Papapanama! My first day alone on the road in a about a month and a half and it is time for my favorite hobby: border crossings! The Costa Rica border is pretty straightforward. Just a queue and an exit tax. At the Aduana I ignite a discussion on which country is better: the truck driver’s Panama or the Aduana lady’s Costa Rica. Loads of smiles and loads of “Pura Vidas!”. To get to Panama you only need to cross a river. You used to have to cross a very dodgy bridge that looked like it could collapse at any moment. Luckily they build a new bridge which surprisingly doesn’t look much less wobbly. It is one lane wide and used for cars and pedestrians in both directions. Luckily it wasn’t a very busy day. At the other side it’s time for chaos. A half official guy wants money for parking. I’m quite sure he’s fake so I try to pay him with US dollar coins (very normal in El Salvador, not usable at all in the rest of Central America). He looks confused at my coins and when I tell him I have no other change he tells me I can pay him when I get back. (Which I don’t). Aduana says I need to go to Migracion first. I can’t find Migracion but accidentally ask the city office lady and now I need to pay city tax. Nobody would have noticed if I wouldn’t have paid but now there is no way out and I lose another 14 USD. Then the fumigation guy finds me and I need to pay him too. Once again, quite sure it was legit but nobody would have noticed if I didn’t. Then when I do find the Migracion office there is a huge queue. I only need to get compulsory insurance from the happy insurance ladies and than it’s time for the Aduana. There’s a very long yelling competition going on in the office between the boss and one of the employees while they’re doing my paperwork. I try to ignore it. This border post needs triple double checks on the paperwork because the tiniest mistake and they won’t let you onto the boat to Colombia (or at least those are the overlanding rumors). The lady accidentally put the van as being from Costa Rica and corrected it by hand. I heard that those corrections aren’t allowed so I had to convince her to print me a new copy. Also I noticed a typo in the car type. Not too surprising because for whatever stupid reason my van isn’t a Transporter but a Kampeerauto, which is not a very easy to spell word for anyone. She makes me the new copy but now the license plate is wrong. I know for sure it was correct on her first print so grumpily she makes me another copy. Now everything is all right and I can head into Panama. This side of Panama is really empty. The only real spot to go to is Bocas del Toro, pretty Caribbean islands that I decided to skip (don’t ask me why). So I’m up for a long and curvy drive. There was a town not too far away that was supposed to have to hostels where you could camp. Number one turned out to be on a gazillion percent steep dirt road and at the second one you could “camp” which was literally on the busy loud road. Thanks, but no thanks. So I continue to the next town. It’s slowly starting to get dark. I hadn’t noticed that the spot I picked would be actual bush camping. But it was at the end of a road leading to a popular swimming spot and there was another RV parked there. So I guess I’ll just lock my doors and wait for tomorrow.
Well that wasn’t too bad. After 10 months of travelling I finally had my first actual bush camping night. The parking lot quickly fills up with locals (it’s Saturday) and I decide I’ll hang out here for the day. I need a plan. I’ve been so busy with visitors and heading forward that I hadn’t realized I now have almost a full month in Panama before my van ships to Colombia. Not sure how I fill up so much time. Also the canyon is pretty nice and refreshing to sit in (it’s too shallow and busy to swim). At night all the locals leave once again and I have quiet time. The next morning a city official shows up to check my entry ticket. Wut? Apparently on Sundays you need to pay to visit the canyon. I don’t have a ticket because I didn’t drive into the park on Sunday but already on Friday. They don’t seem to care that people camp here and for some 3 euros I get a ticket valid for the whole day. If only I wasn’t planning to leave the next few minutes.
I’m clearly in extreme slow mode and only drive a short distance to my next hostel. The description sounded pretty good: campsite on big grassy field behind hostel with swimming pools, a waterfall to swim in, toilets and showers (the canyon the last two days didn’t have those last two). My description would be: unclear whether hostel is under being build, torn down or renovated. Seems to have been in this state for quite some time. Two pools with green water. Waterfall filled with trash. Toilet without seat. Shower with freezing water without drain. Well I guess bush camping wasn’t that bad after all.
