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.
Posted from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
We thought leaving behind our responsibilities and driving overland through the Americas in a 1985 VW Westfalia camper van would be endless servings of strawberries and cream. But it has turned out to be a lot harder than we expected. As our new friend Claude said one night as we washed our dinner dishes, “Everyone at home thinks we’re on vacation. But this is hard work.”
Claude has been traveling with his wife for fifteen years, so speaks from experience. In order for anything to get done, you’ve got to do it. And the best laid plans often go awry. Before we set out on our trip, R and I had plans for driving, homeschooling, and exercise.
You can read how the reality of our “road rules” clashed with our ideal here – in The Hardest Part – Driving. Part two of the series follows.
In advance of our year on the road, we presented the Alexandria City Public School (ACPS) system with a thoughtful home school curriculum covering everything from animal migratory patterns to car mechanics that any self-motivated student would be thrilled and excited to study. ACPS stamped its approval and we went merrily on our way. What we didn’t consider was that we would not be bringing any self-motivated students along with us.
Coconut and J relax before bed time with their screens – the scourge of the 21st century parent.
Naively, R and I envisioned an idyllic experience where Coconut and J would willingly pull out their lessons on driving days, ask thoughtful questions about the Mayan ruins or other historical sites where we were picnicking, and pose for pictures to put in the photo journal they would make and treasure so much that they would ask to be buried with it.
This ideal was based on past performance in a school room setting. Both Coconut and J are good students who are conscientious about their work and who get good grades. However, R and I have learned that this does not translate to being self-motivated homeschoolers. Rather than anything remotely resembling our ideal, we got constant conflict from Coconut and J about doing their self-directed math lessons on CD in the car (they both claim it gives them a headache). It wasn’t until I sat down with J to review each lesson with him that he finally began to show an inclination to achieve. As a consolation prize for my time lost, I learned how to multiply and divide fractions.
Our “classrooms” have been varied. Homeschooling didn’t go as we planned.
The only question either one of them ever asked at a ruin or museum was “When are we leaving?” As a variation, the other would ask, “How much longer?” Sometimes they would ask for ice cream.
Coconut and J take a break from complaining to rest on the ruins at Palenque.
As for photos, we’ve taken a lot of them. Coconut is even in some, though usually she has her hand in front of the camera, warding-off-the-paparazzi-style. At the start, I had asked her to help me with selecting the photos to post with the blog entries. She picked her gaze up from her Kindle long enough to give me an incredulous look and never gave it a second thought.
Even fun things like bouncing around in the back of a tuk-tuk can be boring.
So, for a while, whenever anyone asked us about homeschooling – and you would be surprised how many young, good-looking backpackers ask us about homeschooling – R and I would roll our eyes and tell them the truth. It was a complete failure.
It was only recently when R and I started seriously talking about how we were going to convince ACPS that Coconut and J have showed “adequate evidence of educational progress” to move to the next grade that we realized things are not so bleak. We have done a lot of things and been to a lot of places, so, willingly or not, the kids have been exposed to a lot.
It is hard to quantify what has been learned because this is not the traditional, formal schooling with which R and I are familiar. There are no test scores, book reports, or oral presentations to grade, and being products of the public school systems ourselves, I think this is what initially gave us pause. But, in retrospect, the exposure has resulted in absorption, which translates to learning.
Early in the trip we taste tested junk food as part of our PanAmerican Survey of Snack Foods Lesson.
We started our year on the road by driving through the Deep South and visiting spots significant to the U.S. civil rights movement. In Atlanta we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site which includes the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached and his burial site and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. In Memphis, TN, we went to the Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated, and in Birmingham, AL, we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, bombed in 1963, and killing four little girls. We also watched the movie Selma. Coconut has since compared the US civil rights movement to the continuing struggles of the indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America.
Family photo (sans Coconut, who must have taken the picture) at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Visits to the Mayan cities of Palenque in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala, as well as to other pre-hispanic sites, have introduced the kids to the existence and achievements of these cultures, as well as framed the impact the Spanish conquistadores had on their decline. J later recognized Monte Alban, a spectacular Zapotec ruin we visited which is situated on a plateau above the Oaxaca valley in Mexico, in the Jack Black movie “Nacho Libre.” Black, playing the character of a cook named Ignacio, takes a group of orphans to visit the site. “We’ve been there!” J shouted. “School of Rock” notwithstanding, who knew there could be anything of value in a Jack Black movie?
