We visited the country of Panama in May when our family was here. At that time we stopped a few places and spent a few days truly exploring the incredible Panama Canal. You can read all about that here (a new window will open) and see some great images of Panama. Then we returned to Costa Rica to finish up some fun there. You can open a new window and read about our last few weeks in Costa Rica here.
We returned to Panama in July to do a little more exploration before we ship our truck to Colombia. This time we entered where we had last exited. It was a slow process on a hot day. But we were in and the documents were correct. We selected a riverside, boondocking campsite for our first night back in Panama. In the morning this a man went up the river with a wooden dugout canoe carrying a machete. It was truly a hollowed out tree trunk. He filled it with bananas that he had chopped out of the trees. Then he floated it back down the river to his truck to haul the bananas in for processing. There are no roads to his banana field, so this solution works for harvesting!
The drive from the lower elevations of Panama up into the mountains is a beautiful, winding road through the indigenous communities. It is also a glimpse into the serious contrast between the abject poverty of the indigenous and the relative wealth of others in Panama. Once in the mountains, the housing changes to chalet style homes. In the mountain region we camped riverside again. This time along a river, near the Caldera Hot Springs. These natural thermal springs are managed by a local farm family, and require a bit of a hike. The most pleasant pool is located on the banks of the river. We enjoyed a soak in the hot pools and also a swim in the river. Nica enjoyed exploring the river rocks.
This was a peaceful place to relax, and the river was very refreshing for swimming. We spent two nights enjoying this campsite, but with the humidity and afternoon rains, our swimwear and towels never dried out! When it was time for groceries and laundry, we proceeded up the highway to the mountain town of Boquete, Panama. This town is known for being an expat location; and it was true. We found Americans, Canadians and Europeans every way we turned. One night we went to this grill for live music. The trio of Panamanian men played rock songs from the 70’s and 80’s without missing a beat. They were a great cover band, in a faraway country! We spent our first few hours parked near the police station. But when a local issue turned into a large crowd of chanting locals, a protest parade and some nervous policemen, we decided to move elsewhere.
These photos show the large group that gathered outside the police station and then marched through town (in the rain). Their chants were things like “do your job” and “justice must be served”. It seems that a local teenage girl had been violated and the entire community knew the perpetrator, but the police were not carrying out any charges. We are hopeful that the protest was effective, as their organization and message was well-managed.
For the next two nights we parked in the center of town in a gated, grassy parking lot. We enjoyed the central location and the relative peacefulness of being the only campers there. The highlight of our visit to Boquete was a few hours spent in a special garden called El Explorador. This garden is filled with whimsical, recycled art and goofy scultpure. Hanging in the trees and shrubs are license plates which have been repainted with words of wisdom.
In the strange garden we found this flat screen television. The screen has been replaced by a mirror. And on the tv frame it says “Yo Soy” which means “I am”.
I stopped to pose with a funny statue in the garden. Nica was very confused by what I was doing, and the stranger I was standing with. She also gave a funny pose as she looked up at the mannequin and I.
This garden is located in the hills above the city of Boquete. It gave me an opportunity to take a beautiful video of the surrounding hills. As you can see in the movie below, the area is green, lush and cloudy. It resembles some of the areas in Switzerland and Iceland that we have visited.
And in this beautiful, huge, hillside garden we had to pause and look also at the small stuff that nature presented to us. Including this beautiful spider on its glistening web. We found one last beautiful campsite in the mountains, near a stream on the edge of a national forest. The jungle forest growth had taken over the fence, the sign and was working towards the parking place. This place was lush and green and surprisingly chilly at night. But it was time to get busy with our shipping preparations. So we went to Panama City and settled in to a hostel parking lot to get our business done. We had a lot of paperwork to complete.
Here is a photo of the cute hostel in the Balboa neighborhood of Panama City that we parked at. (BTW- there is a movie on Netflix called “Panama Canal Stories” that can give you some interesting background on the division of population and neighborhoods that once existed in this area. These divisions can clearly be seen when driving through the neighborhoods of the city.
