toll on oneself. A little late but a decent wind shield and or a full shield helmet would have helped with the bugs and deflected the rain. Summers riding in Louisiana gives one, the Bugs, Heat, Humidity and the Downpours. What was the top speed on a 125, 50 maybe? Car is nice but a lot of regulatory hoops.

    • JK Mikals Post author

      I’m afraid I may be a bit disappointing as anyone’s idea of a speed demon. I never took the scooter over the legal limit on the Highway Nacional, which is 80 kph, so I can’t tell you the top speed. As to regulatory hoops, in Panama a scooter has as many as a car. The other posts about the scooter are listed in the Library of Posts (a sub-section of Home/Blog on the menu), which, sadly, is a bit behind. I really have to bring it up to date.

    • JK Mikals Post author

      Ah – now I see why you think you missed a post. Woops! It’s because I forgot to delete the reference to “Employ Millions, etc” which I thought I was going to publish before this post but … life happened and it didn’t. My apology. “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” I’ll have that one for you by next Tuesday. Right now I’m juggling with building two websites, navigating around workers making messes, trying to keep my computer free of cement dust and starting a garden, which involves hauling dirt from the river (with the Red Baby).

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