Friday, November 27, 2015

Days 51-59: Passing the Darien Gap (or Enjoying the San Blas Islands) and Retrieving the Truck in Cartagena

Traveling past the Darien Gap was treacherous, but pleasant in parts. We took a 50’ Sailboat from the San Blas Islands to Cartagena, stopping at four of the islands on the way.

Let me start with the bad stuff because I like to end on a good note instead of a downer. The bad stuff was pretty bad, and I seriously cannot recommend this boat to anyone without checking a few things. I would suggest asking about some of these even on other boats for this same crossing.

The manufacturer’s plate on the boat said it had a maximum capacity of 12 people. We had 13 paying passengers plus two crew members for a total of 15 people on board. As if that wasn’t a tight enough squeeze, there was no rigging for the dingy. That meant that during the open sea crossing, the dingy had to be brought on board and into the cockpit and salon, eliminating a good portion of the precious space we had. During the open sea crossing, the deck was also not available, as it was not safe out there. Even with the dingy towed behind, at least three people had to sit on countertops, and there still wasn’t room to eat without some people holding their plates in the air and sitting back from the table. That was issue #1, which really wasn’t very bad.

There were only bunks/cabins to accommodate a total of 14 people, so one of the paying passengers had to sleep out in the salon. We drew straws to determine who that would be. Fortunately, it wasn’t us. That was issue #2, which didn’t affect us.

The biggie was that our cabin was leaky. I’m not talking about a couple of drops here and there leaky. I’m talking water cascading down in sheets leaky. It wasn’t an issue the first three days on the islands. We only had a little sprinkle during that entire time. The last two days, when we were doing the open sea crossing, though, was a different story. We were with the currents but against the waves, and the waves grew as time went on. Those two nights, we felt like we were being waterboarded. It was miserable. Between the heat, the stuffiness, and the water, Bruce had a spell with his heart while we were making the crossing. Fortunately, we were able to get him through it without needing air evac, and he is fine now. I don’t think we’ll be doing one of these again, though.

Now, for the play-by-play of the boat with just brief mention of the bad stuff when they come up.

We arranged to be picked up at our hotel at 5:00 a.m. and transported to the boat. Our driver arrived around 6:00, and off we went to a town called Carti inside a park that reminded me of Native American reservations in the US. We had to show our passports and pay a fee to enter. It’s run by the Kuna, which is the indigenous tribe in that part of Panama and the San Blas Islands. From what I understand, you must get permission from the Kuna to live and enter there, and if you live in the San Blas Islands, you must take your rotation to care for one of the islands. Each island has at least one hut on it, and a family lives in that hut for three months, then another family moves in. During that time, you care for the island you are on. That includes issuing $100 fines to tourists that pick up and take coconuts!

From Carti, the 13 passengers and our stuff loaded up on this little boat, taking the boat to meet our boat. We were 4 Irish persons, 4 US citizens, 1 dual citizen (US and Bolivia), 1 Australian, 1 German, 1 Swiss, and 1 Brit. The captain, Victor, was from Argentina, and the mate, Sophie, was French. The theme from Gilligan’s Island started playing over and over in my head. It got louder as I saw some of the islands. Kept reminding myself that these desert isles are not uncharted.

We met the Amande (our sailboat) beside the island of Chichime. The snorkeling wasn’t bad, but the water was a bit murkey. Closer to the shore, we found multiple starfish and other critters to play with. We swam across the channel to another island where we found a little bird with fishing line tied around its foot. We captured it and held it down while we untied the line and set it free. We noticed that some of the flight feathers had been broken on one wing, but that was all we could do. We hope it survives. At the end of the first day, off to bed early, though most folks stayed up and partied a bit.

