For the most part, our time in Panama was about taking care of business. After lollygagging our way through most of Central America we had not left ourselves much time to really dig into Panama. Thankfully, crossing the border was quick and painless. We made it out of Costa Rica with no trouble once we got our order of operations straight.
Wearing our best hapless gringo smiles we stood in the wrong line until we were directed to the right line by patient bureaucrats. Once we got the proper scribbles and stamps on our passports we were free to find our way into Panama. The Panama side of the border looked a bit like a post-apocalyptic strip mall. It was an almost-solid wall of duty-free shops and fast food chains. The remaining nooks and crannies were filled with money exchangers and insurance salespeople. We inadvertently got ourselves a helper again. He was likely drawn in by our hapless gringo smiles. He helped us decide on a good place to park and pointed us towards the proper windows for passport stamps, vehicle insurance, import permits, and his favorite money changer (the guy in the gray shirt which turned out to be plaid upon closer inspection). He also took care of paying for the fumigation of our truck. We used to disdain the compulsory fumigations at the borders but now we welcome them as a way of helping to keep the ant and spider populations of our truck in check. We could have made it through on our own but we were suffering from border fatigue and it was easier to accept help and pay him a couple of US dollars than fend him off.
Panama’s official currency is the balboa and has been tied to the US dollar at a one to one ratio since they gained independence from Colombia in 1904. Panama doesn’t print any paper money though, they just use US dollars and call them balboas. They have their own coins that are the same size, weight,
After successfully clearing the border our first piece of business to take care of was to get a new set of tires for The Joan Wilder. Scott had done more research on tires than I would ever have the patience for which led us to a tire shop in the town of David. We rolled in about five minutes before closing, paid for the tires and set a loose appointment for mid-morning the following day to get them installed. There is a dearth of suitable camping in the town of David so we made ourselves at home in a hostel for the night.
Getting the tires installed the next day was the stupidest pain in the rear we have endured on the whole trip. We have (used to have) a set of locking lug nuts on our wheels. The guy at the tire shop managed to replace two of the locking nuts before he ruined the tool needed to lock/unlock the nuts. So, we were missing one lug nut each from two of our rims and we had no way to remove the remaining locking nuts should we get a flat since the tool was stripped. To solve the problem, they used their power tools to force off the remaining locking nuts and moved the truck out of the way so they could keep working on other people’s vehicles. Scott was certain that they had sent someone to a parts house to get a set of locking nuts for us so we waited patiently. Nope, we were being ignored. We told them we needed more lug nuts and they agreed that we needed more lug nuts but they didn’t have any of the locking kind. We were fine with normal lug nuts and told them so. The best we could recon was that if they replaced the nuts that they broke it would have come out of somebody’s paycheck so they continued to ignore us hoping we would go away. By this time, it was three in the afternoon and I was subsisting on one tiny delicate handful of peanuts and two cups of coffee. In total, it took two fruitless chats with the boss and four hours for it to become clear that we would have to pay for the new nuts before they could install them. We would have bought the nuts hours earlier if they had just told us the situation. We ended up putting on the new nuts ourselves in the back of the shop. We pulled out of the shop feeling pretty ready to be done with the whole experience when one of the workers chased us down because we needed to pay another twenty-five dollars for the balancing. Grrrr.
It was getting so late that we almost went back to the hostel for the night but I lobbied hard for a drive up to the mountains. If the roads were in good enough shape we could be in a national park by nightfall. It was a gamble. Sometimes Google tells us a drive will take two hours and it is really four. I very badly needed some nature therapy to counteract the tire shop experience so we stuffed our faces with mediocre falafel and headed for the hills.
