April 3 – May 16, 2017.
After 3 months of beach hopping through Costa Rica, we moved on to Panama on Monday April 3, 2017.
We didn’t know much about Panama besides the famous Panama Canal and the fact that it was going to be our last country in Central America which meant we had to prepare to ship Silver, our truck camper, across the infamous Darien Gap!
Our 6 weeks travels through Panama started and ended with Caribbean island chains, Bocas del Toro and the San Blas, with mountains, beaches and the Capital city in between.
We left from Punta Uva on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica and drove about an hour (30km) south to cross the border between Sixaola, Costa Rica and Guabito, Panama.
Leaving Costa Rica, we paid an exit tax of $8 USD per person, then we got our exit stamp in our passport and turned in our Vehicle Temporary Import Permit (TIP) to the Costa Rican Aduana (custom).
There is a 1 hour time difference as you cross the border, it’s 1 hour later in Panama.
We crossed over a small bridge, got our vehicle fumigate for $3, our passports stamped by the Panamanian Immigration allowing us to stay in the country for 180 days, our Vehicle Temporary Import Permit (TIP) however was only valid for 30 days. The lady doing the paperwork for our TIP was almost done when she noticed our bikes in the back of the camper, she wanted the serial numbers for each one! Since they were used beach cruisers we bought in Costa Rica, they didn’t have serial numbers. Joe told her 001 and 003 which were the numbers hand painted on the back fender by the rental shop where we bought them. That was good enough for her! We paid $25 for vehicle insurance for 1 month. We heard about a municipal tax but no one asked for it so we just left. The whole process took about 2 hours.
7km down the road, we came to a police check point where the officer asked to see our papers but mostly he wanted to see our receipt for the municipal tax, which we didn’t have. We tried to talk our way out of it but he was adamant and made us turn around. We drove back to the border, found the little shack where we paid $10 for the vehicle and $4 per person, a total of $18 in municipal taxes!
Bocas del Toro (Mouths of the Bull)
Our first destination in Panama was Bocas del Toro, a popular island chain, off the Northern Caribbean Coast of Panama. We had to find a secure parking space for Silver. Thanks to the application iOverlander, we knew that we could leave our precious house on wheels at the Fire Station of a small town called Almirante, where we took a water taxi to the islands.
Isla Colon – Bocas Town
Our fist stop was on on the main island called Isla Colon where Bocas Town, the capital of the province of Bocas del Toro is located. It’s a central hub with many restaurants, shops, nightlife, beaches and where you can catch tour boats to the other 8 main islands of the Archipelago.
Isla Bastimentos – Red Frog Beach
The second island we visited was Isla Bastimentos. When we were in Costa Rica we met a young couple just coming back from Bocas del Toro, they told us about this beautiful little resort called Palmar Beach Lodge where they had a wonderful stay, on a tranquil beach with crystal clear waters so we decided to go see for ourselves. The Lodge offers a free boat shuttle from Bocas Town.
When we got back to the Lodge, we could tell something horrible was going on, even though there was a good amount of people, it was very quiet… then we saw a young man lying on he beach. People were performing CPR on him trying to bring him back to life… after what seemed like an eternity they finally gave up… they covered his lifeless body with a white sheet waiting for the police or emergency services from the main Island to come and pick him up. He had drowned, taken by the rip current right there amongst other swimmers! The mood was somber to say the least. I think everyone was in shock trying to comprehend how one minute you’re having the time of your life and the next minute it’s all gone!!! The sea can be so beautiful but also so dangerous…
We left Bocas del Toro and headed inland towards the mountains, on the way we stopped for the night on the side of the road next to this little restaurant where we had dinner.
Caldera Hot Springs (Los Pozos)
The natural hot springs, renown for their healing properties, are located within a private farm where four undeveloped pools of mineral water with different temperatures are easily accessible along with the Caldera river to cool off. To get there we had to cross a wobbly suspended metal bridge and drive through some rough roads. We arrived pretty early so we had the place to ourselves for a few hours until a few locals showed up. We decided to spend the night and camp for free in the field where we had parked.
After months of beaches and warm weather it was a nice change to visit the highlands of Panama. The town of Boquete is located at 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above see level, providing very comfortable weather, warm days and cool nights, making it a popular spot for Canadian and American expats.
The town itself is not particularly pretty, but the surrounding mountains, rivers, Baru Volcano National Park, coffee plantations, the abundance of flowers along with good restaurants, markets, cultural activities and hiking options make Boquete a nice place to stop for a while, especially during Semana Santa (holy week) a very busy vacation time in Latin America where we try to be camped up and avoid the crowded beaches.