On the second day, we headed to the immigration island of El Porvenir. The captain left with our passports to get us stamped out of Panama, and Kuna ladies came to try to sell us overpriced needlepoint squares and beads. When the ladies left, many of our bunch swam over to the beach to play volleyball. I swam around the boat for a while, and Bruce and I took our turn washing up the breakfast dishes. After we were all stamped out of Panama and we took on more fresh water and fuel, we headed over the island of Banadup, which has a bar on it. The only drinks served were rum, beer, and Coca-Cola. You had to mix you own Cuba Libre, but that worked fine for me. The captain let everyone know that there would be no drinking on the day we start passage across the open sea, so everyone decided they needed to drink all they brought with them instead of bringing some on into Colombia with them. Some folks got stupid drunk, and the next morning, we had our first victim of “sea sickness”, though I think it had less to do with the sea than the prior night’s partying.

On the last day, we went to the island of Isla Julio (aka Hollandes Cay). This had an awesome reef! So many types of coral, and all very healthy and huge with various fishes throughout. I saw several schools of parrot fish, wrasses, many types of tangs, and many other bright, beautiful fish. I saw a cleaning station that didn’t disband when I swam close. Instead, I got to watch the gobies finish cleaning a parrot fish. I really wished I had my underwater camera, but alas! It remains in Ecuador! The reef was very shallow in places, and the current was strong. It kept trying to push me into the coral, but I was able to make it through the whole time without getting any reef rash. I could have spent the whole time right here and never missed the other islands. Unfortunately, I was already rather burned, and the morning I spent face down in the water just burned my back even more, so I spent the afternoon on the boat with Bruce.

In preparation for the open sea crossing, the dingy was brought on board and things were stowed. We were then informed that we should have waterproof bags around our bags. We removed all of our electronics so they could be stowed in different cabins of the boat. This did not bode well. Bruce’s point: “If water is going to get on our electronics under our bunk, I’m gonna drown!” Little did we know just how right he was! The captain said to take our sea sickness pills and then go to bed.  Once we were all in bed, he would start the crossing. He said the first part should be the worst of it, and once we get used to the higher waves, it should be okay. We took our pills and headed to bed. The hatches were closed and tightened down, and the fan didn’t adjust so you could aim the air where you needed it.

The boat started hitting the waves and causing a jolting ride. There was no air to speak of in the cabin. It was hot and stuffy. When a wave washed up over the hatch, a steady trickle of water would run onto our faces. Bruce started not feeling well. I could feel his heart racing just by putting my hand on his chest. His skin was also cold and clammy to touch. It was dark, so I couldn’t see him, but things were not boding well. His carotid puIse was irregular and fast, but strong, so that was a good sign. I got him sat up out of the water stream, hooked the door to the cabin open, and breathed with him. This is where the boat had the second bout of sea sickness, but this is a common side effect of his spells, so maybe not caused by the sea, either. Eventually, his heart rate slowed back down, and his skin felt more normal, so we laid back down and tried to sleep. It wasn’t a very restful night, but we had no more events.

The next day, we went to the salon and perched Bruce in the spot that got the most air. He didn’t move.  We were trolling a line behind the boat, and hooked a Dorado (Mahi-Mahi) which the captain landed. Sophie cooked it with pasta, and it was delicious. Not many people ate, though. Most folks stayed below in their cabins, feeling rather nauseous. I went below a couple of times for naps. I was exhausted. There was one spot on the bed that didn’t have water dripping onto it. It was kind of in the center of the length of the bed, close to the center wall. I gathered the sheet and pillows there and laid my head down. Curling my back, my hips fit on the edge of the bed, and my legs hung off. There wasn’t much air, and water was dripping onto my shorts, but I was able to nap without water hitting my face. Sophie said the waves should get smaller after 3 in the afternoon, and even smaller as we neared Cartagena. The sea proved her wrong. The waves grew higher and stronger as the day progressed. 

After dark, when the captain sent us all below and turned out the lights, the waves were crashing so hard against the boat that I would be thrown a couple of inches into the air to fall back onto the pad that was our bed. It was somewhat painful. Also, the waves were bringing so much water onto the deck that it was a downpour into our faces where it leaked into our cabin in multiple places. Moving or turning our heads did little to alleviate the situation, and we were not allowed out of our cabins. At one point, the items on the shelves in the galley and one side of a cupboard broke off.

