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Panama, Part 1: Boquete and Chitre

Central America5 min read

May 3 - 6, 2010

Panama, the last country in Central America before the big South. Known globally for the successful Panama Canal, it's also well-known among travelers as the Pan-American highway ends in the jungle province of Darien and there is no road connecting to the South American continent. This presents most travelers with the issue of flying across the Darien Gap or sailing around it. I made some arrangements a few months back with Ludwig, the captain of the Stahlratte, a 40 meter ship plying the waters between the San Blas islands of Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. My rush through Central America was to make sure I would make it on time for the boat. I got to Panama with enough time to spend a few days in some of the smaller cities and managed to head down to Yaviza, the last town on the Pan-American highway in the Darien.

There are two regular crossings on the southern side of the border between Costa Rica and Panama, but the one on the northern side here, at Sixaola/Guabito is the more interesting one as the border crossing is an old railroad track bridge.

It's one way of course and I went early in the morning to make sure I could take my time in getting across and not be rushed by traffic.

Slowly working my way across the bridge. The officers on the Costa Rican side said to take the left lane as the planks were better. This was better as well as I could slide my left leg along the raised pipe and keep the right foot on the rear brake.

At one section there is no railing to protect you if you fall over, so don't look down and just keep going.

Yup, semi-trucks cross here as well. This border crossing was quite relaxed but Panamanian immigration said I had to pay USD 30 for a tourist visa, after being told by the embassy in San Jose that I would need no visa. But it was no hassle, they just processed it there. USD 15 insurance for the bike was required.

My route map through Panama. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Local transportation in Gaubito, Panama.

Nice twisty roads heading south towards Chiriqui Grande.

Lunch of rice and beans with chicken in a sauce and potato salad for USD 2. Panama uses the US dollar as its currency.

Heading up from the Caribbean coast over the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast.

At the divide with the Pacific Ocean in view far away down there. Elevation was around 1,200 m (4,000 ft).

You think I'm loaded down? :p

A localized moving column of rain. I got rained on a bit here and there but managed to avoid the real heavy stuff. The intensity of the storms are just amazing. I reached Boquete by around 4 pm starting in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

At CouchSurfer Ellen Ring's house in Potrerillos, near Boquete. Ellen moved down from Texas a few years ago and after working in finance in Panama City, she's moved out to the milder mountain life and is now promoting tourism in Panama with her site Tourism in Panama is not as developed as Costa Rica or Mexico, but has a lot of potential.

I work up in the morning to a flat rear tire, the first one of the trip. I have a heavy duty rear tube, so it helps in supporting the form of the tire and not fully collapsing.

Wrestled to break the bead but finally got there with tube pulled out.

Something sharp poked through here...

...causing this corresponding hole. I thought the heavy duty rubber tube would withstand more abuse, but I guess if it's sharp enough, what can you do besides patch it and ride on.

Scrubbing the area around the puncture to prepare it for the patch.

New patch applied and good to go.

Having a tasty lunch, after slogging away all morning on the tire, of rice with chicken in a garlicy sauce with bean soup and desserted plantains for USD 2.

While Ellen and I were having a few drinks and waiting out the afternoon rainstorm, this pickup pulled up selling fish out the back.

We bought a 3 lb Amber Jack for USD 4.50.

Having the fish cleaned and filleted.

And cooking it up for Ellen in a thin batter of egg with flour, chili powder and garlic, along with lentils and rice.

The next morning, going past Boquete, looking for a waterfalls but not coming across it. However, the road was fun and it climbed up to about 1,800 m (6,000 ft).

Having a typical Panamanian breakfast in Boquete of beef or chicken in a sauce with a flour-based deep fried tortilla, resembling an Indian poori. The sauce and the tortilla were really tasty. Cost USD 1.50.

The valley with Boquete down on the left side and the Continental Divide rising behind it.

Back on the Pan-Am heading south, I saw a DR in my mirrors and pulled over to talk with Dan here. He's from California and is taking a few months off to buzz down to Tierra del Fuego. Small world, as he emailed me a year or two ago asking about my Happy Trails panniers before he purchased a set.

sanDRina was happy to mingle with some family. And without knowing it we pulled over in front of Policia Nacional, inviting a document check by the officer. All was in order and we got going.

Dan was shooting for Panama City that night and I wasn't going as far, so he sped ahead.

In the small town of Chitré, on the Gulf of Panama, staying with CouchSurfer Arilys and her family. This is with her dad in front of a bakery. Crazy wall painting.

With CouchSurfer Arilys in her home. She's a psychology professor at the local university and is a huge rock fan, recently going to Metallica and Guns N' Roses concerts. They didn't speak much English, so it was Spanish immersion time again. I can manage to convey my ideas across and can hold decent conversations. I'm slowly picking up more vocabulary with time.

Having a simple and tasty dinner of sauteed shrimp with rice and tomatoes with fresh pineapple juice. Arilys doesn't eat much meat and really enjoys rice with tomatoes. She prepares the white rice quite nicely with oil and other spices and the fresh tomatoes go really well with it.

Doing laundry the next day. Eww, that's a murky brown. Lots of sweat.

Feels good to wash everything. I tried washing in Costa Rica but the air was so humid on the Caribbean coast that the clothes didn't dry overnight. Here, Arilys had a spinning machine that squeezed the water out (like in locker rooms at swimming pools) and then the clothes dried within an hour. I also washed my gloves, helmet liner and boot liners. My main riding jacket, pants and the bike have been washed with the heavy rains.

Heading out to the local beach, Playa El Rompió near Los Santos. Arilys' boyfriend is a big surfer and there's an active surf culture down here with much better beaches further south on the Peninsula de Azuero. The boats are waiting for high tide.

Playa El Rompió at sunset. The beach is very shallow and each wave was coming in quite far. Nice mirror effect with the retreating water.

Birds teasing the tide.

Getting down low to meet the incoming tide.

Being treated to a fish fry dinner at El Mirador, a lookout restaurant on a nearby hill. Arilys' dad works for the Ministry of Health and travels by road all over Panama and I was trying to get some information about the road to Yaviza.

Fish fry of Corvina with patacones (squashed, fried plantains), washed down with cheladas - lager beer with lime and salt. Her dad and I added some hot sauce and made them micheladas.

Next: Panama, Part 2: The Canal & Darien Gap

Previous: Costa Rica, The Rich Coast


Jammin thru the Global South was the 3+ year, 100,000+ km ride Jay did from the US to India via Latin America, Europe and Africa. Explore the photojournals at the Journey Posts tab.

Jammin Global Adventures is a tour company run by Jay Kannaiyan. He organizes small group, premium motorcycle adventures in Peru, Kenya, Mongolia, India and more.

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