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Waiting For Arrivals (A Mom’s View)

(This guest article was written by our mother, Gail Fowler, as she waited for us to arrive in Cuiabá, Brazil!)


After delayed flights, mixed connections, and misplaced bags I finally arrived in Cuiabá, Brazil on Saturday afternoon.  Cuiaba is lush and green, even in the winter dry season, and very hot. More than one resident over the coming days would tell us, with a note of pride, that Cuiabá was the hottest city in Brazil. Unfinished road works and partially constructed hotels showed the challenges of preparing for the Copa de Mundo but from arrival at the airport, Cuiabáns showed their excitement about being a host city and willingness to help out.

Grant and David’s progress before I left indicated that they were a day ahead of schedule so I hoped they would arrive Saturday evening.  However, once I had internet access Saturday afternoon, I saw no location updates since early that morning. Where were they?  Still no updates on Sunday morning so I headed out in the increasing heat of the day to explore the historic area of Cuiaba. I stood outside a beautiful old church and listened to a choir singing an unknown hymn in rich harmonies. A church elder (?) walked out and invited me in “Entrada, Entrada”. I politely declined and we exchanged smiles. The historic area was quiet with museums and shops closed on Sunday morning so I headed back to the hotel.

Lunchtime – still no updates. I will not panic, I will not worry. Maybe they were kidnapped in Bolivia? Stuck in a ditch in the Pantanal? On the side of a deserted  Bolivian dirt road with a broken down Land Cruiser? Arrested for doing something crazy? I will NOT worry. Afternoon comes and goes with another long walk in the Cuiabán heat and watching several soccer matches with new Russian friends. Evening arrives – no Grant, no David.  OK – NOW I will worry, they should be here by now? Finally, a honk at the front door of the hotel from a mud-caked Land Cruiser. They have arrived!  Vivo el Copa de Mundo!!!


Gail Fowler

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Travel Log: Bolivia and Brazil!

We started the last full day of driving before Brazil very early, packing up and hitting the road at 4:00 am. Our goal for the day was to drive from San Ignacio de Velasco, Bolivia to San Matias and the Brazilian border, and then to Cuiabá, Brazil. Originally, this was not our plan. In the months leading up to our drive, we researched and planned out each and every country and border crossing we would travel through. Many awesome websites and blogs chronicle other adventurer’s trips through this part of the world, so most of the time we had at least a general idea of what to expect as we entered a new country. The final leg of our journey, though, was almost entirely uncharted. The common route most take through this part of the Americas is south through Chile and Argentina. The massive Amazon rainforest prevents most east-west travel, and most people want to visit the southern reaches of the continent anyway. We, however, needed to be in Brazil by June 17th, so longer routes were not an option.

We had decided on a route that would take us through Cusco, Peru and then north, crossing the Peru-Brazil border at the small town of Iñapari. While very rarely traveled by overlanders, we were able to find some information on the roads and border crossing there. It was very lush and wet, running through the southern tip of the Amazon rainforest. The route would also require us to take a few local ferries, as some of the major rivers it crossed did not have bridges. It did, though, prevent us from needing to drive through Bolivia. Each additional country border that we crossed took an additional half a day, on average, and Bolivia in particular requires US citizens to purchase an expensive ($135) visa before entering.


The muddy road to Brazil

As the start date approached, however, we started to have doubts about our chosen route. It was the rainy season in Brazil and there were reports of major flooding in the area. From the Portuguese translations of news articles, we read that many miles of road were covered in 12-15 cm of water and were completely impassible. The ferry schedules were unreliable, if they were running at all. We made the executive decision a few weeks before we left to take the slightly longer route through Bolivia instead. This presented its own set of problems, especially regarding information about the Bolivia-Brazil border. The problem being, there was none.

Very few people seemed to drive between Bolivia and Brazil. If they did, they went through Corúmba, Brazil, which was much farther south than we wanted to go. We were unable to find any information, good or bad, about the border crossing at San Matias. Zero. There appeared to be a road to it on Google Maps, though, and it if we could make it we were a mere five hours from our final destination in Cuiabá. We made the decision to go for it.


“Highway” is a loose term

As we left San Ignacio, the already poor roads got even worse. The small, singe track dirt road became mostly wet, orange mud and clay. The beauty of the lush jungle around us was partially lost on us, as we struggled to maintain our speed through the mud and washboards of the road. We regularly stopped to inspect the bridges for safety. Our average speed was roughly 15 mph for most of the day. To make things worse, the last time we had filled up our gas tanks was hundreds of miles back at the Mennonite Colony in Chihuahua. With our spare 20 gallon tanks, we would just barely make it to San Matias. We did spend part of the day driving through the Pantanal wetlands, though, and we saw many birds and animals, as well as a few locals fishing. In total, though, we saw fewer than 20 other people the entire way.


Can’t go over it…


Parts of the Pantanal wetlands

Roughly 10 hours later, we finally pulled into San Matias, a tiny collection of single story houses and dirt roads, who’s only real purpose seemed to be protecting the Brazilian border. We were nearly out of gas, so after asking some locals, we found the only gas station in town. As we drove in to fill up, we found our way blocked by chains, and an older man came out to yell at us. The pump was broken, he said. Couldn’t we read? We bargained, pleaded, but no: he could not sell us any gas. If we were willing to wait a few days, he might be able to fix it. We continued warily into town to find the customs office.

With the help some more locals, we finally found it, nestled into main street of the tiny town and entirely deserted. The woman inside seemed incredibly surprised to see us. I wonder how long it had been since two gringos had walked in asking for passport stamps? She pulled up an archaic computer and started typing. As we waited, we struck up an awkward conversation in broken español about our trip and the World Cup. We told her we needed gas, and asked if by any chance she knew someone who had some. She did! Some 15 minutes later, her cousin pulled up on a motorcycle and produced a 20-liter plastic tank filled with dirty-looking gasoline. We gave it a sniff and decided that dirty gas was better than no gas. We paid him triple the normal price, got our passport stamps, and drove dirty, weary, and broken to the Brazilian border.

The border itself turned out to be nothing more than a small bridge with Bolivian militarios on one side. The glared at our mud-crusted ‘Cruiser, checked our stamps, and grudgingly let us through the gate. On the Brazilian side, we immediately saw something that we had not seen in days: pavement! A few hundred meters from the border, we stopped at a small shack where the Brazilian authorities inspected our car and its contents. We were told that our car was OK, but we had to drive two hours to the town of Cáceres to get our passports stamped and legally be allowed into the country. Yikes. On the way, we finally bought gas, and were even able to use a credit card for the first time in days. We finally found the police station in Cáceres, got our papers, and drove the comparatively easy three additional hours to Cuiabá.