J tolerated our visit to Monte Alban (Coconut sat in the visitor center) and later recognized it in the movie “Nacho Libre”.
We’ve visited modern Mayan villages in the mountains of Chiapas state in Mexico and in Guatemala and seen the subsistence level existence the people endure. We’ve talked about their history and why streets are blockaded in protest for equal rights in land ownership and other basic human rights of which they have been robbed for centuries. Coconut’s year-long project will explore the causes of the revolutions that have impacted and shaped living conditions and economic opportunities in the countries we have visited.
We had a chance to stay with a local family and experience cooking outdoors on wood fire and living in a square, brick house with dirt floors.
We’ve walked through rainforests, cloudforests, and jungles, and stood on beaches while tens of thousands of sea turtles arrived to nest in a spectacular natural phenomenon known as an arribata.
Playa Esobilla, in Oaxaca State, Mexico, is one of the world’s major nesting grounds for the olive ridley sea turtle. Once a month between September and January, hundreds of thousands of turtles come ashore to nest.
If you’re lucky like we were, your visit will be perfectly timed so that the mass nesting coincides with the hatching from the previous month’s nesting. Turtle-mania ensues with mothers and hatchlings crossing paths on the beach.
We’ve visited animal rescue centers to understand how humans can impact these various ecosystems and affect the plants and animals that thrive there. In the wild we’ve seen howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and white-faced monkeys, huge flocks of noisy green parrots, several variety of toucans, all sizes of lizards, tarantulas, and geckos, dolphins, caimans and crocodiles, sloths and starfish. We know to watch out for scorpions in our shoes and which ant bites hurt the most. We searched for sharks in Lake Nicaragua but didn’t see any.
J watches a rescued sloth eat the hibiscus flowers he gathered for it.
We’ve seen ten full moon cycles and watched the sky above Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, unblemished by a single light bulb for miles around and filled with more stars than we imagined existed (and satellites too). We’ve seen Jupiter and Mars and countless shooting stars.
The full moon rises over the Catedral in Cordoba, just as it has done every cycle since 1688.
And the Panama Canal? Forget about it. An entire years’ curriculum could be built around it alone. It’s rich in history, colonial-era and 20th century geopolitical intrigue, feats of medical science and modern engineering, and plays a major role in global commerce and economy. We learned that the size of the canal (110’ wide x 1000’ long) has determined the size of ocean vessels, which are built to fit through the canal and called “Panamax.” On the physical spectrum, traversing it as line handlers on a private boat introduced entry-level sailing skills like navigation and knot-tying. As a bonus, for those who meet the prerequisite (i.e., over age 21) there is a 400-level course in rum drinking with Captain Sandro.
Going through the Panama Canal gave us each a chance to get behind the wheel of a sailboat.
Understanding how the lock system works in the Panama Canal is more interesting when you are in the locks.
Many of the people we have met have provided input as well. For the most part, they are young travelers who are excited to see Coconut and J having this experience and who teach lessons by words and actions – people who are leading bike tours, who are traveling after recovering from a serious accident, who volunteer time to help humans and/or animals in need, who have sold successful businesses, who have started successful businesses, who make chocolate or teach yoga or surf.
Coconut and J’s conversations with these adults are more meaningful than those they may have with adults at home about boring topics like school and sports. Coconut doesn’t want to hear us tell her how to wash clothes on a pila, but she can see how it is done by helping a traveler who is living on $200 a month and has to wash her own clothes or have nothing clean to wear. J can’t learn how to handle a machete from me, but willingly listens and watches others who have handled them for years.
Coconut and J both appreciate advice from people who more clearly remember being 13 and can tell them to just ignore their parents and walk away when they do embarrassing things like sing and dance.
In Costa Rica we helped build a floating house, an introduction to carpentry and the concept of water displacement. Fanny and Joe taught the kids how best to deal with embarrassing parents.
