Tag Archives: Portobelo

Colombia ahoy!

23 Nov

[We’ve fallen a bit behind with the blog. Tsk. And so much has happened recently. So for that reason we took half each and turned this next post into a two-parter. Fellow travellers who want more details about shipping and boat journeys from Panama to Colombia can email us or wait until we get round to posting a separate page of tips]

Taganga, Colombia
By Paula

Transporting a vehicle from Panama to Colombia is rarely trouble-free. Take two countries, two separate ports, two customs authorities, four shipping agent workers and two sets of independence celebrations, then sprinkle liberally with a bucket load of inexplicable bureaucracy and questionable language skills… and you’ve got a headache before you even begin.

Van enters the shipping container in Colon, Panama

Bye bye van. See you in Colombia!

However, even by the usual standards I think we did well to turn it into the epic it became. But my, what a journey. And here we are, finally, in South America.

Following a seven-day delay due to riots paralysing the port in Panama, we were relieved to get the go-ahead to load the cars onto the container ship the following week. In all, twelve overlanders were shipping on the same day with the same company – us with Zach and Jill, plus eight others, from Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea and Germany. For many reasons it was comforting to all be in the same boat, so to speak.

We met each other and our agent in Colon and set off in convoy across the city, which had been the scene of riots, gunfights and looting just days before. Even at the best of times Colon, a desperately deprived and run down place, is not a safe place to hang around. It’s fair to say we were all keen to get the day done and get out of there.

Jeremy with some local Kuna kids, San Blas

Jeremy shows off his colouring-in skills, San Blas, Panama

After a long sweaty day at the port and customs offices, two cars were driven into each 40ft container. The containers were locked up and we waved them goodbye, hoping we’d be reunited successfully in Colombia asap.

In the meantime, we were backpackers once more. All we had to do now was get ourselves to Colombia in time to meet the cars in one week.

Now, we could have flown in a few short hours, but that just sounded far too easy. We could have taken a sailboat direct to Cartagena, but it was pricey and we were worried about its route over open water and the risk of severe seasickness. Option three was a more basic motorboat to the Colombian border, with stops on the San Blas islands for some beach camping and a chance to meet the indigenous Kuna people who live there. After that we’d have to make our own way over the border and east to Cartagena, by means of various boats and buses.

Our boat to Colombia at its final stop, La Miel

Our transport to Colombia stopped off at several islands in the San Blas, and dropped us here at La Miel.

It sounded like a mixture of both adventure and unnecessary hassle. Perfect, we said, let’s book it!

Along with Zach and Jill – with whom we shared every step of the process – we took a bus to the scrappy Caribbean town of Portobelo, which was the departure point for the trip we had provisionally booked, but was not due to leave until three days later. It was a fairly miserable place to kill three days, and we had some doubts about whether our boat was definitely going to leave on Saturday. Arriving late to Cartagena was not an option for us, as this would incur storage charges at customs. We spent a day deciding whether to switch to a direct sailboat, but in the end plumped for our original plan and sat it out til Saturday.

On day one of the trip, we all wondered if we had done the right thing. It was clear from the start that our captain and his mate were nice enough blokes, but worryingly hapless. Shortly after setting off we broke down and stopped for over an hour in the water. As we bobbed about in the waves, inhaling engine fumes and trying to ignore the smell of burning, people started to go green and at least one vomited. I stared at the horizon for an hour, unable to talk, willing the contents of my stomach to stay put.

Finally it was established that they had forgotten to put any oil in the engine. In what was to become a recurring theme, they appeared to be blaming each other for the cock-up. Were we really going to put our safe passage across the sea to Colombia in the hands of this pair?

We’d had to change the island we’d be sleeping on that night, because it was a major holiday in Panama and the boat guys hadn’t realised that all the sleeping huts were booked out at their usual destination. Fine by us, we said, we are flexible and easygoing.

Roasting marshmallows

Roasting marshmallows for dessert on one of our overnight stops. Yum.