Our first stop in Brazil – the Police station.

At this point, I should probably mention our GPS. Throughout our trip, we had been tracking ourselves in realtime and checking in with loved ones through a satellite GPS. You can see these points at We rarely had internet, so this was our only way to communicate with the outside world. Well, with all the drama of getting our brakes fixed and being car-less, we left it hanging in a tree in Pailón. So, for a few days, no one had any idea if we were ok and our tracking page didn’t move at all. I am told that this caused more than a few people a lot of stress. In particular our mother, who had flown to Cuiabá to meet us and go to the World Cup. Not only were we more than a day and a half behind schedule, but she had not heard ANYTHING from us in four entire days. We finally pulled into our hotel in Cuiabá late that evening and honked the horn. Half of the hotel lobby, including our mom, came out to welcome us. She had told everyone about her “crazy” sons, and they had been anxiously waiting for us all day!


Finally arriving in Cuiaba

We got something to eat and started to tell stories about our journey so far, and finally turned in after an exhausting few days of travel. The next day, we had our first World Cup match, Russia vs. South Korea, and more importantly, we had made it to Brazil!

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Travel Log Days 27-31: Bolivia, Part 3

We met Pirata at his house-turned-workshop just before eight the following morning. It was early but he was already at his ridiculously cheery self, making a few light jokes accompanied by his screeching laugh. We hoisted the Land Cruiser up on a few blocks of wood to take a look at the brakes.


Wheel what do we have here?

He confirmed our fears: the rear brake pads were completely destroyed. In the states, this would be a fairly easy fix, just call AAA and swing by Advanced Auto Parts. Not so much in rural Bolivia. Although Pirata could rip out and install brake pads for us, he did not have any replacement parts on hand. The nearest auto parts store that carried new brake pads was an hour and a half away in the city of Santa Cruz. Having no other choice, we found a taxi driver in Pailon who would take us there and back.


Some of Pirata’s other Toyotas. In the US and Europe, Toyota stopped making the 40 series Land Cruiser in 1984. A factory in Brazil, however, kept making this version, with a Mercedes engine, until 2001.

We finally arrived in Santa Cruz to even worse news. Even though it was a Thursday morning, and the streets were bustling with people, we just happened to arrive during a national holiday in Bolivia. Every one of the stores we tried was closed for not just the day, but the entire weekend. We would have to wait four more days until Monday if we wanted new brake pads, and would absolutely miss our first two games in Brazil. Panic quickly set in, but we put our heads together and came up with a glimmer of hope.

On the ride back to Pailon, we called Pirata from our taxi driver’s phone. The day before he had gushed about his own (wrecked) FZJ80 Land Cruiser to us, and talked about how he wanted to fix it up one day like ours. We proposed that, because his didn’t run at the moment and we were in a huge hurry, we would buy the used brake pads off of his Land Cruiser if he would install them on ours. He reluctantly agreed, so long as we met his price. We were back in business!

Our savior, Pirata.

Our savior, Pirata.

The “new” pads were badly worn, our brake fluid was low, and our rotors were badly scratched, but the Land Cruiser was back on the road! We happily paid Pirata and our taxi driver and set off, once again on the road to Brazil and only a day and a half behind schedule. If things went to plan, we would still arrive in Cuiaba, Brazil the night before our first match, Russia v. South Korea.


We set off towards San Ignacio de Velasco, Bolivia, and eventually the tiny Brazil-Bolivia border at San Matias. As the day progressed, the roads that comprised the “highway” got progressively worse. We were still driving on poorly maintained pavement when we left Pailon and Santa Cruz, but by that afternoon the road was entirely dirt and clay. Gas stations were becoming increasingly infrequent, so somewhere near Chihuahua we stopped and decided to top off the tank and all 20 gallons of our spare tanks.


While we waited to fill up, a man approached us and struck up a conversation in English! He asked where were from and where we were going, and seemed genuinely interested in what we were doing in, of all places, Chihuahua, Bolivia. He told us that he was actually from Canada, and had been living in the middle of nowhere, Bolivia for many years on a small Mennonite Colony there. He even offered to give us a tour. Already behind schedule, and relishing the chance to speak English for the first time in weeks, we agreed.

It turns out, his “small” Mennonite Colony was massive! He took us to the general store, where we loaded up on some supplies, and showed us his home and fields. It turns out he enjoyed being able to practice his English, too; every other person we saw only spoke either Spanish or Low German. They farmed all of their own food and if something broke they had to fix it themselves, including their cars. He was even trying to build a small restaurant next to the previously mentioned gas station, so that locals would have a place to go eat! Sadly, we had to be on our way, and left the Colony to continue our drive. We pulled into the outskirts of San Ignacio de Velasco, Bolivia late that night and camped in an under construction gas station. The next day we would make our final push into Brazil.


The Mennonite Colony near Chihuahua, Bolivia

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Travel Log Days 27-31: Busted Brakes and Other (Mis)Adventures in Bolivia, Part 2


We backtracked down from the mountain above Cochabamba while it was still dark and found ourselves winding even further down from the mountains. The constant snaking of the roads and the apparent lack of pavement made for a rather stressful drive as we were trying to make up time from our border delays the day before. Unfortunately, every slight acceleration was followed quickly by a tap of the brakes, and the constant stop-and-go made for pretty slow time. While the roads were awful, the scenery was nothing short of gorgeous. The huge peaks and mountain plains gave way to lush mountain rainforest and jungle, and despite the slow going, glimpses of waterfalls and rivers made the plodding pace more bearable. Sunrise on the cliffs was also a beautiful distraction from the road quality, even if the blinding sun caused a few of its own slammed brakes. We coasted down from the first section of mountain running dangerously low on gas as we entered the first town. Thankfully we found the gas station and barely squeezed into filling lane. Bolivia was not made for large American trucks, apparently.


Gas station robbery.

Gas station robbery.

