Crossing the Darién Gap

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We crossed into Panama from Costa Rica via the border crossing on the Caribbean side of the country at Sixaola. Everything on the Caribbean side is more relaxed even the “helpers” at the border crossing, the guy who approached us gave us the usual run around about how it’s difficult and we need his help but when I told him we don’t need his help he said ok and walked off. That’s how easy going things are on the Caribbean side, at first I was skeptical and I thought this must be a tactic but he actually left and didn’t come back! The border crossing was easy enough, the usual cancelling of the motorbike import permit and stamping the passport out of the country. The only extra thing to consider was mandatory insurance which is needed for Panama. A guy on the Costa Rican side wanted to sell me some for 20USD but I declined thinking I’ll get it on the Panamanian side just in case he’s trying to over charge me.

We jumped on the bike and off we rode across a bridge into Panama. First we had to buy a sticker for our passports which cost something like 5USD then I had to buy the insurance. The insurance office was a temporary porta cabin thing which only measured around 3 metres by 3 metres and most of it was taken up by a huge dark skinned Caribbean man sitting behind a desk blaring local music from his computer which he never turned down during our exchange. He spoke only in Spanish but slowly enough for me to understand that was until he wanted 25USD for the insurance. I asked him why it only cost 20USD on the Costa Rican side? His eyes widened momentarily then he held his hands up with his palms towards me and leaned back explaining something in much faster Spanish than he’d been speaking so far. I knew he was taking 5 dollars for himself, he knew it he knew I knew it but there was nothing I could do if I wanted the insurance document, I would have to pay. After the insurance scenario I had my passport stamped into Panama and then started the import permit procedure with customs and a new first for our journey. Even though we’ve passed through genuine well known drug trafficking borders we were never searched until Panama. Yes the Panamanians thought it necessary to search through our luggage including the side boxes and tank bag. I watched the guy doing it and I remember thinking this guy has no idea what he’s doing, he had no method he just rummaged around and didn’t try to replace anything back the way he found it. I just did as he said while talking to a Costa Rican man who was trying to drive back to Costa Rica but was having a problem with the customs guy. He apparently failed to get a particular stamp which was required on entry for his Costa Rican vehicle and now they wouldn’t let him leave Panama and drive across to Costa Rica. He ended up having to go to court later that day to rectify the problem. Watching this I thought it best just to cooperate with “overly serious looking customs man” who was the gateway to getting my import permit. After the search he went into the customs building which was also a porta cabin. It had a small window hatch where the remainder of our communication happened. Through the hatch I could see that there was an official looking woman wearing a customs uniform hiding in the back of the air conditioned porta cabin. I decided that she didn’t want to come outside and deal with the public in the heat and was using this local guy wearing civilian clothes to do the interaction and the searches. It explained why it seemed he had no idea in general what he was doing. After around 40 minutes of waiting the guy came to the hatch and asked for a another copy, I couldn’t understand what he wanted so I held up my neatly ordered stack of copies of documents I might need, about 40 pages in total. I started flicking through it asking this one? This one? Then all of a sudden and arm thrust out of the window and started grabbing at random documents. I wouldn’t mind but he was making a mess of the folder I had taken time to prepare with his cocktail sausage fingers that seemed unable to pick up an individual sheet of paper. In the end he found a pink piece of paper and started tapping on it. I pulled it out and he tried to grab it, I pulled it back and said no. It was a confirmation slip I got in Nicaragua to say my bike had been fumigated. I tried to explain to him that this was nothing to do with Panama which he eventually accepted then disappeared into the hatch again. 20 minutes later I had the import document and we were off.

Between Sixaola and Almirante which is where we stayed the first night in Panama is just bananas. Banana plantations as far as the eye can see. Almirante was founded by the United Fruit Company just over a hundred years ago as a port for exporting bananas. It was an interesting place to see in person, people of all nationalities have immigrated their and found their niche. For example the Chinese seem to own pretty much all of the grocery outlets in town along with the hotels. The majority of the housing is built from whatever was available which gives the place a sort of temporary shanty town feeling even though it’s over a hundred years old.

 

The road between Almirante and David cuts across Panama from the Atlantic side to the Pacific, it winds up into the mountains of the interior and down again on the other side. It was one of the most picturesque rides of the whole trip. We were almost blown off the road by gusting winds at the highest point of the road but luckily stayed upright. We passed a group of cyclists who weren’t so lucky, they were all stopped at the side of the road and I caught a glimpse of two or three of them over the hill holding their bikes over their heads walking back up the slope where they had been blown off the road.

Our goal for Panama was really just to get to Colombia as fast as possible. As you may or may not know there is no road network connecting Panama to Colombia so if you want to cross this area of jungle called the Darien Gap you either have to travel by air or sea. Especially if you have a vehicle. Up until recently the options were air freight, sea freight or sailing on a chartered yacht but since November last year a car ferry has been running twice a week between Colon in Panama and Cartagena in Colombia. This is what we wanted to get, mainly because of the price. It is by far the cheapest option and we had heard that it may stop its service within the coming weeks so our mission was get to Colombia as fast as we could.

We arrived in Panama City two days after leaving Almirante, the heat was incredible. Any sort of traffic jam and the engine was soon over heating. It also didn’t help that we took a few wrong turns and ended up on a toll bridge by accident. I drove up to the booth to pay but there was nobody in the booth. I had accidently driven up to an easy pass booth which you need a special card to pass through. Cars started pulling up behind me so I had no choice but to ride around the barrier. I waited to see if anyone would come over to me but no one did so I continued on. Due to getting lost we were graced with the experience of riding through Panama City’s poorer areas which was an eye opener. In all of the pictures you see of Panama City they show the tall modern buildings of the central business district belonging to banks and Donald Trumps. But Panama City has a huge amount of very poor inhabitants living in dilapidated accommodation. Nowhere else in Central America did we see such a rich / poor divide in such close proximity to each other, you get the impression that the city’s stance on the poor is ignore them and they’ll go away. I can see how a normal visitor wouldn’t get this impression as the tourist destinations of San Blas. Bocas del Toro and the nice parts of Panama City are all linked quite well by bus routes avoiding the hidden truths. As we are on the motorbike we always end up seeing both sides of the story when riding through a country or a city.