We felt less easygoing when we realised they couldn’t find the island. We drove from island to island, asking various Kuna people for directions. It didn’t inspire confidence. But things gradually began to look up. We pushed our anxieties to the back of our minds, and made light of little incidents like seeing the captain drinking at lunchtime and falling off his hammock, before taking to the helm again.

Over the four-day trip we stopped at truly deserted palm-fringed Caribbean islands, camped on the beach, snorkelled, made new friends, drank rum and roasted marshmallows on the bonfire. We slept in hammocks in a Kuna island community, and ate fresh lobster, crab and octopus. We slapped through the waves, got continually soaked, and (mostly) managed to avoid going green again.

On the final day we stamped out of Panama at a bizarre little border crossing town and arrived, tired and not a little hungover from the previous night’s rum festivities, at our final destination of La Miel. The inviting turquoise water cleared away the cobwebs and the four of us set about getting ready for stage two.

Despite having officially left Panama we were still in a Panamanian no-man’s land, and had to get to Colombia under our own steam. Although going by boat to the next door Colombian village was possible, we opted to go on foot, just a short hike over the hill and into South America.

Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill

Yay! Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill.

It seemed to us like a pretty cool way to arrive. It was unfeasibly hot as we climbed up to the top of the peak, to be greeted by two immigration officials. They looked at our passports and then kindly agreed to take a group photo, with both the Panamanian and Colombian flags fluttering above us.

The downward path into Sapzurro, Colombia, became increasing muddy and slippery. So our entrance into South America was not so much cool as downright undignified. The locals must surely enjoy watching foreigners sliding into their country, smeared with mud and sweat and trying to look nonchalant with it.

With one more boat ride we were in Capurganá, where we found a hostel with the only four things we wanted in life at that moment – a comfy bed, a shower, a seat that didn’t move, and a TV on which we could monitor US election night. Zach and Jill in particular were becoming increasingly nervous about a Romney win, which they and their compatriots were mercifully spared.

Early the next day we set off on the long journey to Cartagena. We’d thought long and hard about the trip, and how to make it work and get back to the port in time to collect the cars. We were on the home stretch and it felt good.

First, a final boat trip, to the town of Turbo. At times we almost flew through the waves and landed with such a thump I thought my bones would shatter. But the stunning scenery more than made up for it. At Turbo we jumped straight onto a bus, the first of two 5 or 6 hour journeys to Cartagena.

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands, Panama.

After a long and stinking hot day we finally arrived in the beautiful colonial city late on the Wednesday night. We’d done it! We knew we’d have to hit the ground running the next morning to make sure we got the vans back before the weekend, so there was just one more thing to do – check our emails to see whether everything was on schedule…


Colombia ahoy! Part two
By Jeremy

Kafka would not have dared make it up. It would have been too far-fetched even for those giants of Russian literature intent on exposing and ridiculing the dehumanising morass of a maze-like bureaucracy. But, I was there. It’s true.

After our gruelling 15-hour journey to Cartagena we arrived to be greeted with the wonderful news that the van had arrived safe and sound in Colombia. We also arrived to the devastating, and surprising news – news which our shipping agent had failed to mention – that a five-day public holiday was starting in the morning and all the ports, customs and government agencies would be closed or closing early. And so, after all that, it was unlikely we would be able to get the vans for another 6 days.

Carnaval time in Cartagena

Carnaval time in Cartagena provided a welcome distraction from the boring car stuff.

Oh, and all the hostels were filling up fast, in time for the fiesta.

Undeterred by such trifles we swore a bit [a loted] then set about finding a bed – surely I am too old now for sleeping with a dozen other fragrant backpackers in a dorm. Apparently not. With no choice we settled down in our bunks to a night of noisy sleeplessness and arose what seemed like just a few short hours later to begin the process of trying to beat the holiday half-day closing and get the van back.

We had just 25 steps to achieve – after 4 hours of form-filling, waiting, waiting a bit more and pacing up and down we were still on step 2. This was never gonna happen. But at least we learned how to conjugate the Spanish verb – esperar. (to wait, to hope).