We did encounter our second example of “foreigner-targeting”, one we would encounter many more times, when we first tried to buy gas in Bolivia. There was a disproportionate amount of attempted police bribery in Bolivia when compared to the other countries in South America. For better or for worse, we had learned to perfect the “dumb gringo” defense. The basics of this are: never admit you did something wrong (you usually didn’t have to pretend), and never admit that you understand Spanish. Confidence is key. One example in particular illustrates this strategy. Outside of La Paz we passed through a toll gate and were promptly waved over. An officer walks up behind the car and jotted down something on his notebook, before informing us that we were going 120 kilometers an hour and had to a pay a serious fine. If you read our last post, you would understand that the road quality outside of La Paz is horrific. In truth, I wish we had been going 120 because we would have at least made decent time on the road, but in reality it was physically impossible to go more than 60 thanks to the widespread construction. The officer claimed his “friend” up the road caught us on radar, and showed us our plate number on his notepad – the same plate number he no doubt scribbled down after pulling us over. Business as usual, we had the option of paying the fine back in La Paz, or we could conveniently slip the officer a few hundred Bolivianos to make it all go away.

The roads we were "doing 120" on...

The roads we were “doing 120″ on…

Now we knew full an well what the officer was trying to do, and despite his gruff authoritative attitude, we weren’t having any of it. So we smiled. We handed over our documents, and with a feigned quizzical look on our faces, we asked 120? No es posible! He countered with some long explanation of what we had done wrong (somehow more in depth than “you were speeding”) and how much we had to pay. We explained in poor Spanish that the roads were bad and there was no way we were speeding. He returned each time to his friend and his radar, and we knew we had him. Ok, Grant said pointing to his eyes, let us see the radar. He fumbled and tried to return to the money, telling us it was a huge fine in town and we were better off paying it there. Calmly and without ever losing our smiles, we said we indicated that we would happily pay the ticket but only if he showed us the actual radar first. That was the final stroke, and the officer knew he was defeated. He handed us our papers and said we were free to go, he was only going to give us a warning. Right… the only warning we actually got was to watch out for corrupt cops. We had encountered quite a few already, but this was a grim reminder that Bolivia was full of corruption, and we had better be on our guards.

View from the side of the road.

View from the side of the road.

We expected to be targeted by the police, but we were blindsided by how universally accepted it was to target gringos. We pulled up to a pump at a gas station and looked for an attendant to ask about the price, which was not displayed anywhere. The price she told us was very cheap, roughly $1.75 U.S. per gallon. Awesome! It was always nice to find cheap gas when you’re driving 11,000 miles! But then she looked at our license plate… Discovering that it was not from within the country, she informed us that, per the government, the price for foreign nationals was more than double that for locals. We thought she making something up, and refused to agree. She then showed us the computer at the station, and, sure enough, the official price was based on your car’s license plate. She told us, apologetically, that she would get in trouble if she sold gas to us at the local price, as in trouble with the local government! Furious, but needing to fill up very badly, we agreed to buy at the foreigner price and were on our way. To our surprise, this ended up being a nationwide law, and at every gas station from there on out, we paid double the local price to fill up. One station wouldn’t even fill us up at all, and we had to use our spare gas tanks to even buy gas! The first time round it seemed like an opportunistic move to squeeze us tourists for some extra cash, but it was so widespread it was basically institutionalized. You would think most nations want to encourage tourism, but Bolivia seemed perfectly content in exploiting foreigners whenever they could!

Bolivian roads, after we finally found actual pavement.

Bolivian roads, after we finally found actual pavement.

We left the gas station irritated but with a new sense of hope. Despite charging extra for gas, the attendant was very nice and after hearing of our travel plans, she told us the road to the Brazilian border was good! We were making a snail’s pace, but at least the roads would be better from here on out! If our first day and half was any indication, if we were going to make it out of Bolivia on time, we would need all the help we could get. Leaving town, the next section of the trip was beautiful. The jungle around us became thicker and greener with every mile and the mountains, although much smaller than before, became more pronounced as their cliffs and edges stuck out among the dense foilage. Waterfalls trickled down in white lines on distant peaks and we made our way past the beautiful backdrops descending further and further in to the countryside. The road slowly began to flatten out and before we knew it the mountains were behind us and the jungle, dense and lush, swallowed up the land around us. It was nice to get away from the switch-back filled roads and get on some straight highway for once, but the mountains had already taken their toll on the Cruiser. The brakes were failing.

Our savior, Pirata.

Our savior, Pirata.

They started making a gravely, scraping noise after our first day in Bolivia. The mountain roads and stop-and-go of the construction had done our brakes in. The fact that they had already traveled several thousand miles prior certainly didn’t help, but Bolivia was the straw that broke our camel’s back. We knew they would need some work, but it wasn’t until we tried to stop and couldn’t, nearly having to drive off the road in the process, that we figured we should stop for help. Easier said than done. The first gas station we stopped at, despite several large signs for a mechanic, said that they didn’t fix cars, and that we would have to go back the way we came. We looked at the brakes ourselves, but they were out of our abilities, so we turned on the hazards and hobbled back down the road. We must have stopped at three or four different places before we finally found our guy. Pirata, they each said, You have to find Pirata. The search for this elusive man led us to Pailon, a tiny town with streets filled with mud after the heavy rain from that afternoon. We were directed to a small house with a large backyard filled with cars and car parts, and that’s where we finally met the man himself. Pirata was short, round man with crooked teeth and a screeching laugh. He could fix the car, but he couldn’t do it that night. He told us to come back the following morning. It was getting dark and we had little other choice, so we left the car with our new mechanic and wandered off in search of the only hotel in town. We checked into a small room towards the back and although we weren’t happy to be sidelined, showers and a real bed were a welcome commodity. Clean for the first time in days, we walked to the town center and found a small restaurant to grab dinner and watch Australia vs. Chile, our first game of the World Cup. The food was mediocre, but after our ordeals in Bolivia, we were happy to sit down and finally watch some footy.



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Travel Log Days 27-31: Busted Brakes and Other (Mis)Adventures in Bolivia, Part 1

It was still freezing when we woke up and getting out of our sleeping bags that morning was an incredibly difficult task. Fortunately, we were headed to our last border crossing before Brazil, and our heightened spirits made the cold that much more bearable. We grabbed our Clif Bars – the supply running low at this point in the trip – and were well on our way before the sun even came up. We were especially eager to cross the border and get that much closer to the Cup, and were thrilled to see only a few people standing in line at the customs office. We arrived just before six, so we would be right at the front of the line when it opened. Or so we thought. The office, it turns out, did not open until 8:30… almost three hours later. Now we know why the line was so short. We weren’t too thrilled about a three hour wait in the chilly Peruvian morning, so we climbed back in the car, pulled up the hoods of our sweatshirts, and shut our eyes as the sun began to rise on the lake.

High altitude footy!

High altitude footy!

