The flight to Panama was uneventful with a tedious 3-hour stop over in Bogotá. The bikes were packed on Friday, shipped out of Ecuador on Saturday, we flew out on Sunday and the bikes were promised to be ready for our collection on Monday. We arrived in Panama on Sunday evening at the tail end of a horrendous rain shower. Our dalliances in South America have meant that we are hitting Central America in its rainy season. We took a bus from Tocumen airport to the city centre. It was an old US school bus, resplendent in new highly tropical Caribbean livery – all bright and loud colours and covered with zany airbrushed murals. Inside was just as colourful with Reggae and Salsa music throbbing from the onboard sound system – we felt like we were sitting inside a huge ghetto-blaster. After the rain, it made for a cheery arrival in Panama as the bus positively pulsed and shuffled down the road to the beat of the music. We had planned on staying in the Hotel Herrera, recommended by Chris but located in Feliz Viaje – old Panama, which the guidebook warned could be dangerous after dark. We jumped off the bus somewhere in the centre and took a taxi, as it was getting dark. When we told the driver where we wanted to stay, he asked “are you sure?”. He explained that the area where the hotel was is really dodgy now and explained that even he, a poor taxi driver, wouldn’t stay there! Instead he took us around a few places in the Calidonia area of the city, halfway between the old and new parts, where we found a more respectable place for one night. We had to change in the morning to a place across the road with parking for the bikes. We were later thankful that we had taken his advice. Our new home was called ‘Pension Monaco’ with the ‘o’ in Pension shaped like a heart on the sign. It was really pretty with 2 red lights out in the front porch, but most of the guests who tended to be discrete young to middle aged couples were shy and didn’t talk much, keeping themselves to themselves. We also noted that most only seemed to stay for an hour or two and the old lady who ran the place seemed impressed when I said we would probably need the room for about 4 or 5 nights! Still it was a clean modern establishment with good security for the bikes and it was also very central to all the main spots in Panama City.
On the Monday morning we took another Panama bus back to the airport (75 cents) and from there paid $8 for a taxi ride round to the cargo terminal on the other side of the airfield. We were gutted when we found that the terminal for the Tocumen bus actually ends at the cargo terminal, so we were ripped off by the taxi driver, who advised us it was better to take a taxi. At the cargo terminal we found the Girag office and asked about our bikes. A stony faced guy looked us up and down and said, “No, there are no bikes here”. We explained that they were shipped on Saturday, Ecuador to Panama via Colombia. “Well they aren’t here now”. He turned to walk away, disinterested in our plight. We asked him if he could check the shipping invoice number to see where they could be. He took the invoice and walked up to another guy behind a glass-fronted counter who looked at it briefly and then shook his head. “There is a big Fiesta in Colombia today. Maybe they got delayed. There is a flight due in a 2am. Call back tomorrow”. We tried to get him to check on the computer system to see if the routing information for the shipment could be tracked but he said they could do nothing from Panama. We ended up extracting a phone number to call back and set off for the bus terminal and a disappointed return to the hotel. We didn’t see the point in ringing the agent in Ecuador who had organised the shipment just yet. If there was a Fiesta (a Bank Holiday) in Colombia, then maybe the bikes were delayed, but we spent a fretful 24 hours worrying about where they could be (impounded / lost / stolen in Colombia amongst the worst nightmares). Next morning we rang the terminal and were delighted to hear they had turned up on the 2am flight.
When we arrived to pick them up, they had been unharnessed from the cargo pallet and were sat outside awaiting our collection. The handlers pointed the bikes to us and then legged it. All of the baggage was there (we shipped with all our camping gear strapped across the seats) and the only thing missing was a small adjustable spanner that we’d used to take the wing mirrors off and left in my tank-bag prior to shipment. We then found that my bike had been dropped and damaged. There was a nasty gash on the engine crash bar, a dent on one of the aluminium panniers and the front mudguard and left hand tank fairing panel had been badly scratched and displaced. It was all superficial stuff and we reckon the bike was dropped in Panama when they unstrapped it from the pallet, hence no-one hung around when we picked them up. We had no comeback, as it would be impossible to identify where the damage had been caused. We cleared all the customs documents, straightened the bikes out and rode off back to Panama.
We stayed on in Panama City for another few days taking day trips out to explore the Canal’s Miraflores Locks and the surrounding area. The Canal was a bit of a let down. It was just like canal locks anywhere but on a much larger scale with monstrous supertankers and ‘Panamax’ freight vessels making the passage. What was impressive was the on-site museum on the canal’s construction. Lesseps, the French engineer responsible for the successful Suez Canal, started the original canal but it was abandoned, as they simply did not have the resources to dig the vast quantities of rock and earth involved at Panama. Disease too took a heavy toll of the manual workers, most of who came from the West Indies. It took a later US effort to successfully complete the canal using modern steam shovels with 3 times the capacity of the old French models. In the end, 159 million cubic metres of material were removed to dig the passage. Advances in medicine also eradicated Yellow Fever reducing the death toll from disease amongst the workers. Today, 14,000 vessels a year cross the isthmus and it takes 8 to 10 hours to traverse the various locks from Caribbean to Pacific. At $30,000 a go (2002 price quoted in our guidebook) it is expensive, but this is a fraction compared with the alternative cost to sail one of these vessels around South America.
