Archive for September, 2010

Island Camp

Posted on September 30, 2010 by 10 Comments

We spent the day visiting some different islands and picked a nice place to pitch a tent on an empty beach. The pictures say it all. Camping in paradise.

After a while, some Kuna’s came by in a canoe and we shouted “langosta!?” They had nice ones and were happy to come make a sale. Fresh lobster on a deserted island.  A few hours later another group paddled by and we did the same thing. We literally bought them out.

We also asked them to climb up and grab some coconuts for us. The Kuna own all the islands collectively and it’s illegal to take a coconut if you are not a Kuna. We hear it’s a $500 USD fine.


Filed Under: Kuna Yala

Kuna Village

Posted on September 29, 2010 by 3 Comments

The Kuna are nice folks and didn’t seem to mind having their village disrupted by a group of gringo tourists. Mostly, they just want to talk. They have their own language and we learned a few phrases, but some of the younger folks speak Spanish as well.

All of the girls traditionally start wearing the Kuna dress at age 16. They make their own beads for their legs and arms and are free to design it as they like. Apparently there is a little bit of fashion competition among them.

The men and the younger kids are free to wear whatever they want and it’s usually modern clothes. Despite the location, it feels a little less remote when you see guys wearing Chicago Bears T-shirts and kid’s drinking Pepsi.

But, one of the signs that you are a bit off the beaten path is when the locals don’t have anything to sell you. There’s always fish, of course.

On the second day, a few women came out with some beads and some bags made from their traditional fabric.  Hard to pass up.


Filed Under: Kuna Yala

Into The Gap

Posted on September 28, 2010 by 3 Comments

The 5 of us and our backpacks squeezed into a tiny cab and headed to the town of Portobelo. We checked in at the hostal and had a few well-deserved beers. This had been a very long hot day, even (or maybe especially) for those of us who were merely sitting in an open container waiting for the cars to be loaded. The hostal had a monkey pet (Cheeky) which seemed to love everyone but Bode. The kid was bitten by a monkey. Cheeky monkey.

Our cargo ship was scheduled to leave 2 days from now, and we had to get to Cartagena, Colombia to pick it up within 6 days. You can easily fly from Panama City for a few hundred bucks. You can hop on a sailboat and go slow for a few hundred more.

But, there’s now a new option that seemed pretty interesting too – we booked ourselves on a speedboat that would skirt the Darien Gap and drop us on the San Blas Islands to camp. The trip would take 4 days and 3 nights. We would get dumped off literally on the Colombian border at Sapzurro, Colombia. Then, we would have to find our way to Cartagena. It was half the price of a sailing trip that would take us all the way to our destination, and we’d heard lots of horror stories about the sailboat captains and seasickness. Besides, we liked the idea of camping with the Kuna indians.

Set to leave at 9:15, we finally got in the boat around 2:30. It wasn’t long before we were stopped by the military. They just checked out our passenger list, told us to be careful of pirates (what?!) and sent us on our way.

Our next stop was one of the San Blas Islands were we played on the beach and the captain took our passports and got us stamped out of Panama. For the next 4 days we would not be stamped into any country, sort of living in limbo. The Kuna Yala is completely independent, but not really a country. We decided we would not age any of those days either.

Just before sunset we got to our destination for the night. One of the inhabited islands of San Blas. We were to set up camp right on the sand, and the Kuna family hosting us cooked up some chicken and fish for the group.

We were a bit disappointed by the amount of litter and filth on the islands. The crystal clear water is the trash dump for these folks.It was an interesting place to camp and see how they live, but certainly not a place where anyone wanted to go swimming.

As we were all staring at their colorful clothes and elaborate beads, they were all starting at the blond 5 year old kid in town. We were told he is the first kid to take this particular trip, and he attracted quite a bit of attention.

All he had to do was walk by someone’s hut and they could see him through the gaps in the bamboo. We couldn’t see inside the houses, but we could hear the commotion and usually the ladies and kids would come running out to touch his head and try to talk to him. He wasn’t too keen on all the attention, but handled it well.


