Well, our stay in Panama was really like a week back at work. We were constantly busy every day getting organized for the next part of the trip. We spent two days at the mechanics getting our brakes done yet again! This is our fourth time to get new brake pads since we left. The rotor was completely shot and we had to get a new one. We also got an oil change, new filters and a new house battery. So hopefully that will be all the maintenance we need for another while. We needed to get our yellow fever vaccinations before entering South America. In the States, they wanted $150 each for the vaccine so we decided to hold off until we got to Panama. Lucky we did, the vaccination here was only $5 each. Then we needed to find a vet and get another health certificate for Francie so he could fly on the plane. We had to find a pet shop also and buy the crate to put Francie in. Before shipping the van we went and bought plywood and Jimmy blocked off the living area from the driver and passenger seats. At the port they make you sign a waiver that the van is empty! So if we left the van as it was everything would probably have been swiped. Finally, we drove to Colon and dropped the van off, came back to Panama and flew to Barranquilla, Colombia. This is the short version; go to the separate page on “shipping a vehicle” for a detailed account.
We rang in the New Year at Balboa Yacht Club in Panama. We were parked up in the parking lot near the club so it was the closest place to go. We had planned to just treat ourselves to a meal and a few drinks and then head back to the van and ring in the New Year with the French. When we were just finished our meal a man and woman sat at the table next to us and right away we recognized their Irish accents. Mick is from Dublin living in Panama and his mother Pat was out from Galway for a visit. We ended up going downstairs to the bar with them for the $15 all we could drink deal. There was a band playing and we had a great laugh. We met Mick’s friends Louis also from Dublin and Gavin from England. After the bar closed and we had a sing song, we ended up going back to Gavin’s house. We picked up Francie on the way as Gavin had a lovely 10 month old Doberman called Henry for him to play with. We stayed up until 6.30am drinking and chatting! Gavin was really good to us and helped us out big time. A few days later we were in dilemma as we needed to drive to Colon and return to Panama by public transport with Francie. Then we needed to find a hotel that would accept a dog. Gavin generously let us leave Francie at his house while we went with the van and we stayed with him a couple of nights before leaving for Colombia. We would have been lost without him. (Thanks Gav!)
We returned one evening to our parking space and the French were all excited to tell us they had met a German couple travelling the same route as us. They arrived about an hour later in a truck they converted into a motor home and shipped all the way from Germany to Halifax. Tommi is German and his girlfriend Antonella is from Italy. They are really nice and even cooked a BBQ for everyone one night. They are shipping the same date as us. At the shipping agency we met another couple from England and Peru on the same route, 3 American surfers in a VW bus and another American couple. So there are now six groups on the same trip and that’s not including the ones gone ahead of us or possibly behind us. It’s great to know we are not alone.
We really only had one day to go and see the Panama Canal. We drove to the Miraflore Locks and did a tour of the museum. Then we went to the viewing gallery and watched a massive ship travel through the locks. It was really quite amazing to see. We would have loved to do a boat tour down the canal but it was way too expensive. To be honest, everything in Panama was expensive compared to the rest of Central America. It is a very modern city and really Americanized. Apart from the canal, there really wasn’t a whole lot else to do. For us, it really was just a stepping stone to get to South America. Of all of Central America, Guatemala and Nicaragua were our favorites. It’s hard to believe we have already finished travelling through Central America. We are really looking forward to South America though and what lies in store for us there.
