Quite simply, this was done the only way it could be. One cannot drive this impassable 70 or so miles of the PanAmerican Highway – the part between Panama and Colombia. Vehicles must be put on a container ship or “RoRo” carrier, and drivers and passengers must fly or sail between Panama and Colombia. It’s not cheap, it is stressful, and most Overlanders will admit that getting through the process is one of the biggest headaches on the 30,000km journey from Alaska to Argentina. We are now half-way through and hope to have a full ( and hopefully successful ) report to share by our next blog.
While other capital cities in Central America ( aside from San Jose ) were passed by, time spent in Panama’s capital city absorbed almost half our stay in the country – partly by design and partly by necessity. As noted last week most of a full day was spent doing a required vehicle export inspection. Following vehicle inspections, the next step in getting our vehicles around the Darien Gap was driving them to Colon ( on the Atlantic / Caribbean side of Panama ) for loading on to the container. Once it was confirmed that Cassey’s VW Westfalia and our truck/camper could both “technically” fit in a 40ft high cube ( a container that is a foot higher than normal ) deposits were paid and we committed to shipping that way – no turning back now !
Driving to Colon was easy, the road more or less paralleling the Panama Canal and rail line all the way- odd to look out and see the occasional ship passing through what from the road looks to be continuous jungle ! Early Monday morning we met Boris, our agent, and were taken to the loading area. We’d seen the seedy side of Panama City while doing the vehicle inspection – now we saw the sketchy part of Colon. It’s not a terribly safe city at the best of times and let’s just say we were happy to be escorted around the port area for the loading process. As run down and decrepit a city as we had seen anywhere on our travels to date.
I was quite nervous about loading – while Cassey had a VW Westfalia ( a considerably narrower vehicle than our own ) our truck only had 3” clearance on each side. Complicating matters, it had to be reversed into the container ( so I could climb out the passenger window once loaded) – and do most of that without the aid of side mirrors which, of course, had to be folded in so the vehicle would fit. As it turned out, it all went well due largely to the skills of the loaders who positioned the flatbed truck ( on very rough ground ) so that it was perfectly aligned for the reverse manouvre into the container. A huge sigh of relief when it was all done ! Following the signing of a raft of customs and shipping documents, final payment was made at which point we suddenly found ourselves without our vehicle – our home – for the first time since we began the trip over 6 months and 24,000 km’s ago. On Thursday, November 21, our vehicles would sail for Cartagena on the “Stella Walvis Bay”. We would be on our own for at least a week while it was loaded, shipped, unloaded and cleared through the respective Panamanian and Colombian processes ( only two days of that would be actually at sea as the two ports are quite close ).
Cassey, our container buddy, left us at this point – for the next 5 days she would sail on a yacht through the San Blas islands and connect with us on Monday morning ( all going well ) so that we could begin the vehicle retrieval process together in Cartagena. Lois and I travelled back to Panama City to spend a few relaxing days exploring ( it was a city that, despite heavy rain for parts of most days we were there, we really enjoyed ). A luxurious hotel room, pool, great restaurants in abundance and central location all helped. It has to be the most modern city in Central America, with a slick subway, famous “old town” and one of the most stunning skylines anywhere. All this on the doorstep of the Panama Canal.
By midweek our time in Panama was over and we made the short 1 hour flight to Cartagena. Could not have been a smoother flight and immigration process, and by early afternoon we were sitting in Cartagena’s old town enjoying lunch. One of the most popular Colombian cities to visit and it’s easy to see why; a Miami-like skyline on the shores of the Caribbean, fascinating walled old-town dating to the Spanish era and a very lively entertainment and cultural scene. We will need at least 5 days here waiting for our vehicle and I don’t think it will be a problem to pass the time – so much to explore !
Thursday was spent exploring the old town, savouring the awesome coffee shops and sourcing some good restaurants ( can’t beat Tripadvisor ! ). It’s a city where there is always something going on – we managed to catch a Michael Jackson impersonator doing a ( very good ) rendition of “Thriller” in Plaza la Trinidad right in the heart of the old town. Our week closed out enjoying Colombian craft beer at a popular little bar at the aforementioned Plaza. Cartagena is definitely an easy place to like!
