Panama wasn’t greeted with the same excited expectation as all the other new countries we have visited. I suspect that this is often the case for overlanders, looking to ship their vehicles to South America. It really isn’t Panama’s fault, the people are lovely, the beer is cheap and it’s attractions are quite comparable to other Central American countries. The problem is you know that the most logistically difficult part of your trip is just days away, and you lie awake wondering if the fabled ferry will hang in there for long enough to transport you to Colombia, or if you will be stuck with finding a shipping container, the unenviable pre ferry method.
To add to the list of underwhelming tasks, we also had to find a mechanic for the Hulk. He was due a service, but more worryingly had been juddering when making tight turns, all manner of scenarios were played out in my head, CV joints, warped rotors, bearings, none of which seemed like fun. I must admit mechanically I am somewhere between inept and incompetent, so my default is to look on the internet, worry, kick my own tyre and tell myself with a slow long intake of breath “it’s going to cost you”. The fact that I have never encountered a mechanic in real life that does this does not dissuade my imagination conjuring a fat cockney in overalls looking to fleece me of my life savings. Fortunately there are not a lot of cockney mechanics in Panama, we stopped at a modern looking shop in David, explained our problem and they set to work. Meanwhile we sat in the waiting room, me expecting the worst, after an hour or two the mechanic delivered his verdict. We had dirty power steering fluid, a flush and some new steering juice and the Hulk would be fixed. Hmm a $50 fix, seems unlikely, after all, I searched the internet for at least 3 minutes and this diagnosis didn’t appear, knowingly I told him to go ahead and try that, obviously he was new. Forty-five minutes later we were back on the road and the Hulk was cornering like a champ, guess the mechanic got lucky.
The speedy fix meant that we didn’t have to stay in David for the evening and allowed us to press on to Boquete. It is a pleasant mountain town, the cool mountain air was a welcome change to the coastal heat. We spent the next day organizing a place to stay in Panama City and starting the ferry booking process, which involved scanning pretty much all our documents. The following day or more accurately night we headed over to one of the towns youth hostels to catch an 11:30pm shuttle to the base of Baru volcano. At 11,400ft it is the highest point in Panama, and Heather read that you could hike overnight and arrive at the top for sunrise.
The hike is all on an old jeep road so even in the dark it is near impossible to get lost. Not really much to say about the ascent, as well it was rather dark and not much to see. We reached the summit in a little over 4 hours, which was slightly foolish as we then a had a long very cold wait for the sun to rise. The uncontrollable shivering and teeth chattering was worth it, when the sun finally put in an appearance, the views of the surrounding valleys were spectacular. The walk down was seemingly never ending and relentlessly rocky, my feet throbbed by the end. In total it was a 29km round trip, I would highly recommend it as a cheap activity, our late night shuttle only cost $5 each and we were able to catch a ride back to town with a lovely older couple we got chatting to at the park entrance (would have been a couple of bucks on the bus)
The drive to Panama City was uneventful, until we reached the city, there we realized that all the nice Panamanians we had met are bat shit mental drivers. We eventually made the apartment we had rented to for the week, a little shell-shocked and dreading our rush hour drive the next morning. The next morning we braced ourselves for the 4km drive across the city, to the DIJ vehicle inspection, rush hour did not disappoint, this is without doubt the worst place I have driven. After circling the block a couple of times we finally found the inspection centre, all vehicles leaving Panama have to be checked to ensure they are not wanted by Interpol. The process was pretty simple, park, pop the hood, let the engine cool and wait for the inspector to check the VIN. The inspector took one look at the truck and proceeded to chastise us for how dirty truck was, Heather offered him rubber gloves which really didn’t seem to lighten his mood. Eventually, after failing to find the VIN, because he was looking in the wrong place, not interested in the diagram I was showing him with its location, he filled in a few forms and told us to come back at 2pm. We asked if we had to bring the truck back with us, he confirmed that we didn’t, so we deposited the Hulk back into his parking spot, grabbed some lunch and returned via taxi, we then collected our form which stated the Hulk was not a wanted vehicle. The rest of the week was spent wandering the city, shopping for a few bits of hiking gear and generally eating all manner of international food.
Finally the big day arrived, we made it to Colon for the ferry, still not a 100% certain that we would actually get to sail (they have a habit of cancelling) but the boat was in port and the shipping forecast was very optimistic. We arrived for 8:30am and proceeded to fill the 11 hour wait with a 10 minute customs checks and paperwork every 2 hours or so. The wait was made much more interesting by the other overlanders we got to hangout with, in fact other than taking a long time this was the most relaxed border crossing of the trip. We eventually got to board the boat, relieved that we really had made the ferry, which at the time of writing looks like it could be one of the last before they cancel the service. Now I wish I could tell you that we made good use of the 19 hour sail, visited one of the restaurants, had a sun downer at the tiki bar or boogied the night away at the disco, instead after a day in the sun we crashed out in our cabin and slept for 13 hours. (Editor’s note: I [Heather] had a transdermal motion sickness patch on, so in my defense I had been stoned and in need up a nap since 8am-it worked though.)
Refreshed we arrived in Cartagena ready for our South American adventure.