December 31st, 2008 – Panama
We crossed the border into Panama at Penas Canoas. This was by far the worst border crossing yet.We got there at 11.30am at the same time as the French. We got stamped out of Costa Rica in about 20 minutes and then headed across to the Panama side. As soon as we parked up some guy came straight up to us blabbing on that we needed to pay $130 for the dog. We had a guide with us to help with the paperwork and he said to ignore him. He has been working the border for five years and said we just needed to pay $6 for a dog license. So we went ahead to immigration and got stamped in. Next we got our vehicle permit which was free and it was all finished in about 30 minutes. The French got all their stuff and headed off. Then, our guide brought us on a fifteen minute walk to some vet’s office to get the form we needed. We then had to walk to some other office and get it filled in. We got back to the border and the guys in the quarantine office said they couldn’t stamp it. All the time the other asshole was standing in front of the van watching every move we made. The quarantine officials said the law had just changed and it was now compulsory to pay $130 for a pet even if you are just passing through the country. It was this guy’s first day on the job to enforce the law! Would be our luck, the day before it would have been $6. The guide and the officials were really nice though and tried to come up with all sorts of ways of getting out of it. They suggested we drive back to the Costa Rican side until it got dark and come back when the asshole was gone. Or they were going to bring us down some back roads to avoid the checkpoint. The guy must have copped what we were trying to do and then called ahead to notify the police. We didn’t want to do either anyway as it was completely illegal and we didn’t want to get into any trouble with the police. By now it was 3.30pm and we were fed up arguing. So when we finally decided we had no choice but to pay, we had to get a taxi to the bank to pay the money into an account. The bank was closed! We got a taxi back and the guy said he couldn’t accept credit card or cash. Now we were really pissed off. We just wanted to pay and get the hell out of there. He asked the police to witness the transaction and they wouldn’t. Then he had to call his supervisor and get permission to accept the cash and write up some bullshit letter that we had paid. He made about five other people witness it and sign the letter. We finally left the border at 4.30pm, five hours later! So Francie is grounded and on a diet until he can pay us back. That night we drove to the next town and parked up for the night. We went to a KFC for something to eat. They had a stage outside with a guy dressed up as a chicken dancing around with all these kids and cheerleaders. They were all more interested in taking pictures of Francie than watching the performance. We definitely need to start charging!
The next day, we drove all day to get to Santa Clara where we had planned to spend Christmas. It was the day before Christmas Eve so we wanted to get settled in. We got to the campground and the French had already arrived. It wasn’t what we were expecting and didn’t look anything like their website described plus we didn’t get a friendly reception from the owner at all. However, we were all glad to have somewhere to spend Christmas and not have to drive for a few days so we made the best of it. Christmas Eve, we drove to the beach and spent most of the day there. The kids have a great time playing with Francie. That night Stephan and Lydie invited us to join them for dinner. In France, they celebrate Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day. They usually cook a 15 course dinner and spend all night eating and opening presents. We all set up our tables and chairs and brought the Christmas trees outside. Stephan set up his projector screen on the side of the RV and showed “Miracle on 34th Street”. It was like been in an outdoor movie theater. Obviously they couldn’t cook the 15 course meal and didn’t have the traditional food they would usually eat but Lydie cooked up a storm of traditional Central American dishes. We had tamales, duck, rice, beans, meat and salsa, sweet tamales for dessert and loads of ice-cream. Afterwards the kids let off the big selection of fireworks they had bought. We had a lovely night with them and they even gave us a nicely wrapped present. When we opened it, it was the brown boot! Our cogs are turning now to try figure a way of getting it back to them.
Christmas Day was a great day too. The best internet reception was by the pool so we hung out there all morning skyping our families. The owners of the campground cooked Christmas dinner for everyone for $14 each. The French joined us for dinner and it was gorgeous. We had salad, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet corn, cranberry jelly, cookies and ice-cream. We were all stuffed. We gave the kids some presents we bought for them and they were delighted. Santa Claus managed to find them in Panama also. We spent the rest of the night until 3am skyping family and friends. As the night went our speech became a tad slurred so sorry to anyone who got crazy drunken messages from us.Hope you all had a great Christmas.
We left Santa Clara on the 27th and have been in Panama City ever since. We were parked up in a Bennigans parking lot for the first few days but were asked to leave last night so we are now parked up by a Comfort Inn hotel. The city is really nice. There is a new section with skyscrapers and a skyline very like New York. And then there is an old section with fabulous old colonial style buildings. We haven’t really had a chance to do any tours of the canal yet as we have been busy getting organized to ship the van to Colombia. The van leaves on the January 6th to Barranquilla, Colombia and we are flying on the 7th. We have opted against the sailing boat as it is way too expensive. There’s a lot of paperwork we have to get in the meantime. Yesterday we spent seven hours outside a police station in a really dodgy neighborhood just to get one piece of paper with about 10 lines of information on it! I am going to do a detailed blog on the whole shipping process to help anyone else out there doing the same. It’s a nightmare but possible.So the next update will be from Colombia! We are really excited and nervous all in one. We know of another America couple who have just gone ahead of us in a campervan and seemingly five Irish guys on motorbikes just shipped through the same company a few weeks ago also. The couple on their tandem bike are actually ahead of us in Colombia and we have been in touch. So we feel more reassured of security with so many other people on the same route. Until the next blog, Happy New Year and take care……