Tag Archives: Panama City

So near, yet so far

29 Oct

Santa Catalina, Panama
by Paula

We’re back. After a dizzying, joyful, exhausting, emotional, treat-filled, wine-fuelled five weeks back in the UK, we again said many goodbyes to family, friends and the cat, and returned to Panama City.

Deer, Glencoe, Scotland

For a short time we swapped the humid hazy Panama skyline, for the misty hills of Scotland.

Panama has been great. We enjoyed spending a month here before we left for home – but now we’d like to leave, please. However, we can’t get out.

We should have sailed to Colombia at the weekend but are stranded here for at least an extra week by an unexpected bout of political protests, violence, strikes and blockades which began in the port city of Colón and then spread to other parts of the country. As we need to use the port to ship our vehicles out, there’s nothing for it but to wait it out.

It’s not the first time we’ve been stuck, so waiting is one thing we have become proficient at. And this time we have our fellow road-trippers, Zach and Jill to share the waiting with – not to mention sharing a few bottles of wine and rum, and some fine plates of campervan cooking.

If we drove to the end of the road in Panama, and really squinted, we could probably just about see Colombia. It’s tantalisingly close, but there’s just the matter of a swampy, dangerous, guerilla and disease-infested jungle separating us.

But despite there being a land border, there is no road through the Darien Gap, so the only way there is to ship the vehicle in a freight container and then make our own way by a separate boat, or plane. We’d planned months ago to share a 40ft container with Zach and Jill, thereby reducing our shipping costs.

One of the most frustrating things about being stranded is that we had been within a hair’s breadth of pulling off what felt to us like a logistical miracle. We’d managed to meet up in Panama City, both sort out mechanical issues with our vans, and then organise shipping for the vehicles and a four-day sailing trip to Colombia for ourselves – all within three working days.

Castle Stalker, with the parents, Scotland

A weekend near Glencoe, with both sets of parents, involved spectacular scenery and country walks, but mostly wine.

And what a few days it was. We’d arrived back in Panama after a long journey from Edinburgh, and hit the ground running the next morning by tackling all the bureaucracy involved in getting our van out of storage and updating all the paperwork.

It was one of those frustrating days that involves a bottomless pit of patience and a permanently fixed grin. Not great when you’re jetlagged and discombobulated then? Not really.

It went a bit like this:
Us to storage company: ‘Can we have our van back please?’
Them: ‘Yes, but only once you have extended your vehicle permit’.
Taxi to customs office.
Us to customs official: ‘Can we extend our vehicle permit please?’
Ninety minutes of confusion and paper-shuffling later…
Customs official: ‘Nearly done. So all we need now is your renewed insurance policy.’
Us: ‘Bugger’.
Taxi across city to insurance company.
Us to insurance company: “Can we renew our insurance policy please?’
Them: ‘Yes, but first we have to contact the office at the border where you first entered Panama.’
Ninety minutes of inexplicable faxing, phoning and typing later…
Them: ‘Here you go. You just have to go back down 21 floors to the payment office, pay, and then run back up here with the slip..’
Later.. Taxi back to customs office.
Us: ‘Now can we have our extended vehicle permit please?’
Customs official: ‘Okay, we just have to fill this out in triplicate, then you have to go to that window and pay for three photocopies, and then go to that window and pick up the copies, and….
Us: ‘Aargh, will someone just give us back our bloody van before everything shuts for the weekend!’

Paula on the computer, Santa Catalina, Panama

Getting on with some chores while we wait..

By a stroke of good fortune, we had bumped into Zach and Jill at customs, and they were able to help us with the final stages of retrieving the van from storage.

Firstly, we were just relieved the van was still where we’d left it. It started with a cough, a couple of misfires, and a flashing check engine light. Zach’s trusty scanner informed us we were not about to self-destruct and could move off and worry about it later. We all drove back, through horrendous traffic, to our city camp spot and collapsed into the chairs with a beer. Welcome back to the road.

