Waiting For A Ship

The Panama Canal crosses the narrowest point of the isthmus between the continental divide. The 80 km long waterway connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is also celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

We parked up by the side of the canal for lunch before heading to the Miraflores visitors centre. Here you got a great view of the locks and there was also an exhibition explaining how the locks were built and the expansion of the canal that is currently under construction. It was all very politically correct extolling how great Panama was and together with the movie we saw felt a little like a party political broadcast.

20140330-135943.jpg
On going up to the viewing platform though there was no disguising how impressive the locks were. We watched as 2 sailboats came into the lock followed by a massive tanker. The sailboats pay about a thousand dollars for passing through the Panama Canal. The tanker would pay around 300,000 dollars. We spent over an hour watching as it was lowered through the two sets of locks.

20140330-140423.jpg

20140330-140537.jpg
We headed out to the Parque Nacional Soberania, a jungle park very close to Panama City that is famous for bird watching. As were driving into the park we could hear a clunking coming from underneath the truck. At first we could not see anything but then Gilly spotted that the cover for the brake on the front wheel had come off. As it was late we decided to camp in a small car park by the side of the road. However just as we were getting settled a park official came and said we could not stay there. He said we should come back with him and camp at the ranger station and led us to a secure compound.

The next morning we headed off to find a garage. At the garage they removed the wheel and took off the brake cover. It had sheared off where it had been bolted on. As it is not possible to get a new one in Panama they suggested we weld the old bolt holes back on. This would take a day to do,so while waiting we went back to the National Park. On our way to where we camped we crossed a long rickety bridge.it said the weight limit was 10 tonnes but as a big coach crossed in front of us we thought we would be alright.

20140330-140840.jpg
As we were driving along the canal we could see the big container ships alongside. We were faster than them though!

20140330-141024.jpg
That afternoon we went for a lovely walk in the forest and saw lots of agoutis, monkeys and birds.

20140330-141339.jpg

20140330-141424.jpg

20140330-141530.jpg
The next morning it was back to the garage. Once the welding was done they refitted the cover, it was a bit of a challenge as it did not fit quite as well as originally but it looks ok and should last for now.

We wanted to see more of the Panama Canal so we headed up to the Gatgun locks. These are the biggest locks and take ships up or down in 3 stages. The viewing platform is also much closer so you can really see how big the ships are and how little room there is on each side as they pass through the locks.

20140330-141825.jpg

20140330-141931.jpg
At the locks we met up with Betti and John and they suggested we went to camp at a nearby marina. Before getting there though we had to cross the canal, and this meant driving across one of the lock gates.

20140330-142022.jpg
The Marina was near the old US army base that was used to protect the canal. Since the Americans left in 1999 the Panamanians have taken over, however many of the buildings are no longer been used and have become derelict.

20140330-143730.jpg
We spent the evening enjoying a good meal at the yacht club that was washed down with $1 happy hour beers.

As we had plenty of time to kill before our boat leaves for Colombia we headed to the nearby San Lorenzo National Park and found a place to camp where the Rio Chagres enters the ocean. This was meant to be a good spot for fishing so we eagerly set about trying to catch supper. It was a good job we had brought food with us as yet again we failed to catch anything.

20140330-144210.jpg

20140330-144249.jpg

20140330-144320.jpg
The next day I was woken for my birthday with presents of chocolates and hand made cards. This was followed later by lovely chocolate cup cakes. We went for a walk to the nearby fort. This had been built by the Spanish to protect the coastline from pirates. From there we had great views back to where our trucks were parked. We also got the disappointing news that our ship was going to be further delayed so we are now really struggling to fill our time.

20140330-144436.jpg

20140330-144505.jpg
Looks like it’s back to the yacht club for happy hour!
>

Crisscrossing Panama

Panama is a long thin country with the Caribbean on one side and the Pacific on the other. It is very hot here and after a number of months in hot countries we were looking to escape some of the heat. The Pan American highway runs right through the country and to get anywhere you pretty much have to go along this highway and then take a road leading off. To get to your next spot you need to go back down the road and then along the highway.

After leaving Boquete we headed back to David and along the Pan American highway to a turn off that took us to the beach at Las Lajas. As it was mid week the beach was deserted. We found a spot to camp and went for a swim in the sea. The beach here stretches for miles and there was hardly a soul on it.

20140325-082814.jpg

20140325-082842.jpg
As we had arrived in the late afternoon it was not too hot. However the next morning it soon heated up and as it was forecast to reach 37 degrees we decided to leave and search out some slightly cooler weather in the hills. So we set off back down the Pan American until the turn off to Santa Fe. We drove into the small village of Santa Fe but there was not much to do and nowhere to really camp so we drove out and around to Lake Yeguada National Park which was set around a lake. We had heard of a campsite here but on arriving found that it had been fully reserved and a company was busy setting up a lot of tents on the site. We drove further into the reserve and were stopped by some Forestery officials. They explained there was another campsite nearby.

Whilst it was not on the lake it was in a lovely setting and it was slightly strange to see pine trees and palm trees in the same place. There were also beautiful eucalyptus trees in the campground. As we were in the hills the weather was much cooler, 27 degrees, and there were hardly any bugs so we decided to stay for a few nights.

20140325-082924.jpg
The next day we set out on some hikes. We found a large waterfall.