We’ve met people exploring the world in a lot of different ways and I think what I have learned is that Coconut and J don’t have to have the same dreams that I did when I was their age. There are a lot of options. And understanding that is the best education they can get.
We try to avoid cities because we hear they are more dangerous, we know there’s more traffic, and we want to go to sleep at night to the sounds of mountain streams and howling dogs not to the sound of honking horns and howling dogs.
Sometimes we make exceptions. After leaving Nicaragua and driving all day through Honduras into El Salvador, we spent the next day driving a few hours into the mountains of El Salvador to the town of Perquin. The next day, I had already driven five hours towards our planned destination, and we were still two hours away. I was done. When I saw a sign for Santa Ana, a place I remembered reading about as being worth a visit, I asked R to check out our guidebook to see about it.
Vulcan Chaparrastique looms ominously over the city of San Miguel in El Salvador. Notice also the good highway – we haven’t seen many paved, four lane highways in the last year.
R reported that at some point I had scribbled a note in our book that Fanny and Joe recommended the city and specifically, a hostel where they stayed. Fanny and Joe are good people we met in Costa Rica while building the Buena Casa. We ran into them again briefly in Panama City and hiked up Cerro Ancon for grand views over the city and Panama Canal. They’ve spent the year couchsurfing through South and Central America and we trusted their judgment so decided to scrap our original plan and head for Santa Ana instead.
Santa Ana is the second largest city in El Salvador, behind the capital of San Salvador. It is quaint in that men play checkers in the park with colored bottle caps on checkerboards painted onto the cement tables and sketchy in that the streets are cracked and dirty and there is a red light district around the corner from the hostel (prostitution is legal in El Salvador, as it is in other Central American countries). Some other guests in the hostel were held up at machete-point when they hiked a nearby volcano. They paid $10 to be left alone.
The hostel itself, Casa Verde Hostal, is one of the nicest we have visited. It’s super clean. There is free water, a amazingly equipped kitchen, hundreds of DVDs, a book exchange, pool, laundry service, and free parking in a secure lot. They even left a pack of cigarettes on the roof deck table. “Look,” I said to R, “They even have free cigarettes for the guests!” It turned out the pack belonged to another guest – he had forgotten it there.
J juices some oranges in the kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador
Santa Ana was also a good place to have some repairs done on Wesley. It needed a new muffler because the previous one (possibly the 31-year old original) lost its tailpipe and had a hole in it.
The mechanic who installed the new muffler spent most of an hour fabricating a new bracket to hold the muffler in place (the original rusted off) and then welding it to the undercarriage of the van. The ingenuity to manufacture this part was impressive. In the States the shop would likely have had to order the part with no thought given to making it. But I worry that whatever is in the muffler that does the actual muffling has been fried. Smoke was pouring out of the thing while the guy was soldering the pieces of the metal bracket together around the muffler.
The mechanic, too cool in his shades, tries to set Wesley on fire
One section of the local market was dedicated to tinkerers and tailors and woven goods makers, so we were also able to have the zipper on one of our bags repaired for $1. R and I are always impressed that things are fixed here rather than discarded and replaced. There was even a guy in the market selling empty glass bottles. Nothing is disposable here (except the millions of plastic bags and plastic bottles that are everywhere). Even the rusted bracket for our muffler got thrown into a pile of other rusted metal at the mechanic shop. I bet if I come back in ten years, it will still be there.
Not only was it fascinating to see dozens of men sitting at sewing machines, but they were manual machines with foot pedals.
The market is one of the best we have seen since Mexico for fruit and vegetable varieties – the radishes are as big as cannonballs – so we’ve eaten our greens.
The mangoes were big too. It was nice to see mangoes at market for a change, and not rotting under a tree along the side of the road.
R and I have spent a lot of time lately discussing whether Coconut and J have learned anything this year. They spend a lot of time looking at their screens, but they are not self-motivated students so are not looking at educational stuff that we would like them to watch like documentaries, recipes, and Neil Young song lyrics. In an effort to force feed them learning, we took them to the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña in Perquin.
J and Coconut spend a few too many hours like this.
