Monday, 31 March 2014

Panama and its mysterious connection to Colombia

Hi all,

We finally have the pleasure to greet you from South America! It took us seven and a half months to get here, but we have finally crossed! Don't get us wrong, we had a great time in Central America but we have been looking forward to see for ourselves the great stories people have told us about South America!

With our previous blog we informed you about Costa Rica and how we had a pretty good time there. We were surprised that Costa Rica was very touristic and pretty developed and that many foreigners come here to retire. When entering into Panama we didn't immediately get this impression as we entered via the Bocas del Toro crossing, which is not very commonly used. It is, although beautiful, is significantly poorer than the rest of Panama and  we were more focus on the shipping of the car. We immediately headed direction the Pacific towards the only and therefor the most famous volcano in Panama, volcan Baru. Here we are located nearby the village of Boquete, which is an outdoor adventure hub in Panama. We decide to relax a bit higher at the starting point of a famous hike, the 'sendero de los quetzales', which brings you to one side of the volcano to the other passing through the cloud forest. The forest itself is impressive, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that very few people were hiking this trail. Although it is actually not the best spot to see quetzals, we saw a male and a female quickly passing by.

From the cold and rainy volcano we headed to the Pacific coast where we joined the Panamanians in their Carnaval celebration at playa las Lajas, something which is taken very seriously. From the beginning our main focus in Panama was to get all the paperwork done to cross to Colombia but we quickly realised we arrived in the wrong time as nobody works during the carnival period. So we tried to make the best out of our extended period in Panama. Now when you hear Carnival you might think of large celebrations, until a certain measure that is true, but it was not the parade kind of party. Instead, all the villages have their local parties which involve gigantically load music, an obsession of Panamanians, together with water sprinklers - it is hot here.

As mentioned our main goal in Panama is to cross towards Colombia, the reason for this is that there is no road connecting both countries. The main reason, or excuse, is that the Darien Gap is a very vast piece of jungle with a lot of life and governments do not want to disturb the biodiversity by building a road. We obviously all know that this is just an excuse, can you give me one example where biodiversity preservation stopped a profitable project? We can't, especially nowhere in Central America, where so many land has been deforested. The real reason is probably a bit less ideologic. There are several theories, one being the Panama canal, which is a huge business. Having a road would probably decrease the importance of this strategic hub, a second and more important reason is drugs. The Darien Gap is a notorious narcotic hub, and it is in everyone's benefit to leave it as unexplored as possible. It is absolutely not recommended for anybody to cross the 60 km between Panama and Colombia by foot - or for the adventurous, by car. We can only say, and I am sure that most of the overlanders and shipping companies agree, that if there would be a toll road between Panama and Colombia we would be willing to pay 500 USD or more to take it - no doubt. But anyhow, back to shipping the car: There are two options for us: Or your ship via RoRo (roll on-roll off), which is like a big ferry, or you share a 40 foot container with another traveller, which is the preferred option as it is safer. The main problem is that we did not find anybody to share a container with, so until we found someone in the next ten days, we had to assume we have to ship via RoRo.

Next stop is Panama city, a place you haven't seen in a long time if you are on a trip like us. The place is filled with skyscrapers - often these are build and bought for money laundering, but more on this later - and all facilities are modern. It is really impressive to see this place with its tunnels, bridges and a very soon operative metro. It immediately becomes clear that Panama is a very different place than the other countries in Central America. Where Costa Rica feels wealthy due to all the retired Americans and Europeans, Panama feels wealthy because there is a growing economy. Can you imagine that almost 80% of the GDP comes from services! Panama is home for many expats.

Anyhow, all this money has made Panama City into an impressive city where you have plenty of places to shop. In addition, there is the casco viejo, the historical city centre, which is pretty beautiful and interesting as it is a constant contrast. Here you will find gorgeously restored buildings next to shanty buildings. 