The nap was a great way to pass the time, but by the time we woke up, the small cluster of people waiting for customs to open had turned in to a long line the snaked well around the side of the building. By then, roughly 100 people were in line to enter Bolivia, and dozens of locals were milling about selling coffee, breakfast, and exchanging Peruvian Nuevo Sol’s for Bolivian Bolivianos. We scrambled out of the car and jumped in line at 8:05. We still had some waiting to do, but people were streaming in and the line was growing steadily longer. Thankfully they opened a bit early and Peru didn’t much care how or why you were leaving their country, so the exit process was a quick stamp and little more. The line quickly moved down the building and we were in and out in under twenty minutes. Not bad. We were through migration by 8:35, but naturally the aduana wasn’t open until 9:30. Despite the presence of two or three officers inside the office, we had to wait even longer while they did god knows what to open the office. We wandered to a small restaurant and sipped on some cafés to kill the time and exchanged our remaining Nuevo Sols for Bolivianos and went back to the customs to badger them to let us through. The large line we had been in the middle of to leave Peru was forming the even larger line to enter Bolivia, and we were already hours behind schedule.


Lake Titicaca, beach camping at 1200 feet!

Lake Titicaca, beach camping at 1200 feet!

The line to enter Bolivia was not only massive, but horribly disorganized. It snaked back and forth outside before doing the same inside the building itself. We obligingly went to the end and waited. The vast majority of the people in line were clearly either Peruvian or Bolivian nationals. The talked with each other quietly in fast Spanish and waited patiently, clearly used to this type of government inefficiency. The line was dotted with other foreigners, though. There was a German couple, the woman wearing a pink parka, that were clearly having a fight over something the boyfriend/husband had done. We saw what we guessed were a few Eastern European guys, speaking what sounded like Russian, and wearing shorts and t-shirts in the 40 degree morning. It was there in line that we met a couple who were traveling throughout South America playing music and chatted with them for a bit. Aimee was from Argentina and was traveling with her boyfriend John who was from, get this, Durham, NC! He hadn’t lived there in quite some time, but had graduated from UNC in 2005 and knew the area. He commented on the Carolina sticker on the back of the car, and we made small talk until their line wait was over, and we waved as they headed on their way. Excited by the North Carolina connection, we were able to make it through the horrific line and finally get our visas. A few photocopies and an incredibly picky examination of our payment (nothing but crisp, mint condition twenties were accepted) later, and we were finally (legally) in Bolivia. In total, it took us close to 6 hours to get into Bolivia. We rationalized that the wait included a two hour nap, so in all, it wasn’t too bad. But little did we know, Bolivia was just getting started.

At least the scenery was nice!

At least the scenery was nice!


The ride from the border was gorgeous. We were still in the mountain plains we had crossed in Peru. Snow capped peaks lined the distance and small mountain towns and llamas spread across the countryside. As we headed down from the mountains however, the country began to change. We hit La Paz that afternoon, and after failing to find wifi thanks to some horrible construction planning, we gave up and continued east. Slowly. Roads in Bolivia range from “questionable” to “awful”. For every 100 miles of relatively well-kept pavement, there were 75 of mud and gravel. The highways would not have been called such in the States. The border process had taken 4-5 hours longer than we had expected, so we were pushed to make up time. We had planned on making it to Buena Vista, just outside of Santa Cruz, but that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, we identified a national park on our map near Cochabampa, Bolivia, about 5 hours driving time closer to us than Buena Vista, and decided to aim for that. It was slow going to say the least, but we finally made it into town just after dark. Surprisingly, it was one of the nicest towns we had seen on the entire trip! Well maintained roads, minimal construction, and nice shops and restaurants were a nice change of pace from what we had experienced in Bolivia so far. Unfortunately, we had no time to stop and enjoy the city, and as soon as we had entered we were already climbing a hill outside of town to camp for the night. We made it half way to the park on our map before deciding to pull off on the side of the road instead. It had been a long day and we were too tired to go any further. We had peanut butter and jelly tortillas for dinner that night and enjoyed the city lights below.



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Travel Log Days 23-26: Crashes and Vigilantes

We left the Ecuadorian National Park, Refugio de Vida Silvestre Pasachoa, at 4:30 in the morning, anticipating another long day of driving. Unlike most other long days of driving in Central and South America, we actually made very good time, and got to the Ecuador-Peru border at Macara well ahead of schedule. We had planned to spend another night in Ecuador and cross over in the morning, but we still had nearly an hour of sunlight left and decided to go ahead and enter Peru. Leaving Ecuador was a breeze. Migration. Stamp. Customs. Signature, stamp. 15 minutes and we were done. South American border crossings were so much better than any in Central America!

And then we tried to get into Peru.

We crossed the bridge that represented the Ecuador-Peru border and parked along the road outside of the Peruvian immigration building. We walked in and handed over our passports, as usual. We were frowned at, and waved over to the Police hut. We trudged over to a different building as a light rain started to pick up. The Policia looked us over, took our passports, and began to write down all of our information (by hand) in a large book. He flipped to our Brazilian Visas instead of our actual passport information, and it took us a few minutes to explain to him that  we were not FROM Brazil, we were going there! While this was happening, a group of Peruvians came in, and he ushered them in front of us and did their paperwork first while we waited. Finally, after making sure David wasn’t lying about his age a few times (he wasn’t), we went back to the immigration office and got our passport stamps. Then, we had to go to the customs office next door and get our Permiso Temporal de Vehiculos for the Land Cruiser.

The customs agent we found there was a paunchy, older man in his 50’s who immediately let us know that we were making his life very difficult. I handed him all of the necessary documents (Passport, License, Title, and Registration). He shuffled through them and looked them over. He asked for our insurance and I gave it to him. He looked over the documents again. He asked for the VIN number. I showed him. He asked what color the vehicle was. He asked for copies of all of the documents. Seemingly satisfied, he turned away from us and sat down at his computer for 15 minutes.

Eventually he turned back to us asked for the vehicle VIN. It was exactly the same as the first time, as far as I could tell. He asked what color the car was. I frustratingly pointed to it again and told him. He wanted another copy of my drivers license. We were getting fed up, and it was already after dark, which would make finding a campsite very difficult. He typed away at his computer for another 20 minutes. Finally, he printed out a tiny slip of paper and had me sign it. He stamped it and handed it to me. This was the import permit we had been waiting this whole time for? An hour and a half later, we were ready to enter Peru.

