Most of our time in Panama was dedicated to arranging the dreaded crossing of the Darién Gap, but we did get a chance to enjoy some great places, and even got in some good climbing on a spectacular rock wall.
The border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama was the slowest we’ve experienced yet. We chose to cross on the Caribbean side, both to experience the different culture on that coast and because we had read that it was a much easier border, especially with a dog. Well, the crossing really wasn’t hard at all, we went through all the same motions that we did at every border, only this time we had to wait in line for over two hours in suffocating heat and humidity to check out of Costa Rica, then another three hours on the Panama side for the electricity to come back on, then the internet to work again so we could get our mandatory insurance and vehicle import permit. After so much waiting around we ended up not even worrying about getting Hobie’s official paperwork, especially when the vehicle inspection guy saw him sitting in the front seat and didn’t say a word. Once we finally drove away with our legal vehicle and our illegal dog we decided that we’d had too much of the heat and humidity so we scrapped our plan to spend some time in Bocas del Toro and headed straight for the cool air of the mountains.
We breathed a sigh of relief as soon as we started climbing into the lush, foggy mountains. The drive was beautiful – through misty, jungly hills, along lakes and valleys, on narrow bridges over tumbling rivers, and through small towns. We drove the last hour to Boquete in the dark and were very happy to call it a day when we pulled into a great little hostel. We spent a few days relaxing, chatting with other overlanders and the many ex-Pats in Boquete, and walking around the town. Then we headed a bit further into the hills to check out a potential climbing spot we had heard about.
When we rounded the corner and caught sight of the rock wall we were amazed and delighted. The outcrop is made up of small, angular basalt columns. The columns are arranged on one side of the wall with the ends exposed, but on the other side the columns are oriented with the longitudinal sides exposed. This makes not only for a very interesting and picturesque wall, but also for some fun and challenging climbing. There are several well-bolted routes, ranging from 5.8 to 5.12, and we enjoyed working out our poor flabby arms. Since the wall is also a popular sight for tourists and locals alike we had many curious onlookers as we climbed, most ogled and pointed, but at one point a young girl was watching Emily lead a route and called out “cuidado muchachita!” (“careful little lady!”), which made us both laugh.
Our ulterior motive for visiting Boquete was to meet up with a potential shipping partner. Sharing a 40’ container makes the costs more reasonable for shipping a vehicle across the Darién Gap and we had been in touch with a very nice guy named Juan, who was hoping to ship at about the same time as us. The only problem was that Juan’s van was waiting for some serious engine work to be completed in Boquete and, typical of Latin American style, the mechanic was taking his sweet time. After a few days it became clear that Juan’s van wasn’t going to be ready in time to ship with us, so we put out a call to any other overlanders that were looking for a shipping partner and decided to high-tail it to Panama City to see if we could find a partner there.
Heading down the Pan-American Highway through central Panama turned out to be the worst driving experience we’ve had yet. Some fellow overlanders in Boquete had warned us about the horrible drive, and the plethora of police waiting to give tickets to speeding foreigners. We tried not to speed too much through the hundreds of kilometers of 30 kmph (18 mph) construction zones, we tried not to freak out when oncoming cars would pull out from behind a slow truck and flash their lights at us indicating that they knew they didn’t have time to make the pass but were not going to back down, so it was up to us to avoid the head on collision. We tried not to grit our teeth as we pounded over the narrow two-lane broken up concrete road as both directions of traffic swerved completely into the opposite lane in order to avoid the chunks that had sunk six inches, leaving suspension-destroying holes in the road, and needless to say, we let out a huge sigh of relief as we turned off of this horrible section of road in search of a quiet place to sleep.
We found a well-hidden spot to park just off of a quiet road down by a lazy creek and prepared for a hot, buggy night. That evening we got some good news. We received an email from an agent that helps with the vehicle shipping procedure saying that she had found us a shipping partner. Not looking forward to spending too much time in Panama City, we quickly changed our plans and decided to head up into the mountains to Laguna Yeguada. Although the lake was extremely low due to a drought in the area, it was still quite lovely. We camped amidst the pines on a bluff overlooking the lake. The area reminded us of Colorado or Northern California. We had a fun afternoon circumnavigating the lake, watching the bird life and trying to avoid the knee-deep mud.