In Panama city the first step of our shipping starts, as we need to go to the Police for an inspection. There is a general meeting place for the overlanders at the yacht club where we had a very pleasant surprise the night before we had to go for the inspection. There we met with the french family again. And out of the blue, a small red Renault 4 turns up with Nico and Matthieu. They are on a crazy trip around the world in one year, promoting microcredit, requiring them to ship their car a total of 4 times! We were lucky, they were in the same situation as us: assuming they will ship via RoRo until they found someone to share a container. We could now share a container, transporting the car more securely, cheaper and on top we could share the enormous amounts of stress involved with the bureaucratic waiting game. Step one, the police inspection, took one day for a five minute job, but went good. We could now go to Colon, on the Caribbean side, from where the container ship would leave.

Colon itself is a horrible city and really no place where you want to be, you will not feel relaxed here - it is also advised not to go here at night. We decided to stay at the San Lorenzo fort, 40 minutes from the city, in the middle of a jungly area where we were super relaxed. Here we could prepare the car for shipping and wait for Nico and Matthieu to meet us here. A couple of relaxing days have been spend here with the French family, who themselves where preparing to ship via RoRo two days before us, we enjoyed two days with them in the fort. We enjoyed the beach, ruins, howler monkeys, bird-watching...

Colon is a great place to visit the Panama canal. Nearby you have the Gatun locks, a set of three locks bring ships up/down by 40 meters. We have all seen local canals raising or decreasing ships, but still it is impressive to see how a gigantic ship passes through these locks in a matter of an hour or so. It is obvious that the Panama canal is an strategic transportation hub, explaining why the USA has been involved in Panama during the majority of the previous century. Currently you can also see how they are expanding the canal by building an additional set of locks, allowing for even bigger and deeper vessels to pass. When considering the amount of time and fuel that vessels can safe by using the canal, it is obvious that big money can be charged. The amount charged to a ship depends on the quantity transported(people in the cruise, containers, cars,others..) and it is not uncommon that a passage of the canal costs 400.000 USD - peanuts for some if you consider the savings. A maximum of 50 ships could pass the canal currently and they are foreseeing the double this with the next set of gates. And can you imagine the most crazy thing about this canal? When a container ship needs to pay its passage of hundreds of thousands dollars they need to pay this in CASH. The canal currently generates 2 billion USD annually, all paid in cash - simply insane.

After spending our relaxing days at the fort, the time came to bring the cars to the port and to load them into the container. In all honesty, this one day process went pretty smooth and was very interesting. The deal was done in a couple of hours with little paperwork and at the end we could pay our fees in cash to some guy at the port. From here we could go back to Panama City as the next day we were going to start a travel highlight. From the beginning we knew we would really want to pass to Colombia with a sailing boat, although we were checking other options, like going to Cartagena by plain. We booked together with the frenchies Mathiew and Nicolas. The trip involved three days of mega relaxing in a sailing boat at the San Blas islands. These islands are the home of the Kuna, an indigenous group of Panamanians who have gained a high level of autonomy here with seperate rules and laws. Panamanian and international coastguards are not allowed in these waters.

The islands are super relaxing, so is our tranquillo captain Seba and his completely equal dog Shieda. Our days consisted out of sitting, laying, snorkeling, sitting a bit more, catching an occasional fish - we caught a yellow fin tuna! - and walking on the ideal islands surrounded by turquoise water and white sand beaches. Really, we cannot complain about life and this experience was excellent for us. After a couple of days hoovering around the islands, we set sail for Cartagena, Colombia - 35-40 hours far crossing the open sea. When leaving the waves where pretty bad and we can only say that everyone has been sick a bit - or a lot - during the 40 hours trip. More on this the next blog, we are writing for to long, enjoy some of the pictures!

