Panama sits right in between the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Americas. This is where continents and oceans come so close to each other but remain somewhat divided. The famous canal was dug through the land and completed with great difficulty back in 1914. That took care of the ocean traffic. Now ships can slowly pass through an array of locks. 100 years after the completion of this achievement, it’s still impossible to drive the untamed isthmus called the Darien Gap. The continents remain divided. Many overlanders attempted this route and very few were able to make it through. But even the ones who did it, swear to never do it again. The jungle is relentless…
Helge Pedersen was the first motorcyclist “riding” the Darien Gap back in the 80’s. Ten Years On Two Wheels
A few ferry companies have attempted to run scheduled transfer of vehicles between Panama and Colombia. Recently, an Italian company started FerryXpress. We were delighted with the news and have been looking forward to use it. In fact, many of the southbound travellers we’ve met on the road were able to use this service for the past month. Unfortunately, the very same day we arrived in Panama City, service was abandoned due to some undisclosed reason, with no warning or estimations of reopening. The ferry has been one of the the best and the worst news we had on this trip so far. It’s been a love and hate relationship.
Without any alternatives, we resorted to arranging a shipping container for Her Majesty. This will cost twice the money and four times the time and paperwork. Well in any case… It’s best to leave it behind.
Here’s Panama for us… with what little time we had left despite the bureaucratic interventions.
Our entry into Panama foreshadowed what this country would hold for us. The border crossing of Paso Canoas was a complete zoo. We are somewhat used to crazy borders by now but this one deserves a gold medal for the most confusing and most bureaucratic of all. Nevertheless, we jumped through all the hoops rather easily, but at the last step one very kind official thought it would be a good idea to do a complete search of our vehicle. That’s like someone telling you “Please, empty your house. Now.” Oh well… And so we did, smiling politely the whole time. We must have been really annoying to him. Then they made us bring two boxes and our luggages into an extra room to search in detail. With all this work, one would think they do this for a purpose and actually look for things. We were laughing afterwards since we actually had a few mysterious looking ziplock bags with white powder in our kitchen box… Glad they didn’t search too well, and our powdered milk and supplements didn’t turn into yet another investigation…
Arriving in Panama felt like arriving back in the United States, not only because of its US currency. Big highways, international chains and brand names – a haven of consumerism!
Our first night we arrived in Boquete, a small town in the mountains, which turned out to be the home of many European retirees. Erdem was happy to find out, that our camp host Axel has a collection of vintage motorbikes. Oh sweet nostalgia…
Another work project kept us here for several days. Panama celebrated its independence from Spain during this time, and the town was overflowing with visitors. Panamanians bring the words “celebration” and “cacophony” to a whole new level! For three days straight, processions of musicians, mostly drummers, have been going through town, nonstop. Literally nonstop! After a whole day of loud loud drumming, we went to bed around 3am, the procession still going on, and woke up groggy at 8am, with the same noise continuing. They haven’t stopped. They are relentless! It’s been three days straight… There were always several different bands playing at once, really loud, and a bit out of tune. They must be overly happy to have gotten rid of the Spaniards, and they’re making extra sure they won’t ever return!
Panama is a crossroad for travellers and we met a lot of fellow overlanders. We had an especially great time with Abrazamundos and De Gira Por America. A book binding workshop and an infamous BBQ with huge flames (luckily right in front of the local fire station) are just some of the great memories…
We had planned to see a bit of the country before catching the ferry in Colon, but we received the message that the vehicle transportation was stopped and so we rushed to Panama City to somehow figure out shipping last minute before the holidays. We rushed so much that Erdem had to talk us out of a speed ticket.
Some lonely days of waiting in the rain followed. We used the time to get a few things fixed on the camper, and do an oil change on our truck. We found out that we need a clutch replacement and had to order it in the US. Looks like we may get a new clutch for Christmas this year. This journey makes us learn about many new things. Shipping and car mechanics are only some of them…
After a few days of visiting car mechanics and auto shops in the sign-less maze called Panama City, we found our saviours Bluevisionexpedition. They were in the same situation and were happy to share a container with us, in order to share the costs and misery of organising and waiting.
Breakfast on the sidewalk is more fun in good company.
It was raining so much we gave a homeless man our tarp.
Didn’t know Santa was from Panama.
Being in Panama we wanted to at least see the most famous site of all: the Canal. So we visited the Miraflores Lock.
There was a curious museum about the building and operation of the Canal. Connecting the two oceans was such an enormous project, with the drilling performed during the construction, they could have cut a hole straight through the planet and 900 kilometres beyond.
Erdem, trying to express his disappointment about the ferry situation to a dummy operating the canal. No response…
An amazing collection of critters the canal builders dealt with back in the days.
Expansion projects are still continuing to allow for the passage of larger ships.
A quick supper with our neighbours in the middle of a parking lot.
Finding our way from one office to the other, hoping to make it in time.
Police inspection of the vehicles to make sure we are indeed exporting the same cars we drove in with.
