Friday, August 21, 2015

Panama: The Bad and The Ugly

We have all had them... days or weeks where the world seems to be against you, and where something or other just keeps going wrong. It may be the most minor things, but all clumped together, you are just flat out having a bad day! Well, that was the majority of Panama for us. To be very honest, Panama has been our least favorite country thus far. It was full of hassles, traffic, crazy drivers, poor service, swindlers, and rude people. Not just ordinary rude, this was next level rude that almost pushes you to the breaking point. Part of this definitely has to do with the fact that we were forced to spend some time in cities just waiting around for paperwork or the right time to process something or other with our vehicle. Nevertheless, this time deserves a chapter for recollection in our travel diary. (Caution, this post may be boring if you are not an overlander interested in the Darien Gap shipping process. Also, if you ever thought that this travel thing was all beautiful beaches and big adventures and fun, then here is a little look into the small things that we do day to day to make it happen. Little things like the stuff we talk about in this post, go wrong and unmentioned all the time, but in Panama they were back to back and relentless!) To clarify why we must ship the car, there is a large area of land at the Panama/Colombia border called the Darien Gap. This mountainous area of impassable thick jungle, armed rebels, and threatened indigenous groups is dangerous and has no roads connecting the two countries, matter of fact this is the only broken section of the PanAmerican Highway from Alaska to the tip of South America. Both governments have agreed to keep it this way as a disease, immigration and drug smuggling barrier. For those of us with vehicles, we must ship it from the Carribean port of Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.

First off, we left out something in the last blog, merely because it is better suited here... The part where after we left Boquete we went back to the border to have our temporary vehicle import permit revised. When we entered the country, we were given a handwritten Temporary Import Permit (TIP) that was lacking a VIN, motor number, and port of exit. We had a bad feeling that it was insufficient, but they insisted to us that it was okay. A few days later we verified that it was indeed crap, and would not be accepted to ship the car. We decided that taking a one hour detour back to the border would be easier than finding the Aduana (Customs) in Panama City. WRONG! Very wrong. Although it was clearly their fault for giving us an unaccaptable document, they refused to fix it without us leaving the country. That meant exiting Panama, going back in and out of Costa Rica, and then entering Panama to create a new TIP. Here we go again, they must know that border crossings are our favorite thing! ;) (To save on fees we only had Chris do it, and we never actually took the car out and back in, we just hid it, since they only needed a new entry stamp in Chris' passport to begin the process). This go around, EVERYTHING took a little longer and there were at least 4 or 5 additional hassles and steps included that somehow we dodged last time. This included being harrassed because our license plate is all letters, not having $500 cash on us, and dealing with lazy inefficient personal. After nearly three hours of this, we are finaly back in Panama with the correct version of paperwork! Whew! Chris now has an entire page of his passport stamped out as a lovely reminder of the ordeal.

Waiting, waiting, and waiting
Welcome to Panama, again!
Panama Customs Office. Lady with our papers digging in her purse to find her phone and send a text, man in the back straight up watching a movie... That is how they roll.

We need a police inspection done on the vehicle within a week of shipping, so we set our bearings towards Panama City. On the way we took a detour in search of an elusive waterfall campsite using some vague directions from our Lonely Planet. We made loops around the area only to end up at a dump, literally! We gave up on the waterfall and continued on while trying constantly for a bit a wifi to check our email because we are still trying to find the best way to get ourselves to Colombia! Wifi is hard to get and we found ourselves sitting in a booth at McDonalds (a place we would never be found at home) one too many times trying desperately for email updates!! That night we show up at what we thought was a RV campground, that would have been perfect for the next two nights, but of course, the campground is closed with a "For Sale" sign posted. No surprise, this happens sometimes... so we end up in a parking lot on the beach for the night... in the pouring rain! The next day we are in the same predicament. Need wifi, have no place to go, and not willing to shell out the money for a hotel for the next week. For some reason we decide going to the biggest mall in Central America will be the cure to our problems. But of course Panama conspired against us. We tried over a dozen coffee shops, diners, and other miscellaneous food joints asking for the wifi password if we bought food or drinks. Two outcomes would occur: either told "no wifi" even though there would be a half dozen people sitting around on their laptops, or the staff would not even look at us or speak to us (so much so we felt like we were in our own episode of the Twilight Zone - the Invisible Shoppers). On top of that, the mall advertised free wifi...which did not work. Sadly, when stuck in a city with nothing to do we improvised by spending our day by harnessing our inner senior citizens and basically did laps around the nice cool airconditioned mall for exercise for the rest of the day, then treated ourselves to a "fancy" dinner at TGIFridays (funny how the idea of fancy changes when you havent gotten a paycheck in 5 months)! Being a mall rat was a certainly a low point.

