Our border crossing into Panama was the usual 2 hour run around, but with less “helpers” and less stress. It was actually as refreshing as a border experience could be. We were told by our shipping agent to very carefully check all paperwork to avoid a hiccup later that would delay our shipping process. Luckily, everything checked out besides needing to redo the visa due to Eric not being spelled Erick (the latter has been more common in Latin America). To give a quick update, Eric had been communicating with a shipping agent for about 2-3 weeks with the intention of the car being shipped inside a container on a freighter to arrive in Colombia. Pedro goes to the port in Colon, Panama on the 29th, departs on August 1st and arrives for pick up in Cartagena on August 4th, if all goes according to plan of course.
After the border, the road we found ourselves on wound its way along the coast for a while, eventually heading up into the mountains. As the temperatures cooled, the rain started and the fog set in, we both had smiles on our faces and not a bead of sweat in sight. We were positive for most of the trip until we didn’t make it as far as we thought we would and then couldn’t find the place we were looking for to camp. If we had a dollar for how many times I’ve said that already, we could travel longer. It was dusk and Eric thought he saw a promising option at the top of the hill, so we flipped the car around and it ended up being one of our favorite non-camp stays of the trip. It was a small, two room b&b run by a French-Canadian couple. He is the story teller and she is a chef and we received one of the best meals in a very long time. We always have to find the balance between spending and saving when on the road, but this place was unique with incredible food and endless views of the volcano and misty valley. A memory we are so glad we stopped and splurged for.
After a wonderful evening in the cooler weather, the next day we headed south to the main road. Upon meeting up with the highway we were immediately greeted by stop and go construction for about 4+ hours. It rained off and on throughout the day as we crawled along the unfinished highways. Lucky for us, Panama had decided to redo both sides of the highway at the same time, for at least 100 miles. Even though it was a long day we made it to our destination. It was listed on iOverlander but had a few notes as closed or for sale. After pulling in to find a small frail old woman from Chicago running the campground, complete with a pool, wifi and homemade guacamole, we were sold for the $15 stay.
The next day we continued on our way to cross the canal and arrive in Panama City. Eric’s longtime friends, the Jobes live right outside the city and they were not only generous enough to show us around, but to let us stay in their home. We arrived and from day one Becky and the kids, Riley and Rhett, were our tour guides. They took us to the old town, Casco Viejo. We had mojitos (and goldfish snack packs) on a rooftop bar before dinner. Afterwards went to The Fish Market, which is a food truck inside of an old building, now an open air courtyard. The next day we hiked around the national park close to their house. Riley, almost 4, and Rhett, around 20 months, are quite the pair together. They are so fun and smart and loved getting to show their guests around. Over the weekend, Rhett showed us all the ways he can clean most surfaces, eat everything and copy anything his sister does. And Riley shared her love of pink and purple and princesses and told me that she liked Eric better. I just had to explain that I get it and that most people do too, which awarded me an understanding headshake from the little lady.
Monday meant work for Becky and it was our first official step of the shipping process, our 9 AM police inspection. We found the location thanks to iOverlander’s listed coordinates. It was a gated parking lot with no signage and men without uniforms just walking back and forth with clipboards between car engines and an unmarked door. Eventually, a guy came up, checked our VIN number, took our copies of the necessary documents and told us to return at 2 pm for our permit. The best part of this initial step was getting to meet our shipping container partners, Tania and Leopoldo. They were an older, Argentinian couple who had driven from Argentina to New York and now returning in just 4 months, in a Mitsubishi crossover none the less. Since they had already been through a similar process on their journey north, we absolutely lucked out to have them guide us. The rest of the day and all of Tuesday we spent prepping the car, locking away important items, packing a bag for us for our pedro-less travel week ahead, and looking up ways to get ourselves to Colombia. As a treat, after a long Tuesday, Becky took us on a bike ride along the picturesque Cinta Costera in the city. It is a beautifully kept area for walkers, bikers, or rollerbladers (of course) to view the city from the water. The evening was capped by Panama beers and delicious fried fish and ceviche. The kids ate their “chicken fish” because they didn’t want fish. Kids are so awesome.
On Wednesday morning at 6 AM we pulled away from Becky’s home and drove Pedro to the port in Colon. The process here was so much run around. Back and forth to at least 7 different offices, all for different little stamps, with the same directions for the next office, “that way”. Not helpful, but thank you. We literally had to run a bit to keep up with our speed walking Argentinian partner, Leopoldo. The last step of the Panama process was to have an inspection at the port, hand over your keys, and watch as the guy drives your vehicle away. Eric was only allowed in (I was waiting in a gated area) and had to explain the idiosyncrasies of Pedro, such as the horn switch or the way the door locks. Leaving our keys with some random port worker with access to all items we couldn’t really lock away was pretty unnerving. We just had to say a prayer and cross our fingers that a good soul would carefully place our vehicle in the container and walk away. At that point there was nothing else we could do but take a deep breath and find the bus station. All in all we arrived to the port at 8 AM and left on the 12:15 bus back to Panama City.
As we sat on the bus, waiting for it to leave and watching Taken 3 in Spanish, we both were thankful that even though we were only halfway through the process of Pedro getting to Colombia, that this bus life was not our everyday travel.
The next three days we explored Panama City out of our AirBnB studio. We cooked breakfast and lunch every day and treated ourselves to dinners out. We tried a Panamanian brewery and enjoyed the relief of cold coffee in the heat of the day in Casco Viejo. The city truly is beautiful. We loved all aspects of it, from being right on the water, the old Colonial buildings and the skyscrapers in the distance. We ate our last meal in Panama with the Jobes family in the city, complete with coloring and goodbye hugs. We had such a wonderful time with them and in Panama as a whole that it has quickly risen to the one of our favorites so far.
Our last day in Panama, didn’t really count as a day, since we weren’t even leaving the country until 2:07 AM. After trying to purchase at least 5 different flights from foreign airlines and getting rejected, denied, or displaying an error we didn’t understand, we went with Spirit Airlines. It was the cheapest option for us to get directly to Cartagena, without an overnight in Bogota or Medellin. Now I use ‘directly’ very loosely, because they took us to Florida. Seriously, to get from Panama to Colombia, we flew to Florida, cleared customs in and out again of the United States and made our way to Cartagena. All in all the worst part of the trip was not getting water on the plane and not having seats that reclined. So we’ll stash all that away to our first world problems folder and be thankful that we landed safely in the beautiful Colombian city. Plus there’s no one else I’d rather snuggle up to on an airport floor than my travel partner and husband. Next up will be our amazing time in Cartagena and the process to release Pedro.
To paraphrase JT, step three, let 'em open the box…