The Panama border is really pretty painless, and I am glad to be out of Costa Rica. The only confusion is the border officials are very unused to writing ‘South America’ on the Salida of the vehicle. Most everyone who enters Panamá leaves through the same border back into Costa Rica. After a few minutes of explaining, the border official finally puts Ecuador South America on the car visa as the foreseen destination of the vehicle.
Our first experience in Panamá is the super market. We stop for something to eat and some water, and suddenly we are in what appears to be a super market in the US. Enter El Rey, air-conditioned super store that is absolutely enormous, with everything you could possibly want and more. We stock up on foreign items in Central America such as Soy Milk and lunch meats, pay with good old American dollars, and leave with groceries, ready to eat and ready to go and find some surf.
The currency of Panamá is officially called the Balboa, and although it is really just US dollars, they do have special coins in 1, 5, 10 and 25-cent values. These coins are the exact same size as US coins, but with different images and REPUBLICA de Panamá written on them. I am anxious to bring some of these coins back to the states and see if they work in vending machines. Woo Hoo! Big ideas…
Our first destination is a small town called Santa Catalina, which supposedly has great surf. We drive on an absolutely pitted road of potholes until about 8 at night, until we finally make it to Soná, a small town at the crossroads for Catalina and Santiago. As we stop to get an ice cream, we are approached by a young guy looking like a surfer who asks us in decent English if we are headed to Catalina, as he is looking for a ride. We are, but explain that it won’t happen until tomorrow, cuz we are beat tired, but if he wants to come with us he is more than welcome. The next day the young man, who is named Rodrigo is at our hotel, raring to go. He reports small surf, but rideable, and I am ready to get in the water, not having done so since my boards were stolen in Costa Rip Off. The ride to Catalina is bumpy and filled with potholes,
and Rodrigo our new friend is in front, doing a great impersonation of a backseat driver. “Hey hey hey! Look out!” He tells Scott before every pothole. “Big turn! Slow down!” From the back I am watching Scott get more and more frustrated, until it is quite evident that he is not happy, as Rodrigo asks if he has done something wrong. Rodrigo turns out to be a really nice guy, as well as the only person I can muster up to go surf with me. He takes us to a nice hotel / surf camp called Rolo’s, as well as shows us what’s happening here in Catalina.
Catalina is a beautiful, small village, set amongst rolling hills and coves of volcanic lava and sand. It’s actually quite mountainous, and outside the ocean is dotted with countless small islands. The main surf spot is small as we check it, but the potential is absolutely amazing. I watch 3-foot right-handers reel down the reef, spinning and hollow. One fellow exits the water as we sit and watch, and explains that yesterday was flat, and today it’s rideable. I convince Rodrigo to take me to another point / reefbreak down the way that is supposedly always bigger and more consistent. After driving the truck through a river and on the beach for a mile or so, and then walking another half mile, we round a rocky lava headland and find… SURF!! Its overhead, a reefbreak with a bizarre channel to access the wave, and I am frothing. I tell Rodrigo that the last time I saw waves over my head was in California in October.
Catalina is a worthy visit, as we get some fun waves and meet some really cool folks. We end up leaving with a pair of Welsh surfers named Ally and Noel. Noel is a surfer in the making, as he has only been at it for 4 or 5 years, but hardcore as anyone. His girlfriend Ally has been surfing for only about 4 or 5 days, but both are stoked, and good company. Noel is a godsend for Scott, as he too is a fanatical climber and loves to talk about it as much as Scott does. The two pass hours upon hours trading stories and names of climbing legends and past experiences. Climbing talk is probably a lot like surfing talk. If you don’t climb, it can be boring as hell, but I don’t mind listening and am glad Scott has an outlet, as I am not a very good one when it comes to rock talk.
Skip ahead. Woke up after having an intense dream about Colombia, which we have decided to by pass by boat and plane. In my dream, Scott, myself and a friend from Mexico named Luis are driving down the highway, and suddenly come upon a roadblock. Scott, who is at the wheel, tries to pass on the right, but there are too many soldiers, and they have us. We are held in custody, and interrogated, and Luis disappears. Somehow Scott and I escape, but Luis does not, and as we drive towards Ecuador, and am trying to figure out how to notify his friends and family. When I wake up I am feeling terrible, as though I have lost a friend. “ņEstas bien Luis?
