This is the end.
In the words of the somewhat famous and totally unpredictable Jim Morrison of The Doors, this is the end, my only friend, the end.
My family and I just completed a year-long overland adventure through Mexico and Central America. We left Virginia on August 1, 2015 and drove our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van – which we named Wesley – through Mexico and Central America. We’ve now landed softly at the family lake house in New York’s Catskill Mountains where we will take contemplative walks in the woods and frolic in the clear lake water before launching back at the end of the month into the hard work of being middle class Americans.
Relaxing on the dock at the lake has proved to be a soft landing before re-entering the rat race of middle class America.
I want to thank Paige Conner Totaro, the founder of www.alloverthemap.net for hosting my blog this year and for providing R and me with lots of other advice and inspiration. If reading about our adventures has infected you with the travel flu, as we hope it has, you should continue to visit Paige’s site for great tips and ideas for individual and family travel. For example, Paige’s latest post describes an amazing Yucatan vacation rental for families, to host a family reunion, or for a girlfriend getaway. It may be too fancy a place to host a drunk frat brother weekend.
I also want to thank everyone who we met on our journey who helped us, hosted us, or just said “Hi.” I don’t want to start naming names for fear of leaving somebody out, but the amazing and adventurous people that we met are the main reason why this year will be unforgettable for us. Thank you.
We only had these folks in the van for a few minutes, but I remember the conversation and we all had a few moments of fun with strangers, which seems easier to do when we are all foreigners to the place where we meet.
Finally, thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read my blog. I know that sometimes I can go on and on with no apparent point, but I hope it was as much fun for you to read my blather as it was for me to think it up and write it.
At the outset of our trip, I attempted to interest you in what we were doing by posing three questions. Now, finally, as my last blog post of this trip, I will attempt to answer them.
Q1. Is Mexico as lawless as the media portrays?
A1. I don’t think so. We survived without anyone shooting at us, robbing us, or even frowning at us. On the contrary, Mexico was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the trip and we spent five months in various places there. It is one of the most beautiful countries – stunningly tall mountains, endless and mostly deserted beaches, outrageously delicious and affordable food – and has the most friendly people. I kid you not, even the machine gun patrols that drive around looking for trouble-makers waved at us. Don’t let the media fool you.
Q2. Does the Bright-rumped Attila still ply the skies above Central America?
A2. We didn’t see the bird in our travels through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, but we did see a mass nesting of sea turtles, hundreds of monkeys, stingrays and reef sharks, scorpions, tarantulas, dolphins, sloths, jaguars (at a zoo), and toucans.
R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.
Also, to soften the blow of missing out on the Bright-rumped Attila, we did spot its cousin the Bright-rumped Tanager one fine day while hanging out on the back porch of our workaway in Costa Rica.
Q3. Can a 1985 Volkswagen camper van handle the ups and downs of the Andes Mountains?
A3. Unfortunately, for reasons too depressing to get into again, we didn’t make it to South America so I am not able to answer this question based on an actual experience of driving through the Andes. However, based on our van Wesley’s performance through the numerous Sierra Madre ranges in Mexico, I have no doubt it could have conquered the Andes Mountains as well.
When we reached the top of one of the mountains we’d climbed, we just had to stop and pee
Okay – now that there are answers, I will pose a final question. This one was originally asked by the even more famous and less unpredictable Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in the popular but not very rock and roll song “All of My Love.”
Q4. Is this the end or is it just the beginning?
A4. It’s the beginning. Even though the blog of our real-time overland adventure is at a convenient stopping point, the Vanamos family will not go away. We will be launching our own website – www.vanamos.net – very shortly.
On the website you will find updated articles about our experience posted weekly, the latest about our vantastic Volkswagen Westfalia – Wesley, information about preparations and budgeting for our year long adventure that you can use to plan your own trip, maps, what we know about border crossings, family travel guides for each country we visited so you know where to go and what to do, photos of me in a bathing suit to print and hang around your house for daily inspiration, and much, much more.
So stay tuned and let our end (of sorts) be your beginning. If I’ve delivered any message at all this year, let it be that there is a lot more to life than living 9 to 5.
When we first conceived this year-long fairy tale of an overland adventure, we anticipated arriving in Patagonia in Argentina after eleven months and 29 days of driving, hopping in a plane to D.C., and shipping Wesley back to Baltimore. The trip would have a clearly defined beginning – when we left Alexandria – and ending – when we got on a plane to go home.
