Category: Panama

Panama City

Our introduction to Panama City began with the wrong GPS point entered for our hostel. This was after a six-hour driving day. By the time we arrived at the El Machico Hostel we had driven around the general area about a dozen times attempting to navigate the one-way streets of the Marbella neighborhood of Panama City. City drivers were aggressive and impatient. Taxi drivers were reckless at best. The sound of honking horns was constant. To say that driving in Panama City has its challenges only scratches the surface of the disorganized, chaotic maze of navigating its streets. This was the first time we had encountered truly rude and enraged drivers thus far on our Pan-American journey. Woah. We were definitely in need of a cool bed, a bite to eat, and a lengthy shower to wash off the grime, exhaust, and chaos.

Panama City is in one word, a dichotomy. It is definitely a city of contrast. Skyscrapers and brand new buildings are going up constantly, while others nearby remain decrepit and seemingly uninhabitable. Very rarely will you see a sidewalk, and crossing the street is like a potentially lethal game of Frogger. It generally smells, but then there are heavily air-conditioned high-end malls littering the city streets. Manholes are often uncovered (as people steel the covers to sell for scrap), but there is constant upkeep on the causeway – weed-eating, mowing, landscaping. It feels like a city in transition, more or less attempting to deal with the old and the new, and the influx of people from all over the globe arriving in search of new possibilities or a secure place to live.

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Casco Viejo, the declared UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a perfect example of the contrast of the city. The neighborhood is filled with new and beautifully restored buildings and churches, cafes, top-notch restaurants and hidden clubs. Dispersed between these buildings are buildings of the past that have been left vacant and waiting for what will most likely be an expensive remodel.

Panama City-8aPanama City-9Panama City-20 copyPanama City-7Panama City-19Panama City-10What really made our stay special was the generosity and kindness of the people we met. The staff at the El Machico Hostel were friendly, helpful, and pleasant to be around. They always had a smile for us, or an inquiry about how we were, how we slept that night, or how the process of shipping our truck was going. Most of them were Venezuelan, and we would make many Venezuelan friends during our time in Panama City.

The entire crew from Cruiserheads Panama and their families treated us like old friends. Cesar, Luis and Jorge took us to the Miraflores Locks to see the canal and Cesar welcomed us into his home for a BBQ.

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Luis and Daniella spent their Sunday driving us around town pointing out the various neighborhoods, places to dine, and gave us an insight into daily life in Panama. They introduced us to the amazing local Venezuelan food and we swooned over the empanadas with cheese, beans, plantains and chicken (empanadas de papallon), Venezuelan coffee con leche, papelon con limon, and some sweets at the popular Athanasiou Bakery. We spent a great evening with them in Casco Viejo where we ate ceviche and drank mojitos and beer at the local brewery, La Rana Dorada. Greg and Mariela took us out for pizza in Casco Viejo and welcomed us to the nighttime scene while we wandered around the cobbled streets and stopped to listen to live salsa music in the square.

It is hard to say thank you to those who treat you like family when you are on the road. It just doesn’t sum up how special those moments are when they take time out of their busy day to share their life, food and culture with you. So to all of our friends in Panama City we say MUCHAS GRACIAS and chuuuuuuzo, time for some horse empanadas!

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Added to this experience were little moments of perfection that made us stop and really appreciate where we were. Eating ice cream in an air-conditioned mall after constantly sweating through our clothes from the heat and humidity. Dipping our feet into the pool after a sweltering run on the causeway. Walking through the Fish Market, seeing the daily catch, and then tasting the fresh salt and lime of a cup of ceviche from Delicias del Mar.

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Despite these wonderful things and the lovely people we met, we were itching to get to South America. As every day passed in Panama City we were more and more eager to start the journey that we have thought about, dreamt about, and looked forward to for so long. So we reluctantly handed over our keys, crossed our fingers that our truck made it into a shipping container safely, and we will meet up with it in Cartagena after its journey across the sea. Colombia, here we come!


Truck Repairs At ProCars Panama

On the first leg of our trip we had 20,000km of trouble-free driving, but after we picked the truck up from storage in Costa Rica we realized that some of the rubber components needed to be replaced. This is likely due to its year-long hibernation, but also because these parts may be 25 years and 340,000km old.  The rear pinion seal started to leak immediately after picking it up.  A week later one of the CV boots split as we made our way into Panama.  It was actually perfect timing as we knew we had a really good option available for having the work done at a legitimate shop.

After a couple of quick messages to Rui at Procars Panama (who we had been following on Instagram) we knew this would be the perfect place to stop.  Our fellow overlanders Tim (On The Panamericana) and Rui Mendes (De Polo a Polo Expedition) stopped here before us, so we were happy to have a recommendation from some other travelers.  As a rule, we ususally make sure nobody touches the truck except for us, but we didn’t hesitate to have the mechanics at Procars do the work for us this time.  Having professional Venezuelan mechanics work on the truck beats fixing the truck in a campsite without the proper tools.  Plus, they didn’t have a problem with me looking over their shoulders and micromanaging throughout the day.