After a weekend of driving around the city, getting our sorry brakes fixed, squeezing all the extra stuff we’d brought from the UK into the van, making our onward travel arrangements, celebrating Zach’s 30th birthday and stocking up on food and water, Jeremy and I headed off to a pre-arranged appointment with a mechanic in another city, to get a shopping list of work done on the van.

As we waited it out overnight in a hotel, we began to realise the situation in Colón was escalating. Protests over a new government law allowing the sale of land in the city’s duty-free zone had spilled over into gunfights, looting and strikes. The port was paralysed.

We had so many balls in the air we were starting to resemble a circus act. We’d provisionally booked a small boat to take us to Colombia, but a major storm was heading for the Caribbean and we didn’t know if it would go ahead. Then the riots in Colón had put the vehicle shipping schedule in jeopardy. On top of that, we had just a one-hour window to complete an essential pre-shipping police inspection of the vans, once our car was finished at the mechanic, but if it rained during that hour the police would refuse to do it and the whole house of cards would collapse. And all of that relied on our mechanic doing the job within the timescale he had promised..

He did, and we drove off back towards Panama City. Hurray! An hour into the journey, the check engine light came back on. We just looked at eachother, totally resigned to that damn light just being permanently illuminated.

Next morning we set off for the police inspection, due at 10am, despite the Colón situation not having improved. At 9.45am the rain came on. We sat forlornly in our cars, willing it to stop with a mental reverse-raindance. It worked, and the inspection was carried out. Hurray! All the paperwork was on schedule, but our shipping agent said they could not guarantee whether we’d be able to load the cars onto the container the next day, as planned. She told us to stand by our emails until the next morning.

Jill, Zach and Paula

We’re getting through it with help from Zach and Jill, as well as food and booze.

We were all packed for our sailing trip and poised to get the vans to Colón if we got the go-ahead. We waited and waited, and then finally the email dropped into my inbox. Colón was a mess, said our agent. Our inbound container vessel had arrived, unloaded and left Panama again without any cargo. Our ship had sailed.

Customs offices, banks, shops, everything, had shut down. There was no way we could go, so we’d been re-booked for seven days hence and would have to sit it out until then, she said.

Deflated, we made a plan to head out of the city and wait on the coast. A good decision, as it turned out, because the next day Panama City erupted in violent protests too.

Today – after parliament agreed over the weekend to repeal the controversial law that caused all of this – things seem calmer.

We are waiting for news from the agent about whether we can get out this week. Meanwhile we’ve got the beach, two huge bottles of Panamanian rum, and good company.

If you have to wait, you may as well make it as painless as possible.

Days: 354 [days in the UK not being counted]
Miles: 11,804
Things we now know to be true: Rum helps the days fly by.

Take a brake

8 Sep

Panama City, Panama
by Jeremy

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.

Panama City downtown

One of the more pleasant roads to navigate in Panama City

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.

Camping near Balboa Yacht Club

To think it’s come to this… living on the streets in Panama City.

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.

Container ship at Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal

Now that’s good steering. Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal.

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…

House in Casco Viejo, Panama City

It’s not all shiny skyscrapers. A house in Panama City’s old town, Casco Viejo.

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.

Days: 341
Miles: 11,348
Things we now know to be true: You just don’t mess with the fer-de-lance.


We’ve published a few photos from Costa Rica on Flickr. Click here for part 1


Paradise found

26 Aug

Panama City, Panama
[by Paula]

Yellow-bellied racer snake eating a lizard, Corcovado NP, Costa Rica

Snake snack: we came across this yellow-bellied racer snake with a freshly-caught lizard in its mouth. Gulp.

Of course, we’d never seek a corporate sponsor for our trip – gosh, perish the thought! – but if we did have one there could only be two contenders. Superglue or Velcro. Without which we would literally be falling apart.

We’ve been in Panama for two weeks now, and a good few hours of it has been spent fixing, sticking and investigating all our little breakages of recent weeks. I’ve even sewn a new curtain to replace the back window blind.

But enough of all that excitement. First there is one final chapter of our Costa Rican adventure to share.

We’d travelled to the Osa Peninsula for one reason – to hike into Corcovado National Park, a wildlife-rich world-famous tropical rainforest which National Geographic called ‘the most biologically intense place on earth’.