The Homestead, July 2015.
Before we left on the trip we realized we would not make it to Patagonia because it would not allow us to plant a flag anywhere for longer than a few days. We would have to be in the van, driving, a lot. Instead, we saw Bolivia as the horizon of our dreams. But we still expected to get on a plane and ship Wesley home.
At some point after we set forth we reevaluated that plan and decided that we would not be extending our year-long trip (more about how Coconut and J helped make that decision below) for longer than a year, and that Panama was as far as we could go. To go further, i.e., to go to South America, 1) required us to put Wesley into a container at great expense to ship it to Columbia, and 2) it didn’t make financial sense to do this because we wouldn’t have much time to drive around before we had to pack Wesley into a container again at great expense to ship it home.
We reached Panama City on April 25 – too soon to call it quits and ship the van home and too late to pack it up and ship it to Columbia. That left us no alternative but to turn around and drive Wesley back to Alexandria in reverse order through all the countries we had driven in the last eight months.
While it didn’t seem a great option at first, in retrospect we are happy with it because a second opportunity to drive through each country has allowed us to chart different routes than we took the first time. This has given us a fuller experience with each country. For example, on the way to Panama City, our impression was that nothing existed in the country for hundreds of miles between destinations except houses built on stilts and mosquitoes. On the way out, along the Pan American highway, Panama started to look like a more modern country with towns and stores. Though, no matter where you go, it’s really hot (except, apparently, in Boquete, an expat mountain enclave in the northwest which we missed both times.)
Costa Rica was as expensive on our first pass down the Caribbean coast as on our second pass up the Pacific coast, but we got to spend our hard earned colones with different merchants and confirm our suspicion that Costa Rica is the US’s expensive callgirl. Our second time through Nicaragua, of course, was unforgettable. We met a beautiful, inspiring family in Paul, Marisa, and their two great kids Owen and Abby, we got to reconnect with our chocolate-making, idealist friend Maria and her son Angelo, and we purchased a piece of property that will ensure we go back at least once. More likely, we will go back many times.
Our first time through El Salvador we took the beach road, which felt very developed and familiar. On our second pass, we stuck to the northern mountain areas which have a more local, agricultural, and revolutionary flavor. And in Guatemala, we drove through the highlands instead of the lowlands so got to see the mountains and volcanoes for which the country is known.
By seeing different parts of each country, we were able to re-evaluate our first impressions. Mexico isn’t as dirty or poor as we first thought, mainly because countries to the south are dirtier and poorer. But it still has the best food, the friendliest people, and is the most affordable.
On the other hand, deciding to turn around and go back was the hardest choice we have made – harder than breaking our road rules, accepting our homeschool failures, or living our couch potato existence – because in the end we’ll be home and both R and I expect to hate being back in Alexandria (no offense to all of our very good friends who live there). Unlike Paul Simon, we do not wish we were homeward bound.
R and I are certain that if we didn’t have kids we would not have turned around. It’s hard to describe the freedom one feels being untethered from the responsibility of a job or a cell phone or any of the trivial things that seem to matter so much, and to be able to spend your days exactly how you choose to spend them. However you imagine that freedom of choice would feel, it is a baker’s dozen times better. And of course, there are all the awesome countries we’ve seen, experiences we’ve had, and people we’ve met along the way.
Picking up people is always fun. This is on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua, where if you miss the bus for the ferry to the mainland, you’ll wait until tomorrow.
Playa Maderas, Nicaragua. Three friends hitched a ride on the way to town.
As I have said many times to my family while playing my tiny violin, I have the most to lose by going back to Alexandria because I am the one who goes back to work. The thought of being behind a desk again is more than depressing. It’s like I’m flour and someone mixes me with water and salt, takes a tiny piece of me and rolls it into a ball, then flattens me in a tortilla press over and over until there’s nothing left of me but circular pieces of cooked dough that will get stale and fed to the street dogs.
Coconut and J made it clear early on, however, that they would not be happy overlanding for longer than a year and rather than force them, R and I conceded. After all, part of this experience is to empower them to be able to make choices that impact their lives. And we understand their perspective. Overlanding is hard, and we now know it is particularly hard for our kids who like a modicum of stability, which packing up and driving on every few days does not provide. They both did better when we were settled in a place for a week or more, and R and I can accept that this is what our future abroad looks like, at least so long as we have Coconut and J in tow. For now, we need to help them to envision that future.
