Last words of advice from Costa Rica at their exit border. Maybe they were forewarning us of things to come in Panama…
Panama, our final Banana Republic before getting to the meat of this trip, South America. Our main goal in Panama was to get Charlotte on a boat to Columbia. For those of you who don’t know, there is no road that connects Central America with South America. Between the two continents lies roughly 100 miles of jungle and swamp known as the Darren Gap. Due to political and monetary issues, the Pan American highway has not been connected at this one spot along its entire run from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina. For Overlanders like us it means a big pain in the ass. One would think this simple passage would be a perfect place for a quick ferry ride, but noooo, it’s a perfect place for corruption to make a killing. To get your car to South America you have to go through a lengthy and expensive process of hiring a shipping company, loading it into a container and shipping it the 100 mile overnight journey to Columbia. The mountains of red tape are enormous and everyone gets a cut along the way.
So, this was our goal for Panama, get the hell out of it! Kat’s finger on the map shows where we entered to the west or left side on the Caribbean coast. You think of the country running north to south but in fact, it runs west to east. Her other finger points to the port of Colon, where Charlotte was last seen. Just below her hand, on the Pacific coast, is Panama City where we spent the majority of our seven days in the country, mostly going to various government offices chasing down ludicrous amounts of paperwork, stamps, seals and the all important copies, copies, copies.
Oh yeah. There is this canal in Panama, too. Yes, we did take a minute to see it. Read on.
A welcoming view into Panama, the all important fumigation hut where all the bad juju from the neighboring country is magically cleansed away so you can pick up new, but not so bad juju, during the first five miles into the new country.
We were told by a taxi driver in Panama City that the Panamanian Government makes up to 9 million dollars A DAY from the canal. But this is the best they can do for a welcome building into the country? Note the nice rain drop on the camera lens, a sign of things to come.
Would you hire these kids to watch your car? These little urchins were pretty pushy but quite harmless. Nevertheless, we watched Charlotte a lot more than they did during our four hour ordeal getting through the silly red tape to enter Panama. Here are Kat’s notes on this border crossing:
Exhausting border crossing. No real difficulties other than the usual lack of any signs or directions of where to go, and a lot of waiting. Getting used to The Process: Find Costa Rican Immigration and get our passports exit stamped. Find Costa Rican Aduana (customs), get Charlotte’s permit canceled. Cross border, change money, get Charlotte sprayed. Find place to pay for spraying. Find Panama Immigration and have passports stamped. Pay fees. Find copier to make appropriate copies. Find insurance place to buy “seguros”. Find Aduana to get Charlotte’s new permit. Same system, different hassles and delays. We brought Charlotte’s original title back with us, so no hassles with that any more. We got stuck behind a group of 4 motorcyclists on brand new BMWs, complete with a factory provided guide. The Panama bureaucracy moves at snail’s pace, so we waited at the insurance place and then the Aduana behind these guys forever. Whole thing took over three hours, but we were finally out of there. Then, 20km into the country, we got stopped by the police at a roadblock. They wanted a $10 car permit receipt and $3 stickers in our passports, both of which we failed to get (did not even know we had to get) in the confusion at the border. We offered to pay them on the spot but they said no, we have to return to the Frontera to get them. Maddening, why the hell can’t they put the checkpoint right out of town, or better yet, offer a list or have a sign explaining ALL the steps needed for entering the country. We were tired and hot and it was getting late. No choice but to go back. Make that a four hour crossing!
Get your mandatory insurance here from this quality company, the only game in town.
This little gal was the only insurance salesperson. Despite the line waiting for her mandatory services, she found plenty of time to chatter away on her pink phone while enjoying her pink fan. Meanwhile we peons sweltered in the heat outside her tiny office.
Next up was this inviting building, the Aduana (customs) where we get Charlotte’s paperwork done.
No shortage of waiting at the Aduana. They provided a nice waiting area though while they did our paperwork twice. We explained to three different officials that we HAD to have Charlotte’s engine number, not just her VIN, on the paperwork or we couldn’t ship her from the port of Colón. They still screwed it up, and finally I barged into the office and stood over the girl while she typed it correctly.
Our main entertainment while we waited was watching these street kids toss a quarter back and forth.
Check out that concentration. If only the government workers could have some of that.
The all important copies and stamps. Check out all those stamps! What the hell do they do with all this paperwork? We will be gone from this country in a week!
Three plus hours on we were looking down the open road into Panama. It was beautiful until the cop roadblock. Then it was back to the border for more fees and stamps.
Most of the rural houses looked like this; up on stilts and very open air with animals living below. This one was extra colorful with political banners flying. Perhaps the resident was a big local muckedy muck.
They’ve got a bit of a problem with the trash service.
