A tour of Panama City

As we drove over the Panama Canal, I could sense G’s excitement and anticipation rising.  He’s been talking about the canal for ages.  Before retiring, G’s dad was a chief engineer on several huge tanker ships and consequently crossed through the canal a number of times.

Panama city rolls out the red carpet for you almost immediately.  You catch your first glimpses of the city crossing the canal from the north.  It truly looks metropolitan with a skyline to match.  It was a bit of a shock after traveling south through Central America.

We soon found the way to our chosen camp spot, an area around Bolboa Yacht Club.  It’s famous for overlanders because of the guard, police patrol, safe streets, laundry and showers.  We were the only overlanders on the first night, but didn’t expect that to last very long.  After getting our bearings, we headed out to end of Avenue Amador, enjoying the views and walkway along the water.  Later that night, George made friendly with the local cops.  We had secured bribes in the form of cans of coke, but the bike cops didn’t want any.  They would keep an eye on the truck because they are nice fellas and it’s their job. Sweet.

The following days involved a lot of driving around Panama City, getting ourselves and the truck ready for the journey to Columbia. George was at the helm considering my no city driving policy. Driving around Panama City is like being in traffic purgatory.  You spend a lot of time and get nowhere.  Using your blinker is like a beacon for fellow drivers to speedup and block you in.  The entire city is one big construction project due to a subway line that is set to be complete sometime in the next year or two.  This is the first subway in Central America.  It’s actually pretty remarkable for a country with under 4 million people.

Although there was a lot to prep, we still managed to squeeze in some sight seeing.  On Monday after doing all we could that day for shipping, we went to check out Casco Viejo (old town) which turned out to be a work in progress.  Half the buildings are boarded up and the other half have been turned into hip flats and restaurants.  Surprisingly, there were so many things to indulge in that it was easy to pass over the boarded up buildings.

That evening we spotted 3 Mercedes vans parked near the yacht club (our camp spot): five adventurous friends traveling together, all northwest US and western Canada natives.  I fell in love with their rigs.  G and I immediately started to scheme about buying and outfitting a similar one once we were back in the land of jobs and weekend trips.

We finally met our shipping partners Tuesday evening.  They came over to the camp spot for an introductory drink which of course turned into many introductory drinks.  George and I had the good fortune to pair up with Karen and Eric (www.trans-americas.com), traveling journalists who have been on the road for 6+ years.  It has taken them that long to work their way through North America to Columbia and South America.

On Wednesday, George and I went to the canal locks for our last bit of sightseeing.  There is a theater which shows a brief history of the canal (the conveniently gloss over the less savory parts), a 3-story museum and viewing areas.  The largest boats coming through the locks have literally a foot to spare on the sides.  They are maneuvered by tugs in the water and trains that run along the sides of the locks.  I was impressed by the size of the container ships and tankers.  George quickly informed me that these were small (and unimpressive) compared to the ships his dad worked on.  Too late George.  I was impressed.

Thursday would be spent getting the trucks into a container, and we were set to leave for a sailboat headed for Columbia early Friday morning.



Diving at Isla Coiba, Panama

One of the days at Santa Catalina we went for a diving trip at Isla Coiba.  The marine park is absolutely fantastic and I would highly recommend it if you are into diving.  Enjoy.


Santa Catalina: the end of another road…

We meet lots of people on the road, and everyone has an opinion.  The question in Panama was which coastal town is better, Santa Catalina or Bocas.  We consulted with locals and foreigners alike and decided we shall visit both.  After a quick visit to Bocas, we hopped in Vida for an easy-breezy eight-hour coast-to-coast drive.  If anybody is keeping track, this is +1 for two oceans one day.

The two-minute research we did for camping spots in town told us to drive to ‘the end of the road’ and look for Oasis Surf Camp.  I vaguely remembered reading something about a water crossing but didn’t make much of it.  Turned out to be a small river, which fortunately wasn’t much of a problem for Vida.

We set camp on the beach thanks to some help from our friendly Italian host David. Our initial plan was to spend only two days here, but we liked the place enough to stay 5 days/4 nights.  We did some walks around town, found an awesome bakery and I did some surfing.  It wasn’t Internet surfing for a change… The highlight of our Santa Catalina visit was a scuba/snorkeling trip to the largest and most remote marine reserve in Panama – Isla Coiba.

Coiba National Park is a World Heritage Site.  The island used to be Panama’s Alcatraz until ten years ago.  The prison was known for torture and murder of some of the inmates, so the locals avoided the place.  This helped preserve the park’s amazing marine life and also the island itself.  According to Wikipedia, over 75% of the island is forested where the majority of this is ancient forest.  Let me just tell you, the island is huge and it is far off the coast …  We explored only a tiny smidge of the marine park, and it was fantastic.  We saw tons of really large fish including white tip and bull sharks, large rays, dolphins, turtles, stonefish and a massive schools of barracudas.  The coral was in very good shape as well.

I did three dives and Teresa snorkeled.  Can you believe Teresa saw three bull sharks while snorkeling and did not freak out?! Oh, and she successfully retrieved her snorkel after dropping it off the boat and diving right after to get it … The snorkel was well on his way down to the bottom, some thirty meters below.  That was some impressive stuff T!




Bocas – island cruising

We mentioned to one of the guys in Boquete that we were planning to visit Santa Catalina. He strongly encouraged us to visit Bocas instead.  We thought, why not?  It’s the Caribbean. The drive to Bocas was along a windy mountain road.  At one point, we had to pass through some check point. It was unclear to us the purpose of this checkpoint other than to deliver instructions for George to put a shirt on (he often drives shirtless because of the heat). Now, if you know George, you know he doesn’t like to be told what to do. Immediately after the checkpoint, he disrobed and ranted for the next 30 minutes about the encounter. I tuned out.

We had decided to leave Vida on the mainland and take a water taxi from Almirante. Driving into town, my hopes for Bocas were squashed. Almirante is run down and dirty. We were almost immediately tailed by a fella on a bike. He finally caught up to us at a stop sign. He of course had the solution to all of our problems, if we would just follow him. Normally these situations end poorly, but he led us to a very secure parking area complete with 6 dogs, 2 of which were rottweilers. I believe that rottweilers have one purpose in life, and that is to eat me, so I cowered in the car while George took care of the details.  We made it safely to the water taxi, and for $4, we arrived in Bocas after 30 minutes.  We hoofed it to the hostel where a lovely Italian showed us around.

The following day, we decided to rent some cruisers and bike out to Bluff Beach to do some wave frolicking.  The beach was stunning with clear blue and turquoise water.  On the way back we stopped at a beachside bar, since we had earned some cold beverages with all the biking and then the unimaginable happened.  George located the only other Bulgarian in Central American.  Oh the Bulgarian pride was oozing off of him.

After a fresh fish lunch, we headed back to the hostel.  We planned to take it easy that evening, because we needed to be on the 6am water taxi to make the pacific coast that afternoon.