by Lorraine Atkins, s/v Black Dog II
My husband and I are coastal cruisers who have spent years enjoying the Pacific Coast of Mexico and the Central American countries. We have also learned to hail taxis in most cities since we rarely rent a car.
Riding in a taxi in Mexico, El Salvador, Panama and other Central American countries requires a sense of adventure. You do get used to the fact that the Yaris and other compact cars do not have seat belts in the back seat. Only the driver, who drives like he trained at a drag strip, wears a seat belt, if the current law requires him to do so. Taxis with broken windshields and patched seats do little to inspire confidence when you’re a passenger, but they always managed to get us to our destination safely.
Taxis are usually compact vehicles with small trunks so they rarely carry spare tires. We found this to be problem when two taxies we used in one day both had flat tires. There is no auto club to come to the vehicle’s rescue. The driver has to wait for friends to come with the spare. Mexico has Los Angeles Verdes, the Green Angels, on some of the major highways and they will help change a flat tire, but they do not usually carry extras.
Most taxi drivers depend on their horn, their knowledge of the road and various symbols in their automobiles to get them and their passengers safely to their destinations. The symbols include rosaries, religious pictures and paintings, the tail of an unknown animal and even a pair of swinging dice dangling from the mirror. Even a non-believer gets religion when riding in Central American taxis.
Many of the roads are not in the best condition but experienced taxi drivers handle the potholes like Olympic class skiers running slalom. They manage to drive on both sides of the road if necessary and their unfailing depth perception allows them to fit in snugly between a truck and a bus in the right lane to avoid colliding with an oncoming vehicle.
It is quite an adventure to take a taxi around Panama City or San Salvador. The Autopista in El Salvador is a wonderful six lane road between the airport in Comalapa and the capital city of San Salvador, which is uphill from the airport. Taxi drivers, who go carefully up the hills, seem to enjoy hurling their vehicles down the road when going in the opposite direction. While the Autopista is one of the best highways in Central America, it has its share of blind curves.
Taxi drivers in El Salvador are expert at driving the lovely Costa del Sol road; reluctantly slowing down for the speed bumps and the cows wandering in the street. One driver remarked that he did not like driving this road at night since the cows didn’t have headlights.
Panama’s Autopista is the divided toll road between Colon on the Atlantic side of the canal and Panama City. The road is patrolled and has toll booths so the drivers are a little more careful until they reach the cities. But we have been in taxis where the driver has thought nothing of passing the police car in front of him.
Taxi drivers in Colon are the most fearless. One of the signals patrolling the major intersection under an overpass has not been repaired in months and I asked a Panamanian why. She replied that it was not necessary. She explained that no one paid any attention to it in the first place! She added that there had been no major accidents since the signal stopped working; only a few fist fights over the right-of-way. Drivers swearing at each other in incomprehensible Spanish with a few hand gestures are normal, at least at that intersection.
Downtown Colon is a peninsula with a grid of east-west streets intersected by north-south streets. There are no signals or stop signs. This is where demolition derby experience comes in handy. Some of the streets are marked one-way and a few horn-tooting taxi drivers actually pay attention to the signs!
My favorite taxis are the pulmonias in Mazatlan, Mexico. These vehicles are golf carts with VW engines. They are open-air taxis that most tourists enjoy in good weather. One of our friends remarked after downing a pitcher of Margaritas that he was sure the pulmonias did not have seat belts, air bags or other safety features. He was right, of course. Since he was feeling no pain and holding on to a lamppost for support, he felt brave enough to ride in a pulmonia.
Gaviotas in Mazatlan is a one way street. My husband and I were walking against traffic and a pulmonia driver backed up his vehicle in the wrong direction convinced that we needed a ride. We explained that we actually wanted to walk.
One of the things we have learned about taxies in the tropics is that the air conditioners don’t always work but the radios are always on loud! The rear speakers are often turned up to ear-splitting volume and we have asked: “por favor, el radio bajo” to get the volume lowered. Drivers must think the loudness of the radio covers the noise of the aging mufflers.
The alternatives to taxies are the brightly painted buses that were originally school buses in the United States until they wore out and were donated to foreign countries. These are the “chicken buses” with loud sound systems, no mufflers and grinding gears. But that is another story for another time.