While in Boquete, we camped for 9 nights (April 10 – 19, 2017) at Pension Topas, a small hostel owned by a German fellow and his Panamanian wife. It’s walking distance to town for groceries and restaurants. While we were there it was very dusty because they were redoing the City sewer system and a bit noisy from all the activities for Semana Santa.We paid $12/night for a camping spot with electricity, bathrooms, shower, a small kitchen and good wifi. Can’t complain about that!
We spent a lot of time at the hostel because Joe had a head cold and I took advantage of the good WiFi to update our blog.
Panama is known amongst Overlanders as a good place to buy tires because of the price and availability of different brands and sizes. With only 21,000 miles of use on ours, they were still in good condition but we didn’t want to take the chance of not finding the right tires further down South. Our friends Doug and Fran from Calder Escapes were ahead of us, we knew they were going to replace their tires so we asked them to look for our model while they were there. After doing some on line research and the info given to us by Doug & Fran we decided to get new shoes for Silver at Auto Centro in David. We went from TOYO LT295/70R18 Open Country Xtreme A/T II 129/126S 10PR to TOYO LT285/65R18 Open Country A/T II 125S 10PR. Close enough!!! We bought 5 tires at $260 each + 7% tax installed plus $50 for alignment. We could probably have sold our used tires for a good chunk of change but there was a guy anxiously waiting, he finally walked up to Joe and asked if he could get our used tires, Joe said yes and a few minutes later a taxi showed up to load the tires! We definitely made his day!!!
Norman, a British expat who lives near David had reached out to us through social media and invited us to his house. After being kicked out of a mall parking lot, we took him up on his offer and spent 2 nights in his beautiful garden, near a river.
Norman was a farmer back in the UK, he has quite a menagerie and he experiments with a multitude of plants. Amongst many things, he raises quails to sell the eggs. Quail eggs are extremely popular all over Latin America! Norman has plans to sell his property to become an Overlander …
Update: I recently saw pictures on Norman’s Facebook page of him and his wife in Alaska!!! Bravo Norman you did it!!!
We were having a few electrical issues, Norman took us to a mechanic that he knew not to far, in Rincon Largo. When we need repairs done, we either camp at the mechanic or get a hotel room. In this case we camped at the mechanic which was located on a quiet country road. There, we met another family of Overlanders that were also getting some work done on their Bus.
On Sundays most people don’t work in latin America, it’s Family Day. Neil, the mechanic, and his family invited all of us to go for a swim! We all got in his wife’s mini van that she uses for school transportation, with some snack and drinks. We had a blast swimming in the nearby river!
While passing through the town of David, we bought another 30 days of Insurance for our vehicle and extended our Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for another 30 days at the local Aduana (customs) office, to give us enough time to get ready for the Shipping process. Joe always likes to show the Aduana guys, his Retired Customs badge and credentials, they always get a kick out of it!
Our fiends Mark & Saskia, a British couple we met in Mexico but got to know better in Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, reached out to us, we agreed to meet in Las Lajas Beach on the Pacific coast. We spent a week (April 25 – May 2, 2017) at Johnny Fiesta’s Hostel hanging out with cool people, swimming, reading, day drinking but overall not moving to much because of the extreme heat!
We heard about this restaurant that apparently was a great culinary experience in an enchanted decor by a river where we could camp. We emailed them a couple days before to make a reservation, which we rarely do. It turned out to be a peaceful location by the river but the culinary experience was a big disappointment. But our hosts were so nice and friendly, one of them even sang a couple songs during dinner, which made up for the lack of gastronomy!
We arrived in Panama City on May 5th, 2017 which marked our 2 years anniversary of being on the road, 26,500 miles and 10 countries! We celebrated at Danilo Jazz Club in the historic district of Panama with our friends Mark, Saskia and Doug.
Panama City has been dubbed the Miami of Central America and we can see why … City by the sea with it’s lineup of Condos, Hotels and Financial buildings and a melting pot of cultures. What strikes us is the contrast between old and new with the colonial town and the ultra modern skyscrapers but most of all the contrast between extreme poverty and obnoxious wealth … You may fall in love whit it or want to leave the moment you arrive but one thing for sure, it won’t leave you indifferent!
