The classy hotel at the airport in Panama was a great change but way out of our normal budget. Oh well, we really enjoyed it and Chester seemed to think the carpeted floor was a giant dog bed. Alas, after our one night in luxury, we needed to move on.
We decided to spend a couple of days on the Atlantic coast before returning to Panama City to pick up Laura, my daughter, who would be flying in to spend a week with us. The weather that day was soggy and we experienced the heaviest rain since our disaster in Nicaragua. There were not many options for camping spots and we ended up in a muddy parking lot at a beach restaurant. Chester expressed his preferences by refusing to get out of the truck. He remained in the back seat and gave us a scathing look that said he clearly wanted to be back in his plush carpeted room.
The weather didn’t improve much by morning so we decided to move on. We toured along the coast but really couldn’t find a better camping option and decided to head towards Colon and check out some options there. We had found a jungle resort online and went on a search. We eventually found it at the end of an unmarked road but it had no sign, no one seemed to be around, there were no vehicles and a bag of garbage lay in the middle of the driveway. It was kind of eerie so we moved on again.
Kristel had another lead on a campground on Lago Gatun. On the way, we passed the Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal and stopped to check them out. They are currently being replaced as evidenced by the nearby construction but the hundred year old works are still something to marvel at. We watched as a luxury cruise ship made its way through the locks with what appeared to be only inches to spare on either side. At the visitors’ center there is a picture with the first ship through the canal (with room for another ship on either side) spliced together with a picture of the adjoining lock with a modern cruise ship just barely fitting in.
The campsite was in the village of Escobal, about 25 kilometres west of the canal on a quiet road. When we arrived, we thought it was another lost cause but decided to seek direction at a local store before giving up. We were told to go up a couple of blocks and turn left at the bus stop. We did this but the small road soon turned to a trail and just as I told Kristel (Kristel’s edit: whined to Kristel) that there was nothing there, and that turning around was going to be a challenge, we spotted the camping area. It had a charming palapa to provide shade and rain protection, a rustic pit toilet, and a beautiful setting by the lake. The lady running the campground was wonderful as were several other locals who stopped by to meet Chester. It turned out to be a great spot and we learned (we think, based on our limited Spanish) that we were only the third vehicle camper to use the site, but weren’t sure if that meant this year or in the ten years it’s been there. The next morning I had a great swim in the lake before heading out. We considered staying there longer but felt we should get to Panama City and attend to a few housekeeping matters (our dwindling supply of clean undies was becoming a concern) before Laura arrived.
We checked into the hotel and after an evening dip in the rooftop swimming pool, we headed out the next day to do our laundry. While waiting for the washers, I stepped next door for a haircut. Back at the hotel, I trimmed my beard and think I was starting to look respectable again. A few more chores needed to be completed – clean the truck, write postcards, and post to the blog – and we would be ready for company!
We went to the airport excited to meet Laura and waited anxiously at the gates. However, she surprised us by coming out another door and sneaking up behind us. After a big hug and an even bigger laugh, it was a very happy reunion. Because she was in England when we left, it had been almost two years since we’d seen her.
The three of us spent a day touring Casco Viejo, the old colonial quarter of Panama City. With lots of little shops, cafes and museums, we really enjoyed it.
The next day we were up early for a hike in Parque Natural Metropolitano, an urban park featuring 265 hectares of tropical rain forest. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any glimpses of monkeys or sloths that we had hoped for but were still impressed with the vegetation and birds. Mostly, however, we will remember the heat and the humidity. Even at 8:00 in the morning, we were all pouring sweat after only a couple kilometers.
After drying off as best we could, we piled three people and a dog into little pickup for the eight hour drive to Boquete. Luckily the drive was uneventful and the construction delays only minor. We made good time and arrived all still in good humour. We checked into our guest house and thought we would head to town for supper only to discover that almost every restaurant in town is closed on Monday. The one exception was a hot dog and burger place with an overly friendly owner that was sure that the salad and strawberries would be great for the vegetarian in our group. As we hadn’t had a real meal since breakfast that morning, we opted for a trip to the grocery store and back to the house to eat.
To recover from the previous day’s drive, we spent a relaxing first day in Boquete doing a little shopping, checking out the town, arranging for tours, and having a good swim in the pool back at the house.
On Tuesday, we met our guide and headed for a 3 hour hike on a cloud forest trail. We had chosen this hike because it was our best chance to see wildlife. The slow but constant drizzle, locally known as “Bajareque” (most of the more than 200 inches of annual rain come this way) kept most of the wildlife hunkered down and cut short our hike because some of the steep sections became too muddy to climb safely. Nevertheless, our guide Jorge was able to point out many interesting birds and plants and was a font of knowledge. The drive back included stops at a waterfall, haunted house and neat basaltic rock formation.
After returning to the house, Laura with the able assistance of Kristel, put together a great vegetarian lasagne for us to enjoy. I felt it was the great Portobello mushrooms I had picked up at the grocery store that made it exceptional (this is my defense for belatedly realizing that we paid more for those mushrooms than I did for the liter of tequila).