DIJ office to collect the approval papers.
All done! Except the actual work of putting the car in a container.
Once we were done with all the preparations, the day came to drop of our cars. We felt strange following our shipping agent to the port on the Atlantic side of the isthmus.
After almost six months on the road, it was very hard to hand our car keys and a bunch of money off at the port, hoping to find our ‘home’ again safe and sound on the other end.
We decided to wait in a nearby town until the ship goes out. At least we can transport ourselves with the ironically empty ferry.
Being deprived of our homes, we settled down in a scruffy cheap hostel in Portobelo, waiting for the date of departure. Back in the days, Portobelo was the biggest port town in Central America. Not much has been left from that glory these days. It’s hard to believe this town and the fortress nearby are actually a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The church of Portobelo…
…and its black Christ in tune with the Afro-Carribean population of the town.
This is the end of the chapter North and Central America. We know that we haven’t done Panama justice racing through it to tie all the loose logistic ends of hopping continents. But then again, this is what most of the country has been about historically and geographically.
A new continent and a new year await us. We’ll welcome 2015 somewhere in Colombia. Six months ago we could not have possibly imagined all the wonderful places and people we encountered on this journey… We also couldn’t have imagined to still be on the road with so much more to go. Looking forward to more of it…
Heinz NeunzigJanuary 11, 2015
Wonderful trip! I love globetrotting. I did a similar trip in 2005 from Mexico to Costa Rica with a G-Class like Bluevisionexpedition.
Erdem YucelJanuary 18, 2015
It must be interesting for you to see the difference a decade makes. I would guess that there are a few more travelers on the road now and some of the less accessible places have become a bit more touristic.
The G-Class is a very well built utilitarian vehicle indeed. We were impressed by the simplicity of it as much as Ivan explained.
Thanks for your comment. I’m happy you’re enjoying the blog.
simon familyJanuary 11, 2015
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
we had great time in little ethiopia, thanks los amigos!
we’re no in New Zealand, such amazing landscape!
simon familyJanuary 11, 2015
now and not no!!
Erdem YucelJanuary 18, 2015
You were in Los Angeles and you went to Little Ethiopia! I hope you had some Ethiopian food. I miss the taste of their bread. I wish we knew before your arrival so we could arrange a meeting with our friends. Bon voyage! New Zealand must be amazing. Thanks for dropping us a line. Hugs to Laurent. His big smile is still in our memories. And kisses to the girls. All of them. One by one.
Gail Kellar (mother of Kerri Bowser)January 17, 2015
Hi Sarah & Erdem: We are now sitting on the condo patio in Tamarindo. As always, it is so beautiful here. We are so pleased that Jerome & Sophie, the French family, stopped by for a few minutes on their way north.
When Kerri’s father & I were in Panama in 1973, we met a Brit who had just bicyled thru the Darien Gap. Most of the way he had to carry his bike thru the swamps. He had to be in his jungle hammock from before dusk to after dawn because of mosquitoes. He was an ex-soldier and it had very nearly killed him. Seems that the area has not changed much.
Safe journey and thanks for providing this record. It brings back so many memories of my long ago travel in Latin America.
Erdem YucelJanuary 18, 2015
So the Dauphins are on their way up north then! It must have been nice to finally meet your guests in person! :) Thank you very much for hosting all of us and opening your house to a bunch of strangers. That was one of the kindest gestures we’ve ever received on this journey. I hope you found that little postcard we prepared with the photo of the 8 of us in Mexico posing in front of our vehicles.
As difficult as shipping was in comparison to the ease of a ferry crossing, it’s definitely nothing compared to crossing that 50 mile jungle overland. I can’t even imagine. It must have been an unforgettable challenge for him.
Enjoy the blog. We’ll keep it up as long as we travel. And who knows, maybe we’ll get to meet in person one day.
EtienneJanuary 18, 2015
Thank you for sharing your experiences, progress in that detail – with a load of pictures :-)
I guess we will be able to meet, I`m coming from the south upwards.
I`m curious about why the ferry is suspended actually… Hope I will be able to take them till I reach the darian gap!
Erdem YucelJanuary 18, 2015
Thank you Etienne,
We’d love to meet! Meeting other travelers is one of the biggest highlights of our trip. Let us know where you are. We are about to enter Ecuador in a week or so. We’re working on the blog post for Colombia now somewhere in Zona de Cafeteria.
I’m sure the ferry will resume soon. Even if they don’t start the scheduled transfers, they seem to respond to overlanders piling up on either side. Make sure you get a hold of someone and INSIST! They can do it if they feel like helping.
Safe travels to you as well.
Joe StermitzDecember 18, 2015
For folks interested in the Darien gap, there is one American foolish enough (?) to have done it three times. The first two were with a Jeep, and the third with a 2WD motorcycle. You can learn more about Loren and Patricia Upton and their globe-trotting adventures at http://www.outbackofbeyond.com