Not the waterfall we were hoping for!
Thankful for our awning!
The nicest guy in the mall

Throughout the country we had continually bumped into Michael and Veronika, and they had told us about a road that overlanders have been camping on for the past few decades within the city limits. Before there was internet to arrange all our shipping needs, overlanders would converge near the Balboa Yacht Club to arrange such details. Til this day it remains one of the only options for car camping in Panama City, so we were there! We spent a good chunk of the next day going back and forth from the police station for two seperate apointments, car inspection in the morning, and return again in the afternoon to pick up the paperwork. The inspection went smoothly, however driving in this abysmal city was painstaking, and to make matters worse we took a wrong turn end ended up on a toll road. We approached the toll booth and found that all three lanes required an electronic pass leaving no cash option. We awkwardly stopped in front of one of the gates and hollared into one of the booth windows, trying to get the point across that we did not have a pass. An older toll booth operator stepped out and asked to see Chris' license, so we handed him what he wanted. He looked it over, then lifted the gate and told us to pull over just past the booth, success! The toll operator walked up and demanded $10 otherwise he would not give back the liscense, wait WHAT!! Hell no, the toll was only $2, which we argued. He was stuck on $10, so Mallary flipped into her relentless persuasion mode and after ten minutes of debate he gave back the license and let us go with a "warning." A demand for a bribe and a warning from a toll booth operator was a first for both of us which til this day we still laugh about. Good try Panama, but we beat you this time.

Balboa Yacht Club street camping
The projects across from the police station.
Lets hang out here for a while to get an inspection

While at the Yacht Club we managed to take a nice bike ride over the causeway to some little island, which was cool except for the fact that the amazing view to the city scape was constantly blocked by a construction fence! Lame.

The view we should've had... :(

To be fair we had some good times in Panama City also... We had one great day at the Panama Canal Miraflores Locks, watching huge boats sqeeze through the tiny canal and touring the very cheesey museum. Watching the ships go up and down in the locks, assisted by little side cars was very cool, and we appreciated the man made wonder in front of us. It was a good time and even more than that it was very symbolic in our trip, seeing the Panama Canal was a "holy crap look how far we've come!" We also had a nice outing to the Casco Viejo neighborhood with Michael and Veronika. It was cute and worth a walk around a historic part of the city with our overlanding amigos.

Enjoying Casco Viejo with our buddies


Although we had plenty of good company to share the time with near the Yacht Club, this spot is not the most ideal for us. After waking up first thing in the morning and running down to the docks looking for a bathroom, having to get a key to the dirty little bathroom from a guard, and be eyed rather suspiciously by the dock bums two mornings in a row... we were over it! We ditched the pee smelling hot road near the Yacht Club for what we thought was a unique little Airbnb type hotel/house for a night. We got stuck in traffic for hours, and finally arrived to a weird and creepy house with a controling and rude expat owner from Brooklyn. We needed just one more night in Panama City before heading to the port city of Colon, which carries the worst reputation in Panama. We venture out trying to finish up a few shipping errands like sending emails, printing our all important Bill Of Lading, and depositing the payment into a bank account to rid ourselves of the $1,010 cash we had ready to pay for the car. It is getting late and we made one wrong turn in traffic that set us back another hour, and Chris was at his wits end! Seriously, have you ever missed a turn and it taken you an hour to come back to it?? It is hot as hell, traffic is stop and go- mostly stop, and we are cruising along some rough parts of town with vendors trying to stick their various products in our windows every few minutes! Fuming and all patience exhausted, Chris declares "we are stopping at the next hotel we come across no matter what the cost." Sure enough, the next hotel turns out to be quite fancy....the price can be classified as "way the heck over our budget" but we chuck it up to costs affiliated to the shipping process and live it up in style for a night! :)

So. Much. Fun.
It was finally time to go to Colon! We were so ready to just get this whole Darien Gap shipping business done with, as it felt like it was drawn out enough by now. We show up to a cool campground/hotel/farm place called La Granja y Adventura and are greeted by our SCLine shipping pals Michael & Veronika and Guntor & Sissi. Thank goodness for a bit of comradery for this process, because where nothing was difficult, much of it required patience and time. We all hung out at the farm preparing for shipping. For us that meant fitting everything we have under the sleeping platform so we could board it up at the port. The weather was perfect, and the company couldn't have been better. We all caravan to the port and get started on trying to decipher our shipping agent's instructions. A very sweet Uruguayan overlanding family joins us, and we all stick together, going from one office to the next. Three hours later the paperwork is done, car has been inspected, the sleeping platform is boarded up, and we hand over the key to a young guy who jumped in, slowly turned to look at us, smiled with a sinister mouth of gold teeth and sped away. Just like that we watch Lola disappear into the sea of cars parked at the port.
So. Much. Fun.
Our sail boat booking is finally confirmed, the car is finally on its way to Colombia, and we are feeling good! We adventure around the farm a bit, hang out with our awesome overlanding buddies, and officially become backpackers for the next 2 weeks. A whole new adventure is on the horizon.
So. Much. Fun.
Nothing but smiles from here on out



  1. I can see why Panama is your least favorite country that you have visited. Mom & Dad L

  2. Chris never was good with directions. He got lost for hours in our neighborhood once.