I write this from the 10th floor of a medium nice hotel overlooking a shipping yard in Cartagena, lamenting the fact that we aren't burning rubber on our way south.
Time to ship Savannah to Colombia! We got up early to make sure we had plenty of time to get all the paperwork and bureaucratic boxes checked. The drive through Colón was a little hectic, but nothing compared to Panama City. After getting paperwork made, we drove around aimlessly following bad directions looking for a customs office... that turned out to be in the same parking lot we had used for the shipping office. It was easy to take care of once we actually found the place!
Once we had their approval, we headed back across the parking lot to the shipping office, but they'd just headed off to lunch. We hung around for an hour until they returned, and in short notice we were loading up the rigs into our very own shipping container!
With that done, it seemed like we were good to go! Kelly thankfully got a bee in her bonnet about getting a stamp in her passport. Upon entering most countries, she got a special stamp for Savannah in her passport, and she was worried about not having stamped Savannah out, and that we might get in trouble for that when we go to leave Panama ourselves. After a short debate with J and C, Kelly won out and we went looking for the customs office to get that done (a different one from the one in the parking lot). A short 20 minute walk towards the main road from the shipping office and we were there!
Thank god Kelly thought to do that, because they did indeed give her and C a stamp in their passports. Who knows how much trouble we might have gotten into upon trying to exit Panama!
Now we just had to get back to Panama City with no vans. We knew there was a bus direct to Panama City, but the bus stop we hung out at just wasn't working out. All the busses flew past us or were local busses for Colón. J and C don't have mobile data plans, so Kelly and I did some research and eventually found that we would have to go to the bus station proper to snag the bus. A quick taxi ride and we were there!
The ride back to Panama City was about twice as fast compared to the way in as the bus took the toll road there. Pretty cushy.
In planning our way to Cartagena, Colombia, where we would pick up Savannah, Kelly and I had learned that there are no ATMs for most of our journey south of Panama City until we get to mainland Colombia, so it is wise to get yourself a decent buffer. We explained that to J and C but they went with the bare minimum recommended amount anyway (we later learned this was the most they were capable of taking out, as it was all they had in their account at the time). Well, so be it.
Another taxi ride (haggling and trying a different driver took it from $20 to $6!!!) took us to El Zebulo Hostal in downtown Panama City. Kelly and I snagged some supplies to make sure we'd have something to eat on the journey, as there aren't a lot of guarantees as to where you'll be sleeping.
That was about the best we can say about our stay at that hostal. We had to get up at 5am to catch our 4x4 taxi to Puerto Carti for our first boat ride, so we tried to hit the sack early. The entire neighborhood ran out of water shortly after we'd arrived apparently, so no showers. Damn. We tried to get some shut-eye.
About two hours after we went to bed our nightmare began. A middle aged guy was sleeping in one of the bunks next to us and had the worst snore I've heard in my LIFE. He sounded like he was on deaths door. By about 3am and I was vividly imagining hucking a brick into the dark void of his bunk, Kelly and I figured it was time to throw in the towel and just head to the couch in the common area of the hostal. Still no water available, so we couldn't even waste time with showers.
We lay about kinda trying to get some sleep but knowing we wouldn't be able to, it was time to put our packs outside and wait for the taxi. My last pass through the hostal I tried the water and it had come on literally five minutes before we had to leave....... Ain't that somethin'.
The taxi arrived and we were on our way! Kelly and I finally managed to get in a cat nap while on the highway.
We stopped for some food and the bathroom at a gas station just before hitting the road that called for the '4x4' in '4x4 taxi'. The taxi driver was nice and described the history of the area and the road (it usually sees yearly road work, but hadn't since covid, and it's hit hard by the rainy season). The 4x4 was definitely needed, it got pretty rough at times! We came across a group of people in an SUV who couldn't make it up a hill. We waited for a bit, then when they were out of the way enough our driver motioned to them to wait a sec while we blasted up and we were off again!
Eventually we made it to the port and our taxi driver was nice enough to try to help us round up a boat to take us to Puerto Obaldía, the final town in Panama. We lucked out and the last one was getting ready to pack up! The price was pretty steep, but we were able to haggle them down a bit to $60 or $70 per person, which we later learned was the locals rate as well! (the $60 or $70 is because my memory sucks, haggling got us $10 off per person for sure, though)
After getting on board, each row was given a plastic sheet, presumably to make sure we stayed dry on the voyage. How sweet!
The first section of the trip was over smooth water as we cruised past the San Blas islands. One of the more popular options with overlanders is to take a sailing cruise through the San Blas, spending 3 days island hopping and relaxing on the idyllic beaches, then cutting across the ocean directly to Cartagena. We went the local way and motorboated right past all the idyllic beaches, but we still got to see them!
Soon after leaving behind the more concentrated islands, we started hitting rougher water, and the true use of the sheets became clear... they were to make sure you didn't get absolutely soaked from head to toe! We started to hit bigger and bigger waves that would pick up and slam down the boat, oftentimes sending splashes directly onto us passengers. For much of the ride we were all cowering under our plastic sheets.