Well past dark, but ready to find a place to camp, David and I went back out to the car and got in. We sat for a few minutes with the engine running, looking at our map and trying to decide how far we would go before stopping for the night. After a couple more minutes, we turned the map light off and I put the car in reverse and started backing up to hit the road.

And hit something else.


Some guy in a pickup truck had parked behind us while we were looking at the map. We never saw his headlights. He had parked behind and to the right of us, perfectly in my blind spot. I put the hazards on and got out of the car.

He was not happy. I had scraped the front-left of his car, just outside the headlight, with the back-right of my bumper. Of course, the Land Cruiser won that battle. The damage was fairly minor, but would definitely require some body work. The commotion caused the customs agents, three Policia, and a large number of bystanders to immediately swarm around our two cars. The man’s wife got out of the passenger side, yelling.

“Tengo seguro,” I said, as they all started yelling at me in very fast, angry Spanish. “I have insurance.” The man was talking to me, his wife was yelling at me, the main policeman was jumping in, and the bystanders were all offering there opinions on this stupid gringo who had hit a local man’s car. It was very dark. To say the situation was tense would be an understatement.

“I have insurance,” I said to the policeman.

“Yes,” he said, “but this man is a local. You are a foreigner. It is not the same.”

“I have international insurance here in Peru.”

“That is for your car only. You damaged his car, so you need to pay him.”

This was not the case. We had purchased a broad international policy before we left the States, in addition to a local S.O.A.T. policy upon arriving in South America. But the situation was starting to look bad for two Americans, 7,000 miles from home, who barely spoke any Spanish. So I asked the driver what it would take. I ended up giving him $200 US from our emergency stash and, as the cop suggested, got the hell out of there. So far, our first night in Peru couldn’t have gotten much worse.

We continued along the highway for a little ways, and at the first toll stop we asked if there were any safe places to camp along the highway. The attendant told us he wasn’t sure, but that it was probably safe a little ways toward the next town. We found a nice little turn off in what appeared to be an old quarry; a big flat space just off of the main road, but with a few trees separating us from it. We got out, made dinner, and had a beer. It was relieving to finally be safe and at camp. We put up the sleeping platform and got in our sleeping bags to go to sleep.

It was around 10:30pm. We were dimly aware of the cars and trucks on the highway passing by as we began drifting off to sleep. At times, the dull rumble of the tractor trailers ghosting by in the night can be somewhat relaxing. As things were getting quiet, though, a spotlight swept across the windshield from the road and blinded us. We both looked up and saw a white pickup truck on the highway, shining a spotlight from side to side in the darkness. As soon as the spotlight had swept lazily passed us, it snapped back onto our car and stayed there. We had been spotted.

The white pickup truck slammed on the brakes and shifted into reverse. We could now see men dressed in black piled into the back of the pickup truck. One was shining the spotlight. Two others had large black guns. It began reversing on the highway until it got back to the entrance, and only exit, we had found for our campsite. I climbed into the front seat and turned the car on.

They pulled into the open space that was our campsite and parked in front of the Land Cruiser. Men in black uniforms jumped out of the pickup truck and began heading towards our car, surrounding us. I cracked the window. While three men, one carrying a shotgun, circled the car, the man who appeared to be the leader came to the drivers side door with another two and demanded to see our documents. My foot hovered over the accelerator as I handed him my passport through the cracked window.


“Ellos son Americanos!” the leader exclaimed.

“What are you two doing here?”

I tried to explain that we were just camping. We were driving to Brazil for the World Cup and didn’t want any trouble. Just passing through. The mood changed immediately. Our hearts were still beating audibly in our chests as the three men from behind the car pushed there way to the front and started asking questions excitedly. What State were we from? How was the drive to Peru? Were we going to any games in Brazil? On closer inspection, none appeared to be older than 25, except for the man in charge, who might have been 40. We had some questions of our own, too. Who were they? What did they want?

It turns out that they were “Serenazgo”, a kind of local police patrol. It was unclear just how “official” they were, or if they were more of a local militia/vigilante group. They were definitely NOT the normal police that we had encountered earlier, nor the normal military. They all had matching uniforms, but only a few had any other equipment (shotguns). The story emerged that the area we were camping in could actually be pretty dangerous at night, and they were on patrol. Two people had been shot and killed a few months prior in the very spot were were trying to make camp. Damn you, tollbooth attendant!

The Serenazgo were now all smiles and had made it their personal mission to find us a safe place to camp for the night. We got back in the Land Cruiser and followed them into the next town a few kilometers away. There, they woke up a gas station owner and “asked” him if we could sleep in the safe and well lit gas station lot for the night. The owner reluctantly agreed. We thanked our vigilantes profusely and turned the car off as they drove of into the night. It would be a hours before we would finally fall asleep.


Sunset on the Pacific

The next morning we rose early again and headed South. We had yet to see Peru during the day. By making it across the border the previous day, we were able to make good time down towards the Pacific coast. We had expected Peru to be lush and mountainous, but the first day was almost entirely flat desert. It made for some good Game of Thrones listening time. We arrived in the town of Chimbote that afternoon with a few hours of sunlight to spare. We found a grocery store and stocked up on some supplies; mostly beer, water, and something to eat other than cliff bars. We took off along the coast to look for a place to camp.


Camping on a cliff near Chimbote

We found a turnoff to a little fishing town on the map and took it, hoping to camp somewhere along the beach. The road took us straight down to the coast and then took a hard turn left into a large mount of rock. In the bottom of the rock was a long, narrow cave, and on the other side we found the fishing town. Not wanting to stay in the town, we turned back towards the tunnel. From the town-side, it was clear that the tunnel was fairly new. The remains of an old road around the ocean side of the mountain could just barely be made out. We decided to explore. The previous road had gone along the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean, but about halfway across it had collapsed, leaving emptiness. We decided to camp just before the precipice, and we were treated to some spectacular views.


Steak and veggies on the camp stove

The next day we carefully made our way back along the cliff and got back on the highway. This time, we had a set campsite that we wanted to find. In doing research on the internet, I had found a reference to a nice beach campsite and we were going to try to make it there for the night.

We drove through Lima, the capital of Peru, around lunch time, and made it to Nazca in the early afternoon. The scenery on the drive was incredible as we drove along the Pacific coast. At times, the road was literally on the edge of a cliff, with desert on one side and the ocean on the other. We passed fishing villages with colorful boats and vast expanses of beautiful nothingness. When the road took us more inland, the enormous desert mountains served our appetite for scenery. We passed through the area of the famous Nazca Lines, but decided that a car was not the best vehicle for viewing them. We climbed a hill on foot to try to see the shapes, but had little luck.