We stayed roughly five nights in Panama City because we had bureaucratic hoops to jump through before being able to buy a ferry ticket. Early on Thursday morning we drove to a police station which specialises in vehicle inspections. We arrived at 8:45 but didn’t have the bike inspected until 11:00 even though there were only three cars in front of us. More cars kept arriving and the official would tend to them before us. It looked like he knew the people and was doing them first because of that. We complained and he gave an excuse along the lines of he had to wait for the motorbike’s engine to cool down. Which was not an excuse at all because all he had to do was read the VIN number off the frame and make sure it corresponded to the one on the temporary import permit. Three minutes is all it took. He asked for some copies then told us we had to go to the department of justice building at 2pm to collect a document called a DiJ. We went straight to the Department of Justice Building and waited outside on our camping chairs until 2pm. By 2:30 we had the coveted DiJ and now we were free to buy the ferry ticket. We rode to the Ferry Xpress office in Panama City where they made a copy of the DiJ and sold us our ticket for around 380USD, two passengers and a motorbike for Monday’s sailing. Everything looked good so we kicked back and enjoyed the weekend.

Ferry Xpress requested that we arrive at the port of departure at 8am for a 7:45pm departure. The reason given was “customs procedures”. We left Panama City on Monday morning for the port of Colon but we didn’t bother arriving at 8am we arrived at 10am instead. It didn’t matter as the people who had been there since 8am told us nothing had happened yet. By midday all of the vehicles had arrived, 4 motorbikes, 1 car, and 1 campervan. Not very many when you consider that the ferry can hold around 500 cars. In addition there were a couple of hundred passengers travelling by foot all inside the terminal. We were outside with our vehicles. By midday we had all handed in our initial set of photocopies that the customs staff required. We were told they would need 5 more copies of everything before the day was out and that the vehicle inspection and searching should begin around 3pm.

As 3pm came and went nothing seemed to be happening, by 4pm it was clear something was wrong and our liaison, a woman I’ll call K came to deliver the bad news. The sailing was cancelled due to 6 metre swells out at sea. We would have to wait until the next sailing in two days on Wednesday night. Immediately we asked for accommodation to which the response was no sorry. We asked could we sleep in cabins on the ship and the response was no, we asked could we stay in the car park and she said again no. She eventually offered a room at her house but then retracted the offer an hour later. Many people rushed off straight away to start looking for accommodation thinking logically that a wave of hundreds of people would soon be looking for somewhere to stay in town. We teamed up with some of the other vehicle drivers, a couple from Belgium Matthijs and Gerlinde, and a couple from Brazil Tony and Jane who were in the campervan. Together we went into the terminal building to see what was going on. Soon we realised that we could actually camp for the two days in the carpark. It turns out that our liaison K was giving us answers to questions she wasn’t authorised to answer. We formed a makeshift campsite out of the campervan, a tent and the car Matthijs and Gerlinde were in and prepared to spend the next two nights there. On our way back from food shopping we bumped into some other passengers who informed us that they were now assigning cabins onboard to anyone who wanted one. We rushed back to the terminal and got one plus an upgrade to a cabin with a window for the Wednesday sailing. The whole thing was a complete shambles, this was now 7pm and most of the people had left to search for accommodation themselves. We were lucky we stayed in and around the terminal. Tony and Jane opted to stay in their camper out in the car park instead of taking a cabin. After the first night they told us they heard gunfire coming from the city all night long we asked them how do you know it wasn’t fireworks, they answered “we’re from Brazil”. Colon really isn’t such a nice place.

We made the best of the next two days sleeping on the ferry but spending the days outside in the car park with our new friends by the camper. Tony is a pretty good guitar player and he pulled the guitar out for a few jam sessions a couple of times sometimes accompanied by Jane singing. It wasn’t such a bad experience after all, we even had a small uprising on the ferry on the second day when all of the people on board from Monday’s cancelled sailing signed a petition and went to the person in charge of accommodation in one big group to demand free meals too. In the end we negotiated discounted prices which nobody really availed of because the small restaurants down the road were still cheaper than discounted ferry food. It was funny to see the look on the faces of the new passengers arriving on Wednesday morning as they saw all of us still hanging around since Monday. All went well on Wednesday no cancellations just lots of waiting around, we finally began our 18 hour crossing to Colombia “on time” at 7:45pm.

 

A story of coincidence (again)

If you’ve been following the blog you might remember back in San Salvador we stayed with Mario and Fernanda. Well the day we left their place heading for El Cuco I received an email from a work colleague back in Germany named Ramon. He said he had heard we are in El Salvador (his home country) and wondered if it would be possible to meet as he was flying back for a visit in a few days time. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible because when he landed in San Salvador we were already in Nicaragua. That was it until Mario sent me a picture of himself and Ramon. They didn’t know each other at all but had met at a hospital in San Salvador where a mutual friend of theirs was receiving treatment after a motorbike accident. They got talking and it wasn’t long before they realised they both knew me too. What are the odds of that happening in a country of 6.5 million people. Just thought I’d give it a mention.

 

At the moment we’re in Colombia, we’re in San Gil right now but will move towards Bogota soon then explore to the east and south of the country. We both really like the culture, the people, the slightly lower temperatures, the lower prices, and most of all the fact that motorbikes don’t pay tolls..