Filed Under: Kuna Yala

Shipping The Car To South America

Posted on September 27, 2010 by 5 Comments

We could write pages and pages about all the details and paperwork involved in getting the car loaded up in a container to Colombia. It’s really not that interesting. It’s tedious.

If you are trying to do the same thing, you can do all the internet research you want (we did) and you will find plenty of information on various people’s experiences. All the details vary by person and shipping company, so it doesn’t make much sense to write up a set of procedures. But, the gist is this….

You can’t drive. The Darien Gap separates the two continents and is impassible by car – even a Volkswagen. The Panamanians will never build a road – they like their international shipping monopoly just the way it is.

So, from here, you’ve got two options. Load the car into a container or use Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO).

The container is supposedly safest and costs more. RORO means you hand over your keys and hope you find your car in one piece on the other side. RORO is a little cheaper, but since our car is full of stuff we plan on keeping, we chose the container option.

We used a company called Marfret via their shipping agent. We’ve seen quotes all over the place, but we figured $1500 USD for a 40 ft container with two cars was a really good price. Many other quotes started lower, but all sorts of additional extra fees added up quickly and put them closer to $2000 USD.

Plan on spending three days to get it all done. The first day dealing with the shipping agent.  The next day dealing with the police inspection (10-11 am only) and customs (2 pm only) for the vehicle. Of course, we had problems with our paperwork, but it all worked itself out. The third day you drive to Colon and load the vehicle.

Our agent actually sent a guy to ride with us and walk us though the entire process at the port in Colon. A huge help.

At the port, they called our vehicle a Beetle – we’re getting used to ignoring all the errors on the paperwork. They also expected us to hand over the keys and walk away for them to load it later. After lots of discussion, we finally got permission to load it ourselves and were assigned an escort.

Driving inside the port is pretty cool and there is huge machinery flying all over the place.  Just a tiny bit dangerous. Angela, Bode and Jesse had to wait outside the gate.

I was able to drive right into the container with no problems and let myself out the sliding door with little room to spare. Kyle wasn’t so lucky and ended up having to crawl out his window and slide under the car to exit the container.

We walked away with the knowledge our car was safe behind a tiny plastic ‘security seal.’  The security at the port is actually pretty impressive, but it’s the port on the other side that we’re more worried about.

We each took one bag and started walking out of the port looking for a taxi to Portobello. It felt pretty weird not having the bus anymore.


Filed Under: Panama

A Man, A Plan… You Know The Rest.

Posted on September 24, 2010 by 4 Comments

We rolled into Panama City with the sole purpose of taking care of shipping the car to Colombia. Unfortunately, this process takes several days, so we had to stick around a little while.

It’s not necessarily a bad place, just not where we really want to be spending our time. It’s a big sticky and hot city, but they do like their A/C nice and cold.

There is an old town that is crumbling and a new and modern downtown with gleaming skyscrapers. By far, this is the most modern city in Latin America and the cranes all over the city indicate it’s growing fast.

But, there’s not much here to hold our attention. There’s the canal, of course, but for some reason I wasn’t all too keen on going over to see it. We lived next to a major port for 10 years, so we’ve seen plenty of container ships. We’ve seen locks – the ones in Ballard, WA are pretty neat. These are just bigger, right?

So, taking a break between trips to the police, customs, our shipper, and the clinic for Yellow Fever shots – we headed over to the Miraflores Locks.

It was interesting enough. Bode liked it, but maybe liked playing on the old train out front even more.

Here are a few tidbits worth noting…

There are no pumps. It’s all gravity-fed from the lake.

It takes 8 hours to transit the entire canal.

They announce where the ship is from and how much they paid to transit on a loudspeaker. The container ships we were watching paid $300,000 USD each.

The workers could move a new ship in and out of each lock in about 30 minutes.

All the lines are handled by electric trains on rails lining the locks.