Over the past two days I have received three emails from friends who live, or have lived in Colombia and all are pushing for us to go and visit, sending ideas of places to see and stay. One friend even invited us to visit a beautiful beach house on the Pacific. Aside from my brutal dream, I am feeling like we maybe made the wrong decision to skip Colombia, aside from a lay over in the airport, and am regretting it. But, things happen for a reason, so I will have to save a trip to Colombia for another time. I think I will wait for Mr. Dwelley to go back so I have someone to practice English with… Ha ha.
Panamá is an amazing place. The city is by far the cleanest and most friendly city I have visited on the trip. The people are relaxed, engaging, and full of information. Did you know that the US invaded Panamá in 1989? I didn’t. On Christmas Eve, 1989, the US staged a full on invasion of the city, dropping bombs and blowing things up trying to capture Noriega, the socialist leader of Panamá. Although the city was not completely destroyed, people were killed and families were left homeless. The irony of the invasion was that Noriega evaded the capture attempt, and went on to turn himself in some time later to the US authorities. Although my government invaded Panamá, I get no feelings of animosity from the people. The population is quite used to gringos, as there were quite a few of them around up until 2000 when the Panamá canal changed hands from The US to Panamá. The other interesting thing about the country is the diverse blend of populace that inhabits the land here. The population is quoted as being 15% black, and it seems to be more than that. The color range is wide, like certain parts of the US, and people really seem to get along. I see Chinese folks, European immigrants, Gringos, Latinos, Blacks, Columbians and mixtures of everything in-between. On top of it all, I see a lot of people smiling. This holds a lot of value in society.
We befriend a young woman by the name of Janet, or Janetcita, or Shiki, as she likes to be called through our Welsh friends Noel and Ally whom met Janet in Playa Venao. Shiki is a big ball of compact energy fueled by cappuccino, gum and diet soda who takes us everywhere in Panamá City. She is also rather famous, as she had been a part of a popular comedy show here on TV about three years ago, and quite often people stop and stare, and usually follow up with a hello, and “I know you..!” She has also decided to help us with our true underlying reason for being here in the city, which is to find a shipper for our car. Panamá city is one of those places that I dreaded having to come to prior to arriving, yet when it was time to leave, I wasn’t ready to go.
As I said before, shipping the car is our task at hand, and I spend almost two days on the phone getting price quotes for the vehicle. Every shipper has a different story, as well as a different price, and it’s utterly confusing. The first call I make seems to be the most reliable, as I get a good price and the man I speak to named Eric seems pretty cool and on top of the game. After shopping around for almost a week, we finally decide to go with Eric and his shipping company called Seaboard Marine, and painfully withdraw the large sum of cash from the ATM machine and go to the office to pay in full. We end up spending so much time in the office there, we become quite accustomed to the office action, which consists of the secretary answering the million phone calls every minute, with her variety of greetings… “Seaboard buenas! Seaboard buenas tardes! “Seaboard Marine buenas tardes como le puedo ayudar?” This becomes an ongoing joke between Scott, Janet, and myself as we are constantly trying to imitate the secretary’s voice. “Seaboard buenas!”
Eric turns out to be quite the rookie, as he is constantly changing the game on us. He also refers to Janet as our “guide” which is quite stupid as well as disrespectful, and he is soon on our shit list. Janet calls Eric El Mamon de foca, which I think she means a seal sucker, but I’m still not totally sure. It sticks, and Eric is still “El Mamon de foca.” Scott is super nervous, and loves to talk about what he would like to do to Eric if he wasn’t shipping a car with him. Two days before our truck’s anticipated departure, Eric calls us and explains that the boat is full, and we will have to wait a week. HUH?? As we settle into our hotel just a little more, realizing our stay has just dramatically increased, two days later, on the morning of the original departure, we get a call from Eric early in the morning. “Umm guys, there’s been a slight change, your car leaves today, and you have to have it in the Port of Colon by 5:00 pm this evening with all the paper work…” What!!! That day will go down in history as a true scramble-athon. We were flying around the city with Shiki in tow trying to get all the paperwork in order at the Aduana and the police. Come 3:45, the car is packed, on full lockdown, and we are ready to drive to Colon. Eric calls once again, and explains with the voice of good cheer that we can take the car in the morning if we want, and there is no hurry to have it there tonight after all…
The next morning we drive the truck to Colon, and say goodbye, not totally sure if we will see it in Ecuador in three days where we are supposed to be reunited in the port of Esmereldas, Ecuador. Goodbye car! See you in Ecuador, I hope… Our last days are spent flying around with Shiki, who takes us to the Caribbean to go surf, check out the Canal, drink cappuccinos at Manolos, and give us the best tour of Panamá City possible. Thanks Shiki Ponk! Goodbye Panamá, welcome to South America.