If you are very rich and/or unimaginative you can fly in to the park’s Sirena ranger station, but most people hike the 19km from the last piece of road at Carate. The information we had about the trail was a bit sketchy, but we chose to go without a guide because the path more or less hugged the coastline and much of it was actually along the beach.

Anteater, Corcovado National Park

Anteater, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.

The first hour, on a shadeless beach of steep soft sand, was pretty challenging. By 9am the heat was intense. We were carrying way more than we normally would, because to stay at the ranger station we needed all our food for three days, plus bedding and enough water for a very hot and humid 8-hour hike.

After that test we moved inland to the shade. We took our time, delighting at our first ever sight of a troop of squirrel monkeys, and an anteater which appeared to have such poor sight it climbed down a tree and virtually brushed past us on the path. Scarlet macaws swooped around the tree-tops in pairs.

The trail was not always clear and we relied heavily on the footsteps of walkers who were ahead of us but out of sight.

As we reached the next long stint of beach walking, we’d caught up with a park guide who warned us that we had to reach the ranger station before high tide, because we’d have to wade a fast-flowing river at the end which could become dangerous.

By now we were tired but with the time pressure there was little room for rest. We tramped across the searingly hot beach for about an hour, sliding down the sand with every step. It was incredible – a delicious slice of heaven with a little dollop of hell on the side. A mind-blowing untouched jungle-backed beach, but also the hardest part of the trek.

Squirrel monkey, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We saw wild squirrel monkeys for the first time at Corcovado.

We both felt as if we might be dangerously overheating. I am aware of how melodramatic this sounds, but at one point I did fleetingly think: “I’d actually quite like to faint now, because then I will have to be carried for the rest of the way.”

Then I looked at the state of Jeremy, and revised my plan: “Bad idea. If I collapse now there’s more than a 90% chance I’ll be left to the vultures.”

We finally reached the river crossing and luckily there were other walkers just ahead, so we could see how deep the river was before taking the plunge. I waded waist-high in my underwear, all inhibitions diminished by my desire to get there without a set of entirely soaked clothes.

On the final stretch we encountered a Baird’s tapir, an endangered species which is rarely seen in the rest of the world. A great lump of an animal, we reeled back a bit when we first saw it grazing by the path, before realising we weren’t likely to be mauled.

At dusk we arrived at the ranger station, which is also a major research site, and celebrated with a very weak and wobbly air-punch. The bad news was that our only way out of there was to hike back the same way. I wondered if I was up to it. We thought maybe we were being a bit pathetic, but were reassured when one of the guides told us loads of tourists either didn’t make it to Sirena (sometimes having to sleep on the beach because they got lost or couldn’t cross the river) or refused to hike back after they arrived!

Puma, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We were really lucky to see a puma during the hike out of the park.

We were sore the next morning, and took it slowly, although the day had started with a rude awakening. I reached into my bag for something and was wearing a glove of biting ants when I drew my hand out. Great! A massive infestation of my least favourite insect – zillions of which had found a food spillage in my bag. We’d gone to a lot of trouble to keep things dry in the rainy humid weather, but the whole backpack had to be plunged into water to flush those buggers out.

We bounced back and spent the day hiking some of the shorter trails around the ranger station, which is a haven for wildlife. We plunged through mud and streams, marvelling at the forest, and saw spider monkeys, more anteaters, and a Great Curassow.

It was hard to photograph things in the dense foliage. I spend ages trying to snap an amazing lizard which had a yellow throat that fanned out. I finally gave up, vowing to find another one by the end of the day.

Later, we did find one, but not in the way we’d expected. We’d spotted a snake rearing up in the leaves ahead of us, and when we caught up with it we noticed it had something in its mouth. I photographed it and we zoomed in, only to see one of those poor yellow-throated lizards, still alive and in the jaws of the snake.

As we sat resting on the deck at the ranger station, toucans shuttled back and forth in the trees in front of us. There were spiders that looked like they’d been on steroids, and flying crickets the size of sparrows.

