We really didn’t know what to expect from Panama. For some reason, for us, it was just the last country on our way to South America. We knew it had a port with a container waiting for our truck. We knew there was a big canal, and we knew the US invaded not so long ago, although the motivations and results of that invasion were a little fuzzy.
We didn’t really know what to do with the week we’d planned to be in Panama, so when I received an invitation to visit an internet friend living about an hour from the border we jumped at the opportunity.
Leaving Costa Rica and entering Panama was probably the easiest border crossing to date. We were literally the only ones driving across. The offices for each country are just a few hundred feet apart in a quiet mountain farm town. To pay our Costa Rican exit tax we had to walk into town and make the payment at the local hardware store, before returning to the immigration office with the receipt.
An hour’s drive higher into the mountains and we met up with our new friend Will for a pizza lunch and our first Panamanian beers. He and his wife JJ had driven from Texas to Panama last year, so after sharing stories of border crossings and Central American construction, he invited us back to camp at their place. On a farm nestled at the foot of Volcan Baru and the surrounding mountains, it was one of our most stunning campsites yet. When the clouds cleared anyway.
We’d tentatively planned to hike the Volcano the next day, but when Will invited us to go along while he delivered eggs to local rural schools, hiking six hours in the rain lost its luster. We floated through the countryside in his 13 year old Land Cruiser and in air conditioned luxury, getting the local’s tour along the way. We stopped at a coffee finca for pie and cappuccinos, crossed one of Noriega’s runways, visited fishing spots, swimming holes, cascading waterfalls, and a Mexican restaurant.
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the mountains and from our new friends (and from being able to sleep under blankets at night) but I was getting antsy to make a little more progress into the country. After a nice, lonely couple nights 5500’ lower and back on the beach, we received the kind of offer no sane person would refuse: An overlander BBQ with three other couples in Panama City.
Fellow Oregonians the Hastys of South By Syncro, and their friends, had already dropped their cars off to be shipped so invited us to a celebration at their Air BnB. Four guys tried to light a charcoal grill, while four skeptical ladies offered commentary over glasses of wine. Large amounts of meat were consumed, cookies ate, and I lost badly at cards. Pretty much the expected goings on at such an event.
The next day Taylor and I made the obligatory visit to the Panama Canal visitor center at the Miraflores locks. Taylor let me read all the signs in the museum, then we got to watch a US submarine transit the locks before bailing on the crowds for a canal-side parking lot camp in the tiny road’s end town of Gamboa.
It’s was a pretty surreal thing to camp so close to such an engineering marvel. We’d wake up at intervals throughout the night to watch colossal ships pass us silently by, only a few hundred yards out our windows.
We were invited by the local pastor to the church across the street. Gamboa was a funny, interesting place, so we were happy to accept the invitation to meet some of its residents. The small town and was essentially created to house American workers inside the US controlled Canal Zone. After the US handed operations over to the Panamanian government, the Canal Zone was eliminated and the country began seeping back into what had become largely a literal slice of America. The church service was bilingual and the congregation made up of a healthy mix of local Panamanians, indigenous, and “zonians”- those who had stayed in Panama after the hand-off to run businesses or work in government as dual citizenship holders.
We had an amazing Mexican food lunch in the home of new friends, then made even MORE new friends the following day during the necessary pre-shipping vehicle inspections. Our shipping partners Asia i Przem w podróży and The Long Cruise pulled into the National Police lot shortly after us, creating quite a spectacle among the motorcycles and small cars of the also waiting locals.
Although momentous, loading day was fairly un-eventful, just the way you want it to be. It was a bit emotional to see each of our homes stuffed away into dark containers. One by one we went from overlanders to backpackers, standing next to our small piles of essentials looking just a little lost without our rigs. We all took a long, contemplative bus ride back into Panama City, exploring a bit together before going our separate ways, to be reunited with each other (and our vehicles) on a whole new continent!
Oh, and we managed to top off Central America with another beautiful roof top bar.