The massive ships come really close to the edges of the lock walls. They are all designed specifically for this passage, and there isn’t much room to spare. We saw some scrape the sides.

They are working on a bigger canal that will sit right beside this one.

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Filed Under: Panama

Hot Fuzz

Posted on September 22, 2010 by 4 Comments

We’re finally in the last stretch and headed towards Panama City to take care of shipping details. There are all sorts of things buzzing around in our heads, which is I suppose why I fell for the ole’ speed trap.

I did notice that the speed limit signs on the Panamerican Highway were all over the place. 100 km/hr, 40 km/hr, 80 km/hr, 60 km/hr, 30 km/hr (!)

Up down, up down.

Eventually I got snagged doing 80 km/hr in a 60. This is the first radar gun I’ve seen since the states.

These guys were just parked in the shade at the bottom of  a hill and were already waving me over as soon as I peaked the top of the hill. They asked me to get out and showed me the radar.

There’s always a pair, and these guys immediately fell into the good cop / bad cop routine. The one told me I was in big trouble and would get a ticket and a big fine. He would then ask me “Problema?” Of course I said I was sorry and went on and on about how I was trying to go slow. The bad cop would repeat the whole offense again and tell me about the ticket and asked “Problema?”

The routine here was clear. Force me to either tell him that I wanted a ticket or tell him I did not want a ticket and therefore agree to a bribe. I did my best to be noncommittal and acted like I didn’t know what was going on.

We did this about 4 more times until the good cop wrote $40 on his hand with a pen and showed it to me. As if to say, “dumb gringo… do you understand this?” The two of them started to argue as the bad cop wanted far more money.

Still thinking about getting the car out of the country, I relented and agreed to the $40 bribe. The bad cop insisted I keep everything quiet and not tell anyone. Sure. Our little secret.

I should have just agreed to take the ticket and they probably would have tired of working me over and let me go.

Oh well, if I can make it through all of Central America paying for only one “traffic violation” then I suppose I’ve done pretty well.  There’s always next time.

A bit farther down the road we passed a French couple on a bike trip around the globe. They left from France and have already done Europe, Asia and the U.S. Everyone doing some sort of big trip seems to go through Panama. It’s inevitable.

After chatting a while, he noted that spending even $1 USD on a place to stay the night was impossible on their budget. Camping in the ditch was more like it. It was clear this was not really a pleasure trip – they were just grinding out their trip almost out of stubbornness.

I gave them something to drink and wished them well.

We finally made it to a camp in Santa Clara – a well known stop on the gringo overlander trail. Happy to finally not be camping in the sand, we  unloaded all our stuff and spread out.

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Filed Under: Panama

Santa Catalina

Posted on September 21, 2010 by No Comments

From Las Lajas, we decided to stick to the coast and hit the well-known surf destination of Santa Catalina. We took the ‘back’ way and got lost about 10 times, but it was still a nice drive through the hills of the peninsula. Eventually, the dirt roads ended and we connected to the main paved route that led us into town.

“Town” isn’t much, but it is the typical surf town. One main road, that splits into meandering dirt road off to all the beaches. Pick a dirt road and drive (picking your forks randomly) to get to  some sort of surf camp at the end.

At the first place we pulled in, we were immediately greeted before we could get out of the car.

“Are you the BodesWell guys? Where’s Bode?!”

Claire was so happy and enthusiastic to see us that we felt like rock stars for a few minutes! Thanks Claire!

Unfortunately, she was on her way out of town. There was a big surf contest here the previous week and the whole place was winding down. It sounds like it was pretty crazy here, and we’re glad we found it a little more peaceful this week.

We also met David – another overlander on his way to Argentina – and we exchanged some info. He’s actually from Argentina and hopefully we’ll meet up again in Colombia.

He recommended a place down the road, so we headed over to camp in the muddy surf camp parking lot.

The waves looked pretty good for a beginner like myself, but I’ve still got a bum ankle, so still not much activity here other than watching.  But, it was a really nice place to rest for a night and start thinking about the next continent.


Filed Under: Panama

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