The Nazca Lines

We made it to our beach campsite at dark and were able to camp right on the beach. The campsite, as it turns out, was actually a small beach resort that probably would have been full during the summer. As it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, we were the only people there, save for a few staff members, who welcomed us warmly. We made camp, dipped our toes in the water, and were finally able to kick our new soccer ball back and forth for an hour or so. In contrast to the previous night, it was immensely relaxing.

The next morning as we were preparing to leave at 5am, one of the staff members woke up and offered to make us breakfast, which we graciously accepted. Granola bars and diet mountain dew can get old after a few weeks. We left as the sun began to come up, and we likewise started to climb. We camped right on the beach at sea level, but by the early afternoon we had risen into the Andes and the Peruvian highlands. It happened almost without us noticing. I could feel the air get thinner and the already weak engine of the Land Cruiser begin to struggle more and more for power. Still we climbed. We passed small villages made of stone, and llamas began to appear everywhere. The mountains started out in front of us, then beside us, and then somehow beneath us. Before we realized it, we had climbed to just over 14,000 feet, according to our GPS.


Llamas crossing?



Peruvian highlands at 14,000 feet

We made camp that night, our last in Peru, on the shores of the gorgeous Lake Titicaca, which is largely considered the highest navigable lake in the world. The water level was very low, so our GPS coordinates show us as actually being in the water! It was the first night that it was actually COLD. We wore sweatpants and sweatshirts inside our sleeping bags, and could see our breath even then. We were only a few hours from the Bolivian border, and were excited to be only a few days from Brazil!


Lake Titicaca

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Travel Log Days 20-22: Friend and Breakdowns

After finally getting the Land Cruiser out of port on Wednesday, we hit the road early Thursday morning for South America. And we had company. Two of our new friends and fellow Americans from the MS Independence, Matt and Emily, were also heading south towards Medellin, and were planning to take a bus. With a little reorganizing, we could easily fit two more people in the car! We had never had passengers, and having someone other than David to talk to was amazing! (Just kidding, David). The first few hours of the drive went by rather uneventfully, and we stopped for lunch at a roadside hut/restaurant, where I ate some kind of fish concoction.

Car selfie

Car selfie. Wake up!

After lunch, the drive got a lot more exciting. Two things began to slowly happen. First, it began to get greener. The relatively open landscape of farms and fields began to change to rainforests. Secondly, we started to climb. Our progress began to slow down, but the drive started to be spectacular. Switchback after switchback of mountainous rainforests, lush jungles and the occasional waterfall crashing down beside the road. We climbed as high as 3500 meters (~11,500 feet) in a matter of a few hours, up through and then above the clouds. We finally dropped down into the gorgeous town of Medellin, Colombia just as it was getting dark, and pulled into the Black Sheep Hostel, where Matt had made us reservations for the night. We went out to dinner with him and Emily and bought supplies (fresh water, some food, and a soccer ball) at a nearby grocery store before turning in for the night.

Matt and Emily, our companions in Medellin

Matt and Emily, our companions in Medellin

We left Medellin before sunrise the next morning. At this point, I probably need to recap some minor problems we had been having with the Land Cruiser so far. When cold, the engine would start up right away and have no problems. When it had been running a while, especially on very hot (95+) days, and turned off, it had trouble starting back again. This had first happened after a very hot 12 hour day through southern Texas, and had happened maybe 5 times since. Each time, letting it sit for 15-20 minutes had fixed the problem. Everything I could see appeared to be in order, so my half guessing diagnosis was the engine fuel pump. As it turned out, I was close.

We were 6 or so hours south of Medellin on the highway when the engine cut out, spun back up, then shut off completely. The power steering, driven by the engine, also stopped working, causing us to swerve slightly as I wrestled the car to the side of the road. Thankfully no one else was nearby. We sat in the car for a few seconds, hazards turned on, wondering, “Is this the end of BrazilDrive?”

Then we snapped into action. David ran behind to put out the warning triangles, to keep the big rigs from running us over. I grabbed our toolkit from the back, opened the hood and tried to find out what was wrong. It was clearly related to, or the same issue as, the earlier starting issue, just much worse. When I opened the engine fuse box, I found the problem. Some connection on the relay for the Electronic Fuel Injection had shorted out. Instead of just breaking the fuse, it had melted about a third of the entire fuse box away. We poked and prodded for half an hour, and finally managed to get the engine started using a headlight fuse and some tinfoil. Then we limped a fewkilometers to the next gas station to try to find help.


Beto and Edison helping us fix the Land Cruiser

Beto and Edison helping us fix the Land Cruiser

When we cut the engine and asked the attendant, she pointed us towards a shack that had some automotive signs of it. Good start. In it, we found a man and tried to tell him our problem. He couldn’t fix it, he said, but he knew a guy in the nearby village who probably could. He took off on his bicycle, and we waited. Twenty minutes later, he comes back. Alone. A few more minutes, though, and another man appears from behind the town fence carrying a lightbulb, some wire, and a pair of pliers. We found an electrician! After a few minutes of trying to convey the problem in my broken and David’s nonexistent Spanish, he starts to work. For 45 minutes he pulls things apart, strips wires, and twists things back together, while David and I fidget nervously, watching. “Try it,” he says. And…

It starts! A little rough, maybe, but it works. He had completely removed the fuse terminals and rewired new ones. I thanked him and nervously asked him for the bill. He pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote down, “30,000”. I was… Amazed! 30,000 Colombian Pesos is about equal to $15. We paid him, thanking him profusely, and were on our way, a few hours behind schedule but with a working car.

That night we had wanted to make it to Pasto, Colombia, where we had heard there were good camping spots. But, being behind schedule due to the breakdown, and numerous delays due to road construction, we were still hours away and the sun had long since set. We camped on the side of the road outside of Popayan, and slept restlessly as trucks drove by in the night. The next morning, we got up early and drove to the Colombia-Ecuador border at Ipiales, Colombia. Compared to borders in Central American, the Colombia-Ecuador border was downright boring. We crossed before lunchtime, and continued on into a new country.

Just us and the truckers

Just us and the truckers

After breakdowns, road camping, and construction delays, we were very relieved to drive on the somewhat mountainous but generally pretty nice roads in Ecuador. At some point during the day, the cigarette lighter that we used to charge all of our devices stopped working, which complicated things somewhat. We used the electricity to power our tablet, which had all the maps, our always on dash cam, and our phones, and more importantly, for listening to A Game of Thrones on audio book. Not being able to charge these devices presented a dilemma, especially for the GPS maps. So in Ecuador, just before Quito, we stopped at a shopping mall for WiFi and electricity.