Departing Laguna Yeguada, we had some more free time before we needed to head into Panama City and decided to stick to the cool mountain air. We headed to El Valle, a town built in a huge extinct volcano crater. There we got some chores done, hiked, and found a beautiful free camp spot high up on the rim of the crater in an area that had been recently excavated for the construction of homes. We picked mangos from the abundant trees, and were once again fooled into thinking that the chirping of toucans were frogs croaking nearby.
The time had finally come to descend into the heat and humidity of Panama City, so we headed for the popular, free spot for overlanders to stay, the Balboa Yacht Club, located right next to the Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal. We were slightly disappointed to find out that due to its popularity with overlanders the free bathrooms, showers, and laundry machine at the yacht club are now guarded and off limits to us freeloaders. The yacht club did, however, live up to its reputation as an overlander meeting spot and we met like-minded people from all over the globe. We particularly enjoyed chatting with Franz and Ingrid from Germany, traveling down the Pan-Am in their giant and impressive Unimog. (A month or so later, while we were working on the van in El Cocuy, we saw that big white Unimog driving down the narrow street and were delighted to cross paths with those two again.)
In dire need of a shower, we moved to a nearby Hostal Amador, located in an old U.S. army building. There we met two wonderful people, Benedicte and Edison, who are also driving the Pan-Am in a van and had just flown back from a visit home to Denmark. Over the next two weeks we got to know this great Danish-Brazilian couple, who are well-experience world travelers. We spent several evenings sharing beers and listening to Benedicte and Edison’s entertaining stories, including their adventures while sailing around the world. As luck would have it, the shipping partner that the agent found us fell through at the very last minute, but Benedicte and Edison jumped at the opportunity to share a container with us and overnight we had made new friends and secured a shipping partner.
What is this infamous Darién Gap anyway? When the Pan-American Highway was constructed, there was only one small section (~100 miles) between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and Ushuaia, Argentina where it was not feasible at the time to build a road. Due to the ruggedness of the swampy terrain, the danger of guerrilla rebels, and the environmental impact, the Pan-Am was never completed through the Darién state of Panama, which connects Central and South America. For various reasons (we’ve heard talk of some sort of cartel control) a ferry service has never been able to take hold between Panama and Colombia, although several have tried. Thus, it is necessary to put your vehicle in a container and ship it across the gap on a large cargo vessel.
Shipping across the Darién Gap is notorious amongst overlanders as a huge pain in the ass: it’s expensive, time-consuming, and annoyingly filled with bureaucratic hoops to jump through. For example, the first step once you arrive in Panama City is to get a police inspection of the vehicle to make sure it’s legal to leave the country. Theoretically this process is quick and easy, and fortunately it was for us, but you have to do it just right, and many people have been delayed at this step. Your paperwork has to be perfect and the inspector will only look at your vehicle on certain days and times, and if it rains he probably won’t show up. After reading many accounts of the many trials that other overlanders went through in the shipping process we were mentally prepared for a week of frustration. It turns out that for us the process went rather smoothly, the only challenge being finding a shipping partner at the last minute, and that’s when Benedicte and Edison showed up out of the blue.
Once we completed the police inspection all we really had to do was go to the port in Colon and drop the van off to be loaded into the container. The shipping company we used doesn’t allow the owners to drive their own vehicle into the containers, as other companies do. We did not like the idea of handing over the keys to our precious van, especially since we’d heard stories of the port workers stealing anything that’s easy to grab, and we can’t close off the front of our van from the back like others can. But we didn’t have a choice, so we locked up everything of any value or appeal and crossed our fingers that everything else would still be there when we got the van back. Then Tim drove to the port in a caravan with all of the other overlanders that were shipping at the same time, handed over the keys, and said goodbye and good luck to Chimera.
We stayed that night in a hostel in Panama City feeling pangs of van separation anxiety mixed with excitement for our next adventure – sailing to Cartagena through the San Blas Islands.