I lost my gas station breakfast... twice
That boat ride lasted between 4 and 5 hours. Yes, we were very tired by the end! We made several stops to let people off along the way, and we were the very last people on the boat. Eventually we made our final stop. Not at Puerto Obaldía, but at an island that Google Maps has no name for, but the locals called Caledonia. It was an island village where every square inch, and then some, was covered by a building or pathway!
We docked at a small pier next to the one pictured above. December 8th is the Panamanian mothers day, and they were having a mothers day canoe race! It seemed to be one canoe with younger mothers and another canoe with older, maybe mothers vs grandmothers? It seemed like quite a spectacle!
We were told that they wouldn't be going any further that day and we would have to stay there for the night. There was a place we could sleep that cost $10 per person! Kinda steep, but what else did we have to do? Our captain told us someone would pick us up in the morning at 6am to take us the rest of the way to Puerto Obaldía, which would take about an hour. A man showed us through the maze-like village to where we could stay, which was locked, so we just milled about outside the locked gate until someone appeared who could let us in.
The rooms were suuuper basic. They had no power, lights, or locks on the doors. There were gaps between the floorboards where we could just barely see the ocean washing about below us! Eventually they brought pillows and blankets, so that was nice at least.
After we finally got ourselves settled in, we went for a walk around town. The children were incredibly friendly, most of them shouting at us "¿como estas?" and we'd reply "bien, ¿y tu?" to which they would gleefully shout "¡muy bien!" They were absolutely adorable. At one point I asked a few of them in spanish if I could take their picture, but immediatly after that a womans voice from behind a fence shouted at them to come back in, so I dropped it after that. There were also a couple adults interested in chatting, but they were drunk and/or high, which made things a tad uncomfortable. One of them claimed to be the chief of the town and offered us a place to stay, but he was clearly drunk and was looking at us in a weird way, so we were glad to say we already had a room set up and to get out of there. Here are some pictures from our wandering!
After our weird encounter with the locals described above, and a couple others that are a bit tough to describe properly because it's just that feeling you get, we decided it would be best to stick to our room after dark. They were having a raucous mothers day celibration in the recreation area just outside where we were staying!
While we waited for it to get dark we took a "shower." This was done by going into the bathroom where there was a plastic trash bin full of water, dipping a mug into the water and dousing ourselves with it repeatedly in between applying soap and shampoo. We did feel clean, though!
It had been an incredibly long, tiring day, so we hit the sack at about 8pm. We fell asleep quickly.
At 10pm, I awoke to Kelly shooting upright, then moments after a light shining in on us from the window right at the foot of our bed. We'd left the shutters open for better airflow, and there was no screen or glass. The light was quickly directed elsewhere and two men went and hung out at the end of the nearby dock (pictured above) for a few minutes while Kelly and I wondered what the fuck had just happened. Soon, they came back, shined the light in on us again, and asked if we had any beer. Their spanish was pretty mumbly, so it took us a bit of groggy back and forth to determine that's what they wanted. We just said "No......" and they left. What the fuck.
We closed the shutters and leaned both our backpacks on the closed door for the rest of the night while we got some uneasy sleep. We learned in the morning that J and C next door had a man, most likely one of the ones we spoke to, open their door and walk into their room! C jumped out of bed and stared at him, then he just turned around and left. Dawg.
We got up before dawn so we could be sure to be ready for our next leg! We turned out to have a new captain, and he showed up at about 6:30 to load us up. We bargained him down a bit and arranged to pay half before departure and half after we made it ashore at Puerto Obaldía. C was the most fluent in spanish between the four of us, which was super useful here, and when we were bargaining at Puerto Carti!
This boat included only the four of us, we payed $50 per person. It was much like the previous boat, except it was a tad smaller. The rest of the experience was pretty much exactly the same, slamming waves, water everywhere, feeling a little queasy (no lost breakfast this time though!), and the like. We did get to see more of the mainland this time around, which had some beautiful mist clinging to the ravines between ridges in the jungle.
After about an hour we made it to Puerto Obaldía, which sure was pretty much a military base town. We were shown to the immigration office, where we had to wait for a woman to show up to give us our exit stamps. This was by far the easiest border crossing we'd been privy to. It only took a few minutes, at most, per person! Here, J and C ran out of cash, and we had to lend them $40 to pay for the next boat ride to Colombia. Normally we wouldn't mind spotting friends, but this was frustrating for us because we had warned them that they would need a decent amount of cash, that we shouldn't rely on bargaining power or it being cheaper than our sources because of covid, and that there are no ATMs or ways to get cash until mainland Colombia. It was here that we learned that they drew out all the money they had in their account! We coughed up the $40 and went on our way, starting to understand that we were a lot more prepared for this than our companions. Before we knew it, we were on yet another speedboat making the short, 30 minute ride to Capurganá, Colombia!
We have an Indiana Jones feeling trip across the Darién Gap, complete with rough local boat rides and staying on an indigenous island village!
If there's something I wrote too little about, make a comment or reach out to ask to hear more, I'd love to answer any questions!
Darién Gap: This region is why it's not technically posisble to truly drive the entire panamerican highway. It is a dense jungle with no roads, patrolled by outlaw drug smugglers, and now traversed by Haitian immigrants fleeing starvation and murderous gangs in Haiti. All overlanders passing the Darién Gap ship their vehicle from Panama to Colombia in a boat, then they either fly, sail, or boat themselves to Colombia.