There is always a way out.
Coconut and J expect going home to be the best thing since Netflix added another season of whatever crap it is they watch to its catalogue. And R and I realize we did this to ourselves by being responsible persons and good providers. If we lived in Alexandria in a house with a leaky roof and no window screens, had to share a bathroom with our neighbors, and polished shoes at the Metro station to put food on the table, Coconut and J may not want to go back there.
They expect to go back to doing the same things that they did before we left that have made them want to return in the first place, and to love it. While that warm, fuzzy feeling of something familiar may exist for them initially, as responsible parents, R and I feel an obligation to do everything we can to make them hate it.
We know being home isn’t going to be as much fun as they think it is. Their freedom to wake up and fry their brains with 16 straight hours of YouTube, and our ability to cater to their needs, are going to be severely compromised by all the other demands of rejoining the race, and we won’t let them forget it either. We want them to remember that they have a choice.
The first time Coconut says she doesn’t want to go to school – whoa-ho-ho! Let’s get a plane ticket to somewhere. Every time J complains about doing homework or studying for a test – Hey-hey-hey. Remember when you didn’t have homework or tests? Whenever they want to eat out – we’ll eat PB&J at home.
Are you kidding me? You would choose elementary school over this?
R has said over and over that this year has been her lifelong dream come true (which implies that I am her Prince Charming?!) She has also recently lamented that when the end of a fairy tale gets writ, everyone lives happily ever after. But we don’t see this ending – returning to Alexandria – as our happily ever after.
We’ve stepped through the wardrobe, seen Narnia, and it’s unsettling for us to be stepping back into our former lives after such a transformative experience. In fact, it seems like a step backwards. And maybe, after the glow of excitement from renewing old habits has dimmed for Coconut and J, the memories of all they have seen and done will take hold and coalesce around this thought – that living in Candyland is pretty sweet.
We were excited to renew our club membership at Hulakai Hotel where we spent a great week on our first pass through Playa Maderas, Nicaragua, in March. So we were all disappointed when we pulled into the parking lot after a hot border crossing from Costa Rica and realized the hotel was closed for renovations for the week. It’s the beginning of the low tourist season in Central America, in anticipation of the rainy season, and many businesses shut down during this time to repaint, refresh, and refurbish.
Coconut and J took the news well, but given the extreme temperatures, refused to camp. We all needed a shower anyway, so R and I hadn’t really considered that option except as a means to tease and torment the kids. Tyler, owner of Hulakai, took a few minutes from his family pool party to buy us a soda at his bar and recommend a beach front place called The L’il Aussie Hut.
The Aussie Hut is owned and run by a gregarious, fun-loving couple named Paul and Charlie, and inhabited by their three kids and their nine dogs, including five puppies. It was a good fit for us and even though we only planned to spend two nights, we spent a week.
The soaring palapa roof of the Aussie Hut on Playa Marsella, Nicaragua
Paul, Charlie, and their oldest son, Carl hop on the family moto to head into town.
Coconut poses with (from Left) Wesley, Ms. Fluffles, Spotify Premium, and Champ.
The primary reason for this was that we met a family of four that recently moved to Nicaragua from Harrisburg, PA who have a son named Owen, age eleven. Owen and J made a blood pact the moment they met and have been inseparable since. We were this close to leaving and J was a teary mess, so we stayed.
J and Owen clowning around on Playa Marsella.
Paul and Marisa, the brave couple that decided to eschew their comfortable life and profitable business in Harrisburg for the simple beach life, have since invited us to camp in their front yard. We’ve been parked there for four nights and don’t plan to leave before the weekend. They even invited our friends Maria and Angelo, who we spent time with on Ometepe Island, to visit us and pitch a tent in the yard. As a bonus, Paul is a chef who cooks breakfast and dinner for us each day. He naps during lunch.
Marisa and Paul clown around in the kitchen of their rented home.
Of all the inspiring people that we’ve met during our ten months on the road, and there have been many, Paul and Marisa rule. They left their comfortable house on their big, wooded lot, sold a successful business and all of their power tools, and headed for the sunny days and gold coast of Nicaragua, sight unseen. They decided on this life path and made it happen in under a year, consequences be damned. I love the decisiveness. As Paul says, “What’s the worst that can happen? We hate it and completely ruined our lives?”
