Panama. The land of canals and fifty cent beers. What else could anybody ask for?
After crawling into our truck, preheated to 150 degrees for three hours, we left the border and immediately hit a gravel road that quickly turned to a two track dirt road. We stopped when we hit the rickety bridge and decided we we missed a turn. As it turns out, we did.
It was mid afternoon when we arrived at Almirante where we would camp and take a water taxi to Boca del Toro, an island offshore, that is a must see destination when visiting Panama. I’ll quit beating around the bush and say that the 95 degree heat with 1,000% humidity was taking its toll on us and we couldn’t take it anymore. Without a plan and believing we were going to die, we decided to skip Boca del Toro which we hope wont be a decision to haunt us the rest of our lives. Fortunately, the highway climbed quickly as we pushed south and the view of the islands was spectacular.
As we followed the coast, just before turning inland, we could see the valley below and agreed that it reminded us of scenes from Jurassic Park. Large grassy fields spotted with palm trees and flanked by mountains covered in dense forests surrounded us. Within 45 minutes, we climbed from 100 feet above sea level to more than 4,500 feet at the mountain pass. Darkness was building and a wall of Pacific clouds and precipitation waited for us as we began our decent to the western (or southern?) slope of Panama. We arrived at our camp spot right at dark where we enjoyed some free camping next to a bar and grill where we sampled some incredible buffalo wings and two beers each for a total of $10. After the Costa Rican prices, this was a welcomed surprise. The temperatures declined to 78 degrees overnight, but the humidity was the worst we had experienced to this point. Everything felt clammy and wet throughout the entire night and only worsened as the sun rose. We decided to climb elevation to escape the heat.
Boquete was our first “real” destination in Panama, located in the west-central region. As we climbed the final hill above Boquete, the quaint mountain town at the bottom of the valley revealed itself and we instantly saw it was a gem. It reminded us a lot of Red Lodge, Montana. There are many beautiful drives around Boquete. Our favorite followed the main creek that flowed through town as it passed through the rural areas and eventually led to the mountains several miles out of town. The sunny morning we arrived to eventually vanished and the rain began to pour from the sky. We ended up stopping at the Boquete Brewery where we could park for the night if we bought beer. What a deal! Our visit was short and sweet but we agreed that Boquete was one of our top 10 favorite towns since leaving the US.
Following Boquete, we tackled one of our longest driving days since Mexico; a whopping five hour drive. We drove south to David where we reconnected with the Pan American Highway and headed east. The road was almost entirely new; new pavement, bridges, sidewalks – everything. It was pretty incredible to see the investment in infrastructure and a complete joy to drive after many Central American countries. Near dinner time, we arrived at El Valle of Anton where we would camp at the fire station for a couple days.
El Valle is another mountain town similar to Boquete but much more sleepy and rural. Aside from the occasional hostel and a sign or two in English, it seemed to be relatively unchanged by tourism. As we crossed the mountian pass overlooking the valley, we were awestruck to see the rugged mountains surrounding the flat, treed valley below. We camped at the firefighter station where the friendly firefighters talked to us often even though we struggled to keep a conversation going. At one point, they were all standing out in the street in the rain and when we talked to them an hour later, they indicated it was protocol to leave the building when there is an earthquake. It was a little surprising to hear there was an earthquake and we didn’t even know it!
We set out for a long walk on our first morning in El Valle and continuously pointed out fun looking buildings, incredibly well kept yards and the occasional mountain that peeked through the clouds. It was our intention to visit a small region where trees grow in the shape of squares but our GPS took us the wrong way. As soon as we realized we weren’t in the right place, it began to sprinkle rain and we thought it would be good to begin walking back to our camper as the clouds grew darker and darker. When we finally got back to the camper, the bottom of the clouds let loose a downpour like we had never seen. It rained the rest of the day and ruined our plans for a morning hike the following morning, but it was refreshing and beautiful.
From El Valle, we ventured back down to sea level where we would reunite once again with our shipping partner, Karl, to prepare for shipping day. As we pulled into the campground at Coronado, we immediately were greeted by Will and Kate, from thelifenomadic.com, who were the first people with Wyoming license plates we saw since leaving the US! Coincidentally, they know some of our favorite neighbors in Casper. If you are from Wyoming or at least familiar with it, you know the saying that it’s just a small town with really long streets. After cutting some grand ruts in the campground grass, we set up the camper to begin drying everything out from several days of hard rain.
Finally, it was time to begin the first step of our shipping process by getting a DIJ inspection in Panama City. We left our free beach camp spot at 5:00am and all was well until we found a wall of traffic barely moving along. Cities are about the only place where we would trade our manual transmission for an automatic, but we gave our clutch a good workout and arrived at the DIJ inspection at about 8:30am (we were originally planning to be there by 6:45am). The instructions from our shipping agent said the building doesn’t have any signs on it or anything else for us to know if we were at the right spot. Considering this is the most difficult border crossing in the Americas, why would it have anything to identify what the building was? After we received our waiting numbers, we visited with some other overlanders and our inspection was done in less than 15 seconds. It was different for Karl, whose import papers had an error in the VIN. Fortunately, we ran to the customs office a few blocks away, had the paperwork corrected, and had his inspection done within 15 minutes of arriving. I figured it might be a nightmare finding the building and explaining the problem in Spanish, but it was surprisingly uneventful.
We waited for our paperwork to be finished at an exotic Panamanian restaurant – McDonald’s. Once we arrived, we waited in a nice air conditioned building with the overlanders we met earlier in the morning and within 30 minutes, we had our inspection report and were on our way.
