Crossing the border was as painless as has become the norm for us (we are so going to get our fingers burned for having had such easy crossings so far) although this was the first time we were asked to pay a bribe. Everything was done; passports stamped, insurance bought, paperwork completed, we just needed one last signature from the chap who was physically supposed to check what we had in the car. Now, as I said – borders have been easy. From almost emptying the fridge and only declaring 3 beers and an onion in Mexico, we have decided that a small declaration of 3 beers and an onion works for us and no one has bothered to look in the fridge at any point. Which was particularly lucky as we had stocked up well in cheaper Nicaragua to keep costs down in the aptly named Costa Lota Rica. Anyway, I digress… chap and a signature, who quickly let us know that it would be good if we perhaps gave him some money or a coffee rather than go through our belongings. Well, I don’t like a bribe, but if a dollar meant we would be on our way I can manage that. But then it was suggested his coffee might be $5. No chance! At that point we decided to play him at his own game and let him know we were more than happy to empty the car, take it all into the customs hall and they could check it. He quickly gave up – more likely the wrath of his colleagues was greater than the 5 bucks he wasn’t going to make. The sheet was signed, and we were on our way. Bribe free in Central America, or so we thought….
We have (at last) been doing a fair number of miles on the actual Pan-American highway through the last few countries and overall it is a well maintained road. As seems to be our theme we once again decided to run away from the heat and humidity of the beach and head for the hills. We sort of thought we were aiming for Boqete, a mountain town that apparently was listed a few years ago as one of the 10 top retirement destinations for Americans. Whether it is or not, we’ll never know as we took another road and went to the “swiss-like” village of Cerro Punta, arriving just at nightfall. Not so Swiss, and not so open – one restaurant said it would open, but at $25 a head for dinner was not what we were looking for, luckily we found a little café that sold chicken strips and chips and then headed off into the wild for a somewhat soggy but free night. After a good hike through some stunning cloud forest on the slopes of Volcan Baru the next morning (hoping to spot more quetzals but no such luck) we ventured back towards the coast.
Having been denied the opportunity to dive (unfriendly Honduras elections, expensive flights to the Corn Islands) we had been pointed by more than one person to Isla Coiba on Panama’s Pacific coast. It is a protected UNESCO Site, the jungle and coastal waters having remained pristine due to its being the home of a notorious prison. The best place to reach the dive sites from is Santa Catalina – home to one of the best surf spots in Central America.
We had a great few days there in the build up to New Year… diving with copious sharks – a first for Rich. And rain. A lot of rain (not a first for Rich 😊). No one seems to have told the weather that this is Panama’s dry season and the rain should have finished in November. We were still procrastinating where we would spend New Year, but having eventually got the tent dry on New Year’s Eve, and in desperate need of a washing machine we set off towards Panama City. Turns out Panama has the best service stations in the world… free wifi, free hot showers, the cheapest washer/dryers in town and a great new year’s chat with friends from home… what more can you ask for?!
If the drive to Panama was interesting – torrential downpours that the windscreen wipers could not handle and inches of water on the road, arriving in Panama City was an experience. Very much a city of 2 halves.
Having typed Hotel Casa Miller (booked online in said service station) into maps.me – it recognised the name and gave us a location which looked correct enough on the map… driving into the city at 6.30 at night we were prepared to be in a less than salubrious area, but this was taking it to the next level! My experience of slums has mostly been shanty town housing – 1 or 2 stories maximum. This was an area of 6/7 storey tenement buildings filled to the brim – not an area that is used to 4runners with roof tents cruising down their streets. It quickly became apparent that this was not where the hotel was, and the local constabulary (of which there were many) also weren’t sure. PANIC. Google maps prevailed and we arrived, only a few minutes later really, at a very slightly upgraded part of town only to realise that the car was not going to fit in the garage. NEXT PANIC. The very nice attendant told us we should park opposite and he would keep an eye on it. Our car – on the road – around here?! Not a chance! However, we also didn’t have much choice. The hotel owner then rocked up – Victor the Greek Orthodox casino owner from Reno, who assured us he was a very dangerous man and no one would mess with a car that belonged to one of his guests. He was right. The area may have been as dodgy as you can imagine, but inside was probably the nicest place we’ve stayed. Comfy bed and Netflix on the telly… life changed for a few days!
New Year’s Eve was a cracker, especially as we had arrived with no plans. Met some great Americans who we had dinner with, then Jade and Alex (who we’d missed at Christmas) happened to be in the same bar so we saw 2018 in with copious amounts of rum and some dancing.
Essentially Panama City is all about getting the car into the container and across to Colombia. We have freight friends in Jade and Alex, the bikers and the yet to be met Luciano – who we linked up with on Facebook and just had to hope would be straight up and there in the morning! Which he was – before us… Richard’s kind of time keeping. Cars were checked – all they really cared about was the VIN number – and we were told to report back at 2pm for the requisite piece of paper for step 2. A quick tour up to Miraflores Lock where we saw a container ship pass through ‘The Canal’ and back to collect said paperwork. I am sure you won’t be surprised to know I am a control freak about this paperwork and knowing exactly what is expected… it means even when you can’t understand what is being asked – you know what should be going on courtesy of ioverlander, wikioverlander and blogs where previous travellers relate their experiences. So when we get to said office and hand over piece of paper one to get piece of paper two and the officer asks for piece of paper three, blind panic ensues… followed by me telling him he’s wrong. Luckily Luciano arrived just at that moment to help me tell him in Spanish that he was wrong, which worked. And off we go, back out into the pouring rain with correct bit of paper two, all ready to load the following morning.
Boris is the shipping agent that most overlanders seem to use in Panama, with mixed reviews, but it all worked well for us. He must find the excitement with which we all video and photograph cars going into the container utterly bemusing as we pack off our homes for a few days and become backpacker w*^&$^*%s as we affectionally call our transport-less fellow travellers.
While the container went on its way so did we, in style, by yacht to Cartagena. The basic premise being a few days swanning around the San Blas islands followed by an overnight crossing to Colombia. Again, these trips are subject to very mixed reviews and I was wary as to whether the boat would be seaworthy, the captain would be drunk and our fellow shipmates would be awful. With 17 of you on a 50ft boat – there’s no space to escape. Luckily my fears were unfounded, Dingo – the Capt. was great (no guessing where he was from) Gali did plenty of awesome cooking, Armande didn’t leak and our fellow passengers were great, musical, company. The San Blas islands were utterly stunning for 3 days and the 36hr crossing was… lumpy. Rich and the crew remained upright, I (and the rest of our companions) failed utterly to do so although there was a brief respite when a pod of 30 or so dolphins were having a great time at the bow. Eventually we reached calmer waters and the city of Cartagena came into view. Bienvenidos South America!