R and I, on the other hand, took eight years to plan this one year trip. We flip-flop between going back (as of now, we are going back), between going back to work (as of now, we are going back), and between putting the kids back in school (as of now, they are going back.) I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? We hate it and completely ruined our lives?
It’s not all fun and games at the beach. Sometimes it’s Yahtzee. Here, Abby, J, Angelo, Owen, and I concentrate on strategy. Abby is Paul and Marisa’s daughter. Angelo and his mom Maria, visited us at the beach from their farm on Ometepe Island.
I contemplate life back in the office while waves crash behind me.
I guess there’s still time to change our minds.
We managed to avoid all of the touristy things on our first pass through Costa Rica. But on our second pass, we dropped colones like it is fake money on hotels, eating-out, and all manner of adrenaline-pumping activities. In short, we are acting like we are on vacation, not a budget.
R powers up before one of our recent adventures.
On the one hand, I wonder why we didn’t do all of these things in other countries where I am sure they cost less. But, on the other hand, I’m okay with going to the ATM for more cash every day because Coconut hasn’t been this excited to participate in family things since we started the trip and went to Busch Gardens.
J and Coconut share a happy moment.
While we were in the green hills surrounding Santa Elena and Monteverde and stumped as to which zip line tour to choose because they all sounded pretty fantastic, she made the choice easy by saying, “I’d like to say that I’ve been on the longest zip-line in Latin America.” Done. We went with 100% Aventura.
Coconut taking off on one of the nine zip lines at 100% Aventura
When faced with how to spend our next $100, she suggested the Arboreal Park – rock-climbing on trees. I like heights as much as I like Justin Bieber, but I did it anyway because when else will we have the chance for a family photo wearing rock climbing harnesses.
Can you believe I didn’t get a family photo of us wearing rock climbing harnesses?! This is as close as it gets.
In addition to zip lines and tree climbs, there are dozens of other ways to spend time in Costa Rica – guided hikes, surfing, night walks, canopy tours, sport-fishing, aerial trams, whale watching, coffee tours, bar crawls – and from what we have seen, most of these tours are run to a very high standard of safety and professionalism. This, combined with the reputation of Costa Rica as safe, has made it one of the more popular destinations for U.S. vacationers. And it seems to have embraced this role – as the prostitute of the West. Signs are in English, everything is for sale to the next expat, and for the most part, streets are wide, paved, and clean. It’s almost like being at home and this familiarity is why Costa Rica is perhaps our least favorite Central American country.
Typical Costa Rican street in a typical Costa Rican town. Not a stray chicken or howler monkey in sight.
Nevertheless, we are making the best of it. We spent our first two days in Uvita, a Pacific Coast village, where we practiced falling off a surfboard. I am getting so good at it that many times I fall before even attempting to stand up. Though, R won this round by managing to get hit in the face by the board. J, in his attempts to keep up with us, stands on more than half of his waves. We may have to get him lessons.
The Pan-American climbs into the mountains in Costa Rica and then through the capital of San Jose. We wanted to avoid any elevation because it is such slow, windy driving. However, Coconut has made it clear she hates sand, so is unhappy with beach places. On the bright side, all the beach places we have stayed have given her the time to get closer to her goal of reading 100 books this year.
We stuck to the coast road after Uvita, but the heat finally overtook R and she diverted me to a windy, mountain road leading to Santa Elena and Monteverde. This lush, mountain region, reachable by driving nearly vertical angles in first gear over 40 kilometers of the worst road in all of Central America, is home to cloud forest, cool temperatures, and many adventure companies. It’s one of the most popular gringo destinations in Costa Rica and after avoiding it on our previous two visits to the country, R and I finally made it. No knock on it, because it delivers what it promises.
Besides enjoying the stunning views and opportunity it provides to wear long pants, we liked it a lot because you can actually walk around the town without breaking into a dripping sweat after two steps. We did some of that, but the highlight was our zipline tour, where we were attached to two “superman” lines – suspended at our shoulders and waist to fly 1000 meters while looking down on the forest canopy. I think the idea is to look for interesting birds and wildlife, but I was looking for a soft place to land.
