While our personal ocean crossing from Panama to Colombia was a bit shaky, our cars made the trip without any evidence of nausea or vomiting. We had to run around the port at Cartagena dancing the document shuffle and playing the xerox game for about 3 days, but this was not unexpected. While border crossings in Central America were slow and tedious, we figured the border between two continents would be a lot worse. Finally, our cars were released from their containers and we are now ready to hit the road. But first, a video tribute to the shipping process:
Sailing the San Blas Islands of Panama for three days on the sailboat Sacanagem, we entered an unspoiled paradise of pristine white sand beaches, small palm studded islands, and enough fresh seafood to satisfy the hungriest stomachs. The San Blas Islands are controlled by the Kuna Indians, a semi-autonomous indigenous group in Panama, but the majority of the hundreds of islands in the San Blas archipelago are uninhabited. We spent the first two days moored between two small islands that were home to about four Kuna families. The days were hot and breezy with plenty of snorkeling, swimming, reading, and cooking to keep us happy. We spent the cooler nights eating on the island and getting to know our fellow travelers. We were quite the international crew: we spanned the globe from Italy, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, to Canada, the US, and Colombia. The third evening we anchored in a small bay that was once used by Captain Morgan as a hiding spot, although we didn’t find any pirate treasure. For our last night in Panama, our underwater allies put on a great show when luminescent squid surrounded our boat and floated slowly by, twinkling their eerie lights.
Chris has always dreamed of sailing around the world, so we figured some time on the open ocean crossing between Central and South America would be a good way to gauge if we ever wanted to make that dream a reality. On our way out to the Caribbean, we picked up two confused Koreans who seemed somewhat stranded in the San Blas. They spoke no Spanish and almost no English, but we think they had been waiting for the last four days on a tiny island hoping for a ride to Colombia. The captain of our boat referred to them as the chinos (Chinese) for the rest of the trip, as their true nationality appeared not to be an important detail to him. Once we left the area protected from the waves by the San Blas islands, the seas became rough and the swell really picked up. We had naively assumed that the Caribbean would be a placid turquoise ocean with gentle waves lapping the sides of the boat. However, our small yacht took stomach-losing drops and sickening rides over huge waves. Although I had been drugging myself with the maximum daily amount of Dramamine, I quickly had a death grip on the boat’s railing as I stared desperately at the horizon in a vain attempt to quell increasingly overwhelming nausea. I added some chum to the ocean off the back of the boat into what looked like a sea of stars, as the waves were again lit up by luminescent creatures. After that, I laid on the floor of the boat in the fetal position praying to every and any god to make the boat go faster. My fellow boat-mates quickly became accustomed to my prone body at the aft of the boat, easily stepping over me to move through the kitchen to the boat’s deck.
The first day I tried to amuse myself by listening to podcasts on my iPod, but after its battery ran out, I could do nothing but stare at the people’s feet around me. When morning arrived the next day, I hopefully looked for land on the horizon. I was crushed to hear the captain tell us that the winds had shifted so we would sailing for another 24 hours. Meanwhile, the sea worsened as huge rolling swells washed over the ship, causing periodic avalanches of stereos, plates, books, or pots and pans in the galley. Chris slept next to me on deck the second night, although we were twice awakened by people falling on us as the ship pitched unexpectedly below their feet, and once rudely awakened when a huge wave crashed over top of the boat drenching our only blanket. By hour 40 of our crossing, the chinos had barely been seen outside of their cabin. The captain commented that they were like “popcorn”, laying on their bed bouncing up and down through the rough seas. I did manage to crawl to the front of the boat as the skyline of Cartagena appeared in the distance on the third day and gazed hungrily at the land for the last 2 hours of the trip. I now have serious doubts that sailing around the world will be one of my life’s accomplishments. Once on shore, we all went out to dinner to toast our survival. We were not joined by the chinos though. Last we heard they spent two to days resting in their hostel eating bananas, and then disappeared as mysteriously as they came.
