Panama – Casco Viejo, Boquete and The Canal

This post covers the second half of my stay in Panama and my trip through the Panama Canal. For my previous adventures with the End of All Roads crew – click here.

 

Casco Viejo


After the guys left I moved into a fairly cheap hotel in Casco Viejo (old town). I didn’t happen to notice until after I booked that the description on booking.com contained a warning: “There is a club in this hotel that goes until 3am” or something to that effect. Yep it sure did. But I’ve gotten fairly used to sleeping with noise. I’ll take noise over sleeping with heat any day. Also I’ve learned a trick to turn on noisy bathroom fans – which worked pretty well in this case – except that the bathroom fan also came with a light, but it was still preferable and I have eye shades for sleeping.

The club at the top of my hotel

Unfortunately I left my car in the parking lot under the Marriott, so I wasn’t able to get my super loud fan out of it. But I got parking for a few days – woo hoo.

Casco Viejo is an old neighborhood in the process of being refurbished. Very picturesque – lots of bars and restaurants and fun stuff to do. Some sketchy parts still. I was offered drugs many times on a certain block. But I never felt unsafe.

A decent number of the buildings in Casco Viejo are still in ruins. I get the feeling in 10 years most will be restored.

Authentic Taco Pizza – hmmmm
 

Boquete


I started looking into options to ship my car. One company – IVSS had come highly recommended by the Tucks and promised to take a lot of the leg work out of it. I reached out to them and waited for them to get back to me with schedules and a quote. A few days later I got word back that my car would ship out on June 23rd and I’d drop it off on June 21st, which was about 10 days away. So I decided to go spend a week in Boquete and study at Habla Ya Spanish School – which I highly recommend.

The drive to Boquete was a bit stressful – as it rained like this for most of the 6 hours. But one positive side effect was that all but one of the police checkpoints were unmanned.

Boquete is a lovely mountain town in the far east of Panama near the Costa Rica border, very popular with tourists and expats. It has all my requirements for long term living consideration in Latin America: cool temperatures, nice restaurants and coffee shops, and good craft beer. I found a roomy one-bedroom condo in a place called Downtown Suites for $35/night. 30% weekly discount is nice.

Only problem was I got a horrible sore throat after my first couple nights there that pretty much lasted all week. I didn’t do much except school, copy and email documents and fill out forms to ship my car, and sleep.

The backyard of my AirBnB.

Before I got sick I took a local coffee tour which was the most interesting one I’ve done.

This is the homemade shack where all the magic happens.

Hard-working coffee plantation dog


 

The difference between light, medium and dark roast is less than a minute in the roaster – you know which is which by the popping sounds and smoke the beans make
Boquete is a lovely little town

The vodka I bought as a potential bribe to get through Nicaragua. Pretty sure vodka is not supposed to freeze.

I tried gargling with salt and pepper and warm water – a Chinese cure Grace and her Mom had tried on me in Death Valley with great success. Didn’t work as well this time.
This amazing life-size picture hung in the living room of my AirBnb. I felt like I got to know this little indigenous girl over the week I stayed there. She deserves a good life. As I settle back into normie life, I plan to do whatever I can to help people like her.

I left Boquete and headed back to Panama City to start getting my car ready to ship. However on the right south to David, I realized it’s not too late to turn right and head to Costa Rica to try out life in San Jose for a month or two. South America is definitely out for now – but trying out Costa Rica is still a possibility. I hadn’t put down any money on shipping the car. I could just tell IVSS I was delaying a bit. I pulled over at a KFC in David and meditate on it a bit. 

The decision

I decided to head back to the states. I want to get my foot resolved, my renter is moving out, and I miss my work. I will be back.

 

Back in Panama City


This time I was treated to the Panama City skyline in the daytime. 


 

Starbucks down here has these delicious little cheese puff things
I met some cigar aficionado guys at the Marriott bar and tagged along with them to learn about what makes a great cigar – which I have already forgotten.

Jesus loves you. But if you touch my taxi I will beat you with a stick.