J zip lining into the cloud forest
As if that wasn’t heart stopping enough, it is followed by a “Mega Tarzan Swing” – a 45 meter high (so, roughly, 150′) platform which you step off and free fall for the longest two seconds of your life, before swinging out over the canopy in bungee cord like fashion. After experiencing this drop, I know I will never purposefully step out of a building window to end things. Just the thought of the drop will be enough to give me a heart attack.
Everyone is all smiles after we survived the Tarzan Swing
R about to rappel while Coconut and J shout encouragement from the ground. Rappelling was part of our multi-faceted adventure package at 100% Aventura.
The next day we went tree climbing, which was challenging in its own way, but not nearly as scary.
Coconut and J high in the trees of Monteverde
R and J conquered tree #5, proving they are professional tree climbers
We then pulled out of Santa Elena to bounce 20 kilometers down the road to a pretty spot we read about on our iOverlander App. It’s called Hummingbird View, a homestead owned by a local couple with views stretching all the way to the Pacific. They’ve got chickens, and cows, and cats, and a dog, and there’s not much else around except the view and a wild turtle, and all kinds of birds – including hummingbirds and flocks of noisy parrots.
Wesley parked at our Hummingbird View camp
Watching the sunset from the view point at Hummingbird View.
We stayed two nights and spent a lazy day playing cards, doing some light maintenance on Wesley, and drinking the free coffee. In the evening, while we were watching a movie in the van, one of the cows that J made friends with during the day by feeding it avocados and carrots startled us by peering into the open hatch and taking a pee that sounded like a running river.
Checking the fluids in the foreground, cow pen and cow pies in the background
Despite the lack of cow etiquette, Costa Rica is very civilized. However, we heard from two separate locals of their disenchantment with the government. Both mentioned that Costa Rica has many areas of isolated coast where drug runners transporting Colombian cocaine to the U.S. in small lanchas (boats) can put in safely to rest up or avoid detection by the U.S. Coast Guard which patrols the coast in the absence of Costa Rica having a navy. This is apparently done with the knowledge of the Costa Rican government, and has created a culture of prostitution and addiction in certain strata of society. It’s a seedy side of Costa Rica that many visitors won’t see but validates the adage that the grass is not always greener – except where the cow pee.
We began the long drive towards the real lives we put on hold last August in Alexandria, VA at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday after stuffing as much free breakfast as we could into our mouths and pockets.
Through no fault of the GPS, I immediately made a wrong turn in what i assume was a subconscious protest against my current plan to report for duty at my former employer in three months.
We haven’t planned an itinerary for our journey home because we figure, why start now? We think it will be a mix of re-visiting places we really liked and going to new places that we wished we had hit the first time. Of course, it will have to be a more superficial touch because we only have until the end of July. Saying we have “only” three months left in our trip seems spoiled, but my freedom is at stake so please allow me that indulgence.
Our first stop on the way out of Panama, which we estimated would be about three days of driving, was Santa Catalina, a beach town on the Pacific coast. It isn’t much of a resort destination but it’s popular with surfers because it has a point break and a beach break. I can’t surf either of them, but I carried the board down the cliff from our hotel so that R and J could surf the beach break.
J and board, ready to hit the beach break
R poses with the board and ocean.
We stayed two nights in an air conditioned room at Surfer’s Paradise in Santa Catalina. This place was recommended to us by an overlanding couple who is driving south from Canada in a Westphalia similar in style to Wesley. They had spotted Wesley parked in the street in Panama City the day before and stopped by as we were packing it to leave. We had a nice chat while we sent Coconut and J to the store for another $15 of ice cream. We couldn’t see their van because they had just packed it in a shipping container bound for Columbia. R and I both felt mild envy.
The view from Surfer’s Paradise in Santa Catalina, Panama
Our next stop from the beach was a hostel just north of David, Panama -slightly up into the mountains and closer still to our next country destination of Costa Rica. R has been talking online with a family running the hostel and we had this chance to stop and meet them. We also hoped it would be a little cooler in David than at the beach, but as we pulled into the Waterfall Hostal we were overwhelmed by the heat, again, and underwhelmed by the hostel itself (the online pictures and description make the place look and sound much nicer). I actually thought it was abandoned as we drove by at the behest of our GPS, which was indicating the hostel was further along the road than it actually was.