There are great blogs (eg Life Remotely) which explain in detail (and without the ranting) the process, costs and address details of where to go to retrieve your imported vehicle so I’m not going to bother. Suffice it to say that in a 3-day epic, said steps required us to go – armed with forms, innumerable photocopies and endless patience (not one of my strong points) from the shipping agent’s office, to the port authorities, to the cashier’s office, to the customs office, to the port – where not one but two inspectors had to fill out separate reports – to the customs office again (where we were dealt with by a man with the slowest writing in the world), to the shipping agent again and back to the port authorities – which on day 2, with noon closing fast approaching, we arrived at with 7 minutes to spare. We’d already decided that if we hadn’t been seen before they tried to close, we’d have to occupy.

Carnaval in Cartagena

Everyone tried to out-wig and out-outlandish eachother during carnaval.

From there it was another trip to the cashier, to the container port, to the car park to be reunited with the van and another inspector who checked to see if we had an ashtray, fire extinguisher, windscreen wipers and various other vital parts of the van and duly noted them all down – in triplicate. I’ve no idea why he felt the need to check since no-one had noted any of this down at the Panama end.

From the car park we drove (after Zach had to jump-start their van from ours) 100 metres to the port office to get another stamp, then drove (after I had to jump-start our van from Thomas’s car) 100 metres further to the gate to hand in the stamped bits of paper, and then back to the port office to put a fingerprint on the stamped bit of paper and give it back to the man at the gate – in triplicate.

And then….freedom!
Except we couldn’t get insurance until we had actually left the port with all the necessary paperwork, and by this time it was Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. All we could do was drive to a car park, head back to our new and much-improved hotel and wait until the insurance office re-opened at 8am on Tuesday morning. It meant it had taken us 14 days to travel 80 miles or so. At this rate we’ll be in Argentina in 33 years time.

Celebrating getting the cars out of the port

When we finally got the cars back, beer was drunk.

As if all that were not surreal enough, Cartagena was in the midst of the biggest fiesta of the year – its independence celebrations. It’s a culture shock to emerge from the bowels of the bureaucracy onto the sun-drenched streets filled with beauty queens, exquisite carnaval costumes and grown men in diapers. Everywhere people painted themselves – and anyone else they could lay their hands – sprayed unsuspecting passers-by with foam, dressed to thrill and frankly just had a ball. What choice did we have but to join in?

Cartagena is beautiful. And the steaks at El Bistro are amazing. The ice-cream is heavenly. A cold Aguilar beer atop the city walls is a fantastic way to cool off and spend the evening.

Finally Tuesday arrived and we all marched down to the insurance office, paperwork in hand. Had we learned nothing from the past few days? How could we have been so naïve as to arrive without multiple photocopies of every document? So back out again we went, to the photocopy shop and eventually the scared piece of paper was handed over, meaning we were free to go.

It was a moment of joy tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to new found friends who’d shared the tortuous process with us. But in particular to Zach and Jill, whom we had by then spent several weeks with, in a number of countries. We all meet interesting people on our travels, but it is rare to find friends who you can be truly at ease with; where you can be silly, grumpy, blunt, excited, drunk, serious, hysterical or smelly – and occasionally all at once.

Jill gets foamed at the carnaval

Jill got well and truly foamed during the parade, Cartagena.

It was only our livers that were glad to say goodbye. Hasta pronto comrades.

Ours is a journey from north to south. Not for the first time on this trip, though, we found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. This time deliberately. If we were going to make it to the southernmost tip of the continent it would seem rude not to have arrived there from the northernmost. So we headed for Punta Gallinas – a remote and rugged desert on the northern tip of Colombia.

On the way we stopped off at Palomino for a few days of fantastic tranquil beachside camping – and the chance to catch up on some reading. I think I might try Kafka next.

Days: 378
Miles: 12,667
Things we now know to be true: There’s nothing that can be done with a drunken sailor.

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