An overlander's account of South and Central America by motorbike - the trusty Suzuki DR650. Within are great travel tips and hints (2011).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hats off to Panama (20 - 24 May 2011)

Towering buildings dominate the skyline in Panama...

Land of the Panama Hat, Panama Canal and partly owned by the USA for a long time...this country has come a long way.

20 May 2011 (? km) – Panama City (Panama Passage)
I arrived in Panama the previous day, absolutely gob struck by the coastal city-skyline.  Stories and stories of steel and shiny glass panes reflecting the deep red hues of the slowing setting Caribbean sun.  I had the pleasure of entering Panama City with my new Canadian mates Eduardo, Derrick and Colin.  We ended up splitting and staying at different places but met up the next day when we went to the Miraflores Lock on the Panama Canal.  I stayed at Panama Passage...a fantastic place I would highly recommend to all adventure travellers.  Shaun the part-owner is a wealth of information and a translater at least!  The place is well set up with plenty of information for travellers, especially for shipping vehicles from Panama to Colombia.  The place is comfy and in a very nice neighbourhood with everything needed near by.  One of the few places I'm happy to give a spiel about.  And the best thing is...sharing stories with fellow overlanders, nagging them for the itty bitty details on where to go next.  Oh and pancakes free for brekky!

For some reason I couldn't withdraw money from my credit account so was living off eggs and potatoes for a few days while staying at Panama Passage.  I'd used my emergency cash to pay for the boat when I lost $160 in Colombia!  Derrick was nice enough to lend me a 20 until I figured it out (which I still haven't, but was able to use my debit card, which I never realised worked overseas! Idiot!  It hadn't in Nepal however).  The boys saw me leaving a note on their bikes downstairs and eventually called up when I was finished chatting with another traveller downstairs (riding a Honda Transalp with a surfboard - rock on!). 

The 77 km long Panama Canal serves as a passage for MASSIVE freight liners and cruise ships to pass through Central America without having to make a long and costly detour around the Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.  It takes 8 hrs to transit the Panama Canal.  Work began in 1904 lasting 10 years and costing many lives.  USA governed the Canal until 1999 when its control was passed over to the Panama government, an important historical event for Panama!  The canal now transfers 14,000 vessels annually, each paying up to $240,000 USD to transit, but saving money and time avoiding sailing around Cape Horn.  The cheapest transit was 36 cents by Richard Halliburton who swam it back in the day!  Currently new locks are being constructed that will permit ships holding 12,000 containers to pass through the canal, instead of the current maximum of 4500.

I met old mate at the Miraflores Locks.  Said he skipped Bolivia as it was too far away from his beloved surf...that's a passion!  And a nice setup!

One of the gates at the Miraflores Lock

A "Panamax" boat entering the lock.  This boat had 24 inches of space either side between it and the wall.

These tugs in the foreground pull, direct and control the ship as it moves through the lock.

I do not know what these guys were doing

The gate opening once the water levels had equalled

People came from all over the world to work on the construction of the Panama Canal.

21 May 2011 (? km) – Panama City (Panama Passage)
It seems I was to be stuck in Panama for a couple days waiting for money.  I called the bank at every opportunity and they continuously reassured me there was nothing wrong.  Yet I still couldn't withdraw money.  I decided to help Shaun take the recycling to a recycling drive nearby and get a free tour of the city at the same time!  Wicked.  The drive was fantastic with youngsters showing off at mini-fashion parade and many eco and recycled products being sold.  The city tour was mind boggling as well with the skyscrapers acting as mere airconditioned antmounds to the ants below.  The boys came over later to let me know they were leaving.  I was hoping to ride with them, but as I'd run out of money I had to stay and relax.  Bittersweet.  I bid them a safe ride and they were off...

Some more of the Panama skyline up close

The recycling drive...

A supermarket in Panama...ridiculous

Heaven anyone..?

The markets nearby the Panama Passage

He forgot to brake...

Shaun and his lovely KTM-SC 650

22 May 2011 (? km) – Panama City (Panama Passage)
It was actually nice to be stuck in forced me to relax, and stay off the road.  All I did today was eat and read.  Fantastic!  In the evening I had a english/spanish lesson with one of the Argentinian blokes staying there...seeing who knew more of the opposite language!

23 May 2011 (? km) – Gualaca (Camp under rodeo grandstand)
After finally obtaining money I was ready to leave.  Though not before having coffee with a friend I'd met through Shaun when he needed me to go on a double-date with him!  With coffee and one of those round, dense, bread things the yanks eat (bagels?) under the belt I went hell for leather as far as I could away from Panama City.  Panama City in my wake, Costa Rica trembling in fear!  Half an hour after leaving PC, I had a cop on the side of the road with his moto, try and wave me over.  After hearing enough about corrupt cops, mostly further north in Central America, I decided to just wave non-chalantly, and if he pursued...I'd pull over.  I wasn't doing anything wrong and couldn't be arsed to pull over, and I guess him knowing that, couldn't be arsed to chase me!  Police 0, Rossy 1!

I pushed further on, heading towards the northern, Indiana-Jones-like border crossing (Sixaola/Guabito).  I'd heard this one was a ball, with a swaying old metal bridge, just wide enough for a car, with wooden planks under your tyres and a nice drop off below to a river!  This was the crossing I wanted!  Not some stamp in, stamp out crossing.  Adventure baby!!  But that's tomorrow.  For now I headed west to Chiriqui, where I turned north towards the mountains.  I began searching for camp as the sun crept away under the crimson blanket and the evening rain splattered around me.  I pulled up in Gualaca and got some tucker (rice, beans, meat) and made camp safely out of the rain underneath a grandstand at the local rodeo grounds.  As the planet rotated, hiding the sun from view, a new life began.  A night life.  Cicadas and fireflies partied through the night, as the white-man far from home...passed the FK out!

Camp under the grandstand...sneaky!
 24 May 2011 (473 km) – Roxana (Camp in a guys backyard)
 I rose early to try and see Volcan Baru up near Boquete, a rich coffee growing area.  I also wanted to make the border crossing to Costa Rica today at Sixaola/Guabito.  I checked out "Mi Jardin es su Jardin" (my garden is your garden) in Boquete and a few of the coffee shops and rode up the path to Volcan baru afterwards.  Both oceans could be seen from the top, but the haze and clouds made it a little less photogenic. 

After leaving Boquete I made it over the continental divide...I had 70km to go with about 60km of fuel left.  After coasting downhill for as for as I could I hit the gas and made it safely to a fuel station.  With my first Central American border crossing ahead I stopped down the road to seek advice from a wise ol' 3-toed sloth!  The border was a breeze, about 2hrs total.  You have to pay a $3 sticker to leave Panama and sign out there, then make a few photocopies and buy insurance ($14) on the Costa Rican side.  The bridge was a bit wobbly but was a breeze compared to some of the blogs I'd read about it!  Quite straight forward without a sweat...ENJOY!

After a beachside lunch at Cahuita, I headed towards Tortuguero in Costa Rica and made camp in a guys backyard in Roxana for a night.  His fire ants were more than happy to make my acquaintance! 

Mi Jardin es su Jardin

Wise ol' fella...apparently might have just taken a pee.  They will leave there trees and pee on the ground, and then search for a new tree to climb...all taking a few hours.

Why not here..?

The "Indy" bridge

Nessie lapped it up!  Not a worry!  Enjoy it!

 Next...Costa Rica.

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