Panama: Last Stop in Central America

Entering Panama meant the end of the road in Central America. For those of you that don’t know, there is no road that connects Panama to Colombia. It is the one gap on the Pan-American Highway, and a considerable one if you consider that there are a hundred miles of swamp and jungle between where the road ends and where it begins again. Panama has several amazing spots on both the Caribbean and Pacific side. From the tropical island of Bocos del Toro to the surf town of Santa Catalina there’s supposed to be a beach for everyone in Panama. Unfortunately for us we had a date in Panama City to start the process to get La Bête shipped to Colombia which didn’t give us much time to explore the country. Even with that in mind, we spent some time in the cloud forest of Chiriqui and some time getting to know the area around Panama City.

Entering Panama

Crossing the border into Panama was a nightmare. After catching up on some long lost sleep we arrived at the border around 1pm. Unfortunately we forgot the typical lunch in Latin America goes from 12 – 2 and while the border never closes, they sure seemed to stop caring about getting anything done for about 2 hours. Total time to cross the border was 3 awful hours, partially due to the big lunch break, but also because they filled out our vehicle permit incorrectly, twice. We had been warned the permit needs to be EXACTLY correct otherwise we wouldn’t be able to ship the car. If we hadn’t noticed it could’ve meant a week delay waiting for the next ship. Long story short, that put us into Panama around 4pm looking for a place to stay before dark. A friend had recommended a hostel in the cloud forest, called Lost & Found, that we originally thought we’d skip, but now it seemed like the best place to spend the night.

The Lost & Found Hostel

We arrived at a little sign that read “Lost & Found” with an arrow pointing straight up the mountain on a footpath. So we left La Bete with a local family that confirmed the hostel was at the top of the hill and trekked off into the dark, flashlights in hand, with a change of clothes on our backs. While trudging uphill through the heavy rain in the pitch black I started worrying that the hostel would be full and we’d be stuck out here without anywhere to stay. Never express these sorts of feelings aloud, shortly after both of us were contemplating worst case scenarios. 20 minutes later, we could see lights through the trees and the faint echo of people talking. We arrived looking like a pair of homeless wet dogs as we left a damp trail over to the reception, but didn’t really get a second look (I’m guessing this is a common sight there). Thankfully we got their last bed, it was at the top of a 15 foot high dorm room with 18 people in it, but it was a bed and it was dry. Really the best news was they actually had hot showers. The next morning we got up and were greeted by a mind blowing view out over the forest outlined by clouds that seemed to be constantly moving, but never blocking the view. That was enough to decide to take the day off, put our feet up and enjoy one last day of country before being destined to the city.

We went for a hike around the hostel’s groomed trails trying to find one of the marked waterfalls. After turning back several times and wondering which trails were “groomed” and which were just random clearings of branches, we decided to wing it and canyon our way down the river. Had to hit the waterfall that way. It was pretty fun jumping from rock to rock, climbing, weaving and occasionally sliding our way downstream all the while trying to keep our feet dry. Then we arrived at a big 20 foot drop and a small rapid that was impassable without taking the camera and backpack for a plunge. So much for that plan. A few mango’s later we decided to turn around and call it a day. That’s when the sky darkened and all our careful jumping and tip toeing to stay dry went to waste as it started pouring on us. Now we had to climb our way back up river on slippery rocks and with the impending thought of a flash flood. No Bueno. We managed it, but not without getting doubly soaked from the rain and a few slips in the river. By the time we got back to the hostel we had a similar walk of shame to the night before. Enough of the country, we were ready for a soft bed, air conditioning and a real kitchen.

The Lost & Found is I guess what you would call a “destination hostel”, meaning you go there to enjoy the hostel and everything it has to offer. The Lost & Found delivered with its scenic location and eclectic artistic atmosphere. They even have a book published centered around the hostel where things like the out of this world art in the hostel matches up with the strange storyline in the book. They had group treasure hunts, a community kitchen (where you could buy ingredients for cheap) and the crowd we met was an interesting mix of hilarious mustached Scotsman, solo soul searchers and Jordanian chocolatiers. (Every time she said chocolatier I kept thinking of planeteer “With our chocolates combined!”) We pulled some strange looks and interested tasters when we made our watermelon guacamole lettuce wrapped tacos. Ultimately it was a good bit of R&R and we managed to pick up a couple of friends to split gas with to Panama City.