We arrived at the visitors’ center at Parque Nacional Volcan Barú just before dark. There was no staff at the entrance kiosk so we got in without paying the entry fee or the camping fee. We figured that someone would show up the following day to collect our money. Nope. We did not see a soul the whole time we were there. It was heaven. We were camped at around 9000ft elevation so the weather was crisp and cool. At night it was so chilly that we could actually snuggle in the tent. The intense tropical heat of Central America had us sleeping with a strict no touching policy for a couple of months. Ah, the romance of overlanding. There was a sign right by our campsite that told us in both English and Spanish that we were not allowed to hike in the park without an official guide. We chose to ignore it. The trail that left from the section of the park we were in was called the Quetzal Trail. Many things in Central America are named for the quetzal. Most prominently, the currency of Guatemala. Less prominently, about every other hotel and coffee shop along the Pan American Highway. The resplendent quetzal is beautiful and illusive. We have been in many places that touted having resident populations of quetzals but have never been lucky enough to see one. Most of the avid birders I have talked to are still waiting to check off a quetzal from their life list. I had read of people actually seeing quetzals in this park so I had high hopes. I also figured I was jinxing myself by bringing my zoom lens with us on the hike. We hiked out to a mirador and decided we had had enough hiking for the day and turned back towards camp. We were probably only a quarter mile from camp when a resplendent quetzal made a funny squawking noise and crossed the trail in front of us. It was unmistakable. Quetzals have very long fluttery bluish-green tail feathers. The indelicate squawk was a surprise but we have found that some of the prettiest birds have the most obnoxious calls. We immediately went into stealth mode and did our best to sneak up on the quetzal with my camera at the ready. It flew across the trail three or four more times but never allowed me to get close enough to take a picture. Our quetzal sighting will just have to live on in our memories… until next time!
Feeling recharged by mother nature we headed out towards a decisively urban epoch in this Pan American odyssey. It was time to prepare to ship The Joan Wilder to Colombia. It is a common misconception that the only hurdle to cross between Panama and Colombia is the Panama Canal. Nope. The Bridge of the Americas takes care of that problem. The biggest hurdle is a rather small swath of swampy jungle called the Darien Gap. In a route which is over 29,000 miles of glorious pavement a mere 66 are missing from the middle. The reasons for this disconnect vary depending on who you ask. It is likely a combination of many reasons. Putting in a road would introduce opportunities for roadside deforestation, transmission of livestock disease, impacts on indigenous cultures, easier trafficking of drugs and people, and damage to the local ecosystem just to name a few. Regardless of the reason, we were not going to be driving our truck into Colombia. The most common solution for getting to Colombia for folks like us is to load our truck into a shipping container in Panama and retrieve it from said container in Colombia. We were feeling border fatigue entering Panama. It took us calling on some major reserves to get ourselves to Colombia!
Some overlanders will opt to sell their rig on one side of the gap and buy a different rig on the other side. We love The Joan and know all of her quirks. It would be impossible for us to start fresh with a “new” rig. We started planning for the gap two months before our intended crossing date. While we were still in Guatemala we made a request with a website called containerbuddies.org to try to find another vehicle to share a container with. Containerbuddies is like online dating for overlanders. We made a profile, sent it out into the cyber-world and hoped we would find compatibility. Our first match turned out to be the only match we needed. Our new buddies were driving the pan am in a van that was decorated like the old Pac-man video game. They were a Swiss couple who bought the van in Canada at the beginning of the trip. They weren’t big Pac-man fans before buying the van but it has definitely grown on them since.
We met them in person for the first time in a dodgy neighborhood of Panama City where we had to get our vehicles inspected by the Department of Justice to ensure that we weren’t trying to ship stolen goods. They take copies of our titles to make sure the numbers all match early in the morning, run the VINs by Interpol, and give us a certificate of having passed inspection by that afternoon. It was fairly painless except for the requirement that you wear pants and closed toe shoes to pick up the paperwork in the office. Scott had to use his best hapless gringo smile to be allowed in the office wearing his flip-flops. Once we passed inspection we just had to go to a specific bank downtown to deposit a ridiculous sum of money into the account of the shipping company. Once payment was received we were emailed a temporary bill of lading from the shipping company.
Next, we next needed to move out of our truck for a week. It is a really weird process to pack for a week when you live in a truck. Only taking what we need. But wait, we need everything in the truck! How do we choose? It was rough but we managed to pare down our lives into carry-on bags for the entire week we would be without the truck. The irreplaceable items came with us and everything else stayed on the truck. Fingers crossed that the ship didn’t sink. We went to a carwash with a restaurant attached and ate deep fried delights while a nice guy scrubbed a years-worth of grime off of The Joan. It was important that she be clean before being loaded into the container. We didn’t want to give Colombia any excuse to deny the import of our truck.