I spent one more night at the Marriott then headed to Colon, the city on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal, the next day. However I didn’t realize the car inspection I needed to do was actually in Panama City – DOH! But I had already booked the place, so I decided I would just get up early in the morning. The inspections don’t start until 8am. But they start giving out line numbers at 6am. So I had to get up pretty early from Colon – which is about an hour away.

This is another stress point where I had read about stuff like people not having their VIN # in the right place on the form and being sent back to the border – 6 hours away. I had a VIN # but no engine # marked down. Also unbeknownst to me – they only do so many inspections a day – first come first served. I would have been stressing even more if I knew that.

I made it to the inspection lot about 8:30 and got line number 13. Oh yeah – this was no normal inspection day. Panama’s national soccer team played their first ever World Cup game at 10am. So we assumed they’d be motivated to get us out of there ASAP. 

Pre-inspection briefing – our inspector guy showed up in a taxi, wearing a Panama soccer jersey (not the black official shirt he’s wearing in the pic above), and started telling us how to park. We had no idea he was the inspector and thought he was just some pushy local. Glad we didn’t give him a hard time!

Aussie motorcyclists getting ready to ship to Colombia, a French couple’s overlander vehicle is in the background
The cab in the foreground belonged to a young man and his parents (in the blue car) helping him get set up with his first cab and I’m assuming first job.

The inspection went fine – one stress point down. I had a few hours to kill before I could pick up my paperwork at a separate office. So – why not go watch Panama in their first ever World Cup game – with a bunch of Panamanians? I headed back to Casco Viejo.

School letting out

I was still walking around trying to decide which bar to watch the game at when the Panamian national anthem came on. I knew this because I could hear it bellowing out of every open door and window – usually with the occupants enthusiastically singing along. It was a pretty cool moment.

This was like a boxing gym or something – and there were guys in towels singing their hearts out to the national anthem.

I finally settled on a *non-air-conditioned* outdoor bar (big step for me) because it seemed the most festive. I was able to wear this Panama scarf for about 45 seconds before it got too hot.
Construction workers across the street checking out the game. Not the most productive day in Panama.
Panama played really well – to a first half tie. But then they got down 3-0 and the crowd was bummed.
Me having a moment imagining what it would be like to lose this see through PADI folder with my passport, original car title and car registration, and a ton of other important stuff (and Dan’s Coast Guard ID) in it. I think I’d just have to abandon my car and leave Panama w/o it, if they let me.
Oops – this guy crunched the back of that white pickup, and was stuck here for a while

Colon


After the game and picking up my papers I headed back to Colon. I stayed 2 nights at a resort outside of town called Meliá Panamá Canal, then moved to the Radisson downtown – as I figured it would be closer to the docks where I need to drop off my car. The Melia was fine, but the food was very expensive for what you got. The $35 dinner buffet was fine – but like most buffet food there was nothing mind-blowing and you never feel like you got your money’s worth. Pass. I got a club sandwich instead.

Hey maybe I wanted the crusts on my sandwich. Tasty otherwise.

The grounds were very nice:

I saw this eagle (I think) several times in this exact same spot in the road. Weird.

I went to the visitor center at the expansion locks on the Colon side. These opened in 2016 and can accommodate much wider ships. It was pretty cool to see the giant supermax container ships up close.

Tug pulling a big tanker into the locks
Another tug pushing on the back. There are also cables attached all down the side – to little cars on tracks that move along the side. It’s all computerized to keep them in the middle of the lock. These boats have 1 foot (!) of clearance on each side.
Big container ship looming over the landscape

The next day I was supposed to drop my car off at the port in Colon. I headed down to the Radisson to drop off a suitcase. I figured I’d rather not drag it all over the port. Originally I had planned to keep my backpack, my regular suitcase and a big bag which holds my backpack and a bunch of stuff inside. Hoo boy am I glad I cut that down to one backpack and one suitcase. I had to drag that thing on a small boat, walk a ton, drag it to Antigua, then Houston. It would have been a nightmare with another giant bag. Yay for good decisions.

The reason for all the bags is that with roll on/roll off shipping, you have to give them your keys and your car is open the whole time. People have had stuff stolen. But apparently the shipping lines are trying to crack down, and apparently one of the worst ports is Florida – which I was thankfully avoiding. This is why I got my strong locking back trunk. I also have the locking car carrier – which you could break into with your hand. So I didn’t want too put anything too valuable up there.

