Start: June 13, Playa Uverito, Panama
Finish: June 23, Tayrona National Park, Colombia
New Continents: 1!!!
Days Without Our Car: 8
Hours Spent Waiting For Something to Happen: Hundreds
Average Temperature in Cartagena: 32C (90F) with 110% Humidity
We had a saying at my last job: hurry up and wait. It is quite possible that the bureaucratic nightmare of working in IT for a hospital on a military base prepared me for the past two weeks. Then again, I doubt anything could compare to the hassle of shipping a car 150 miles from Panama to Colombia. Mostly because of how simple this process could be, and how expensive and convoluted it actually is.
But it's over. The dirty business is done and we shall speak of it no more except in the presence of strong alcoholic beverages. Truth be told, it could have been a lot worse. Our experience was certainly not as bad as others, but I'd still not wish it on anyone.
After our tranquil week on the beach in Playa Uverito, Panama it was time to hit the road to the big city. En route we stopped to replenish our Nicaraguan cigar supply at Joyas de Panama, a factory that produces stogies for export to Europe and the US. At $1.50 a pop (retail price over $5) it was quite a steal. Unfortunately the workers were on hiatus, or possibly just an extended lunch break, but the friendly lady on site was more than willing to explain the cigar making process.
A couple hours further up the road and we cross the Panama Canal. And Kobus braces himself for some city driving the likes of which we have yet to experience on this trip.
We drove around half of Panama City looking for a place to stay. Our first four options were a swing and a miss. The first claimed to have parking on their website, but did not. And the last three proved unreachable due to insane one-way streets and horribly placed road construction.
Fed up, we stopped for lunch under these crazy toucan statues and continued to our fall-back plan, a slightly more expensive hotel that we knew was open and had parking.
The next day (Wednesday) the fun began. We had one day to get the paperwork completed so that we could load our vehicle on Thursday for the ship departing Sunday. Any mishap would mean we'd be delayed a week.
The first step was a vehicle inspection where we had several near-brushes with failure right off the bat. Inspections are only done between 9 and 10 in the morning provided it is not raining and your engine is cold. Our shipping partners were also missing, if they failed to arrive we'd be on our own which would have cost us an extra $300 or set us back a week.
Fortunately it stopped raining just in time, and our shipping arrived after spending an hour lost in the city. The inspection was over in less than five minutes. Bullet dodged!
We went with a shipping agent on the Panama side to make the process a bit less stressful. This worked out very well for us, not only could they tell us where to go, but they put us in contact with our new friends Sebastian and Florencia who shared a container with us to Colombia. Also, they're from Argentina, so they told us tons of places to go and were able to deal with the rapid-fire Spanish we encountered throughout this process.
Wednesday afternoon we wrapped up the paperwork in Panama City and were ready to head to Colon the next day to load up Blue. Before heading to Colon we did a bit of driving through the city stock up on supplies before we had to give up our car for a week.
Driving in Panama City is insane. One-way streets are often unmarked and rarely make sense. The taxi drivers are suicidal and use their horns more than the brake pedal. To make matters worse, it's illegal to move your vehicle if it's been in an accident until the police show up, which does wonders for traffic situation.
The next day in Colon it's more of the same. We wait around for our "guide" to push the paperwork into the right hands and spring into action when it's time to move on to the next step. The entire process takes about four hours and involved a trip to the customs office and then to the container terminal to load up the cars. In total we spent three and a half hours waiting and thirty minutes running around while stuff was happening.
With the cars loaded up we sit around and wait for another thirty minutes until our "guide" grabs a couple port workers to seal up the container. In the mean time Kobus wanders around taking photos of the container yard, which probably landed him on a terrorist watch list.
Continuing our theme of waiting, here we are next to the Colon railway station. Our plan was to take the train from Colon back to our hotel in Panama City, but it only makes the trip once a day and we were two hours early. Never fear, Kobus decides to head down the road and grab us some frosty beverages to help kill the time.
The security guard at the railway station tell Kobus that the store is close, and it's a safe walk provided you have nothing on you. Kobus sheds his wedding ring, watch, wallet and backpack and heads out on a mission. I think he missed the memo when our shipping agent told us not, under any circumstance, to leave the railway station except by taxi. Fortunately he made it back in one piece, with a sixer of Panama's finest lager.
The Panama Canal Railway's first 75-mile crossing was in 1855, more than fifty years before the completion of the Panama Canal. It was built largely to facilitate the California Gold rush, and its existence is a large reason the Panama Canal was dug in its current location.
After falling into disrepair after the construction of the canal and the handover to the Panamanian government, the railway was privatized in 2000, repaired, and reopened as a freight supplement to the Canal and of course, a tourist attraction.
Jessica does her best dog-hanging-out-the-window impression. The price of admission is steep, $25 per person, but considering it's the only tourist activity we've done in Panama and they served $2 beers, we were ok with it.
From trains to planes. Thursday night we booked last-minute flights to Cartagena, leaving on Saturday. Above is our first glimpse of South America! A continent none of us have visited before.
Unfortunately the waiting game continued. Our last-minute flights weren't ideal, we had a stopover in Bogota which is an hour (by plane) south of Cartagena. Our flight was four hours delayed leaving Panama City due to thunderstorms, and our re-booked connection was another three and half hours late leaving Bogota. Luckily the airline was nice enough to buy everyone lunch. We chowed down on Carl's Jr, our first fast food burgers in over half a year.
Cartagena at last! This city is spectacular, a great place to spend hours just strolling around. Certainly not a bad place to be stuck without a car for a few days. The bad part? It's hot. Sticky hot.
We strolled through the colonial streets in the old town until the heat was too much to handle. Then it was into a bar for an ice cold beer to dry off under a fan. Rinse and repeat and that's pretty much what we did for three days while we waited for our car to be ready for unloading.
We also spent entirely too much time in our air conditioned hotel room. Waiting. After ten days without our car we were totally ready to be back on the road and away from big expensive cities for a while.
Our third day in Cartagena we walked along the wall surrounding the old town. The walls were built to keep the English and pirates from invading the city, which was marginally successful. Avast! We dodged the afternoon heat by checking out the fine art museum. A bit of culture to go with our swashbuckling.
The next day we could finally start the process of getting our car out of the container. The ship sailed on Sunday from Panama City and arrived the next day. Then it took another two days for the paperwork to clear and the containers to be unloaded. The end result: more waiting while racking up expensive hotel bills.
Rather than bore you with the details of the amount of BS we had to go through to get our car back, I'll just show you this picture:
Pretty much sums up how things went. Papers, papers and more papers. Things went fairly smoothly on the Colombian side, they were well organized and most people spoke English. However the process is still a convoluted mess.
Free at last! Kobus and Florencia, as owners of the vehicles, were the only two allowed into the port. Health insurance paperwork, hard hat, and reflective vest in hand, they busted our babies out of the clink after two full days of bureaucratic headaches.
The next day we hit the road to the beach at Tayrona National Park which actually had us heading north for a couple hours. Our plan was to sweat a couple more days before heading back south into the mountains and cooler temperatures. Regardless, it was a huge relief to have Blue back and to finally be able to camp and spend some time relaxing on the beach.
Up next: South to the mountains of Cocuy!