We left Costa Rica for Panama, our final country in Central America. At this point we had a goal to ship the vehicle from Panama to Colombia by early July so we would have enough time to reach Patagonia for their summer season. Panama is like the shape of an “S” laying down and we pretty much took the shortest route from west to east and only stopped for three nights before reaching Panama City.
Our first night was spent on a Pacific beach somewhere I don’t even remember the name of. I don’t think Panama is really known for their beaches. Further up north the beaches are much more spectacular. We camped next to a run-down restaurant. Simon and Ty went for a swim and Jamie and I went for a walk. It was on this beach when I realized Jamie knows to how to sit ON SOMETHING now. He very purposefully and proudly sat down on a log, got up and sat down again, and again, and again.
Then we stopped in the mountain town of El Valle for a couple days to recharge from the long drives. El Valle is kind of a vacation town for the well-to-do from Panama City. Lots of huge fancy mansions behind wrought iron gates and elaborate gardens. The rest of the small town is very laid back, pretty and not overrun by tourists. Mango trees were dropping mangoes everywhere. Temperatures were cool and breezy, a welcome change from the muggy coast. We met up with a couple fellow travelers from England, Dave and Meryl, who said El Valle was much nicer than Boquete, the other bigger and better known Panamanian mountain town, with lots of North American expats. We stayed in a hotel called Pekin owned by Chinese Panamanians. As we will see, there are many long time Chinese immigrants in Panama. I am jumping ahead but we had the best dim sum on our trip in Panama City, and it was funny to see Chinese grandmas speaking fluent Spanish greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek.
We were lucky to run into Dave and Meryl in El Valle whom we previously had met in Oaxaca and Costa Rica. They drive a homemade camper truck and have overlanded Africa many times. Here, Simon and Dave talked about some strange noise that our van had been experiencing and Dave’s inkling turned out to solve our problems!
Finally, Panama City. Our last stop in Central America. This is where we put our van in a shipping container because the jungly stretch between Panama and Colombia is not exactly passable. We were really surprised to find how modern and cosmopolitan Panama City is. We met up with George and Jenine (TravelingtheAmericas) after last seeing each other in Oaxaca. We were shipping on the same ship so we endured the impossibly tedious and convoluted bureaucratic process together. Here we are – two Sportsmobiles from San Francisco Bay Area in Panama City.
Our first week in Panama City was spent all on car stuff. We found the shop Procars from ioverlander and went there to fix the grinding sound in the rear differential. We ended up doing several other things there. The Procars guys also hooked us up with a new car alarm and a carpenter who helped put up a partition in our van to secure our belongings during shipping. We found Procars to be extremely helpful and definitely recommend them if you need work done in Panama. After getting the van ready, our second week in the city was spent on shipping stuff. Despite the fact that it has been done thousands of times, the process to ship a vehicle across the Darien Gap is painful to say the least. Why is it so painful? It is like a border crossing on steroids times ten. Mounts of paperwork, copies, stamps from ten different individuals, offices not marked, directions not clear, lines that seemingly did not move, officials who did not want to work, hot sun and humidity, and for us, a bus that broke down at the end of the day when we thought we were all done! The only good thing about it was meeting other overlanders going through the same thing. Among the people shipping with Seaboard Marine that weekend, we had George and Jenine from San Francisco Bay area, one couple from the UK in a Landcruiser, two Argentineans in a Honda Accord and two Mexicans on motorbikes. Really cool to see people of all ages and walks of life living the same dream.
We did find time to do one touristy thing in the city – we had to visit the Panama Canal. An engineering marvel as everyone says, but unfortunately we did not see any big ships going through the locks. The day before one of guys who shipped with us saw a a submarine going through! I was a bit disappointed but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Besides that, we spent a lot of time in the hotel horsing around, ordering delicious Peruvian food take out (Tambor de Oro) and going out for the best dim sum we have had in a long time (Lung Fung).
After we finally sent off our van – looking back it was the first time in almost 8 months to be away from it – we had a few days to burn before it was ready for pick up in Cartagena, Colombia. We decided to fly to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, for a few days. Onto an Avianca flight where Ty found the free cheese and salami sandwich to be delicious (it was!), and Jamie would not sit still for the 1.5 hour flight.