After what seemed like an inordinate delay at the Panamanian border, our temporary vehicle import was finally ready and we were able to begin our travels in Panama – last stop before South America ! Hard to believe we had already come this far ( over 24,000 kms since we left in May ).
First impressions were excellent-driving away from the chaos of the border area, one was immediately surprised by the roads – a smooth four-lane highway all the way to our first stop, the mountain town of Boquete ( in fact it was four lanes wide everywhere we went in Panama ). It wasn’t just the great roads in Panama – there was also a noticeable increase in the size of peoples homes and just how well-maintained they were. Bigger than in Costa Rica and probably even a bit nicer. The supermarkets have absolutely everything and prices are pretty much on par with the US which was a nice change after Costa Rica and likely the reason lots of Overlanders tend to linger here longer ( and why retirees flock here – lots of North Americans especially ).
The campsite in Boquete was excellent – nice to have hot showers & good wifi finally ! A great restaurant, super friendly staff and close to the heart of town. What more does one need !
The plan for Boquete was just to lay low for a few days, enjoy the cooler higher altitude, do a coffee tour and move forward with our shipping plans to Columbia. Turns out only Lois did the coffee tour as I was laid low with the remnants of a nasty flu most of our time in Boquete. Not being a coffee drinker I suppose it would have been a bit wasted on me – Lois thoroughly enjoyed it. Boquete is famous for its coffee, especially a variety known as “Geisha”.
We were also fortunate that Cassey, our soon to be shipping partner, was able to join us in Boquete, so we got to know each other a lot better. We would after all be joined at the hip for the next couple of weeks as we navigate the circuitous process of shipping two vehicles in a 40 foot container across the Caribbean to Cartagena.
Cassey had a contact who was able to provide us with the best quote available so we opted to ship with him. “Boris” provided us step-by-step details for what was needed and given the lead time they require for vehicle inspections, stuffing the container, customs review etc, it quickly became obvious we didn’t really have much time to do anything else in Panama, outside Panama City.
Midweek we drove from Boquete to the town of Santa Clara (about an hour and a half west of Panama City). Another nice campground with a collection of parrots and macaws ( all noisy as hell but none could speak like “Lola” back in El Salvador !) – it enabled us to have an easy drive into chaotic Panama City the next day in time to miss the worst of it’s infamous rush-hour traffic.
The drive-in took us over the Panama Canal and the famous Bridge of the Americas. Our camp spot was at the Balboa Yacht Club, somewhat of an Overlander favorite and very comfortable and conveniently located for a few nights in Panama while we did the vehicle inspections and customs clearance for shipping on to Columbia. While there we bumped into a fellow Overlander ( another lady travelling solo ), Dana from Ontario. Dana had been on the road about six months and was traveling with her mastiff and two cats – she was planning to get to Ecuador to check it out for possible retirement. Unfortunately with a very big rig she was running up against the extremely high cost of shipping “RoRo” – the vehicle would not fit in a container. In the last few months the cost of this shipping method has gone through the roof. Over a few drinks with her at the Balboa Yacht Club she mentioned she was actually rethinking her plans to cross to Colombia and contemplating returning to Nicaragua. She was in fact the second person in Panama we have met who may ditch their plans to cross the Darien Gap because of the high cost of shipping – both were in large, conventional ‘motorhomes’. Gave us a whole new appreciation for what we have.
As I close off this blog we have just completed an extremely exhausting day in Panama City but after quite the runaround we do now have a vehicle inspection approval and export permit in our hands. One would not think that is such a big undertaking but it was in fact a whole day affair and completed during a torrential down pour which had flooded many of the Panama City streets. Never a dull moment !
Our plan from here is to use the weekend to do some sightseeing in Panama City and on Monday drive to Colon to put the vehicle in the container-between loading the vehicle in the container, the transit time to Cartagena and the unloading time in Columbia we will be a full week without our camper – separation anxiety ! We are both a little nervous about that ( things can go wrong – we read of one Overlander whose vehicle was sent to the wrong port ! ) but at the same time we are both definitely looking forward to some hotel time !