After a lot of re-jiggering and rethinking I figured out I could stuff my empty backpack and everything really valuable in the locking drawer – and everything else in the top carrier. I literally didn’t have room left for as much as a yoga mat – which I left out – along with my cooler. If someone wants to steal those, go ahead. I feel like the venn diagram of boat/dock workers who steal and yoga aficionados is probably two non-touching circles.

The drive to the Radisson is not the prittiest side of Colon. A lot of potential here – as a real estate agent might say.

After dropping off my luggage – I headed to the port. I paid $75 for local help (local legend in the overlander community – Boris) and was very happy I did. While I got my paperwork from the shipper, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Boris dealt with customs – then guided me to the inspection and drop-off point.

The customs inspector showed up with a very hyper-active drug sniffing dog who had clearly been cooped up in the truck for too long. I had to pull everything out and then re-do my tetris-like packing job. There was some shoving and forcing but I finally got it all back in. Boris said they don’t always do that. I have a feeling it’s because the inspector was trying to train his dog.

Goodbye buddy, safe travels
I got this weird Vietnamese dish at a mall in Colon because I thought it was the same dish Obama got with Tony Bourdain. I was wrong. It was all mushrooms basically. Not terrible but I didn’t finish it.
View from the hotel – kinda sci-fi looking

little shopping area by the hotel

Big walled in shopping area spanning multiple blocks. I think it’s duty-free or something.
Cool old mansion in a neighborhood that’s seen better days

Panama Canal


I had heard (from the Tucks) that you can volunteer as a line handler on boats going through the Panama Canal. Basically all boats need a crew of at least 5 – one skipper and 4 line handlers on each corner. Some small boats might have a crew of two – so they need help. So while I was getting my car ready – I also reached out to a boat I found on this site: http://www.panlinehandler.com/

I was contacted back in an hour or so by a French guy named Sebastien (on the left below). I said I was available starting the day after dropping off my car. We still needed one more line lander, so I made a post on the Facebook Pan-American traveler forum, which once again came through for me. Pat (in the middle below) is an Irish expat hanging out in Panama with some free time before heading to Colombia. Like me he was also fascinated with the canal.

We spent the night on the boat for one night in the harbor, then headed out to the Canal staging area the next day. I had some boat experience having owned a half a sailboat (the other half owned by a very experienced sea captain). Pat had none but was a quick learner.

Beers before heading out
Making a run into town for provisions on the dingy – with Sebastien’s girlfriend and traveling companion Wilma

They had a 34′ sailboat, smallish but in pretty good order. Pat and I slept out on the deck the first night as it was pretty warm and stuffy underneath. It was a good reminder for me that sailing around the world on a small sailboat is *not* on my bucket list. 


 

We ate very well – every meal was an event with scratch cooking – the French don’t do processed snacks
Sabastien’s father – Gerard – the 5th crew member
Learning to tie a figure 8 knot
Last loop needs to go upside down so the rope is cinched – slowly it came back to me from when I owned a sailboat

We waited around in the staging area outside the locks until 2pm, when our pilot showed up. Basically he accompanies and guides the boat through all locks and through the canal anytime the boat is moving. We had a different pilot the second day. Both pilots were very patient, spoke very good English (the official language of the canal) and really into talking Canal trivia at any time – which was cool. They were almost like ambassadors and tour guides for the canal.

I forget if I mentioned this in another blog – but he told us the new supermax boats pay $1 million to go through the canal. About 50 boats go through a day – but of course not all are supermax. You can do the math (or look at all the skyscrapers in Panama City) to figure out that Panama has a lot of money rolling in from this. 

Our first pilot explaining something to Wilma

Almost done with this suspension bridge – that literally only goes to a few villages on the other side. I guess it was part of the bargain to approve the expansion locks.
Big propane (I think) tanker. There were special rules for them as far as how close they could get to other boats.

When we got close to the locks, the pilot had us lash together the 3 small boats who were going through together – biggest boat in the middle. Weirdly all 3 boats were French-crewed. The line handlers are needed to grab and manage the lines that connect to the side of the locks. So the middle boat had 4 line handlers who literally had to do nothing in the locks. The captain still had to steer the boats and I guess he was the lead steerer of the 3 connected boats.