We drove through Quito right as the sun was setting, and tried to find a place to camp. On our map, we could see a Parque Nacional (National Park) just past the Ecuadorian capital and decided to go for it. We pulled off the highway and trundled up roughly 15 km’s of single lane, muddy track until we reached the entrance to the park. We found a large lodge and gravel parking lot, completely deserted, with a chain across the entrance. Oh well. We found a flat spot and made camp for the night, and never encountered another soul the rest of the evening.

Local wildlife

Local wildlife in Colombia


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Travel Log Days 17-19: A Port, A Parrot, and A Car in Cartegena

On dry land at last after our voyage at sea from Panama, we trekked off with our new group of friends to find an ATM and something cold to drink. The sun was out in full force in Cartegena, Colombia and it was incredibly hot when we finally found a market with a small bank inside. My legs were still wobbly from the boat, so I swayed waiting in line for the cash machine. Once the crew got out their money and chugged down a few ice cold Cokes, they set out to find Hostel Mamallena, sister to the hostel we stayed at in Panama, but Grant and I had different business to attend to. The Land Cruiser had arrived in port that same morning, and we had to get our baby back.




The retrieval would prove to be a much more difficult process. We knew it would take at least two days of paperwork and office visits, so we were hoping to get everything started as soon as we got there (Monday morning). Leaving the rest of the group, we decided to walk to the port and get the ball rolling. The 3 km walk was pretty excruciating in the Colombian sun, a situation certainly not aided by our collective sunburns and wobbly sea legs. To make matters worse, the port had a long pants and closed-toed shoe policy, so the heat was compounded in our pants and hiking boots. After what seemed like an hour of wandering we found the port office. Unfortunately, despite the presence of at least four officials sitting at their desks, it was a “state holiday”, and the office was closed. Our voyage to the port was a waste, and more importantly, we had lost a day of driving time.


Seeing the port in Cartegena for the first time

We took a cab back from the port and found our hotel behind a large wooden door in the old town section of Cartagena. The boat captain still had our passports, apparently because immigration was also closed for the holiday, so we almost couldn’t check in, but fortunately we had some photocopies left over from border crossings and were ushered through the open inner courtyard into our room. In retrospect we were probably in the country illegally, or at least not technically approved to be there. We never got stamped in, and didn’t even have our passports when we landed on shore. It was all a bit sketchy, but sure enough our passports would be brought to us that night, and the appropriate stamps were within them. At the time we were too tired to worry about our entry status, and succumbing to the AC, we climbed in bed and both passed out.

The old Spanish fort.

The old Spanish fort.

We were asleep for a few hours and it was barely two in the afternoon when we woke up. Trading pants and boots for flip flops and shorts, we reluctantly left the air conditioning and went out to explore the town. Cartagena was an old Spanish colonial town (one of the oldest in South America, if memory serves), and the old town had remnants of the era, including the old walls and a massive fort outside of them. We bought some empanadas from a local vendor, and wandered through the streets admiring the buildings as we weaved in and out of alleys and dodged the heavy foot traffic. Everyone seemed to be taking advantage of the holiday – which we found out was related to Colombian independence – and were crowding the shops and restaurants throughout town. We passed through a t-shirt shop and each bought a knock-off Colombian soccer jersey for the equivalent of about five US dollars. We have tickets to Colombia vs. Cote D’Ivoire in Brasilia and we wanted to fit in with the crowd! We stocked up on bottled water and chocolate on the way out before seeking out the hostel and our friends staying there.

Beautiful graffiti in Old Town, Cartegena

Beautiful graffiti in Old Town, Cartegena

We found them, not at the hostel, but at a random bar we happened to pass while exploring the old town. They were just finishing up a quick drink, and we all left back to regroup with the others at the hostel. We wanted to all eat together, and doubting the ability of a restaurant seating all of us, we decided to utilize the kitchen and make a mass of spaghetti and eat right there at the hostel. We took over the kitchen and a large part of the courtyard, and after a trip to the grocery store our meal was under way. The kitchen was cramped and only a few people could actually do the work (thanks girls!), so the rest of us volunteered to cleanup. While we waited we turned to Torie, the hostel parrot for entertainment. While Grant made a friend, I got pooped on. At least the spaghetti was delicious.



Tuesday was about the same as Monday. Paperwork in the morning and a few jumps between offices and then we were free for the day. We wandered around Cartagena and ate lunch at a local restaurant while watching pre-World Cup friendlies on the small TV in the corner before meeting up again at the hostel and hanging out with our friends and that damned parrot.

The following morning was judgment day. We had already missed Monday thanks to the holiday and had eaten up the one buffer day we had. We needed to get the car by the end of the day, or there was a chance we would miss our first game. We were a little nervous when we headed back to the import offices early Wednesday, but after a wait in the glorious air conditioning, we got the right form and the right stamp, and were ready to pick up our baby! We took a cab down to the port, and Grant disappeared behind a gate. He was gone for twenty or so minutes and having run out of things to do on my phone to make me not look awkward, I was getting nervous. After what felt like an eternity, the man at the desk told me Grant was ready, and motioned me outside the building down the block. The sight was glorious.


Finally leaving port with the Land Cruiser!

Finally leaving port with the Land Cruiser!

Car in tow and apprehension dissolved, we made our way back towards town and found a 24 hour lot to leave her for the night. They charged us for two days, even though the car was there less than 24 hours, but we were too relieved to care. We had the Land Cruiser back, and that meant tomorrow we would be driving one step closer to our goal. That night we had a few farewell beers with our friends and said our goodbyes. We would not be participating in the nightclub scene that night; we had a 4:30 am date with the highway and South America. We got back to our hotel excited and exhausted, and watched Dragon Ball Z in bed, the only channel in English we could find. Goku and the gang were just about to defeat Frieza as I finally drifted off to sleep.