From Panama City, we headed north to visit the Spanish colonial town of Portobelo. We received rain overnight which made everything in our camper damp and, with high temperatures, it made for a pretty miserable night but we survived. As we set out to explore, we visited the ruins around the city and all agreed the bay appeared to be straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean. It was an incredibly beautiful bay and another interesting visit in Panama.
Following Portobelo, we drove back towards the middle of the country right on Lake Gatun in the center of the country. We found a place to park for the night which allowed us to watch container ships on their way through the canal. The rain let up and we set out our chairs watching the ships for hours. Following dinner, we finished the rest of our beers, broke out the remaining rum and laughed for hours until late in the night as . We watched nearly twenty ships pass throughout the night and the following morning, including two super container ships. Across the canal, we watched a dredging ship work through the night. Nearly every hour, a Panama Railway train passed by and waved to us as It was not a fancy place to park for the night, but it was an incredible way to experience the canal and an evening we will never forget.
The next morning we drove back towards Portobelo to park and begin preparing our trucks for shipping. Everything in our camper was damp and needed to be dried out before shipping. Additionally, our refrigerator had three months worth of ice built up in the freezer that had to be cleaned before turning it off. For four hours, we cleaned and prepped and after being thoroughly soaked in sweat, we went for a well deserved swim in the Caribbean and cold beer at the restaurant.
Throughout the day, our nerves were building as our shipping day was essentially here. Karl, on the other hand, was perfectly calm as this would be his second shipping experience. I believe our anxiety was stemming from the fact that the inside dimensions of the container were 39’ 6” and our combined vehicle lengths were exactly 40’. As you can see, it warranted a bit of anxiety and in our next post we will explain what it takes to ship two vehicles to Colombia and how we made them fit in an undersized container!
As a side note, I have always wanted to visit Panama for obvious reasons, but also because my great-great grandparents lived and worked in Panama during construction of the canal. My great-great grandmother died from yellow fever and as we passed an old cemetery, I wondered if perhaps she would be buried there. Hopefully my parents would chime in a little in the comments below! Anyhow, here is a photo of my great grandfather, Jerry Drake, and his sister Harriet in Colon:
And my great-great grandmother, Grace and Grandpa Jerry:
Once our trucks were loaded in Colon, we had to return to Panama City where our hotels were located. We decided to take the train operated by the Panama Canal Railway instead of a bus or shuttle. The trains were magnificent, looking extremely well maintained and the passenger cars appeared to be out of a different era. The railway follows the Panama Canal allowing us to see the locks on the Caribbean and Pacific side. A little over an hour after leaving Colon, we arrived at the rail terminal and searched for a taxi to take us to our potentially sketchy hotel for the night; Hotel Latino.
We were excited for our first hotel stay in more than three months but a little nervous having booked the cheapest hotel we could find in Panama City. At $27/night and with a name like Hotel Latino, you really can’t go wrong. Although a little old, the hotel was clean, had A/C and a restaurant as well. To boot, there was a nice, clean pool on the top floor offering great views of the city. We cooled off in the pool before returning to our hotel rooms that evening.
The following day was our only day in Panama City so we had to make the most of it. We got up in the morning, packed a backpack and jumped in a taxi to see the Miraflores Locks just outside of Panama City. These locks are the most famous and typically the locks tourists visit. We saw the final two large ships of the morning pass through the canals on their way to the Caribbean side. It is important to note that you must get to the canal in the morning as ships pass to the Caribbean side in the morning, then from the Caribbean to the Pacific in the late afternoon, creating a large gap where only small ships are passing through. The new tourist center was a fun experience, but it was very touristy and we were annoyed with the huge number of tourists here during our visit. That said, the Miraflores Locks are a must see when visiting Panama.
We arrived back at the hotel around noon and met up with Karl to begin exploring Panama City. After a quick beer with lunch, we set out on foot walking towards the Malecon a few blocks away. Panama City is likely the largest city we had visited since leaving Mexico City and its skyline is fantastic. Large skyscrapers right on the Pacific create a unique skyline and beautiful appearance. Being right between the city center and old town, we were limited to choosing one or the other and ended up walking to old town.
Karl indicated that he had visited Panama City nearly 40 years ago while working on a freighter ship and that it was very dark and old during his prior visit. Now, old town has been beautifully updated with trendy shops on every corner, boutique hotels and gelato shops to give tourists a break from the heat. We indulged in the gelato which was fantastic! After nearly four hours of exploring in the heat, we ventured back to our hotel where we took a dip in the pool, had dinner and retreated our our hotels where we crashed instantly.
The following morning, we awoke to prepare to catch our flight to Cartagena, officially ending our visit to Central America. Fifteen minutes later than we expected, we flagged down a taxi driver who indicated that there were three airports in the city and our itinerary didn’t say which airport we departed from. We talked with the front desk and did a small amount of research on the cell phone and finally realized that our planned 15 minute taxi ride would be nearly 30 minutes. Our taxi driver put the pedal to the metal and we flew through the streets of Panama City arriving at the airport just in time. As we checked in, the lady was apprehensive to give us our tickets and she needed a flight number for leaving Colombia. We explained that we had vehicles and would leave the country in our vehicles. It look some explaining and we thought it could be a problem, but finally she gave us our tickets and we began walking through security. Once we emptied our pockets, removed our shoes and walked through the metal detecter, I hear the security guy say “oh my God” when my stuff went through the scanner making me wonder what I forgot. Less than five seconds of looking, he confiscated my pocket knife. Oh well. Karl also forgot about his pocket knife, so we both made donations to the security guys that day.
At our gate, we waited for a half hour before loading began. Our visit to Central America was an incredible journey but our expectations for South America seemed to have grown immensely from the time we left. Colombia, here we come!