Dinner on our first night in Panama. I’ll let Kat’s journal notes explain this one:
6/6 Panama so far not endearing to us. Bad drivers. Bad border crossing. Garbage and filth. Very poor. Cannot find a place to eat or spend night. Drove into Chiriquí Grande on coast. What a pit! Went back to the crossroads of highway 4 and 11 at Rambala. Had to settle for dinner at the bus stop. Very bad cafeteria-style Asian ick. Met Belgian guy on motorcycle heading north. His riding partner had crashed his bike earlier that day and was in a hospital somewhere. Wow, I wouldn’t even want to see a hospital in these parts!
Weird how priorities change. I’m always looking forward to camping away from civilization, but after sleeping in muggy, buggy, rain forests I’m looking for pavement! Pavement means no mud and a few less bugs. In the town of Rambala we asked at the police station if we could camp in their large parking lot and they let us. Sergeant Juarez wrote down our passport info just to be official. Safe, but hotter than hell. SUPER muggy, sticky, buggy. Its 11pm now. Running fan so it’s tolerable but will have to turn it off soon or will run down battery.
6/7 Rained like hell all night. Everything sopping wet in bus. Humidity off the charts. Managed to get some sleep, but not great. Still raining when we got up, but lighter. Did a couple of exercises, filled water jugs, waved Gracias to Sergeant Juarez and drove off on the 4 south toward the Pam Am highway and Panama City.
Safe haven at the police station.
Ah, our favorite. The Pan American highway isn’t any less crowded in Panama.
Just when you think of something else to whine about, someone comes along and puts a whole different perspective on things. We first saw this guy last week in Costa Rica on the Pacific side and a long way from the beach. Now he was still a long way from the beach but a couple hundred miles further down the Pan Am. How’s that surfboard workin’ for ya buddy?
Approaching Panama City we screwed up and missed the Bridge of the Americas which spans the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and dumps you right into the city. After we missed the exit there was no way to get off the freeway and turn around. We were directed another ten miles inland with zero exits and then the road crossed the Canal over the Centennial Bridge which is much more modern and actually more spectacular visually.
Our first view of “The Big Ditch” from the Centennial Bridge. This area is known as the Culebra Cut. This is a 7.8 mile, man-made slice through a mountain range that also marks the continental divide.
Entering the city was spectacular with the skyline black with an impending thunderstorm. We were treated to these massive rain storms every day. Interesting facts (?) gleaned from a taxi driver: The government of Panama took over complete control of the Canal in 1999. Up until then the United States paid Panama $250,000 a year for the lease of the lands the Canal encompasses. Of course we build the thing, protected it and ran the infrastructure but… today the country takes in $6 to $9 million a day in revenue from its use! Even more interesting is that every high rise building that makes up the modern, spectacular skyline has been built in the last 14 years, most in the last five!
Of course, we immediately went looking for the old city. It’s not looking quite so bright.
Interesting contrast between the old and new Panama City.
And then there was the rain… this was with Charlotte’s wipers on max!
This is the infamous Panama Canal as seen from the observation tower at the Miraflores Locks. These are the first of three sets of locks that a boat must pass through when traveling from the Pacific to the Caribbean. We are looking southeast (weird huh?) here, back towards Panama City. In the distance is a red and blue natural gas freighter approaching the locks. There are two shipping lanes in each lock. This boat is going into the far lane where the gates are open. Notice how low the water level is in the far lock, matching the level in the near lock and the level in the canal itself.
Now the ship is in the lock, the gate is closed behind it, and the lock has filled with water, raising the ship 23 feet.
Next these powerful electric tugs on both sides of the lock hook on to the ship and pull it ahead into the next lock. Not only must they pull the boat, but they must also climb the 45% grade of their tracks to reach the height of the next lock.
Now the tugs have just about pulled the huge freighter completely into the next lock. Note the old control house in the foreground which says Miraflores Locks 1914 – 2014. The canal was originally begun by the French in 1881. After many setbacks with financial, engineering and medical struggles due to malaria and yellow fever, the French went broke, gave up and the USA took over the project in 1904. Incorporating advances in medicine and cleanliness for the thousands of immigrant workers, as well as mechanical advances in digging technology, we managed to finish the project. The first boat passed through “The Big Ditch” in 1914. Some trivia: By the end of the project, 60 million pounds of dynamite had been used and enough holes were drilled through the solid rock of the country to reach completely through the earth and 900kms beyond!
A huge expansion project is underway to create new, much larger sets of locks for much larger ships. You can just see the digging going on in this photo at the left where the reddish strip is. Today, container ships carrying up to 4500 containers can fit through the existing locks. In the future, ships carrying 12,000 containers will be able to traverse the canal.
The ship is now in the second lock and the water is beginning to rise. All the water flow is done by gravity. There are no pumps involved in the process. In this stage of the lock it takes 5 minutes for 26 million gallons of water to raise a boat 31 feet!