The other two boats needed two line handlers on each exposed side. Sebastian skippered our boat, while Vilma and Gerard (aka Papa) handled the lines. So Pat and I just tried to run around and help w/o getting in the way. 


 

I decided this dude on the left was the most French person on earth – he looked like Gerard Depardieu but as a grizzled sailor – and had a big booming voice and personality


 

We went in the first locks (which raise the boat up to the interior lake level) behind a giant tanker
The line guys on the side of the dock throw out a smaller rope which we tie off our heavier ropes (that are specific to the canal and have to be rented) then they drag that over to the side and tie it off

Here’s where I figured out why line handlers are so important. Each lock raises or lowers the boats about 28′. When the boats go up the lines will slack, so you have to pull them in and keep them tight – otherwise the boats could drift to one side or the other and risk crashing into the side. When the boats go down you have to let the lines out in an orderly fashion or you risk – as we joked – 3 boats hanging in mid air as all the water went out from under them. Actually what would probably happen is the boat cleats that the ropes are tied off to would snap off an become deadly projectiles.

However sometimes the lines get pulled anyway – so if you don’t have them secured while you’re pulling (by using the figure 8 minus the last upside down loop) – the line can get yanked out of your hands. Wilma found this out the hard way. Papa – got his hands injured too. Pat and I kept offering to help, as we were at least bigger than either of them, but for the most part they wanted to be responsible for their own boat – which I understand. Our pilot was constantly offering advice and barking orders to try to keep the boats as centered as possible.

The big boats have cables which are attached to little cars that run along tracks on each side of the boat. This is all computerized to keep the boat centered to an incredible degree of accuracy – which is needed as these gigantic boats have only 12 inches (!) of clearance on each side.


 

The doors are angled inward, so the massive force of the water pushes them shut


Pretty crazy how much the water wells and churns as it’s let into the lock to raise the boats

View looking back down after rising up in the locks

After making it through the first set of 3 locks to Gatun Lake, the pilots had us tie off to some nearby buoys until the next morning, when a different pilot joined us. I asked about swimming. The pilot did his best to scare us about the lake teeming with crocodiles. A few people swam but did not stay in the water long. I passed.

The other boat immediately started cranking the Blues Brothers soundtrack and the ultimate seafaring French couple treated us to a dance show

Pat and I slept out on the deck again but had to bail inside when the distant lightning finally turned into local rain.

Some kind of tiny things ate me alive. This is my elbow but they got me everywhere that was exposed. A month later you can still see the spots where they broke the skin. Weirdly I was the only one who got bit by whatever this was


 

The next day we got a new pilot who wasn’t quite as fun as the first guy, but still pretty cool and loved to talk about the Canal. The trip from lock to lock took about 6 hours in our sailboat. I stupidly had made flight plans out that night – which I had to change from the boat when we got cel coverage.

Our lockmate for the second day


 

As we approached the locks – a massive rainstorm set in. Sebastien got into his serious rain gear. I just ran around and got wet.

The first day we went behind the big boat. On day two we were in front with a different big boat behind.

The visitor center was packed with people. We waved a lot but they didn’t seem that interested in us and our small boats.

While traversing the locks, the rains subsided.


 

Welcome to the Pacific Ocean

The big boat unloading its line-handlers, employees of the canal. There seemed to be 50+ of them.

We unconnected and said goodbye to the other boats, then had to go down another kilometer or so before dropping off the pilot. The finally we tied off at Balboa marina – which is just a bunch of buoys. We bid adieu to our canal mates – as a local water taxi took Pat and I to the dock. Pat and I had a few beers. I found a cheap hotel near the airport for my flight out the next morning. We were beat but still thrilled to have this unforgettable experience.

And as they say in Hollywood – that is a wrap – on my Mexico/Central America road trip. Well not 100%. I still had about 8 days to kill before I could pick up my car in Galveston. So I went back to Antigua for another week of Spanish class and evaluation as a possible place to live. I cover that in my next blog – where I also summarize the highlights, lowlights, grand totals and “Best of…” of the trip.


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