Let’s take the Diablo Rojo, my Panamanian friend says as we walk down to the street in Panama City. It will definitely be an experience.
Unaware of the significance of her last comment, I follow her to the corner, completely oblivious of the unique journey that I was about to undertake. Standing at the corner I notice something that resembles a school bus in the distance. As it inches closer, I notice that it’s usual yellow color has been replaced with vivid spray paint that has covered the body of the bus with large portraits of old Hollywood stars and an image of Jesus Christ. I notice a young boy leaning out the door who starts screaming something that I do not understand. That’s our bus my friend states as she lines up behind a handful of individuals waiting for it to arrive. As the contraception stops the boy steps off and a handful of individuals quickly exit before we enter. I deposit my .25 cents into the open hand of the driver before scanning the bus for an open seat. Unfortunately, the bus is packed; seats meant for two people have three or four Panamanians squished together while others stand in the incredibly tiny aisle.
The bus jerks forward in an aggressive manner and I cling onto the edge of the seat beside me to prevent myself from toppling over. I quickly learn that in Panama, the horn is used for pretty much everything, including signaling. The driver blasts his large air horn as he fistails around numerous other buses and cars while I mutter a silent prayer that we arrive at our destination in one piece. In the end, sis bottom line is getting the fare and safety is low on his priority list.
From that day forth I developed a love / hate relationship with Panama’s Diablo Rojos (red devils). The buses, many of them retired from Florida schools, have been the backbone of public transit in Panama City for more than four decades. Many of the drivers own their own buses and therefore they have artistic control over the outside and inside of their beloved diablos. The outside of the buses are often painted by a graffiti artist that seems to be addicted to action movies, old Hollywood movie stars and/or sports that also seem to have a Christmas light fetish. On the inside the drivers often hang decorations and blast reggaeton, salsa or other bass-heavy music as they drive manically on the road.
Unfortunately the Diablo Rojos have become a thing of the past as Panama City continues to modernize their transportation system, seeking out buses that are “safe, comfortable and reliable.” These Red Devils, numbering around 1,200 in recent years, have been phased out and traveler’s should experience a ride before they are all gone. With the disappearance of these cultural icons comes an unsuspecting emotion: sympathy. Yes, they may have crazy drivers and yes they may have caused their share of accidents BUT they have become a cultural symbol in the city and will be sorely missed.
The fate of the Diablo Rojo has been decided, but I am happy to say that I rode one on multiple occasions during my time in Panama City. How about you? Have you ridden a Diablo Rojo? Share your story below! For short look into the Diablo Rojo, check out this video.