It took us forever to get the import permit, but we finally got across the border into Panama before noon. It was our last border crossing in Central America and we were eager to reach the milestone. Blasting some Van Halen (I’m sure you can guess which song), we headed down the highway towards Panama City. The drive was uneventful, and before we knew it we were crossing the the canal on the magnificent yet deceptively-named Bridge of the Americas. The bridge does not cross over into Colombia as it might suggest, and the border is actually much further to the southeast. In reality, there are no bridges into Colombia, only the Darien Gap. This 150 mile strip of land is the only thing connecting Central and South America, and is filled with mountains, swamps, dangerous wildlife, and, if the rumors are true, Colombian FARC rebels. Driving through is impossible, and getting past it would consume our coming days in the country.
We pulled into the Balboa Yacht Club, our de facto home base in Panama, just in time for dinner. Overland forums online had recommended the club for its free parking, showers, and internet, the one condition being you eat at their restaurant. It seemed like a fair deal so we went straight there to set up camp. They had us park down the road a ways, but we found a spot under a shady mango tree and went to go eat. The food was decent and the beer was cold, and more importantly, the wifi was fast. We hung around after eating to surf the web before finally seeking out the showers. Unfortunately, we were adamantly denied the opportunity. We were told quite matter-of-factly that we couldn’t use the showers unless we owned a yacht harbored there. We explained we had driven and were only staying for a few days, but despite our internet assurances, the answer was still no. A few days longer without a shower was fine enough, but you’d think they would at least want their restaurant patrons smelling good!
The next morning we roll out of the back of the car at 7am to meet Amy, our shipping agent, and to head to the police station to start filling out paperwork. We followed her through the crazy streets of Panama City before pulling into a gravel lot surrounded by barbed wire. This was the police car yard we found out, and had to wait there to get the car inspected. In the meantime, Grant had to run next door to a sketchy office building to fill out a few forms and make what seemed like hundreds of photocopies of every document possible. When he returned we waited for about an hour and finally and man in his mid fifties emerged with a clipboard and asked to check the Vin number and look under the hood. The whole “inspection” took about ten minutes, despite the hour and a half wait, and then we were on our way back to the yacht club, done with shipping preparation at least for the day.
Back at our “camp” we set about reorganizing the car and packing what clean clothes we had left for when we finally had to leave our “home”. We also gave her an oil change in the parking lot, a well deserved (read: needed) bit of maintenance after completing the first 5000 miles of our journey. We left briefly to go make some more copies and get one more form in order, and finally returned to the Balboa’s restaurant for dinner. The following morning we were getting up even earlier to follow Amy to the port of Colon, where we would be loading the car onto the boat and saying farewell for the voyage to South America.
The drive from Pacific to Atlantic didn’t take too long thanks to Panama’s skinny shape, but we passed through thick jungle and over a few big lakes before arriving at the port. On the way we were passed by brand new Hyundais, unmarked with plastic still on their seats. We guessed they were headed to the Atlantic as well, switching ships to avoid the steep tolls of the Panama Canal. The ports were massive and impossible to navigate, but thankfully Amy knew he lay of the land and led us to the customs building. Inside, a small room was crammed full of desks and although no one seemed to be doing any work, we had to wait 20 minutes for someone to beckon us over. More paperwork, more photocopies, more waiting. Finally we got the necessary stamps and our bill of landing and it was time to say goodbye.
Grant had to go into the shipyard by himself so I was forced to wait with our stuff outside. A nice local who was directing traffic came and took a break next to me under the shade and we made small talk while Grant handled the car. He lived in Colon, had visited Texas, and had great prices on cocaine. I almost laughed when he offered it to me, half in genuine humor and half out of utter disbelief. A military officer with a wiry german shepherd were no more than 30 feet away sniffing out cars and this guy was offering me drugs as freely as someone offers up a smile. Naturally I declined his offer, and he went right back on to directing trucks into port. By now Grant was finishing up with the car and handing over the keys. We were led to believe we were the ones who drove into the container, but apparently that was not the case. I felt uncomfortable leaving he car -still packed with all of our supplies – in the hands of complete strangers, but Amy assured us it would be fine.
Still hesitant, we finally let go and exited the port. We did everything necessary on our end, and now the ‘Cruiser’s voyage to Colombia was out of our hands. We climbed in Amy’s car (which was originally bought in Durham, NC!) and headed back to Panama City. Amy dropped us off at a hostel, Mamallena, and we said goodbye. It was weird being without the car, but at least the hostel had a shower. Finally clean, we ate some ramen noodles and watched a few movies with our fellow travelers before going to bed early. The next morning we had a boat of our own to get on.