The next country along our route is Colombia. Some of you have asked what we are shipping and why. There is a misperception that you cannot drive across the Panama Canal. That is incorrect. It is not only possible to drive across the Panama Canal, we did it several times during our last visit. There are bridges, ferries and locks which allow passage over the canal. If you refer back to the blog post you will see photos. (click here for post about Panama Canal)
But there is another reason that it is not possible to drive from Panama to Colombia. This is due to a region called the Darien Gap. This is a dangerous, lawless section of jungle that very few people have successfully navigated in a vehicle. Much of it is controlled by the revolutionary guerrilla forces known as FARC and other militia groups. Here is a link to the Wikipedia information about the Darien Gap (click here to open new window) If you are interested in learning more, here is a link to an interesting article from Outside Magazine about the Darien Gap (click here) The Darien Gap is commonly considered the dividing line between North America and South America. Once we get across this, we will be in South America finally!
In order to continue our exploration of the Pan-American Highway we will need to get the humans and the dog and the truck to Colombia. We will put the truck on a container ship. It will be shipped from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Here is a photo of the ship we will use, named Galaxy Leader. There are three ways to ship a full-sized vehicle across the Darian Gap. Smaller vans and SUV’s can go in a metal container. With this process the owner drives it into the container and ties it down. Then they confirm it being locked and secured. The shipping containers are then loaded and stacked by cranes on the ship. Our truck is too big for a shipping container, so this economical method will not work for us. The second way of shipping is called “flat-deck” and this works for large vehicles like ours. The owner drives the vehicle onto a loading deck and watches the vehicle be secured. Then the vehicle is locked up, secured to the deck and loaded by a crane onto the ship. Generally these loading decks are placed in between or on top of many, many stacks of shipping containers on the upper deck of the ship. But because of the handling and processing this is a more expensive procedure than the one we selected. It also tends to be on slower ships. We chose a RoRo process (roll on, roll off) which means that the vehicle is driven on to the ship (similar to a ferry) and secured in the underbelly of the ship. When they arrive the vehicles are then driven off at port by the ship’s crew. For this procedure the owner secures their belongings and then leaves the keys in the ignition. The vehicle sits unlocked in port, waiting to be driven onto the ship when it arrives. We chose RoRo because it was a little cheaper ($2,500usd) and because it offered the option of 1-day shipping so we could have our truck back quickly and be back on the road. We made our reservations, paid our fees, booked our lodging and packed our bags so we could walk away from our home!
But before we can do that, we have to have the vehicle inspected by the police (to ensure that it is not stolen). Of course the police inspection is in an interesting neighborhood. This photo shows us parked near the police inspection facility at 7:00am in a rough neihborhood of Panama City. We also must have the truck washed and packed up to be ready to load it on the boat. Then the truck goes to the port for final paperwork. There is a man assigned to be a helper while in the port. He fill out the papers and runs in between the offices. Here is a picture of Boris, the helper. Only the named owner of the vehicle is allowed in the port area. So in this area Mike meets up with others who are also shipping on the Galaxy Leader. During the day in port there is much busines to be accomplished. Each vehicle must have a police inspection by a drug dog. The vehicles also under go an extensive customs and DEA inspection. Our final step is to cover our camper in a tarp. This is not to prevent rain, as our truck will be in the ships hold. But instead we decided to tie this on to the top to discourage anyone from entering our camper through the roof fan or ceiling hatch. The truck is secured, cleaned, inspected and ready for a journey across the ocean.
The most worrisome part about this shipping process is that we leave the keys in the truck and the doors unlocked and then walk away. The vehicles will sit there until the ship is ready to be loaded. Ship staff will drive them onto the ship. After we were done with the procedures for the truck we checked into a hotel near the airport. It was odd to be homeless, but we were ready to fly from Panama City, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. Keep watching as we arrive in our first South American country. We are hopeful that things will be fine with the flight, the dog in cargo and the truck on a ship. We will update you when things are all finished and we have arrived in South America!