Why Signs Are Not Important in Panama 4

Universal Signs Suggested for Panamanian Highways: Maintains Status Quo While Satisfying Gringo Desire for Signage

Universal Signs Suggested for Panamanian Highways: Maintains Status Quo While Satisfying Gringo Desire for Signage

One very big element of cultural shock for most norteamericanos (and possibly, to many Europeans as well) new to Panama is the lack of signs – street signs and road signs.

Finding a street sign in town is cause for celebration. On the highway there is almost never a sign that tells you what little town you are breezing through. For example, when you drive from David to, say, Las Tablas, the turn-off from the east-west PanAmerican Highway to the north-south National Highway that scoots you down the Azuero Peninsula is… (gasp!)… not marked.  Note that this is a major intersection.

Interestingly, if you are coming from the City of Panama, the turn-off IS marked — but as going to Pedasi. I expect that was arranged by some real estate mogul in Pedasi who knows how and where to butter his gringos.

In any case, this lack of identification is the norm in Panama. I was chatting with eminent copywriter and wit, Dusty Tubbs, just the other day, when he offered a theory about the situation.

Dusty told me that when he complained to a Panamanian friend about the difficulty of finding the Divisa turn-off to head south on the National Highway and expressed his shock that it was not marked, his friend looked puzzled. Then he said to Dusty, “In Panama if you are going somewhere, you know how to get there. If you don’t know how to get there, you don’t know that place, and why would you want to go?”  The friend paused to think a moment. Then he said, “But if you have to know, you should just ask the driver.”

Dusty grinned. “Personal cars are a fairly new thing in Panama,” he elaborated. “It’s just in the past ten years or so that most of the people have begun driving. Before, everyone just took buses or taxis. Or a bicycle or a horse. But when the City of Panama began to prosper and people began living outside the city and commuting to work, there weren’t enough buses to handle the load, and taxis were expensive for such a long ride, so people began getting cars. The infrastructure wasn’t prepared for the load, and that’s why the traffic situation is so bad in most of the more populated areas.”

I smiled back. “And that’s why expats from car intensive areas complain about the driving here. Most of the drivers haven’t been behind a wheel that long.”

“Yes,” he said. “And that’s also why the road sign situation exists. Before, you just got on the bus, nodded off and woke up when you got there. Or you got in the taxi and while you were talking, the driver took you where you wanted to go. You didn’t have to pay attention to where you were going. The driver was responsible for knowing.”

Aha.That makes perfect sense to me.

But now I’m the driver. I’m responsible.

I’m also The Woman Who Could Get Lost in a Paper Bag, and I really want some signs.


Where does that leave us? Jee, jee (hee,hee).

4 thoughts on “Why Signs Are Not Important in Panama

  • Bob Arias

    Also, the lack of signs is part of the Canal environment. The US military did not have addresses for the troops…mail was delivered to each during mail call. Also accounts for Spanish in Panamà uses lots of English.

    • JK Mikals Post author

      Thanks for white-knighting to my rescue. The WHY of no signage is actually my main interest here. So far I have not gotten lost permanently. (Coff.)

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