The next day we were off for some whitewater rafting. After a bit of a delay we were driven out to meet our guides for the day. The three of us were teamed with another traveller from England, Ming, and our guide Tiny. Tiny seemed to be the leader of the guides and, as we would soon learn, quite the character and daredevil. He guided us through a couple sets of rapids and on the third purposely turned us sidewise on one of the biggest waves that sent all four of us into the water. A bit of joke on him though as Laura got caught in a “keeper hole” for few seconds. As the rest of our team attempted to recover paddles and right the raft, he dove into the rapids after her. She gave us a good scare but she was free and fine before Tiny’s efforts were needed. We were all back in the raft and laughing as we hit the next set of rapids. It became apparent that Tiny was not so much attempting to guide us through safely but rather seeing that we got the wildest ride possible and knocking his passengers out of the raft was part of the game. He would aim us straight for the biggest rocks and waves. Before lunch he had dislodged Ming and Laura again and Kristel twice more. At three “overboards”, Kristel had the record in our boat and Tiny was teasing her that she could break the record of being in the water 7 times. Our shore lunch was a great break and the lower reach of the river was quite a bit calmer. That, combined with our team’s improved ability to hang on to the raft, meant that Tiny was not likely to get many more dunks. He did however take the opportunity to point out lots of birds and trees. It was a great day!
On the following morning we had one of our most interesting tours. We went to the small coffee farm of Finca Dos Jefes. It is owned by an expat American who purchased the abandoned farm as a retirement property. He started growing coffee as a hobby and it soon became a passion. However, he realized that he was losing money by simply selling raw coffee cherries and needed to roast a top quality bean that he could sell at a premium. His “Café de la Luna” is now sold locally and to a small chain of premium coffee houses in Germany. He knows that his neighbouring farmers do not have the means to do this and lamented the state of the coffee industry. It bothers him greatly that such a small portion of that $5 premium coffee sold in Europe or North America actually makes its way to the hands of the growers. Coffee workers worldwide are poorly paid and generally impoverished. It’s not an easy problem to solve but we could all help a bit but trying to understand where our coffee comes from and trying to purchase through those companies that are returning the most to growers. Talk to whoever you buy from and try to find a roaster who actively buys directly and pays a premium for the raw product. The rest of the tour was a wonderful explanation of growing, picking, drying and roasting coffee. We were even able to sample his product and take some home with us!
On our last day with Laura we had hoped to drive into David, check out the local market and have a nice meal together before dropping her at the airport. Sometimes the simplest plans go awry, though, and the day was a bit of a disaster. The market was a bust and parking anywhere proved a near impossibility. The streets near downtown were clogged with cars and the ever-present traffic jams made moving through the City an exercise in frustration. On top of this, it soon became clear that finding a restaurant with anything resembling vegetarian fare would not be a simple feat. We eventually ended up at a TGI Fridays and enjoyed some good ole American food before heading to the airport. It was sad to see Laura go as it had been so nice to see and enjoy her company for the week. One of the toughest parts of this journey has been the time away from family and friends.
We still had a couple of days at the house so we relaxed in Boquete a little longer and took this extra time to give Chester a good grooming and replace the screens in the camper door.
We felt well prepared as we headed back towards Costa Rica (we’d done this border before so it should be a snap right?). About a kilometer from the border we reached a check stop where they pointed out that our vehicle permit had expired two days ago. We had noticed that it would be close when we received it but as it only said “estimated” exit date, we assumed there was some leeway and didn’t pay any more attention to it. Apparently, though, “estimated” means that your vehicle must be out of the country by that date or you will have a problem. The fact that both ourselves and our dog had permits for ninety days didn’t matter. Our only option was to return to David and obtain a “resolution” to the problem. This would be the start of perhaps the most frustrating day of our journey thus far. To keep from becoming too ranty, I will summarize the day’s events:
- 1 ½ hours waiting at the side of the road (in the hot sun) for a border official who would escort us back to David;
- 10 minutes explaining that there was no room in our vehicle for two border officials unless they fancied riding with Chester in their laps.
- 1 hour drive back to David following an escort vehicle (including a ten minute wait in the middle of nowhere for the escort to pick up another worker).
- 5 minutes staring at the dusty motorhome with Texas plates in the compound lot (could this be our fate?)
- 30 minutes waiting for a 5 minute interview (in Spanish), after which I was required to sign a statement (also in Spanish) supposedly explaining my reasons for violating Panamanian law;
- 4 hours spent in 2 separate waiting rooms waiting for the paperwork to be “processed”. This waiting time would periodically be interrupted to that I could sign more forms (in Spanish) of which I had only a vague notion what they were concerning,
- 10 minutes spent paying a $250 fine followed by a $12.50 fee for yet another escort back to the border. Apparently Panamanian Law requires this to ensure you leave the country and do not remain illegally any longer…ironic that that’s all we were trying to do.
- 5 minutes to initial and sign the “corrected” paperwork. Apparently the paperwork that had taken nearly 5 hours to create had been prepared incorrectly and specified the wrong name. Magically, this could be completely redone in 5 minutes…
- 5 minutes to explain to our new escort that there was no space in the truck and that she would be riding with Chester if she wanted to come with us.
- 5 minutes to find our escort another ride to the border; a trucker was headed that way and could take her….as soon as his paperwork was finished processing.
- 30 minutes waiting for our trucker’s paperwork to be completed.
- 1 hour drive back to the border.
Only 9½ hours later, we were finally out of Panama!
Dead tired and broken spirited, we managed to clear Costa Rican processes in a record ½ hour but it was dark before we were through. I really don’t like driving in Central America at night and so we pulled in to the first Restaurant and Cabinas we saw. It took a bit of persuasion but Chester convinced the owner and especially her young daughter that it would be alright for him to spend the night in the room with us. It may not have been the fancy room that we have occasionally treated ourselves to after crossing a border but that little room (with a glass of rum and the Super Nibs delivered from Canada by Laura) felt wonderful after our worst border crossing yet.