We are in Panama, and it has been a long time since I have written anything. I haven’t been all that inspired lately. We have not had any epic drama or radical action adventure to report, not even a flat tire. For the most part we have just been puttering along through Central America. Our time has been spent traveling, crossing borders, and getting from point A to point B and with little to no surf. I am needing a spiritual wilderness recharge, which I have to find it within the little in between moments watching songbirds along the side of the road. If I have to eat any more fried anything I think I will keel over on the spot from a massive coronary.
Crossing into Panama I felt relieved to be out of Costa Rica and moving into a country that I have never visited before. I have been looking forward to Panama as a bench mark for the trip, somewhat of a symbolic half waypoint where we will cross into South America. I have also been feeling a bit anxious not sure how the whole shipping the car across the Darren gap process will work out.
A surprise bonus for us, in regard to a global world market when we arrived in Panama stopping for groceries outside of David and to my surprise finding a relatively good selection of healthy food including Silk soymilk. Aaaaah Ice cold soy beverage over granola, a taste I haven’t enjoyed for some time now. We bled through a gallon of that in a day and a half and now its back to cow milk and corn flakes. But it was a nice treat.
Heading south along the Pan American the first diversion we made was out to Santa Catalina a well-known right point break on the Pacific coast, which landed us in the little town of Sona before nightfall where we stayed the night. A local guy named Rodrigo “Rod” who no sooner said hello than asked for a ride to the beach immediately approached us. He looked like a nice enough guy so the next morning he accompanied us along the road or should I say guided us along the road to Santa Catalina. Rod turned out to be the ultimate back seat driver at one point jumping out of his skin screaming “look out! Look out!” as if we were about to be hit by a train. I slammed on the breaks sending the cruiser into a hard right pull that takes a good yank on the steering wheel to correct as hard breaking usually dose, and asked “What, What!” He points and shows me an obvious pothole a few meters ahead that I had already begun evasive maneuvers to avoid. Eventually he calmed down as I explained we had some experience at this point in the trip driving. We have only come about 12000 miles and we made it this far.
Giving Rodrigo a ride turned out to be the best favor we could have done in our favor. He took us right to a great place to stay, walked us right out to the point where the waves were, introduced us to all the locals and even showed us the best spot to eat. Santa Cantina is supper beautiful. The beaches are black sand surrounded by black volcanic rock bluffs covered in dense vibrant green jungle. We learned that the whole area and town has just been bought by an American company with plans to do who knows what but they have bought everyone out and are building a community of houses inland to relocate the people. The people seem very excited right now that they have money in hand but there is a concern among the hold outs that the buy out will ultimately leave these life long costal villagers lost without purpose and without a livelihood.
We spent one night and two days in Santa Catalina where we met some Welsh rock climbers named Noel and Allie who had come to Panama to fuel there new found passion for surfing. Noel and Allie joined us in the car from Santa Catalina to a beach called Playa Venao where we watched the flatness of the ocean for three days. They had both spent some time in Chile and Argentina climbing and trekking and filled our map with must climb at destinations. Hanging out at the beach with no waves it became easy to dream about better conditions and having the company of climbers around made it exciting and easy to fall into the vernacular of climbing lingo and swap stories about another medium that has ignited some excitement to get into the mountains.