The Panama Canal is an artificial 82km (51miles) waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. It cuts across the Isthmus of Panama and it is a conduit for maritime trade. In 2016 a third larger lock (Gatun) was inaugurated to expand the canal to allow transit of larger ships. Work on the Canal first started in 1881 by France, but had to be stopped due to engineering problems and high worker mortality rate. The United States took over the project in 1904 and opened the canal in August 1914. One of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken. The US continued to control the canal and surrounding Canal Zone until the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties provided for handover to Panama. After a period of joint American-Panamanian control, in 1999, the canal was taken over by the Panamanian government and is now managed and operated by the government-owned Panama Canal Authority. It takes 11.38 hours to pass through the Panama Canal. As of 2012, more than 815,000 vessels had passed through. Source: wikipedia
Colon- Shipping Silver from Panama to Colombia
The only break in the Pan-American Highway, between Alaska and the tip of Argentina, is a 66 miles (106 km) stretch of land between Panama and Colombia called the Darien Gap.
The infamous Gap which consist of extremely dense tropical rain forest and a network of rivers where the only people you are bound to meet are human traffickers or drug smugglers. Only a few adventurers mostly on motorcycles have successfully crossed the Gap with an incredible amount of gear and the help of the local Kuna community as guides and a team of people to push and pull their vehicles!
There use to be a ferry but unfortunately it closed a few years ago. The only way was to put Silver on a cargo ship. There is three shipping options: Container 20 or 40 footer, RoRo (roll-on roll-off) where the vehicle is driven onto and off the ship and Flatrack, a container with sides only on the short sides. Each option has pros and cons for security, cost, time at sea, and ease of process!
We chose the most stressful but secure option: a 40 foot High Cube Container. We were suppose to share the cost of $2,030 with another Overlander traveling on a motorcycle but he got held up and could not make it on time, we could have waited to find someone else but everything was booked and we were eager to move on.
We have been dreading this moment for some time! Does our XPCamper fit in a container or not? Well, it took some maneuvering, backing the truck onto a flatbed, taking air out of the tires and airbags, almost busting our awning … but YES we are happy to report that it does fit in a 40′ HC container! Once inside the container Joe had to climb out of the side window of the truck where he cut his leg on the deflector, then jump on the hood where he burned his hand, then crawl on the floor of the container under the truck to realize that he didn’t fit because taking the air out of the tires had lowered the truck. They had to use 2 bottle jacks to lift the truck enough for him to come out! That was a complete nightmare to watch because they had some crooked pieces of wood under the jack and I thought that the whole thing was going to collapse and crush Joe.
After hosing himself down and a change of T-Shirt, Joe had his smile back and was ready to lock up that container door with the help of Boris Sr.
Now that our vehicle was securely resting in a container waiting to be shipped to Colombia, we had to get there. Our options were to fly to Colombia, get a hotel room and wait for Silver to arrive at the Port of Cartagena on May 17, 2017 or a five day sailing trip through a chain of Islands in the Caribbean. It was not a hard choice to make, sailing it is!
There is a multitude of private sailboats that offer the crossing from Panama to Colombia for almost the same price as air fare. Their primary clientele are backpackers so it is by no means a luxury trip and once you leave the San Blas, the last day and a half, the seas can be pretty rough and it is highly recommended to take some motion sickness meds!
San Blas islands
Guna Yala aka San Blas Islands located off the northeast coast of the Isthmus of Panama, an archipelago comprising of approximately 365 islands and cays, of which 49 are inhabited and governed by the Guna indigenous (formerly Kuna). It is part of Panama but it’s an autonomous region/province.
Interesting fact: Guna families are matrilineal, with the groom moving to become part of the bride’s family. The groom takes the last name of the bride as well!
For us The San Blas was PARADISE! Crystal clear water with small islands surrounded by white sand beaches, coconut palms and coral reefs. We only spent 3 days in the islands but we would have easily stayed a month or two! Swimming, snorkeling, catching and eating fish and lobster, exploring the islands and discovering the Guna culture, waking up with the sun and sleeping under the stars!!! Overall it was a wonderful experience even though the open sea crossing was not the most pleasant.
Farewell Central America! Hello South America!
Few Facts about Panama:
- Population: 4.034 million (2016) World Bank
- Area: 29,119 sq miles (75,417 km²)
- Capital: Panama City
- Currency: USD (formerly Balboa PAB)
- Time spent: 6 weeks and 1 day (April 3 – May 16, 2017)
- Miles driven: 655
- Diesel price per gallon: $2.46