Now it’s really time to start doing something again. I drive to Boquete which is up in the mountains in the Panamanian coffee land. The van doesn’t complain driving up the long straight uphill road. I camp in the garden of a Tintin themed hostel close to the town center. The next few days I am joined by an Argentinian couple that also camped next to me in Costa Rica and a French couple heading north. The second day in Boquete I head for the Pianista trail. The trail starts outside of town and heads to the continental divide: water on one side of the mountain flows to the Pacific ocean while the water on the other side flows to the Caribbean. To make the hike a bit more interesting I decide to start from the hostel and add another 8 km of hiking along the road in coffee land. This makes the total hike more than 20 km. Good enough to keep me busy for a while. The start of the actual trail heads along a small water stream and small farms. After that follow meadows with great views back to the city. From the meadows the path leads steep up into the jungle. At the top of the trail at the continental divide I can see the Pacific ocean. It should be possible to see the Caribbean too, but the bushes are too high and the ground too unstable to see anything. When I’m “done” with the trail I go sit in the meadows with my feet in the little river. If only I hadn’t decided to walk all the way back from and to town. The hostel and people in Boquete are pretty nice so I stay another day to look into how I’m going to get me and my car across the Darian gap from Panama to Colombia. In the evenings it’s cold enough that I need a sweater and jeans.
Enough cold mountains, time for hot oceans. I drive down from Boquete to the Pan-american highway. In Panama the Pan-american highway is a nice big two times two lane highway (in some other countries the Pan-american is not much better than a dirt road). Only now it’s construction season which means everyone is squeezed onto two lanes which highly increases the number of suicide actions by locals that want to overtake a truck even though there is not enough space because you are driving in the opposite direction. Only way to not die is full breaks and move to the right. This makes for a pretty tiring drive. I end up at the beach at Las Lajas. A seemingly infinite beach with a rundown campground on it. Because I have to fill time in Panama I hang out here for two nights. All this spare time does have one good effect. I went for my first run since New York last year April. I’m clearly out of shape and running in the middle of the day on the beach with no shade doesn’t help either. But hey, it’s a new start.
From lazy sandy beaches to a rocky surf spot. After some more Pan-american highway I head towards Santa Catalina. Panama isn’t that big but somehow the drive from the highway to the coast manages to take me two hours. But the countryside is pretty and the curvy roads are fun. The hostel I’m camping at is beautifully located at the end of a dirt road on a cliff overlooking the bay. They have a deck with this perfect view that is filled with hammocks. Sadly the camp spot is the parking behind the hostel so no view from there. But I have no problems with hammocks either. The next morning with low tide I walk along the beach towards town. At the town beach I see a group of kids standing around a bunch of palm trees. I’m not sure what is up but something is in the tree and they want it down. They climb up, throw rocks, coconut shells and sticks. Whatever it is it seems to be moving so they can’t get to it. One of the kids runs home and returns with a couple of slingshots. After half an hour of shooting they finally succeed. A huge iguana falls down. It looks lost and confused but then makes a run for the ocean. The kids run after it and dive onto it. Success! Not sure what’s going to happen with the iguana, but it’s probably no good.
Time to book my flights from Panama to Colombia and hotels for Panama City and Cartagena for when the van is on the boat. Luckily I can camp in the garden of a German family with a B&B under construction. I can use the bathroom from one of the rooms which has is the nicest bathroom I’ve seen since forever and even has a hot shower. The internet is as fast as promised so I can finally get those bookings done.
As always: after lazy ocean comes hiking in the mountains. On the way to the mountains I stop at a nice little village for lunch that has a church with loads of really nice woodwork. This is the first cultural stop I make since Nicaragua. There’s really not that much in the culture department for Costa Rica and Panama. In the mountains I camp behind a motel in Santa Fe. Not the nicest spot, but the only other option was a flooded mud pool. The hike the next day isn’t very long but it is steep. It ends at a rocky top of a mountain. It’s windy as hell but the views are great. Im between the rocks I find a spot with some less wind where I can spend a few hours reading and enjoying the views and the vultures flying by
And what comes after the mountains: yes, more hammocks at the ocean. This time I drive to Playa Venao. A very pretty remote beach with no town to speak off. The hostel has a lot of terrain and I can camp under a big tree in the shade away from everyone else. I spend the next four days hanging in the hammocks, reading and talking with the hostel people about travelling. I even manage to squeeze in another run on the beach. This time I’m smart enough to go early in the morning before it’s too hot.
And one final time: ocean to mountains. I’m getting closer to Panama City and the one stop I still wanted to do is Anton Valley. There I find a hostel with a big grassy garden, multiple kitchens, a BBQ, a pool, an ice machine, power, fast WiFi and much more for less than 10 euros per day. I think I’ll just fill up my time here until it is time to head to Panama City for shipping. Which actually means I’m in the same spot for a full week. That hasn’t happened in a very long time. Anton Valley is located in a volcanic crater (I think you guys have heard that before). This means loads of good hiking up to the rim of the volcano. In my week here I go for two windy hikes and a sunny run. The good internet and power means I can update my travel plans, prepare for shipping, call friends all over the world and even fall back to old habits of watching a movie. I think it’s going to be good to be a bit rested before the big scary complicated Darien gap crossing comes up.