Bonus: an awesome Pinzgauer overlander we saw parked in Cartegena

Bonus: an awesome Pinzgauer overlander we saw parked in Cartegena

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Travel Log Days 13-17: Island Life

Getting up at 5am was nothing new for us at this point, but doing it with 20 other people milling about was new entirely. The hostel Mamallena was begrudgingly alive as folks were packing the last of their things and making themselves pancakes in the communal kitchen. Unfortunately the coffee pot had just been emptied by the time we got into the kitchen and our drivers arrived just as we finished loading a new one. Everyone filed outside where three trucks (one of them an 80 series Land Cruiser!) were waiting to take us up to Carti, where the boat was anchored. They strapped our packs to the top of the cars and we climbed in, our soon to be boat mates alongside. Although the drive boasted some great jungle views and steep climbs, most people slept in what was a quiet three hour drive across the country to the Atlantic. We finally crested a ridge and could see the ocean in the distance, but our descent stopped abruptly at a small shelter next to a river, no ocean in sight. To get to our boat, we had to take smaller boats down the river and into the ocean. Unknowingly they charged us an additional boat fee, but we thankfully had cash on hand, and we set off towards the MS Independence.


Thar she blows, the MS Independence

Thar she blows, the MS Independence

Our home for the next 5 days was the MS Independence, a large sailboat, about 85 feet in length, that was built in the 1960s. Once everyone was on board captain Michel welcomed us on board with a goodluck toast of rum and fruit juice before going of the rules and how to operate the ship’s pump toilet. The salty Slovenian finished his explanation before his wife and 2nd in command Majo led us to our bunks. We had read online that the best cabin was on the front upper deck and had requested it in our reservation, but instead we were given the front lower deck room. The difference was distinct. Grant and I were to share not only a room with two others, but also a mattress – the top bunk of the already cramped cabin. Oh well. In the end, we slept on one of the mats on the open deck every single night. We dropped off our stuff in the room and went to explore the ship. They had managed to accommodate rooms for 30 people including the crew, and we inched through the cramped corridors to get a feel for the layout. The rooms were tiny but there was plenty of deck space for everyone to sprawl out and enjoy their (semi) personal space.


Straight chillin'

Straight chillin’

If it was going to a cramped 4 days, we figured it was a good idea to get to know our fellow passengers, and we certainly lucked out in that regard. It was a wonderful group of people and we couldn’t have asked for a better group to spend the journey with. There were folks from London, Manchester, Wales, Ireland, Germany, and Switzerland, an Australian couple, an American couple, a pair of Canadians, an Israeli, and a Japanese motorcyclist. Everyone had their own reasons for traveling and their own paths lined out, but for a few days at least, we were all on the same path.

The shipmates!

The shipmates!


With introductions out of the way, we we went to the front of the boat to watch the scenery move past. Before long the ship came its first stopping point between two of the small islands we had been watching slowly grow bigger as we left our initial anchorage. We were gazing off the bow when we heard the first few splashes as people were jumping off the side of the boat. By the time we had our bathing suits on and got to the ladder, a few people had already hit the shore, and we wasted no time getting in and swimming over ourselves. Now, I’m not in completely terrible shape, but after spending two weeks in the car, a 60 meter swim wasn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. I was never a great swimmer in the first place, and was out of breath when I finally trudged up on the sand, but the work was worth it. We lounged on the beach and swam in the clear water, as the locals sat a few yards back and watched us. They had tried to make us pay them to use their beach, but when we clearly had no money with us after the swim, the quickly gave up, and even let us play with an adorable baby pig.

Not bad.

Not bad.

It was another long swim back to the boat, but this time lunch was waiting for us. As we sat around the wooden table on the top deck, we picked up anchor and headed out once again. This would turn out to be the theme of boat ride. Swim, lounge, eat, swim, lounge, eat. Needless to say, it was pretty amazing. And don’t forget about the nighttime activities. It quickly became obvious that we had made one key mistake before the voyage. Each other passenger had brought their own stash of alcohol for the trip! All we had were a few bottles of water, we didn’t realize it was going to be a party boat. Thankfully, Majo came to our rescue with her on board “shop.” We were the first to purchase a few beers and a bottle of terrible-yet-delicious Ron Abuelo rum, but we certainly weren’t the last. After a cookout on the beach and some evening beach volleyball, we cracked into he collective stores of booze and played cards and an eclectic variety of drinking games long into the night. We had been on vacation ever since we left the US, but this was the first time it actually felt like it!


Hello, this is Patrick. (Photo cred Matt Robinson)

Hello, this is Patrick. (Photo cred Matt Robinson)

The next two days were heaven. We went snorkeling in a shallow reef, tried to climb palm trees for their coconuts, played soccer golf on the beach, and drank beers while floating in the ocean on an assortment of floatable devices. We even had a bonfire on one of the islands, and ended up sleeping on the beach. It was a sobering swim back to the boat the following morning, but an experience I won’t soon forget. Of all of the experiences of the boat, the final day was the one that will stick with me forever. On the last day at see, we crossed the final 200 miles of open water to Cartegena, Colombia without stopping. I had been on the water before, but never on the open sea in an 85 footer. We left the islands at three in the morning, but it was later that day that the reality set in. Large swells rocked the boat up and down, constantly shifting the deck as we tried to stay still on it. I don’t get seasick easily, but I was tested on this ride. I may have been fine at first, but after all day on deck, I started to feel a little bit of a headache creep in. Others fared far worse than I did, but luckily Grant and I came through relatively unscathed, except for the worst sunburn I have ever had on my life…


Ain't no party like a San Blas beach party! (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

Ain’t no party like a San Blas beach party! (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

The rocking on the deck was rough, but it was the crampedness of the ship that made it worse. There was nowhere to go and nothing really to do at sea, so we read when we could and slept when we weren’t reading. This made us all feel more than a little cooped up, so when Michel stopped the boat and told us to jump in, we didn’t hesitate. Jumping in was a blessing, albeit an incredibly surreal one. We were swimming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, and thousands of feet above anything resembling solid ground. The waves propelled us up and gently dropped us down again, a journey of 8 to 10 feet each time. More disconcerting was the fact that the boat made the same trip, each time seeming like it would crash down upon us before correcting itself as the swell shifted. It was amazing, terrifying, and ultimately necessary, as we entered the boat refreshed and ready to tackle the final stretch at sea. One more night sleeping under the stars on the deck and we awoke with land in site! A pod of dolphins seemed to herald our arrival and followed the boat for some twenty minutes as we entered the port. We had survived the opera rise and the ordeal of the MS Independence, and we were ready to go see a man (ok, several men) about a car.

Now that's a good looking pod (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

Now that’s a good looking pod (Photo cred: Matt Robinson)

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Travel Log Days 10-12: Panamaniam Port Paperwork

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.


The Panama Canal


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!


Our campsite outside the Balboa Yacht Club

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.


Just us and the big rigs

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.


Hostel Mamallena in Panama City

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.

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