Finally, “stuffing” day had arrived. Stuffing is the technical term for filling the container. I like it. We had to drive all the way across the country to the port city of Colón. Lucky for us, Panama is a narrow country. Paperwork all went down on the Pacific side and actual shipping went down on the Caribbean side. Normally we would have just driven to the port, parked, and handed the keys over to nice folks at the dock to load our truck into the container. Our buddies had some special requirements. They were about two inches too tall to fit into the container so they needed to change out their wheels to a smaller diameter and drive on with completely flat tires. That wasn’t a task that the dock workers were going to do so we needed to go to a different area of the port to load the vehicles into the container ourselves. Truth be told it was pretty fun. I loved watching the mechanics of it all. We got to wear high vis vests and hard hats. The Joan ended up getting a second bath at the loading yard because we parked in a mud puddle at the customs office right before arriving undoing all of the labors of that nice guy at the carwash. I guess we didn’t actually load the vehicles ourselves as much as get to watch the trained professionals load our vehicles. As soon as the doors were closed on the container the rain started. The timing was perfect. The nice folks at the loading yard were kind enough to drive us all to the bus station and walk us to the appropriate bus back to Panama City. Full service!
With the vehicles loaded we hugged our container buddies goodbye and parted ways until we met again in Colombia for the retrieval process. We tucked The Joan into the container on Wednesday and she was not going to be sailing until Saturday. If everything went as planned we would be able to start the retrieval process on the following Monday and be behind the wheel again by Tuesday. The timing was tight because we had our friend Cadence arriving at the airport in Cartagena on Thursday. Feeling excited to begin the next leg of our journey we booked a flight for ourselves to Cartagena for the next day to await our truck in a new country.
Taking a flight was a surreal experience. We had been traveling at or below posted highway speeds for over a year and now we were getting ready to take to the skies! The best part was how slick crossing through customs was without involving the importation of a vehicle. One line, one smile, two questions (where and how long), one stamp and we were good to go! Amazing how easy travel can be when you fly the friendly skies.
Things got a little harder for us when it came time to get to our hostel. We were in a taxi headed for the appropriate neighborhood and feeling pretty good until it became clear that the taxi driver couldn’t find our hostel. He was circling one block like a shark but not finding his prey. I found the phone number and he called to find out the right address. Wrong number. Hmmmm. We were getting dizzy from driving in circles so we picked a corner and got out to search on our own. It should be known that Cartagena is significantly hotter than anything we had been contending with in Central America. The sun was unapologetically bright and the air was sweltering, still, and humid. Our backpacks started to become heavy with the moisture they were absorbing from our sweaty bodies as we paced grooves in the sidewalk where our hostel was supposed to be. We asked in every business and nobody knew where it was. Other hostel owners could confirm its existence but not its location. A Venezuelan refugee and his two young daughters tried to guide us there but they also did not know where it was. Eventually, we sat in the shade and I sent a message to the hostel through the booking website. The auto-reply told me I should hear back from them within 24-48 hours. Cool. We decided on one more lap around the block to see if it had magically appeared while we were taking a break. It was a long block and when we were almost done Scott heard someone trying to pronounce my name. It was like angels from heaven. My message had made it through and the proprietor had come out looking for us. Turns out that aside from the address being wrong on Google, the booking website, and on Facebook they had just repainted their doorway from white to blue and there was no sign. The important thing was that they found us! We checked in, drank water and laid down under the air conditioner until our core body temperatures dropped to normal parameters.
It was fun killing time in Cartagena while our truck was off on her own adventure. We walked around the artsy neighborhood of Getsemani and the historic walled city of the old town. We ate delicious overpriced Indian food, and a fair amount of more affordable Colombian food. Cartagena is a very kinetic city and no matter what time of day we were walking around there were people out and about having a good time. That being said everybody was out when the sun went down and the temperatures cooled. We got into a routine of chilling out all day at our hostel and venturing into town for culture and a meal in the evening.
Eventually, the time to pick up our truck had come. We moved hostels so that we could be closer to the offices where we needed to be to complete our paperwork. In
Freeing our truck form the port was a study in paperwork and waiting. For me, it was mostly waiting. The truck is in Scott’s name so he had to be the one to fill out everything that needed to be filled out and talk to all of the people who needed to be talked to. Since this blog is not meant to be a how-to on shipping vehicles I will gloss over this bit of tedium for the sake of brevity. The first day was comprised of walking/taxiing around to different offices and shuffling papers. We almost made it out in one day but we were working with someone who was new on the job and was being trained using the import of our vehicles. On the second day (my birthday) I read an entire Nora Roberts contemporary romance novel in the waiting room at the port. It should have only taken an hour but the person training our newbie didn’t show up to work that day so things were not working like a well-oiled machine. About 15 seconds after I finished my book Scott rolled up in our truck and we were good to go! With another hug for our container buddies, we were ready to roll. We moved from our current hostel to an Airbnb on the beach where we would start our adventures in Colombia with my bestie Cadence who would be arriving the following day! Perfect timing! The hard work was done and we were ready to play!