Panama City (The world’s largest bumper car arena)

We have mixed feelings about Panama City. There are some interesting districts and some of the better food we’ve had in Central America, but the frightening traffic, dangerous districts and overall mojo of the city didn’t have us yearning to stay any longer than we needed to.  Surprisingly the first thought Natasha and I had (almost in unison) as we drove across the Panama Canal and into the city was, “Hey it reminds us of Hong Kong”. The way the city spread from the coast up into the nearby green hills and the way the roads twisted nonsensically brought back that sense of Hong Kong (or possibly it was just homesickness setting in). Well that sense was short lived when we made a wrong turn while dodging the craziest drivers we’ve ever seen. We accidentally turned into one of Panama Cities most dangerous neighborhoods, a reputation well deserved. I don’t often get nervous while driving, but we made haste on our way out of there vowing never to return. Our AirBnB, conversely, was in one of the safest neighborhoods in Panama City, the university district. Here we were told we could even park our car on the street without worry. A luxury we didn’t have in a big city since Austin.  Some quick research revealed that Panama City is a town of extremes. A few neighborhoods were fantastic during all hours, a few you had to avoid after dark and one or two you want to make sure you never wonder into. Oh and the bumper cars comment, Panamese drivers act like teenagers going through hormonal imbalances with in a destruction dirby. I’d say a quiet prayer everytime we got in the car to go get groceries.

One that we did wonder into was the Casco Viejo peninsula. Historically the center of Panama City was inland, until it was sacked in the early 1600s, at which point they moved it to an easily defensible, but small, peninsula surrounded by shallow waters. This remained the center of the city for over a hundred years before it grew into the metropolitan it is today. Recent restorations have turned this into a charming neighborhood where you can’t help but wonder from hat store to coffee shop to street markets and more. This was our favorite part of the city, well this and the seafood market a short walk away. This market was huge and full of cheap options, but if you’re going to buy fish be prepared to buy a lot. One vendor had a beautiful yellow tail tuna that looked like sushi, but wouldn’t sell less than the whole 6 lb fish. It was only $16 for the whole fish and in hindsight we probably should’ve gone for it. Be sure to come hungry, because this market was home to the best ceviche we’ve had all trip. There were dozens of vendors with gallon jars full of different varieties and flavors of ceviche. We think I tried 3 or 4 different types and wasn’t disappointed by any (especially the octopus). That night we decided we were due for a date night and went out for some fancy eats, but were turned down by our first stop because we didn’t have reservations and they wouldn’t let us wait for a table (reminding us we weren’t in New York anymore).

Adios Central America!

Dropping off the car wasn’t too much trouble. We met our shipping partner, Rui Mendez, a professional 4×4 test driver who has been on dozens of overlanding expeditions over 26 years. He was doing a trip from “Polo de Polo” (Pole to Pole) on sponsorships. He’d started in Dead horse, Alaska and was driving all the way to Ushuaia in 3 months! It was the first time someone had told us we had plenty of time to get to Buenos Ares. We only got to see the locks of the Panama Canal in passing as we headed to Colon (the port on the Caribbean side of Panama). We nervously handed over our keys, grabbed our backpacks and hopped a cab back to the city to try and catch a flight the same day. VivaColombia had incredibly cheap flights for less than $100, but they wouldn’t allow same day books so we tried our luck showing up at the airport to buy one. No dice. Oh well, one more night in Panama City, we stayed at a very relaxed hostel and headed to the airport in the morning. It felt strange getting on a plane again. And as much as the song and dance crossing borders can be a bit of a pain, I definitely didn’t miss the ‘ol strip, search and scan routine at the airport.

Early that Friday morning we said good bye to Central America and touched down in South America for the first time. Even though it was 7am when we landed our excitement was palpable. A new continent, new adventures and god knows what else awaited us.

Recommendations:

The Lost and Found Hostel – $12/night in dorms, a destination in and of itself. Pretty basic though, bring food 🙂
Casco Viejo – Historic center of Panama City. Great for walking tours, eating and shopping
Victor’s Panama Hats – If you are going to buy yourself one of these fashionable items, don’t get the dirt cheap ones. Victor’s has a solid selection from $30 – $800 / hat.

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