Just a little further on from the Miraflores Locks we visited the Summit Botanical Gardens & Zoo. It was a strange place, like a huge tropical parkland with animal cages dotted throughout containing various monkeys, cats and birds found in Panama. Some of the animal cages were in pretty poor condition but their centrepiece is a vast aviary for rehabilitating Harpy Eagles. The Harpy Eagle is one of the largest birds of prey, feeding on other birds and monkeys found in the tree canopy of the rain forests of Central America. It has enormous eyes and it has a stunning headdress of feathers, rather like a Red-Indian war bonnet (it is believed that these can act like an acoustic reflector enabling the Harpy to hear its prey as it moves around the camouflage of the tree tops). As we were wandering around the park, the grey clouds thickened and we could hear the boom of an approaching tropical thunderstorm. It began to rain heavily so we sought shelter in a tin roofed picnic area and watched fascinated as the storm drew nearer. What followed was a thunder and lightning spectacular, the likes of which we have never seen before in our entire lives! In the arsenal of weather, we were about to experience a Nuclear Strike! It was so primeval in its violence, the sort of weather that had ancients wondering what they had done to offend the gods & reaching for the nearest human sacrifice to appease their displeasure! Soon the lightening was all around, flash-blinding sheets that lit the raindrops so they shone like brilliant metal curtains outside our hut. And the thunder – it was so close that you could feel it reverberate your chest cavity and it made the very ground tremble beneath our feet. The overall combination had us imagining that not too far away huge trees were being rendered by giants, torn up by their roots and smashed to pieces in some wanton act of vandalism. Had there been a table present we would have both been under it! The storm continued for 45 minutes sounding like the end of the world had really arrived. It was an amazing experience but hopefully we’ll not have too many more like it!
It’s probably worth mentioning here a few other travellers we recently met doing the same journey as us but by different means. In Ecuador, on our way up to Apuela, we bumped into a young English chap called Rupert Wilson who was coming the other way. He started his journey in Alaska on a 50cc Yamaha scooter and had ridden all the way down through Alaska, Canada, US, Mexico and all of Central America. He had shipped to Colombia and was riding south when we met at the Equator marker between Otavalo and Quito. His scooter ‘Britney’ was well laden with packs & rucksacks and in addition to his own kit he was carrying stuff for a girlfriend who was cycling part of the route. He had fantastic fuel economy on the little scooter but performance was horrible in any sort of mountains, where at times his speed on uphill sections was reduced to 10 kph. It all goes to show you can do it on anything and we both salute Rupert for his effort. Later on in Panama City we met a young German chap from Dresden, Jürgen Berger, who for the past 3 years has been walking with his dog ‘Tok’ from Alaska aiming to reach Ushuaia. Tok was a beautiful animal with a bright grey coat and sharp intense eyes looking like a cross between a Border Collie and a Husky. It is an awesome achievement especially given that he cannot use public transport (they will not let the dog travel on most buses, trains and taxis). We sat for ages swapping travellers stories over a few beers, fascinated by the fact that this guy has literally walked all the way. He is currently seeking a passage to Colombia to start the South American leg of his trip and again we wished him well as departed.
Our final daytrip from Panama City took us over the isthmus to see the ruins of the old Spanish forts at Portobello on the Caribbean. At the height of the Spanish Empire all of the gold and silver extracted from the ruins of the huge Inca empire had to be brought to the coast of Bolivia / Peru and shipped up to Panama City from whence it travelled by mule train across the Isthmus of Panama and down to the port of Portobello. Here it was loaded onto treasure galleons and shipped across the Caribbean / Atlantic Oceans, running the gauntlet of English Pirates, to top up the coffers of Spain. The ride across the Isthmus was on a fairly busy single lane road but the final leg from Colon up to Portobello was a lovely twisty coastal run, lined with palm trees. Sadly it was also raining heavily as the dark clouds up ahead suddenly burst giving us an instant drenching. On reaching Portobello we were greeted by the fort of Santiago on the road into town. It was a low-lying redoubt facing out to sea with an impressive gun line ready to blast any approaching unwanted guests. At the other end of town, the equally formidable San Geronimo bastion stood guard and we had a pleasant hour between heavy showers wandering the mossy ramparts, looking over the rusting gun barrels at the grey Caribbean. The area contains numerous other fortifications but none so well preserved as these two. The Pirates eventually destroyed Portobello – Morgan I think it was who did the job. Likewise Panama was visited in his time by no less than Sir Francis Drake who destroyed the old town.
Back in Panama City, it was time for us to move on. The big city was starting to get to us – we were starting to find life here very trying. The people for a start are generally a fairly miserable lot, with few smiles or laughs going round. On top of this service almost everywhere is deplorable, with disinterested surly glum staff in shops and restaurants that at times had us wondering if they really wanted our business. Panama is not a poor country and we found this hard to explain. The net result was that it left us wishing we were somewhere else! We planned to spend the next week at the other end of the country in the mountains near Volcan Baru and possibly dare another trip across to the Caribbean to Bocas Del Toro, where reputedly there was some fine snorkelling on coral reefs to be had out on the islands. Hopefully the locals will be different there!