Sunday January 18th
This morning before we left Venao at about 3 am we were privy to a "Grand Bilar". I awoke to the sound of music and people whooping it up on the beach. At first I thought that it was our neighbors, but after about 5:30 am when Zack had moved into the car and the toilet paper I had stuffed in my ears no longer held out the noise I got up and moved onto the porch and released it was a separate group of people. A car and truckload had showed up parked just a few meters in front of the small cabina where we were staying. They pulled out there removable car speakers placed them on the roof in our direction and were blasting music, dancing, drinking, and having a merry old time. This wasn’t your average frat crew, although there were several that looked the part, it was a family affair there were mothers, fathers, children and even a grandma nursing a beer. As soon as the sun broke they packed up and headed off down the road still dancing in the seats of the car as they drove away. As the music drifted off the sun began its accent and the silence returned. We were once again in the quiet somewhat serene cove of Venao with the sound of songbirds and the ocean.
Yesterday we made the drive into Panama City, which is by far the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Central America. We crossed over the bridge of the Americas across the Panama Canal, out of the jungle and into the building clad skyline. Noel and Allie took us to the Hotel Andino, which has become home base for shipping the car. This morning we bid them a farewell and began the task of locating a shipper. We have had quotes any where from $3800 to fly the car in an air plane to $500 to ship it to the Cartagena in a container. We haven’t yet decided if we want to ship the car to Colombia or go around due to the political situation. We have herd many different options from don’t dare to, it can’t be missed. Tomorrow we will do some more research and try to lock down a plan and book a shipper. In the mean time we have a date with a friend of Noel and Allies named Shike who is now en route to pick us up and go to the “Coast Way” a man made spine of land that connects the mainland to some islands offshore built as part of the canal project, where people go to walk and run. Hopefully we won’t be out too late but you never know with a blind date.
Shiki is a pistol She is famous everywhere we go people recognize her from a television show that she was on a couple of years ago. She is a graphic designer who has been a political cartoonist since the age of 14. All in all she is just a brilliant human being. She has become our tour guide for Panama City and been an amazing help getting around and finding all the good spots to eat and email and drink Cappuccino which seems to be her only fuel along with Chiclets and pop. I haven’t seen her eat any real food the whole time we have been here.
The hotel Andino has become our home and the staff our surrogate family. We have our routine at the Andino and it has been nice for a change to have a little stable routine. Every morning we have the $2 egg breakfast with coffee served by Sobe, who’s demeanor is comparable to a diner waitress you have known for years, a little crass and sassy but always with a flirtatious crack of a smile and wink of her eye. She doesn’t even take our order any more she just comes out and tells us what we are having because she knows what we want and plops it on the table.
I like Panama City the most out of any Central American city I have been to. It is by far the most cosmopolitan city in Central America and has a total mix of cultures from Afro Caribbean to Latin to Asian to tall European German banker types. Everyone seems to meld together and no one seems out of place. The Panamanians seem very comfortable with who they are very confident of there place within the world.
We checked out the canal and it is truly a marvel to see the locks in action. It looks very un-natural to see a full sized ocean going freighter move up and down like it was on an elevator.
We decided to ship the car to Esmeraldas Ecuador with Seaboard Marine. The monotone voice of the receptionist “Seaboard Buenas, Seaboard Buenas” will forever ring in my ears. Our agent Eric has contradicted everything he has said so far about shipping the car. Not instilling the best confidence in us but we are going to ship with him any way as we have to go now or we will be here for the next month First he told us that the car would ship on Friday. Then on Thursday he told us that we wouldn’t be able to ship the car for another two weeks, and then on Friday said there has been a slight change, nice word choice I would call it a mistake, and we would not be able to put it on the boat that goes in two weeks and we had to quick get all our paper work done and get it to the dock now for the boat that leaves on Friday. That’s today.
Luckily we had the help of super Shiki who knew all the right places to go and we were able to complete all the paperwork in time but without enough time to drive the 40 minutes across the country to the port of Colon where we need to drop the car so we call Erick who says that we can have it there as late as noon the next day. This thankfully gave us time to re organize. We removed the rocket boxes loaded them inside and chained everything down inside including chaining all the doors shut with the exception of the drivers door which has to be left open so they can drive the car. We have herd that it is common to have things stolen from the car while shipping it without a container. We are just going to hope we get lucky. Tomorrow we fly to Ecuador and hopefully we will see the car on the other side.