Alex and Mire

PS: A small update on our future itinerary. We originally had the idea to go all the way till the south of Argentina, depending of the weather of course. Although this might still be possible, we have an appointment: 22 June we need to be in Rio de Janeiro to shout the Red Devils towards a victory against the Russians! Therefore we will pass to Brazil from Bolivia, after this we might still go further south, but that's a question mark at this stage!

Our first night camping location in Panama

The quetzal trail nearby volcan Barru provides plenty of relaxing opportunities

Introduction to Panama City

Panama city at night

A charming part of the casco viejo (the historical city center)

A less charming place of Panama City is where you need to go for the police inspection

The latest chapter for our 'sleeping wherever I can'

Camping with 'The French Family' nearby the city of Colon

On our way towards the relaxed San Lorenzo fort we drive through a nice piece of jungle filled with visible and hearible monkeys

The fort is located at the end of a road and receives very view visitors on week days

Direct views on the water

Mireia takes the kids for a ride

Tada! visiting the Panama Canal at the Gatun locks where we are the firstline spectators of this one hour passage from the lake to the sea level

An example of a ferry/RoRo ship transporting thousands of rolling devices

Thuthuuuut! Next train leaving in 15 minutes!
These trains are used to pull and push the ships while being in the gates

Not a good picture, but it is just to show to works on the third line of gates

When driving around here you have the feeling you pass through a warzone. Actually these buildings are former USA army bases used during their involvement in the Panama Canal business

We meet up with Nico and Matthieu the day before we need to load the container

That's a 40 foot container, like the one which will bring us to Colombia

The last spot from where we could take pictures 

We traded our cars for this beauty, the Corto, which will bring us to Cartagena via the gorgeous San Blas islands

Ad interim captain Mireia

The real boss on the boat is Sheida

The master suite

Cool views

The saying that the dogg resembles is boss is really true in this case - Our capitan Seba is very Tranquillo - not saying that he sleeps a lot!

Some days life is hard and we are stressed, other days, we cannot complain

Views of an island

They had some crazy lobsters here

But why buy a lobster if you can catch a yellow fin tuna! By the way, that's Seba the Capitan

Island views + snorkeling

The dog is well trained and swims to shore for ... you know what

Good times

One of the more constructed islands. Still not exactly a concrete jungle


The waters are full with lion fish and you can find tonnes of large seastars

Ending panoramic view

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Into the western wilderness of Costa Rica

Hola todo mundo!

A quick overview from the beauty that Costa Rica has provided us! The last time we talked, we were about to leave Nicaragua after having been there for over a month due to some unfortunate experiences. After having spend longer than expected in Nicaragua - and everywhere else - we decided to pass Costa Rica fast: we are in a hurry to go to South America and Costa Rica is a westernised country which is expensive. So we only spend a short time here and we can confirm that it is indeed a very developed country which is significantly more expensive than the northern Central American countries. For ourselves, Costa Rica has not been the most spectacular country to visit as their is little to experience from a cultural point of view, still we could recommend it to people who would like to have a first travel experience in Latin America - there are a lot of activities to do here!

So where did we start? Well first we had a very smooth, although very unlogical and messy, border crossing into Costa Rica. We had just said goodbye to Sharon at the bus station of Rivas, so we only made it into Costa Rica around 6 in the evening and therefor immediately went to a campground. Finca Canas Castilla provided the perfect place for us and by coincidence we met previously met travellers John and Betti here! The place was great for relaxing a bit and to realise we are travelling again after what happened in Nicaragua.

After a day of relaxing and playing with the baby sloth (luiaap / oso perezoso) we headed off to Lake Arenal, passing via CaƱo Negro, a small lake recommended to us. Again by 'coincidence' (we knew they would be around) we met 'The French Family' here! It is really a small world and it is funny to see everybody by coincidence! We talk a bit and we play a bit and we are ready to continue to Lake Arenal. Guess what? Here we meet 'The Dutchies', camping on a beautiful stretch of land in the lake, without anybody around. This is a gorgeous place to be, especially when you see how Gringolandia this area really is!