But sometimes they do things that make our hearts swell. Here, Coconut braids J’s hair while he reads on his Kindle.
During the 12-year Salvadoran civil war, which ended in 1992, the town was a stronghold of the guerrillas who were fighting against the right-wing oligarchy, which, incidentally, was supported by the U.S. government. During the most brutal incident of the war, soldiers of the U.S.-trained elite Atlacatl Batallion entered the nearby village of El Mozote, rounded up its inhabitants and other campesinos taking refuge there, and tortured, raped and murdered everyone – over 1,000 people – many of whom were children. One woman survived.
Evidence of the revolution. In the 1980’s revolutionaries roamed the hills around Somoto and their presence is still felt with murals like these.
R and I think that coming to Perquin on the heels of visiting Somoto, where Nicaraguan guerrillas got bombed by their own oppressive and repressive government (which, incidentally, was supported by the U.S. government), has added to the lessons about Central American politics (and why the U.S. keeps sticking its nose in them) Coconut and J have been exposed to already this year. It may have also taught them that sometimes the countryside isn’t too safe either.
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.”
Panama City is a big, bustling modern city with an obvious American influence. It boasts the largest mall in Latin America, a Trump tower, and more familiar chain stores and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. It’s also got elements of ferality – that feeling that anything goes – that we have come to love and appreciate about Central America. We shared our cheese and crackers with a police officer who stopped his patrol to admire Wesley. Try doing that in Washington, D.C.
Early morning view of the Panama City skyline across the Bahia de Panama
Rather than take a room at the Holiday Inn in the Americanized downtown, we landed in a quaint European-ish neighborhood across the Bay of Panama called Casco Viejo, where refurbished colonial-style buildings are neighbors with crumbling ruins and upscale restaurants. We know the restaurants are upscale because Panama uses the U.S. dollar as currency and we can immediately see without having to do a currency conversion that a main dish costs more than $10. Because we are on a budget, we cooked rice and pasta in the hostel kitchen, but did manage to spend $30 on ice cream over three days to buy the kids’ silence as we visited certain places of interest and museums.
View down a pretty Casco Viejo street.
This arch – unique in architecture as being a flat arch rather than rounded – in the ruined Santo Domingo church was used as evidence that Panama had the seismic stability that Nicaragua did not. Thus, a canal should be built here, not there. Later, the church crumbled. The two piles of bricks below the arch are what remains of the original. The arch is actually a replica.
Panama has a very interesting history. Everyone has heard of the Panama Canal – Panama City is one of its entry points – but it is also the place where Vasco Núñez de Balboa, representing Europeans everywhere, first sighted the Pacific Ocean. As a part of Gran Colombia, the first collaborative attempt at independence by several former Spanish colonies, it was visited by Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America. And, of course, no Central American country is free of the intrigue of U.S. geo-political involvement. Someone could write a television drama about events here that would rival Game of Thrones.
Shortly after we left Virginia on this adventure through the Americas we stayed with Patty and Frank in North Carolina. They had cruised the world for years and suggested that a unique way to experience the Panama Canal, once we got there, would be to act as line handlers on a private boat transiting from the Caribbean side to the Pacific, or vice versa.
Our hosts in Walkerton, North Carolina – Patti and Frank
A line handler fastens the lines that secure the boat within the Canal locks. The locks are chambers where the water level is manipulated to raise/lower the boat to/from Gatun Lake, depending on which direction the boat is traveling. The Canal Authority requires any boat entering the Canal to have four line handlers, one for each corner. Any boat that doesn’t have four adults (in addition to the Captain) must either hire professional line handlers, or take on amateur freeloading volunteers like us.
A fish eye view of the Miraflores locks that open to the Pacific Ocean
Coconut and J have been reading about the Canal in anticipation of transiting it as part of a boat crew and we’ve all learned a lot about the country and the history of the Canal.
