Panama City, Panama
Central America. Tick. At the end of a month in Panama, it was with a sense of achievement (not to mention a dodgy oxygen sensor and a pair of pliers where our right front brake should be) that we rolled – well, limped really – back into Panama City a few days ago.
Our city camping spot, Balboa Yacht Club, is legendary among road trippers – there’s free camping on the shaded streets around it, it has toilets and showers, the cheapest laundry in the Americas and a superb view of the marina, where dozens of tiny yachts bob around the bay, dwarfed by massive cargo ships entering and leaving the canal. And a bar.
It is the perfect place to sort out all the paperwork needed to ship your vehicle from Panama to Colombia. Yes, someone rather inconveniently left a 30-mile roadless, jungle-filled, malaria-ridden, drug-gang and guerilla-controlled area without a road between the two countries – meaning the only option is a cargo ship. In our case, it was the perfect place to sort out storage of the van for our impending trip home to see family and friends, and to get the budget back on track. (Although the fish tacos are putting a hole in it and may soon require an extra hole in the belt!)
And we weren’t alone at Balboa. There were young German surfers, retired Swiss RV-ers, travelling Peruvian clowns (I’m not making this up you know…!) and dozens of bemused Panamanians looking on as we each popped our tops, cooked our dinners and got our deck chairs out at the side of the road. In Britain we’d have been run out of town as undesirables. Here we made friends.
Although we had much to do our wanderlust once again got the better of us. At Soberanía National Park, as dark descended and a group of research students returned from a bat-hunting excursion, they called us over to point to a fer-de-lance slithering into the bushes. Once they’d left we looked up this notorious viper – responsible for most fatal snake bites here – in our book. It got many mentions but none actually said anything other than things like – “top of your not-wish list” or “not to be messed with”. I’m not going to bloody well mess with it, but what if it messes with me? What do I do? At this point the only people within miles got in their car and drove away with a cheery “goodnight”.
Relieved to be alive the next morning, and accompanied by toucans and the deafening sounds of howler monkeys, we hiked four hours through the national park before we headed northwards – trying to avoid the rough city of Colón. We didn’t. We got lost and ended up there. Twice. Eventually we made it to Portobelo and Puerto Lindo – fascinating Caribbean coastal towns and home to the forts and customs houses which defended Spanish imperial rule and acted as the gateway for the theft of gold from across the Americas.
Next it was time to get up close and personal with the canal. The Miraflores locks are a bewildering engineering achievement (especially for someone who failed physics at school) but it was at Gatun locks you came to realise the full wonder of the Panama Canal as an engineering feat, albeit it one with a dreadful human toll – tens of thousands of workers were sacrificed in its building and a virtual apartheid existed between black and white workers. It was also for so long a symbol of rapacious US foreign policy in Latin America. Now the new world order is being played out as visitors look on from just a few feet away. Trade with China now dominates.
At Gatun we were able to drive across the lock – we did – and back again, this time with the camera. We stood just a few feet away from a massive cargo ship as it steered, laden with hundreds of massive containers – with just a few inches on either side – through the locks. And paid $392,000 for the privilege. The ship, not us. We paid $5.
From the locks we headed to Gatun Lake and the village of Escobal – pretty much at the end of the paved road – in search of a lakeside campsite we’d read about. Before we reached the end of the road..SCREECH, CLANK. We stopped immediately. Panicked. Got out the van and crawled underneath. Nothing obvious. As so often happens in these situations a family – this one on their way to church – pulled up, offered help, rang a mechanic and before we knew it we were pulling in to his yard.
He said if the work took a while we could camp at his house. An hour later he had whipped off our completely bare brake pads and, given it was Sunday night in a small village, clamped the brake fluid hose shut with our pliers, took off our brake calipers and told us we could go – con cuidado. With care. With three brakes…
Relieved, we thanked him for the offer of camping at his place but said we were looking for Senora Tuñon’s house, as we heard we could camp there. He said “she’s my mother, her place is there”. He pointed next door to a massive, grassy lakeside plot with amazing views. Er, thanks, we said, rather bemused. First we couldn’t believe the coincidence – we’d driven an hour to get to this village in the hope of finding this spot, only to be helped out by the mechanic whose mother owned the site. Second, we couldn’t believe he suggested we camp in his tiny, scrappy mechanic’s yard when next door there was a beautiful camping spot.
So here we are. At the end of another road. It’s strange to have a sense of achievement when we haven’t even got near reaching half way to Argentina. But Panama City always seemed like a key point in the journey. The tip of Central America. A break in the road. So it’s our turn to take a ‘break’.
The paperwork is sorted. The van is in storage. And now we’re looking forward to a few weeks of warm beer and mature cheddar.
Things we now know to be true: You just don’t mess with the fer-de-lance.
MORE PICS MORE PICS MORE PICS:
We’ve published a few photos from Costa Rica on Flickr. Click here for part 1