From the lake it is a relative short drive towards the cloudforests of Monteverde, one of the most visited natural parks of Costa Rica. The forest itself is beautiful and it is  nice to see the area so green as we were so surprised to see how the north of Costa Rica is deforested. We always imagined Costa Rica to be a completely green paradise, but this is not always the case. Anyhow, Monteverde is beautiful and has some really cool paths. The main ones leaving at the entrance are a bit more busy, but the ones at the end are practically abandoned and I think we haven't met anybody there. Ironically the only animals we have seen at this park were not inside the forest but at the parking area. The most spectacular for us was to finally see a Quetzal, a bird which you have to see when you are crossing Central America. For months we have been hearing about it and never we have seen it until now. We can only confirm that it is truly a beautiful and elegant bird. It should not be a surprise when we say that also here we bumped into someone previously met. While walking we pass the 'English family'. This means that within 36 hours we saw everybody with who we camped almost a week before on the beach, rather funny for us, especially in Costa Rica, where there are significantly more roads and places to go to.

With them we spend a nice evening camping in Santa Elena, after which we proceed to the capital San Jose. Here we will meet Lynn, which we had previously met in Honduras, and we'll go and look for a new camera for Alex - it is pretty complicated to find a good camera in these areas, so we really had to do some research where to find something. The city of San Jose does not have much to offer for us, it might have some interesting corners, bur we haven't seen the charm of it. On top, the traffic to leave the city was horrible and the streets were organised unlogically. 

Our next stop would be Punta Uva, at the caribbean side, where Mireia has a family member Angela who has a natural reserva, named La Ceiba, together with her husband Francesc. Both of them are true adventurers and together with their friend Rosa from Barcelona, make us have a great experience. . We were very lucky to meet them, as they arrived one day before us from Barcelona. The natural reserve is located in the jungle where we see plently of animals. On top the area of Punta Uva is really beautiful with perfect beaches. The area is a little bit touristic, but nothing compared to its neighbour villages Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo. After enjoying ourselves and the company during several days, we head of to Panama as we have a boat to catch! We are hoping to make it to Colombia soon, as we are already far behind our travel schedule! But let's not go to fast, more on this the next time, now enjoy some of the animals!

Alex and Mire

Look at this cute 10 months old sloth

The finca had some nice short hikes from where we could enjoy the northern Costa Rican landscapes - Nicaragua is very deforested, but the north of Costa Rica has seen its share as well

Going to the Monteverde cloud forest we immediatly have some visitors at the car
Looking down at the forest from a suspension bridge

Since entering Central America there is a big hype around the Quetzal bird, which is increasingly rare to spot due to decreased territories. We finaly mamaged to spot one of these beautiful birds! Sorry, not the best picture quality.


Finding a perfect relaxed camping spot at Gringo lake Arenal thanks to previous overlanders

San Jose - Not the most spectecular town (for us) combined with horrible traffic

We meet Lynn! (Ref to Utila, Honduras)

On our way from San Jose to Punta Uva we have the whole beach at our disposal for camping

Punta Uva Jaguar Rescue Center: Here rescued animals are prepared to be released in the wild again 

Another baby sloth - this time it is a three fingered one, they look completely different!


Relaxing after a long day of relaxing
This must be the most lazy sloth ever, he/she didn't even do the effort to go up the tree to sleep

In La Ceiba we see a whole bunch of other animals: The woodpecker
Punta Uva had the most idyllic beaches

More beach

Funny bichos

La Ceiba has a beautiful entrance with this suspension bridge
Beautiful natural gardens - La Ceiba

Funny raccoons - also in preparation to be released to the wild

Thanks to Angela, Francesc and Rosa we had a wonderful stay at the natural reserve of La Ceiba

Ups! The famous Costa Rican red eyed frog in action

Manzanillo beach
More playa at Punta Uva
And more...