We started our return to Carate at dawn the next day, wading the river in the half-light. We dodged the high tide, scrambling over rocks and climbing onto higher trails. As we rounded one corner, a park guide gestured to us frantically from further up the hill. “Up here, quick!”. They’d spotted a puma. We scrambled up, and there she was, sleeping on a fallen tree. Unforgettable.

Wading the Rio Claro, Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

We waded the river at dawn as we began the eight-hour hike back.

Blistered and knackered, we got back to Carate and shared a collectivo back to Puerto Jimenez with some of the park guides. We’d found it hard in parts, we said, but we felt privileged to have been in paradise and would do it again. The wonder of Corcovado was something they were clearly proud of, and they said they supported the conservation of the forest. But it had come at a high price for local people. One of them had actually lived at Sirena, as a youngster, before the area became a national park. The government had forced them to sell their farm there for a paltry $13,000, he said. His friend had a similar tale of his family’s land nearby.

Later we hobbled to a local restaurant for dinner, and that night set a new record by being in bed asleep by 7.45pm.

Reluctantly, we left our much-loved campground in Puerto Jiménez, and drove towards Panama. Our last night in Costa Rica was spent at rather less of a beauty spot – a truck stop on the border, where the little van was lost in a forest of massive American rigs.

Arriving in Panama we went straight to the city of David, where we spent a few days looking into our mechanical issues [should be sorted soon] and getting our propane gas leak checked out [small leak, but can be safely used until we replace a part].

While there we managed to coincide with fellow road-trippers Andy and Dunia, of Earthcircuit – whom we’d first met in Honduras – and spent a couple of evenings catching up over some cervezas.

We did what the locals do and headed from there into the hills, to cool off. Boquete is gourmet coffee country, so we were wired on caffeine after sampling several brews. After sploshing about in the rain and feeling chilly for two nights we thought, “Hhmm, this is like being in the UK. Let’s move on.”

Carnival queen, Festival del Manito, Ocu, Panama

The Ocu carnival queen was one of the ‘brides’ at a mock campesino wedding in the village. Azuero Peninsula, Panama

En route to a beach south-east of David we drove through the most incredible storm. We pulled off the road and waited it out, and when we left again the highway was strewn with trees and branches. We ploughed on to Las Lachas, but when we arrived it was pretty bleak. I waded through enormous river-fed puddles to see if the van would make it through them. We pulled on to the beach and ate a limp peanut butter sandwich, looking out at the grey beach, grey rainy sky and howling wind. “This feels like a holiday in Aberdeen,” we said. “Let’s go”.

We headed towards the Azuero peninsula, a relatively drier and more remote part of the country. Next day we had a spectacular sunny drive to its southern tip. The rolling pastures, the smell of cut grass in the clean air, and little cottages with pristine gardens also reminded us of the UK, but this time in a good way.

We had a great piece of luck by coinciding with a festival as we passed through the village of Ocú. We stopped for a few hours and watched a mocked up ‘campesino’ wedding, as part of the Festival del Manito. After the church service, one of the couples was paraded through town on horseback, as the men swigged from bottles of Seco, the local firewater.

We went on to spend a few days body-boarding, swimming and camping at a great spot overlooking the bay at Playa Venao, before dragging ourselves away to head for Panama City. Driving over the Bridge of the Americas – at the southern end of the canal – was quite an introduction to the place, giving us a breathtaking view of the city.

Bride and groom, Festival del Manito, Ocu, Panama

The ‘bride and groom’ at a mock campesino wedding in Ocu, Panama, feed each other after the ceremony.

There is much to organise here, in preparation for a trip to the UK we are taking in a couple of weeks. We spent one day driving to the customs office and storage places, to sort out all the bureaucracy involved in leaving the car here while we go home.

Based on past form, we expected to get lost in the city. There was a reasonable chance of some shouting and swearing. As I got into the driver’s seat, ready to set off, I decided to pre-empt what may come.

“Jeremy,” I said. “Let me say that whatever comes out of my mouth this morning, I want you to remember that I love you.”

And in what may be another new trip record, we’d only driven 100m before the first u-turn-related expletive.

Days: 328
Miles: 10,889
Things we now know to be true: It makes sense to get in early with the apologies.