We learned that early land routes across Panama used by the Spaniards to transport their riches laid the groundwork for, first, a trans-ismuthian railroad, and then a waterway. We learned that the British sanctioned piracy against Spanish ships and cities because they also wanted to share in the spoils of raping the land of its precious metals and enslaving the indigenous peoples – they even went so far as to knight the best pirates (Sir Henry Morgan; Sir Francis Drake) – in what can only be viewed as the colonial-era equivalent of state-sponsored terrorism. We also learned the reasons why the U.S. agreed to build the canal in Panama instead of Nicaragua, despite the more challenging terrain (to prevent Germany from building it) and of its role in Panama gaining independence from Columbia (let’s just say the U.S. was a silent partner – kind of like the burly, shaved-head guy at the end of the bar who doesn’t say anything but whom no one wants to tangle with.)
Anyway, when Patty and Frank mentioned line handling, we thought, “Cool. Let’s file that away until we get to Panama.” Then I immediately forget about it in the wake of more important questions like, “How long can I ignore that weird noise coming from the engine before it will become a problem?” and “When was the last time I changed my socks?”, and R made a note somewhere and remembered it ten months later. It is a good thing R can remember things like this instead of things like where she put her water bottle, because after walking up and down the docks at the Shelter Bay Marina asking if anyone needed line handlers, we were able to hook up with a super cool and laid back Brazilian family going to Costa Rica on their 38-foot catamaran.
We camped at the Shelter Bay Marina in Fort Sherman, a former U.S. military base, while we arranged a line handling job.
Nautili – the 38-foot catamaran that we transited across the Panama Canal
Captain Sandro quit his job as a dentist in Sao Paolo, Brazil, after 25 years, because, well, he was just tired of it, purchased a boat in Portugal, spent 9 months living on it without water or electricity while fixing it up, sailed it across the Atlantic to pick up his partner, Dani, and daughter, Laura, and now they are on their way to Playa Coco, Costa Rica, where they will do daily charters for vacationing American tourists. This is just one example of the dozens of inspiring people we have met on this trip.
After a short interview with Captain Sandro, conducted shirtless and barefoot and in which we agreed to bring our own food, we signed on as line handlers and spent two nights on their boat, Nautili, traversing the Canal. For a lot of reasons, which I will try to be brief about, it was pretty unforgettable, even for me.
Line handlers need to know how to tie certain knots. Here, Captain Sandro looks on as R practices.
Captain Sandro directs Coconut towards the first set of locks
As we went through the first set of locks – the Gatun Locks – Coconut smiled and ran around helping smooth lines and keep pathways clear, while taking notes in her journal and sending pictures to her friends on Instagram. Before we entered the locks, J got to steer the boat and lounge around on the net at the fore of the boat and sleep outside on the deck under the stars. R was thrilled to see that even the crew of the enormous cargo ships that transit the canal, which one would call professional sailors, were excited – snapping photos and waving and dancing. And I was impressed, and somewhat perplexed, that this wonder of modern technology, which facilitates billions of dollars in the world economy, is still reliant on humans to retrieve and attach the lines that secure the vessels so they don’t get bounced around in the currents created by filling and emptying the locks.
Everyone on our three-boat flotilla was awed by passage through the Canal.
The entire transit – 77 kilometers – took us about 24 hours. We spent most of Sunday roasting like chickens at the marina – Panama is definitely the hottest country we have visited. Around 4 p.m. we motored to the first set of locks where we took on a Panama Canal Authority official to guide us through the procedure. We were fastened to two other sailboats and snuck in behind a large cargo vessel to go through the first set of locks – the Gatun Locks – at about 8:30 before spending a breezy night in Gatun Lake.
The next day, we motored from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. to arrive at the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks.
There wasn’t a lot for a line handler to do while motoring to the Miraflores Locks except roll around in the nets.
As we approached the Miraflores Locks and visitor center, Coconut and J held up a sign asking onlookers to email their photos to us while Laura looks on.
Two hours later we passed under the Bridge of the Americas and into the Pacific. What took decades to build and claimed more than 25,000 lives, was a piece of cake for us to traverse.
We docked at the Balboa Yacht Club and parted ways with Captain Sandro and his family and met Wesley in the parking lot of the Country Inn and Suites where we had parked it days earlier, no questions asked by anyone. The hotel has a pool, A/C, a free shuttle to the mall, and an attached TGIFridays where you can get a $12 burger. This is Panama after all, the most American of the Central American countries we have visited. We stayed two nights.