The pools and waterfall swimming hole at the hostel helped resolve our heatstroke and Matt, Michelle, Emilia, and Matty, who are running the place for the Australian owner, were very friendly and helpful. We stayed with them three nights and talked about their travels and work experience writing and managing hotels and hostels for most of the last eleven years – with some extended stays built in (they spent two years in Cusco, Peru.) We also learned from Michelle about a cool online learning program in the vein of Minecraft that Coconut and J may willingly use and Matty taught me a lot about Plants vs. Zombies.
Me and the waterfall which gives the Waterfall Hostal it’s name. J added it to his list of things jumped from.
J, Emalie, Coconut, me, R, Matt, Michelle and Matty at the Waterfall Hostal in David, Panama.
We crossed into Costa Rica at Paso Canoas on Monday in under an hour – the most sensical and efficient border crossing we’ve had yet – though we did need to cross the street to make photocopies of random pages of our passport. Because Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama, it was like we were in a time warp because we arrived at the border to exit Panama at 11 and entered Costa Rica after processing all the paper work an hour later at 11.
We entered Panama on April 20 with almost no expectations of liking it, and in fact, R didn’t want to go at all. We had heard it was extremely hot (it’s hotter than that even), expensive (not as much as Costa Rica, but moderately so) and American (the only tortillas in the grocery are from Old El Paso).
R clowning around with a big monkey at the mall in Panama City.
Even though we spent only three weeks in Panama, which is our shortest voluntary stay in any of the places we’ve visited**, we ended up enjoying our time. The American influence turned out to be not so bad because R and the kids could go to the grocery and indulge on missed favorites like Snyder’s pretzel pieces, deli turkey meat, and cheese. We met up with old friends David and Imke, and Joe and Fanny (we spent our last night in the city with them hiking up Cerro Ancon for views over the city and Miraflores Locks and saw a wild sloth hanging in the tree canopy), and made some new friends (Captain Sandro and family.)
Imke and David engaged in a game of cards with J and Coconut while hitching a ride.
**We stayed only a week in El Salvador because we had to meet someone in Nicaragua, so we were kind of forced to leave. We did choose to spend only one day driving through Honduras for perceived safety reasons, so I guess that is the shortest voluntary visit to a country we have had. In defense of Honduras, though, we have met several travelers who have visited places in the country with no issues at all and who report it to be as beautiful and the people as friendly as anywhere else.
We also made memories in Panama transiting the Canal, going on jungle treasure hunts, and eating expensive ice cream in Casco Viejo (I spent more on the frozen treats than I did on beer.) Outside of a few urban centers, we saw that much of Panama is an undeveloped jungle. We also learned a lot about Panama’s history and current role in the world economy – something we would admittedly not have been remotely interested in if we stayed in the U.S., so feel free to shut me up if I ever start blabbering on about it – which helps us accomplish our family objective of gaining world perspective.
We had Aerosmith on the iPod as we headed out of Panama City and R was a bit weepy as Stephen Tyler sang “Dream until your dreams come true.” She’s been wanting to take a trip like this since her youth and she and I have talked about it for the duration of our marriage – which seems like forever. As the southernmost point of our journey, Panama City has significance to us as the realization of that dream, but also the end of it.
In the face of that, I tried to make R feel better. “We aren’t going home today.” I said. “We’re going to the beach to surf.”
We both know there are more adventures to come. That the end of one dream gives way to the beginning of another as long as we remain open to the possibilities. After all, Tyler also sings in “Sweet Emotion” that “I can’t say baby where I’ll be in a year.”
If you look at a map of Panama, you will see that there is one road connecting the northwest corner of the country with the rest of the country, which, as far as we can tell, consists of the Pan-American highway and Panama City. If you actually drive that one road, you will understand why no one bothered to build another – there’s nothing out there except jungle, bananas, and an occasional wooden house.
We crossed the border at Guabito-Sixaola into this remote corner of Panama with two U.S. ex-pats we met in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Ricardo and Miguel live in Boquete, Panama (separately, they went through some effort to explain that they are not a couple), and did a border run to Costa Rica so that Miguel could renew his 90-day visa to Panama when he re-entered (he is not yet a legal resident).
It looks like R, Ricardo, and Miguel are standing in line to order a plate of rice and beans, but this is actually the office where we got stamped out of Costa Rica.
Things may look more official on the Panama side, but don’t let that fool you. It was just as inefficient as any crossing we have had.