Our last days in Nicaragua were spent at San Juan Del Sur, the beachside/surfing community close to Costa Rica. It was obvious that the town is still suffering from the effects of the Nicaraguan protests last year – restaurants and hotels were very quiet and there were not nearly as many tourists around as would be expected this time of year. A good sign – cruise ships have just started stopping in again after a long break and one arrived in the bay as we left. A popular place for Overlanders to stay there is actually at the port – and we did – since it had all the facilities and 24 / 7 security….and an awesome view of the bay !
Apart from getting temporarily lost our entry to Costa Rica went very smoothly- leaving Nicaragua meant we had now safely navigated the so-called ‘more dangerous’ parts of Central America ( El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) so, while there was a sense of relief, we were also actually a bit annoyed. Why all the fuss ? In all four countries the people were incredibly friendly, helpful and polite – always. At no point were we threatened, nor did we ever feel at any risk. Everyone we met there said the same thing. We both wish we just had more time. Hopefully the word gets out and the long suffering folks in the tourism business there start seeing normal tourism levels again.
Given our deadline to get to Panama we decided to limit our travel in Costa Rica to a week – a beach community ( we chose Samara on the Nicoya Peninsula ), the canopy walk ( in the clouds ) at Monteverde, possibly a National Park and lastly San Jose itself. While we would not have time to stay, our route out to Panama along the south coast would give us a look at Jaco beach and, ideally, time to explore the very small but famous Manuel Antonio National Park.
Costa Rica differs significantly from the 4 countries before it. More developed, very politically stable ( it’s NEVER in the news for the wrong reasons ) and with a generally higher living standard – commensurately higher prices, of course ! Many other travellers and Nicaraguans had warned us about costs in Costa Rica – consensus was 2 and in some cases 3 times higher than the rest of Central America. It turns out in many cases they were not wrong. Quite a shock. For the first time since we left Canada we were finding costs, at times anyway, higher than at home. That’s all fine, it is a more developed country overall, however we were still getting poor wifi, and cold showers ! Generally, pay more get more – but not so much in Costa Rica !
While it’s hard not to like Costa Rica, our overall impression after a week here was just a bit “underwhelmed”. We had no issues, people were great ( as they have been everywhere in Central America so far ) but the sights and attractions just did not match our ( admittedly elevated ) expectations. The beaches were nice, the water warm, but ( personal bias here ) neither of us could get excited about black, or at best, grey, sand – give me a traditional white sand beach any day ! The much hyped Monteverde cloud walk was again, “nice” , but we saw nothing we had not seen in the coastal rainforests of Oregon or other less renowned parts of the world. What we did enjoy in Monteverde was the cool nights ( and easy sleeping ) that comes with mountain elevations over 5,000 feet – hard to believe we were still in Central America. Delightful !
Our search for a shipping partner to cross the Darien Gap had put us in contact with a young American lady, Cassey, and based on our travel schedules it seemed San Jose was a great place to meet as we were both close by. Cassey is driving a VW Vanagon solo on the same route as us so it was a great fit. We certainly hope the plan works and if we can get the vehicles on the ship they would go in a shared container from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia later in November – fingers crossed !
Both Lois and I had come down with pretty nasty colds ( flu ? ) which possibly dimmed our usual travel enthusiasm this past week. No fun being sick on the road ! We wandered the downtown of San Jose after meeting Cassey but as it started to rain little exploring was done. Highlight of the day was an awesome lunch we treated ourselves to at a French bistro. Good food in Costa Rica !
Our route out towards Panama took us back down to the coast, via Tarcoles ( famed for the crocodiles that lie under the Tarcoles bridge – probably the most impressive wildlife we saw in Costa Rica ), Jaco Beach and on to Manuel Antonio National Park. While we drove right down to the park entrance and could see what a stunning sight it must be ( the road in is spectacular – it is Costa Rica’s second most popular sight ), we were too late to have a meaningful visit that day – thunder clouds and the first drops of rain sealed the deal. Further exploration would have to wait for a return visit.
Our week closed out well down the Costa Rican coast and an easy drive away from Panama. Assuming the shipping goes as planned it should give us almost 2 weeks in Panama – a week of that ( almost anyway ) will be tied up with vehicle preparation, vehicle inspections and container loading still leaving us enough time to explore what Panama has to offer. We’re looking forward to it !