And up! Now the freighter is 54 feet higher than sea level and is ready to continue on towards the Caribbean side of the continent, saving days in its travels around the globe. It will pass through two more sets of locks, the first raising it still further and the second lowering it, before it reaches another ocean. The whole transfer will take between 20 and 30 hours.
This was the next ship we watched arrive. This one is using the nearside locks. Here you can see how modern ships just barely fit into the 1914 designed lock which is 110 feet wide. There are just inches on each side of the boat. If fact, much of modern cargo boat design is limited by the Panama Canal.
Just one more… showing how the gates open between lock levels.
The day after being tourists at the Canal, we got down to the business of shipping Charlotte. Looks like we’re pretty serious here doesn’t it? Our shipping agent told us she assists 6 to 12 vehicles a week with the passage to Columbia. Our group this week consisted of two Swiss in a Land Rover 110, a solo Swiss guy in a six-wheel Pinzgauer, a young couple from Argentina in an old VW bay window “Kombi” they picked up in Mexico, a Guatamalan couple with a Renault SUV going to the FIFA World Cup games in Brazil, and two American guys carrying 100 soccer balls to give away in a $1500 Dodge van. Here we are all killing time in a filthy parking lot, waiting for a police inspector to check our VINs against our import papers already verified at the border. The inspector, who only inspects from 9am to 10am, was only 1 ½ hours late. This was was pretty good according to Amy, our agent.
The actual inspection only took a couple of minutes after the stinky, sweaty wait. We were also required to provide him with a huge pile of copies of every piece of paper we have and a LONG list of everything we are carrying in Charlotte. Fortunately, the rain held off because the inspectors don’t inspect if it is raining, and we would have waited in vain. Later in the day we had to come back to another Government office to pick up our multi-stamped copies and the all important, police inspection approval paper – and its copies.
At 7am the next morning we all formed a caravan for the one hour drive to the port of Colón on the Caribbean side of the country. 2 ½ hours later we arrived in Colón.
Our first stop was in a tiny, super crowded office to have copies of copies approved and stamped for some important reason, known only to the powers that be. Here Agent Amy sorts though our copies of copies. She did this for all six of us, and does it week after week while still raising a family at home.
Mostly we waited… and waited some more.
Getting close to the port now. This is where we get to voluntarily leave Charlotte in the hands of strangers.
Hope they don’t put her in container number 45. On second thought it might be better than the smashed brown one in front.
This was reassuring. Kat and the other non-drivers in our group had to wait in this outdoor cage for two hours while us drivers waited with the cars for more… no, not copies, inspections!
Three different sets of looky-loos went through everything quite thoroughly. There was even the most unenthusiastic drug dog I have ever seen. He was much more interested in peeing on our tires than sniffing our moldy carpet. In the end, one of them slapped a huge, bar-code sticker smack in the middle of the driver’s side of the windshield and Charlotte was deemed fit to travel – and I was kicked to the cage with the rest of our lot.
Point Last Seen. Some mystery dock worker drove off with our life. Wonder if we’ll ever see her again?
Back in the cage everyone was quite sad.
Ah, but buckets of yummy, ice cold Balboa beer back in Panama City with our new Swiss friends seemed to cheer us up. We lost Charlotte on Wednesday. She is supposed to ship Saturday and arrive Sunday in Cartagena, Columbia, meaning we can’t start the process of getting her out of jail until Monday. We signed up for a tour boat trip up the canal for Friday to get a feeling of the whole thing from the water. Thursday night we got an email saying the trip was canceled for the first time in history. Something about low water levels? We ended up killing two days at the hotel in Panama getting our Costa Rica blog done, enjoying the air conditioning and eating too much. The Swiss opted for a five day boat ride to Columbia via the San Blas islands. We opted to fly on Saturday and check out Cartagena on Sunday. We can’t wait to compare notes on the other side.
Friday night we ate at an awesome Lebanese restaurant and then hired a cab to drive us around the city at night. Most of the impressive skyscrapers are apartment complexes. What is really interesting is that nothing you see in these pictures existed 14 years ago and a lot of it is less than five years old – even the ground under it all! Guess where all that canal revenue is going. Besides the canal, the Duty Free shops in Colón are the second largest Duty Free market in the world next to Hong Kong! We found this interesting since Cólon is considered the most dangerous city in Central America. According to our driver, 85% of the work force of Colón is bussed there every day from Panama City because the residents of Colón don’t want to work, just party and get into trouble!
We still prefer the old stuff and in the end we had our cab driver take us through the San Felipe district, the oldest part of the city. This is the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.
Just had to say, “Goodbye, Banana Republics!”
One final laugh was at the airport. Was that mannequin really peeing in the corner? It kinda summed up our whole experience with Panama!