Dave and I both found ourselves a few shades redder after the searing heat of Playa Las Lajas and decided it would be timely to head up into the mountains for a few days. We didn’t really have any expectations when we pulled into the tiny town of Santa Fe but I am coming to realize that that may be the best scenario. Time and again on this trip, our favourite places are rarely the ones that receive much mention in the guidebooks. More often than not, it is the little places we stumble upon that charm us: the hotel we stayed in because the truck was getting a new spring, that restaurant we ducked into to get out of the rain or that campsite we sought out just because another traveler suggested it.
Santa Fe was another of these hidden gems. As we drove in, it actually felt more like a smattering of quaint homes and businesses radiating from the intersection of a few roads than a typical town. It was set amidst postcard perfect verdant green mountains with birds, waterfalls and seemingly endless hiking opportunities. As if this weren’t enough, it is still pretty untouched by the tourism trade. In fact, other than an attractions map (hiking trails, scenic drives and swimming holes are the highlights) and a couple small hotels, the only business resembling modern tourism was a little place that rented out tire tubes for floating on the river. We were also able to locate precisely one restaurant that was open. However, this restaurant did put together a pretty tastey plate of chicken, rice, beans and plantains ($4 US including a beer). That’s right, it was pretty heavenly. We took full advantage of the trails and spent a couple days hiking in the hills. The highlight, however, was one of the waterfall trails. Though the falls themselves weren’t that dramatic, the day was hot and we did come across a perfect little swimming hole (not on the attractions map). There was no one around and we couldn’t resist stripping down and hopping in for a quick dip.
It was a little deep for Chester’s comfort level but he found a nice damp rock to lounge on while we cooled off in the water.
I am trying to focus on the positive so I have refrained from mentioning the one major drawback to our stay here but, lest you think it was perfect, I will say that we did encounter the most heinous tiny biting flies here….my legs are still recovering. Guess that’ll teach me for easing up on the DEET.
In any case, we lingered in Santa Fe a couple days more than intended and felt the need to put on some miles so we could catch up with our self-imposed timeline. Though we’ve generally been pretty laissez-faire in terms of scheduling, Dave’s daughter Laura is joining us at the end of November and our plan was to traverse all of the Pan American Highway and literally get to the “end of the road” in Darien National Park before turning around and meeting up with her in Panama City. She will be the first family member we get to see since leaving home 7 months ago and we are both pretty excited. Because she was living in London when we started this crazy adventure, it’s been nearly two years since we’ve seen her and there will be lots to catch up on. To be honest, we are also very excited just to have another person to talk to! You see, one of the side effects of being with someone 24-7 is that the usual conversation fodder sort of melts away. There is nothing to share over dinner about how my day was, no exciting news to pass on. Dave automatically knows all of my stories…because they are all our stories. Sometimes I will read random articles from the internet to him while we are driving and occasionally I will catch him “resharing” these stories with me later. Anyhow, it is safe to say that we are more than ready for a fresh face to share in our adventure and talk with!
In our drive eastward, we made a quick overnight stop at Playa Santa Clara. It was a pretty location but our time here will mostly be remembered for the chickens and errant cows that wandered by our camper. One rooster in particular persisted in repeatedly coming by seemingly just to taunt Chester.
We were on the highway early the next morning hoping to make Panama City by early afternoon. The highway was in fairly good condition and I thought we were making pretty good time…we were making pretty good time until we were pulled over (apparently going 89 in an 80 zone). A police officer escorted Dave to the other side of the highway and I watched while they proceeded to have a discussion…a very long discussion considering the officer’s limited English and Dave’s limited Spanish. I looked over at one point to see Dave leaning against the support post of a canopy with his arms crossed. He didn’t look impressed. If this was his “dumb tourist” ploy, it didn’t look effective. He isn’t exactly renowned for his diplomacy and I started having flashbacks to an argument with Slovenian border police a couple years ago. I didn’t know where this was going but I did start to question why we ever came up with the brilliant plan that HE would deal with officials whenever we were stopped. My fears turned out to be unwarranted however…I looked back a couple minutes later and both men were smiling and laughing. Dave hopped back in the truck and explained that he was released with a warning….perhaps his diplomacy is improving? (Dave’s edit: Excellent diplomat skills and a timely “charitable” donation got us on our way)
Back on the road , we came into Panama City a short while later. I knew the infrastructure would be a significant step up from other areas of Central America but I was still surprised at how urban it all felt. Typically our navigation challenges have involved getting stuck going the wrong way on one-way roads, squeezing under overhanging canopies and making it through impromptu markets. Panama City was a whole different ball game. Suddenly we had to contend with toll highways, flyovers and ridiculously complicated interchanges. On the way in (while oohing and aahing over the canal), we actually missed the correct bridge exit and had no choice but to circle around and do it all over again. This meant that we crossed the Panama Canal not just once but three times! In my defense, I do think this gave us a better photo opp…
As we drove into the city core, traffic went from bad to worse. I think it is only after living through the past 7 months that I have come to appreciate the courtesy of Canadian drivers. We actually ARE that nice! The next time I am driving in Edmonton and some jerk cuts me off, I resolve to smile and tell myself that at least not everyone drives like that (which is pretty much the case here).
In any case, we made it to our hotel and spent one night in the city before heading out early the next morning. Our goal was to reach the “end of the road”. The Pan American highway ends in Panama (and starts up again in Columbia). Although many people seem to think this break is because of the canal, the road actually ends because of the dense jungle swamps in Darien National Park. Yaviza is the last town on the map and, beyond this, the only real means of transportation is the river system. For us, this would be the end of our southbound journey. The logistics of going in further were daunting and there is still a very real risk of running into paramilitary groups, guerrillas or drug traffickers.
Although not far in terms of shear distance, it would take two days to drive out to Yaviza and return to Panama City. Because the Pan American highway literally just ends, the road gradually deteriorated as we headed east. What was an impressive multi-lane freeway near the airport narrowed down to a standard highway and then gradually became a pothole riddled dirt road before ending at the tiny village. Owing to the security risks in this region, we also had to pass through several military checkpoints. Although I had felt a bit nervous about this at the outset, the officers were incredibly friendly and welcoming. They diligently marked down our passport info and plans for exiting Darien but they did not search our vehicle and this seemed to be a standard safety precaution. In fact, the officers seemed more interested in how our camper jacks worked. Campers aren’t exactly common out here and more than once, our unit has received a lot of attention when people realize that it is not one but actually two pieces…we always smile to ourselves at the amount of excitement when locals realize that we are actually just driving a standard pickup truck.
We spent one night in the working town of Meteti before reaching Yaviza the next morning. I think this village may be just about as far off the tourist track as one could get. The townspeople don’t see many visitors and we were clearly a source of curiosity. The kids were especially friendly and we had no trouble finding someone to take our “we made it” photo.
After high-fiving ourselves, we hopped back in for the long drive back. It started to pour and, without realizing it, we had passed by the few centers with a significant enough population to merit having hotels. We decided to try and push to Panama City and look for a place to stay on the outskirts of the city. However, as it got dark, my online searching soon revealed that the only viable accommodation option outside the city was the rather posh (and rather pricey) airport hotel. We could find something cheaper if we’d headed toward the city center but I did not relish the idea of navigating the ridiculous network of interchanges and toll roads in the dark. We decided to splurge…at $168/night, it was by far the most expensive place we had stayed this entire trip. In fact the $25 pet fee we paid for Chester was equal to our previous nights hotel stay. Ah well, we made it! We decided this was cause for celebration.