On a completely different note, a few months ago I wrote an article for Truck Camper Adventures reviewing the Outfitter Caribou Lite that we have. A lot of interest was raised in the drawer system we had custom built to create additional storage in the rear seat area of the truck. I was asked to write a separate article on the drawers and it was just published. For the more technically inclined, read all about how to build a rear seat drawer system here ( much credit to Chris and Andy of course ! ):
Feedback from folks on the road ( along with our personal preference ) was that we should travel El Salvador mostly via the coastal route – this would allow us to visit the renowned beach community of El Tunco while at the same time skirting around San Salvador – it’s capital city and not one of the safer places in Central America.
Leaving Rio Dulce, highway CA13 took us across the eastern end of Guatemala before turning south on the CA9. Reasonable roads although very heavily travelled by large trucks. At Rio Hondo the initial plan to cut into Honduras briefly to see the ruins of Copan was shelved – did we really want to see yet ANOTHER Mayan ruin ? It was a unanimous no – so we kept going. It turned into other of those long driving days ( in time at least, if not always distance in Central America) and got us to the small town of Jalpatagua where we closed out our 4 days in Guatemala at a beautiful campground run by a delightful Guatemalan family. All spoke English, served up great food and treated us like part of their family- we even joined in some table tennis ! Always nice to leave a country on a high note and with Guatemala we certainly were. We loved it in 2006 and equally as much in 2019. Fantastic people.
Crossing from Guatemala to El Salvador could not have been easier. Exactly as detailed in our trusty iOverlander app and despite the need for a temporary vehicle import permit, a rare border crossing that was totally free of charge- great first impression in El Salvador ! In addition to avoiding the capital, San Salvador, the route chosen gave us the chance to drive El Salvador’s famous Ruta de Flores ( Route of Flowers ), a bonus we had not expected. Though slightly early in the season for the full blossoming there were plenty of brightly coloured flowers to be seen along with some amazing mountain views, coffee plantations and quaint El Salvadoran towns and villages.
Our next few nights were spent beach side in El Tunco- the El Salvadoran hospitality and friendliness ( as well as great food ) were there in abundance – actually, kind of a tough place to leave. We would also certainly miss the campsite’s talking parrot – “Lola”. Lola could whistle, and regurgitate “Hola”, “Amigo” and “Amiga” endlessly ( apparently even able to distinguish gender ! ) – she took a particular liking to Lois.
One of the great things about Central America is that the countries are all very small and the driving distances short – El Tunco all the way to the eastern side of Honduras was an easy 5 hour scenic drive – notable mostly for quite a number of volcanoes along the way. Crossing to Honduras was another easy border, and all went smoothly aside from the phalanx of local “helpers” that descend on every gringo who approaches the “frontera”. Talk about persistent- these guys stick to you like gum on a shoe until you relent and use one or two of their services, always for a small fee of course. At this particular border, one guy was very helpful so I slid him a few dollars. As we got back to our car there was another “helper” standing by it….this one demanding a dollar for guarding our truck while we were inside doing paperwork !
Arriving later in the day in Honduras the need was simply to find a hotel, rest and move on the next day – we had no plans for in depth exploring here. The roads were of excellent quality so travel was easy. In fact, we’d say they had the best roads in Central America so far, and were far better than expected. That was all good, however it was the next border that we were concerned about – Nicaragua.
What with the whole drone thing ( they never even asked incidentally but we are glad we sent it home ) and conflicting reports from other overlanders about the ease of the crossing we approached with some trepidation. Alas it was all for nought – save for some more aggressive border “helpers” it could not have gone more smoothly. Everyone charming, polite and professional.