We parted ways in Almirante, which is a shanty town built on stilts over the water, and Ricardo was kind enough to leave in Wesley the two bottles of liquor he had purchased at the duty free store near the border. It was like pirates’ booty but we have so far refrained from drinking them in case we go to Boquete where we will drink them with him as payment for not drinking them without him.
This was one of the nicer waterfront places in Almirante. The only reason to visit is to catch the ferry to Bocas del Toro.
Bocas del Toro (BdT) is the only reason to come out here. BdT is an archipelago of mangrove islands “discovered” in 1502 by Columbus on his fourth and final voyage to the New World. It is inhabited by the indigenous tribes that have existed there for centuries, by partying backpackers, and by mosquitoes – the kind that leave marks that itch for days and days.
We couldn’t tell if this airplane part in the front yard was used for storage or as Grandpa’s house.
It is also currently inhabited by our friends David and Imka, who we met in February while working on the farm in Nicaragua. They are at a language school on the main island and we were excited to catch up with them while we drank their bottle of Abuelo rum.
Interestingly, the owner of the most popular brand of rum in the country (Abuelo) is also the president of the country. This is like Jim Koch, the Founder and CEO of Sam Adams beer, being elected president of the United States. Or worse. It’s like the U.S. electing as president a former reality T.V. star and buffoon. Why not? Guatemala just elected a former T.V. sitcom star and comedian as its president.
But I digress. When we were not being bitten by mosquitoes, we did some of the other things to do in BdT – hired a boat to tour the islands, snorkeled, saw dolphins, and enjoyed the air conditioning, We also showed up for a free tour of the facilities at the Smithsonian research center, but the guide failed to show. Instead, we chatted with the U.S. volunteers who are there conducting research on water temperature and sea anemones. I am sure that with all that ails the world you wish I was making that up, but I am not. What we learned: it takes one species of sea anemone a few seconds to turn over in cold water and a few seconds longer in warmer water and you can use the money from a research grant to study just about anything.
Actually, this research is critical to the continued existence of mankind. See, if we continue to negatively effect the ozone, water temperatures will rise so much that sea anemones won’t be able to turn over at all (i.e., they’ll be dead) and the important work they do to keep our oceans free of algae and other nasty things won’t get done so the water will become unhealthy for the fishes and then they’ll die and eventually so will we.
Heading into the Cordillera Central which cuts through the middle of Panama. Yikes!
Our next stop was the Lost and Found Hostel. It is set in a cloud forest atop the Cordillera Central and inhabited by lots of flying bugs and partying backpackers. R and I were initially put off by its hedonistic reputation and website warning not to bring children and Coconut and J were not initially excited to land there because it is a 20 minute hike from the parking lot to the hostel. However, we are an adventurous sort, and were intrigued by the advertised Indiana Jones’ style treasure hunt, beer pong, cuddling with “Rocky”, the resident honey bear, and naked Jenga.
The view from the Lost and Found Hostel near Valle de la Mina, Panama, was nice.
The treasure hunt nearly killed us all. It was a long, hard hike through a hot, steamy jungle. At one point J declared, “I don’t know why I thought this would be fun.” and Coconut staged a sit-in. But in the end, we prevailed and claimed our prize – which it turns out we could have purchased at the bar for $3. No matter, we proved to ourselves we could do it when at first it seemed like we could not do it.
For five hours of hiking, sore legs, and stinky armpits we get a beer and a soda? Awesome!
We heard the nearly 300 kilometer stretch of the Pan-American squeezed onto the strip of land between the Pacific and the mountains to Panama City was under construction, and since it is the only road going that direction (Panama hasn’t invested a lot of money on roads, or maybe there is just nowhere to go) we decided to leave on Sunday when there would be less traffic. This turned out to be a good decision as there were no cars on the road and very little next to it either. Vast stretches of empty landscape broken up occasionally by a cow and\or horse, and someone selling melons.
R poses with her sweet, sweet melons.
Beyond Panama City the road goes to an impassable stretch of swamp/jungle and guerrilla infested area called the Darién Gap. To penetrate Columbia and the rest of South America we would need to pack Wesley into a shipping container and meet it on the other side. But for us, the road ends in Panama City. It’s our final destination before we turn the van around and drive back to Alexandria. We’ve proved to ourselves that we can do it.
We made it! Panama City skyline in the background and the Vanamos adventure team front and center.