20140325-083025.jpg
We also hiked to the lake.

20140325-083143.jpg
And then found a small swimming hole next to a small waterfall which the girls enjoyed swimming in.

20140325-083301.jpg
The next day it was back to the Pan American. We drove to Santa Clara and stayed at a real RV park, this is a rarity in Central America. It was hot again although they did have a pool to cool off in. It also had all the facilities ie water, wifi and and sewage dump so was pretty useful but after one night we decided to head back up into the hills.

We headed to El Valle and camped in the grounds of a hostel, Hostel Windmill, which is still been built. This was a great spot to stay as it is right in town on a lovely grassy area. However, we were not the first to find it as our friends the Dutchies, Betti and John and Petra were already there so it was another overlanding gathering. As most of us are getting ready to ship to South America we are all coming together as we are all on the same ship.

20140325-083357.jpg
El Valle is a pleasant place to spend a few days, especially as we have time to kill before the shipping. We went to some local thermal pools to enjoy the warm water and for the mud facial!

20140325-083447.jpg
We also spent time just lazing around, watching movies, doing jobs etc as it was very relaxing and enjoyed a couple of meals out with our friends including a fantastic pizza cooked at a tiny restaurant that was part of an Italian couple’s house.

On our last day we hiked up the hillside with Betti, Petra and John to a viewpoint over the town. From here we could see how the town was nestled in the caldera of an ancient volcano. We could also see the weather systems coming over from the Caribbean side as we were sitting atop the continental divide.

20140325-083543.jpg

20140325-083612.jpg

20140325-083627.jpg
That evening we held a party for the Dutchies. They are returning home after spending more than a year driving around North America. As with any overlanding gathering this meant each vehicle making some food and then we all would share it together with a few drinks. This time the girls also wanted to make some decorations for the party and a present for Dunya the Dutchies dog. A good evening was had by all.

20140325-083718.jpg

20140325-083743.jpg

20140325-083812.jpg

20140325-083833.jpg

Into the Cool of Panama

We made an early morning exit from Costa Rica, hoping to catch our spare parts which were being bused into David the first town in Panama, from our friendly MAN dealer in San Jose. Unfortunately the gods were not with us, or at least the slow Panamanian customs weren’t, and we missed our deadline. Thankfully the bus company kept our parts and we got them a little later.

As much as we loved the rainforest in Southern Costa Rica we were ready for a break from the heat and biting insects, so we headed up into the volcanic spine of Panama. Boquete was a small, quiet town on the slopes of a volcano away from the heat of the Pacific plains. It all changed about a decade ago when it was named in an American magazine as one of the best international locations to retire to. Since then it has grown in size and the surrounding hills have many expat houses in them. However for us the important things haven’t changed, it was a good 10 degrees colder than the plains. The altitude also makes it an ideal place to grow coffee. Although Panama doesn’t produce the largest volume of coffee, it does produce some of the world’s best speciality coffees in smaller amounts. We wanted to see how it was grown and processed, so signed up for a tour of one of the local coffee farms. Some of the locally grown coffee recently set a world record when it was auctioned at $700 a kilo! The farm we went to, Casa Ruiz, didnt hit those dizzy heights but it did have lots of speciality species and special techniques for processing it.

20140318-125746.jpg

20140318-125754.jpg

20140318-125810.jpg

20140318-125832.jpg

Our friends John and Betti (Burtway.com) who are travelling in a similar size truck to ours are kings of the difficult back roads. Consequentially they often find the most beautiful, scenic spots. So inspired by them and fueled by caffeine, we set off for one of their previous camping spots half way up Volcan Baru. True to form it was on what most people would call a hiking path in a National Park. It was also truly stunning nestled between cloud forest and steep sheep pastures. They’d managed to find the only (sort of) flat spot for miles around. With the time change in Panama it was a lovely long evening with golden light and long shadows, followed by full moon.

20140318-130037.jpg

20140318-130028.jpg

20140318-130200.jpg

20140318-130211.jpg

It is a very steep 9 km hike up to the summit of the volcano. Many people hike overnight to witness the sunrise from the top, returning the same day, a shattering 10 hour journey. We could hear the hikers passing us at about midnight on the way up. However, we were never going to make it that far with the girls so we set off after school, and made it about a further 3.5 km up the volcano. Still way off the summit but high enough to be surrounded by the atmospheric mists in the cloud forest. The bird life was loud and prolific. We were thrilled to see another resplendent quetzal flashing it’s magnificent plumage of scarlet, emerald and long flowing blue feathers as it swooped between forest thickets.

20140318-130733.jpg

20140318-130744.jpg

Tired after our 7km hike straight up and then straight down, Steve and I set up our camping chairs so we had a good view of the surrounding forest. We could hear the quetzals and lots of other birds having a raucous old time deep in the trees. Eventually we were rewarded with a pair of quetzals flitting between trees, we retired early that night tired but happy.

20140318-130929.jpg
The following morning more prosaic matters pressed as we made our way back to town for jobs and to one of the few laundries we’ve come across since Belize. Unlike the quetzal it might not be on anyone’s “bucket list” but it beats hand washing a week’s washing for a family of four including all our sheets and towels any day. To cap off a good day we indulged in some expat comfort food for dinner.