So there we were, just over half way through the week and in and out of three countries ! While that sounds like a lot, one has to remember how small these countries are. You can, without much difficulty, cross from eastern El Salvador, through Honduras ( the part above the Gulf of Fonseca ) and almost across the length of Nicaragua in a long day’s drive. We haven’t suddenly “changed gears” and are not now travelling with that urgency, but our decision to be ready to ship to Colombia from Panama by the latter part of November meant we simply had to look at the map, determine our priorities for the coming weeks and stick to a fairly rigid schedule . As I write we are speaking to a potential shipping partner whose desired shipping schedule matches ours – roughly speaking, two vehicles in a 40ft High Cube container will halve our RoRo shipping costs. To boot, there is much greater security of the vehicle and its contents in a locked container versus the RoRo option. We are certainly hoping this works out to both our benefits – we should know within a week.
Our limited time here in Nicaragua forced some quick decisions upon us with regard to itinerary. As for El Salvador and Honduras we deliberately chose to avoid the capital ( Managua ) and our direct route through made that easy. Other than driving, our time here would be limited to the volcanic island of Ometepe ( in Lake Nicaragua ) and San Juan Del Sur ( another beach community ) in the south near the Costa Rican border.
Omotepe did not disappoint – a beautiful island setting approached by ferry from San Jorge, its lush green foliage and perennially cloud – shrouded twin volcano backdrop provide almost an eerie aura, as if some giant beast would soon appear. No giant beasts, but quaint villages, an outstanding butterfly sanctuary, waterfalls and some idyllic view points. Great to take a break from the truck and get on a motorbike for a day !
As our week closes out we find ourselves en route to San Juan Del Sur – have heard so much about this place and we’re really looking forward to it. Once a thriving tourist town, and somewhat of an “in” spot on the Gringo Trail through Central America, the troubles in Nicaragua in 2018 ( which are all over now ) sadly caused a precipitous decline in visitor arrivals which are only now starting to recover. True, frankly, for much of Central America – nowhere we have travelled in the past 2 weeks has there been anything remotely close to “normal” tourist levels. The “migrant caravan” stories earlier this year have probably caused some of that. While we certainly enjoy the relative solace ( and better deals that ensue ), we hope for the sake of the many local people this has impacted that folks do start returning – there is so much to enjoy here and we only wish we had time to see more of it.
While the hotels were a welcome break (as was the break from doing our own cooking in this heat), we won’t get to Argentina sitting by pools in Mexico. Funnily enough, right in the middle of our rest, while walking down the main street in Tulum, we bumped into a French couple who had just come “up” from South and Central America. Lots of info sharing done and they assuaged some concerns we had about places they had just visited – and to which we would travel next.
We will of course miss Mexico – the people were super friendly as always, the food excellent, the scenery stunning and of course, so many amazing sights. A few things we won’t miss – no one ever has change, refried beans splattered over every meal, and the big one…….TOPES !!! Hopefully no more of those wicked speed bumps as we go further south….but we won’t hold our breath.
Our “R&R” break complete, the truck re-packed, we set off for Belize. Not our first visit ( we had been before in 2006 ) so on this occasion Belize was more a transit point than a destination ( you can’t really avoid Belize when you enter Central America from the Yucatan in Mexico ). The plan was just a few days – and to focus on the interior, which we had skipped over before, with a planned stop in San Ignacio to visit the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich just before the Guatemalan border.
Belize is a delightful little country ( “little” being the operative word- you can cross it in few hours ) and the Belizeans are wonderfully friendly and helpful. Crossing the border was a breeze, and the journey across the country brought back many memories of our former visit – colorful buildings, kids in school uniforms ( I guess it’s the Aussie in me – something just seems so inherently proper about that ! ), constant reminders of its British heritage with English spoken ( which was nice, after 2 months of Spanish ! ), the queen on their money, speed limit signs in “miles” and fuel sold in “gallons” ( albeit the US gallon, not the Imperial one ). Curiously, for an ex-British colony, driving is on the right, not the left – but no complaints there as it made it easier for us coming from Canada.
Once in a while we “pull a long day” on the road and the trip to Belize was one – the run from Tulum all the way to San Ignacio was uneventful save for a late afternoon storm and quite a bit of roadwork en route. We chose San Ignacio as it was driveable in a day, had a camprground with an excellent reputation ( well deserved as it turned out ) and was on the doorstep of the aforementioned Mayan ruins of Xunantunich. Ruins, I should add, which proved to be both unexpectedly impressive and delightfully free of the plethora of trinket hawkers that plagued every ruin we saw in Mexico. Peace…..quiet….solitude, at a tourist site ? Something we had not known for over 2 months.