Today we embark on the only marine portion of our journey down the Pan-American Highway. After spending about 2 weeks in Panama City, we have organized boat trips both for ourselves and our cars to Cartagena, Colombia. The Pan-American Highway is continuous from Alaska to Argentina except for a 30 mile disconnect in the road, the Darien Gap. People have crossed the gap on foot or in highly specialized 4WD vehicles with a bridge-building crew, but currently the border area between Panama and Colombia is both wild, uncharted jungle and home to various paramilitary and terrorist groups. So, for the next 5 days we’ll be playing pirate – sailing the Caribbean, island-hopping through the San Blas Islands for 3 days before hitting the open sea for another 2 to arrive in Cartagena. Our car should arrive by cargo container about 3 days after us. For more info on the whole shipping process, we have detailed information on Drive the Americas.
Panama city was founded in 1519 on the site of a native-Panamanian fishing village shortly after Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa made the reasonable claim that everything that touched the Pacific belonged to Spain. For the next 150 years it served as an important port for Spain and a launching point for the conquest of the Inca Empire in Peru. Known as the ‘bullion pipeline,’ much of the gold and other wealth plundered from the Incas passed through Panama city, also making it a prime target for a series of pirate attacks. The city finally fell in 1671 to privateer Henry Morgan and over 1000 of his men. After looting the city of all its wealth, it was burned to the ground. England rewarded this deed by knighting Morgan and appointing him lieutenant governor of Jamaica. Of the hundreds of houses, churches, a mint, and stables, only scattered stone foundations remain today.
After its plunder, Panama City was reestablished on a small rocky peninsula north of the original site. This area is now referred to as Casco Viejo, meaning Old Compound. Protected by a shallow bay, moat, fortified stone walls, and watchtowers, the city was never again sacked by privateers. However, the overland trade routes to Panama City were subject to constant attack, so less than 100 years after it was reestablished, the city was in decline as the Spaniards stopped using the route. Panama city again revived with the construction of a railroad in the 1850s that was an important part of the route west for the gold rush. Rather than traveling by land across the United States and risk attack by American Indians, prospectors and miners from the East Coast of the US would sail to Panama, cross the narrow isthmus via rail, and then make their way north to California. The city continued to flourish as the French attempted to build a canal starting in 1880. This attempt was abandoned 13 years later after over 22,000 workers had died from malaria and yellow fever. We spent a steamy morning strolling the narrow streets of Casco Viejo, admiring the crumbling colonial architecture. A lot of restoration and reconstruction work is underway, and we imagine that in five or ten years the dilapidated buildings of rapidly gentrifying Casco Viejo will be restored to their former glory.
This afternoon we enjoyed a little bit of rampant consumerism for the first time since we have left the US eight months ago – we shopped in a mall. Over the last couple of months we have been compiling a wish list, including new clothes, small speakers for our computer, and a new headset. We finally had the opportunity to cross some items off of that list at the Allbrook Mall in Panama City. The previous day we had tried to drive to the mall, but after getting lost, paying an unnecessary toll, and running low on time we headed back to our hospedaje in defeat. Ivonne, our friendly hostess at Villa Michelle, suggested we take the bus next time. Buses in Panama City, like many other buses throughout Central America, are rescued United States school buses reincarnated as diablos rojos (red devils). These colorfully decorated buses fearlessly speed through Panama City’s streets blaring retrofitted air horns to give other cars enough warning to move out of the diablo rojos path. A quarter fare will get you anywhere in the city on a devil, as long as you don’t mind crowding 3 adults to a seat meant for 2 small children.
Still laughing about the Conway, we came across an even more blatant rip-off. Loud music pouring out of its entrance, scantily clother models, and preppy clothes, the only thing differentiating this store from an Abercrombie & Fitch was its name, Moose. A&F fans will immediately recognize that the moose is A&F’s logo. However, not all of the stores were pirate-copies of North American vendors. A whole section of the mall was devoted to upscale stores like Mountain Hardwear, Izod, Tommy Hilfiger, and Kenneth Cole, that appeared to be legitimate. Walking through the air conditioned mall you could forget you were in the middle of Panama until you crossed paths with a crowd of Kuna women wearing beautiful colored dresses, gold nose ring, and sumptuously beaded leggings. After spending a couple of hours wandering both pirate and genuine stores, items crossed off my list and laden with several shopping bags, we hopped on a diablo rojo and held our breath as we sped back to our hospedaje.