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It was easy to track down parts for the truck since there are plenty of these old rigs in Panama.  That meant that buying and replacing the CV boots and pinion seal finished up quickly, in only a couple of hours.  Since we had some extra time it was easy to pop in a new set of front brake pads while the truck was on the lift.  It was awesome to have the chance to do a full on inspection of the truck and hit all of the grease points as well.  If you need a spot in Panama to get work done on your vehicle, this is the place!  Procars is also the perfect shop to go for off road lights, bumpers, wheels, tires, winches, fridges, etc… so we are quite lucky that I (Richard) didn’t blow our budget on fun parts for the truck.  “Bumpers and lights are safety items,” wasn’t a convincing enough argument…

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The entire crew at Procars / Cruiserheads Panama were amazing.  They fed us breakfast and coffee in the morning and let us interrupt them all day long with questions.  We ended up spending the following four days with one or more of the crew and made our Panama City experience an extremely positive one that we’ll never forget.  You’ll read all about that in the next blog post and see some of it in the video below.

Rui and Cesar, thank you so much for inviting us in as if we were part of your family.

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Hiking in Boquete, Panama

Hiking is one of Boquete’s main attractions, with many tours and guides providing mountain and jungle excursions for visitors.  Normally we avoid paying for a guide if it isn’t required, but the Lonely Planet guide for this area was a bit lacking when it came to information on solo trekking.  Thankfully, after some quality internet searching (and chatting a little bit with the locals) we ended up finding plenty of available trails.  Of those, we hiked three trails while in Boquete: The Lost Waterfalls, The Pipeline Trail, and the Sendero Los Quetzales.  They were all relatively close to town and were very well marked.  We saw tons of people on the Lost Waterfalls and Pipeline trails, and only one other couple on the Sendero trail.

The Lost Waterfalls

We used the Boquete Travel Guide which provides step-by-step directions to this hike.  The drive to the trailhead is seriously scenic, with a wicked climbing wall, Lost Castle, river, and bright flowers to be seen along the way.  If you are going to choose one hike in Boquete, this is the one we would recommend.

There is a gravel parking area at the trailhead.  The fee ($3 USD per person) is paid at the cabin/booth once you complete the initial and somewhat gruelling climb.  There are bathrooms at the cabin/booth as well… and the view from the bathroom is epic.  We’re not joking, you’ll see it in the video below.  There are three “lost” waterfalls on this very well marked trail.  They advise you head to the second waterfall, then the third, and then the first.  We found this to be a good recommendation.  The second waterfall was definitely our favourite, and is the one you see below in the photos and video.  The hike is fairly challenging and steep with a lot of mud and tree roots and that was our excuse for being out of breath… or maybe it was just the beauty of the waterfall taking our breath away.  Oh my!
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The Pipeline Trail

This was by far the busiest trail of the bunch.  People were all over the place trying to catch a glimpse of the Quetzal.  The resplendent (Wikipedia’s word, not ours) Quetzal is a brightly coloured bird that was the “must see” of Panama.  Since Wikipedia also mentions that it is difficult to see in heavily wooded areas we can assume that is the reason why we never saw one.  Maybe we were too busy checking out the giant tree and talking with other people who we met out on the trail.

The trailhead of the Pipeline Trail is located close to the Three Lost Waterfalls Hike.  The Boquete Travel Guide gives a good set of instructions to reach the trailhead here.  We paid $3 USD each.  The trail was relatively flat with a lot of great scenery.  The magnificent tree you see below was one of the highlights.  There is also a massive waterfall at the end of the trail which was dry at the time, but would be spectacular during a wet patch of weather.

Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-1Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-2 Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-3Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-4 Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-5Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-7 Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-6We met these kids at the trailhead.  They ran around playing soccer and wanted us to play with them when we arrived… or maybe Richard just joined in without asking?  Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-9

Sendero Los Quetzales

Sendero Los Quetzales is a 6km trail that runs between Cerro Punta and Boquete.  It is recommended that you start at Cerro Punta and then hike to Boquete.  Since we don’t always do what’s “recommended” we started from Boquete and headed the opposite way to Cerro Punta.  After a couple hours of hiking 4km directly into the jungle without seeing anyone or anything other than dense jungle we decided to pull the chute and return to Boquete without finishing the entire trail.  Guess what?  No quetzals, but that’s okay with us!  We heard howler monkeys in the jungle and saw goats frolicking in the pasture.  We heard that this was one of the most beautiful trails in Panama, but after the two previous hikes we were on this was equivalent at best.  But you know what?  A ho-hum day on a trail is waaaaaaay better than… well almost everything else.

The trailhead in Boquete starts at the Ranger Station in Volcan Baru National Park (a couple of kilometres from the entrance to the Three Waterfalls Hike by road).  We ended up walking from the Three Waterfalls Trailhead up to the Volcan Baru entrance, as we weren’t sure what parking would be like at the Ranger Station.  Parking was actually quite good so we would recommend you drive to the Volcan Baru entrance and park there, as it would take off about an hour of intense uphill walking from your hiking time.  By doing this you’d easily be able to make it to Cerro Punta and back in one day.  Parking is $1 USD and we weren’t sure what the entrance fee was because nobody was at the Ranger Station.

Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-10 Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-11 Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-12 Desk to Glory - Hiking Boquete-13 We also heard of another trail that starts near the Three Waterfalls trail, but never ended up hiking it.  If you ask around at some of the frequented restaurants/bakeries, someone would likely be able to hook you up with the details.  We also found a Facebook page called Boquete Nature Hikes, where a local named Jere McCormick leads weekly hikes on Wednesdays.

Happy hiking!

 


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