In preparation for the next stage of our trip we had done further research on the countries ahead and were starting to look at shipping options from Panama to Colombia ( you can’t drive it, a little strip of impenetrable jungle called the “Darien Gap” stands in your way ). Much time is now being spent trying to find shipping dates that work, and that align with our plans to fly back to Canada for a few weeks at Christmas. While we don’t have any absolute time restriction on our travels, one thing that is weighing on us is timing for the Carretera Austral ( Chile’s famous Southern Highway). It’s best done no later than March/April and since it has always been a prime reason for doing the PanAmerican highway we don’t want to sacrifice making that “weather deadline”. It may well mean that we have to move more quickly though Central America having now spent so much time in Mexico.
Seems there’s always a curveball you don’t expect when tackling something like this and we got one this week as we looked more carefully into the countries ahead of us – it seems not only can’t you fly a drone in Nicaragua, you can’t even possess one ( and, like almost all overlanders, we have one ) . They are routinely confiscated at the border. We heard about it, then checked it out and it’s right there on Google. Even saw a YouTube video from a guy who had his taken from him. Why that would be a rule boggles the mind ( isn’t it enough to just say you can’t fly it ? ) and is a logistical nightmare for the thousands of travellers just transiting Nicaragua as part of a longer trip – what do you do with your drone ? Short answer – send it home. So a morning was spent packaging up the drone and mailing it back to Canada. A completely pointless and somewhat expensive exercise ( and I will be without it for 2 months now ) but hey, what do you do ?
The exit from Belize went as smoothly as the entry and likewise the crossing to Guatemala – the folks there simply could not have been more friendly and helpful. Fuelled up, then cashed up at the first town and we were on our way to Tikal. Frankly, we debated even visiting considering we had been in 2006 and the weather looked very “iffy”. But hey, we were this close, why not, right ? Well, we probably shouldn’t have – it just poured raining most of the time, we got totally drenched and photo ops were limited. Sometimes I suppose you should just take a pass. It has not become any less impressive but unlike our last visit ( beautiful sunshine ) this time it was the opposite. C’est le vie .
While Tikal this visit was a bit of a bust, we did have a real “score” on our first night Guatemala – probably one of the best camping spots we have been at. Right on the shore of Lake Peter Itza, all facilities at hand – people go to El Muelle for the sunsets and we caught a very nice one.
Tikal also happens to be located right near one of Guatemala’s prettiest little towns ( and I mean little ), the town/island of Flores. Thirteen years since our last visit and it was just as picturesque as we remembered it. We used the time there to enjoy a wonderful crepe breakfast and after some sights to do some deep diving into our upcoming shipping options – pretty soon a decision had to be made. Would we go by container ( we needed a 40 footer, and ideally would share one ) or RoRo ( essentially, a large ferry ). Pros and cons to both but either way we had to be VERY sure of the truck’s dimensions so did some double checking on that. As I write we are waiting on final quotes and will likely decide where, when and how to cross the Darien Gap in the next week. Colon in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia looking most likely at this stage.
Regardless of shipping options our next move was south so headed to Rio Dulce where we wrapped up the week. A beautiful drive through Guatemalan countryside to get there and a rather unique kind of place as well. It’s one of those few places where overlanders and “yachties” cross paths. The “go to” campsite is actually a marina, frequented by sailors resting up in the calm waters of the Rio Dulce just a few kilometres inland from the Caribbean coast during hurricane season.
Bumped into a young French family there travelling the America’s who had driven in with their motorhome while they were visiting other friends who had just sailed in. The “friends” had been sailing for 4 years and dropped in to give birth to a new baby. Four years in a yacht, and now with a new “addition” – now that is adventurous !
Jeff + Lois
We are Lois and Jeff, of Kelowna, BC, Canada. Recently retired with a serious overlanding travel bug, we hit the road in our truck camper in May 2019, initially tackling the Pan American highway. The PanAm completed in April 2022, and truck camper sold, we plan to continue exploring again later in 2022 in our Sprinter 4×4!