Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Jimmy - the Most Popular Guy in the Neighborhood

We are still renting a car, or more accurately, cars. Tax consequences prevented us from buying one here in 2009, and now we are moving funds so that we can make the purchase - soon, we hope.

So rental cars have been part of our Panama lives thus far. Searching online, it looks like a fabulous bargain - economy, compact or intermediate-
sized vehicles for only $5.95 to $8.95 per day. We decline the comprehensive insurance since our Visa card covers that. But upon arriving at the rental car counter at PTY (Tocumen International Airport), one is faced with the mandatory liability insurance. All the major rental vehicle companies familiar to a U.S. customer are here, and they all charge for this liability insurance, although the charges range from $12/day to $18/day, depending on the company. It adds up fast, especially when one is looking at a 2-weeks rental or a 6-weeks rental. I had booked for our first week with one company, then with another company due to holiday prices and availability.

During the first week we had a flat tire while driving home. Les changed the tire, then we drove to the airport and switched vehicles the next day. A few days later, when we turned that vehicle in, we were informed that we had to pay for the tire because it was "broken" - Les explained that we did not go on gravel roads or cross country or get into an accident, that it was simply normal wear and tear. They would not accept this reasoning - the tire was broken (meaning it could not be repaired), so we owed them for it. OK - our coverage through the Visa card will take care of it, but we are now soured on this first company.

The second company had raised their liability insurance rates to $18/day, so after renting a vehicle from them, we immediately began searching for another, less expensive company. There were none at the airport, however we did find one at a nearby hotel. But within a couple of days of driving that vehicle (our 4th one of this trip), Les noticed that the steering felt flakey, and when he stopped to assess the situation, he noticed that some of the tires were soft and had very little tread. After a stop at a gas station to check the pressure and add air, we drove to the hotel and explained that since the tires were nearly bald and not holding air, we felt unsafe driving the car, so they let us exchange it for another. It steered much better and the tires looked a little better. Within a couple days, we had another flat tire. This one went flat overnight while we slept. Les again changed the tire, and we went to the hotel rental car desk and asked to exchange the vehicle. The only one they had was an automatic, for which they wanted to charge us an additional $3/day. We said no, so they said they would fix the flat within 30 minutes if we waited. While we waited, we had coffee at the restaurant, and they brought the vehicle back with a repaired tire in about 30 minutes. A couple days later, Les noticed that another one of the tires had a slow leak.

This time, instead of driving to the hotel and trying to deal with the rental car people, we took things into our own hands. We went to Taller Yimmy (Workshop/Garage Yimmy).

Along a 1 or 2-mile strip of the Panamerican Highway at the foot of the road to Cerro Azul are tire shops - a few only sell tires, most sell and repair tires - there must be 15 or more of these shops. Most are very small, with only one or two vehicle bays, and most seem to do a thriving business. Several of them are named "Taller Yimmy", "Llantas Jimmy" or "Llantas Yimmy" - we don't know if they are related, a chain, or what. We chose one with the former name, and asked if they could repair the slow leak for us and how much. Unlike most of the tire shops, this one had a desk and a receptionist. Her name is Esperanza, and the tire guy is named Feliciano - they were both very friendly and welcoming (not something you can count on here), and Feliciano is a master with the tires. He had it off the wheel, repaired and back on the wheel within about 10 minutes. The cost was $1.75. Two days later, while refueling, the gas station attendant found another low tire, so back we went to see Esperanza and Feliciano. This time, Moises was there, helping Feliciano. He enjoyed standing back in the corner and plinking a few shots with the air wrench now and then. We think Moises is Esperanza's son.

We hope we will not have to visit Feliciano again very soon, but it's nice to know where to get help with our llantas the next time we need it. And we are sure we will. Some of the roads in Panama are not great. They have potholes, missing manhole covers, missing storm grates, poor patch jobs, unmarked speed bumps, regular bumps, lumps, slumps, uneven pavement, unfinished driveway ramps, and very few signs to warn drivers of any of the above.


  1. We rented a car for 5 days on our recent visit, and just like Les and Cindy, we had to stop twice to fill one of the tires with air. Good thing you warned us, or we might not have paid attention! The rim on that wheel was very dented - clearly it has seen many potholes with low air pressure. Three of the hubcaps were already attached with zip-ties; the fourth came off while we had the car and we tied it back on with string.

  2. The rental car company will count those hubcaps, VERY CAREFULLY!