We finally saw Cartagena in the early morning. Victor continually reminded us that he was just the captain and not the owner, even passing out cards for the owner for us to complain to. We got through immigration, and customs had no interest in us, so we started heading to the hostel that I had reserved before we left. Bruce was starting to get hot again, so I paid through the nose for a cab (twice what I knew was reasonable, and he was asking for more, trying to make me feel like I was being unreasonable for refusing to pay triple what the going fare was), but we got there and settled into the room. Went across the street to exchange money and around the corner to eat, and died for the rest of the day. I did take a moment to send some e-mails about our trip, and since the travel agency we booked it through was affiliated with our hostel in Cartagena, I spoke to one of the agents personally. She thinks we’ll end up with a partial refund, but it may take some time. I told her PayPal works worldwide, so no problem.

This is the Amande, taken from the dingy while heading to shore in Cartagena.

The next morning, it was off to the port to see how far I could get on processing the vehicles out of the container while waiting for our shipping partners to arrive. Turns out, not very much. I did get the process explained in detail and the initial invoices. I got back to the hostel and decided to walk around and check things out. Enjoy some pictures from around Cartagena.

Since our shipping partners weren’t supposed to get in until the next day, I decided that morning would be a good time to see the Castillo de San Felipe. I rented the headphone tour, which was really awesome. The historical references they gave made me feel like I was back in time, and I could picture in my mind the various battles they discussed from various defensive positions. This was definitely a well-designed, almost impregnable bastion! I pretty much followed the map – with a few alterations. You guys know me. I just don’t follow instructions well! So, I did head down some tunnels that weren’t closed off, but my recording said not to take or ignored. Really nothing special down them. I’m sure the one I decided not to take was really awesome, but I chickened out. The headphones said that if I decided to take that tunnel, to please turn in the headphones and alert the castle guards before doing it so they would know to send someone after you after a particular time. I started down, but it kept getting darker and narrower and slippery, so I turned around and came back. I hadn’t turned in my stuff or notified the castle guards, so that’s the excuse I’ll be using for turning back.

By the time I got back, our shipping buddies had checked in, so we met in the park. I took some more monkey pictures while there. In case anybody missed it, Parque Centenario is now my favorite city park in the world, though I never did find the sloth. I had already picked up the first set of invoices, so our first stop was at the bank to pay them. We took a cab to the bank, then walked the six blocks to the port to get the certificate that we needed to get the next set of invoices for the terminal. By the time we got that certificate, we had about an hour before customs closed. We needed receipts from that next set of invoices in order to schedule our inspection with customs.

These were two small monkeys. They looked like some type of tamarind, but the were so active I could never get a good shot of them.

The lady in this office was very nice. She was very sweet and apologetic when telling us that there was basically no way in hell we were going to get inspected tomorrow morning, even if we were able to get to customs before they closed (which didn’t happen anyway, so…). But we got more invoices paid, and knew to show up at customs bright and early in the morning to schedule a 2:00 inspection and emptying of the container. This was also the first time we learned we needed both car insurance and accident insurance on whoever goes into the port (which will be me). The nice lady was kind enough to tell us where to get these insurances, though.

This morning, our shipping buddies and I headed to the customs office to make our appointment. After being sent to make copies, he told us we would probably get our vehicles by Monday. After some discussion during which we assured him we were going to get insurance right after scheduling the inspection, we were cleared for 2:00 this afternoon. But, we had to go back to the port and have the nice lady from yesterday call the inspector to whom we were talking to make the appointment. Gotta love it!! So, we walked back to the port and asked her to call him, which she agreed to do. We reaffirmed that we would meet her around 1:30 before the inspection appointment at 2:00 and got her e-mail address to send our insurance certificates beforehand.

A taxi ride back to the park had us just a block away from where we needed to get the insurance. It took us about an hour to get both of those certificates, and the lady at the insurance company was nice enough to e-mail them over to the lady at the port. We agreed to meet back at the port a little before 1:30.

When we got to the port, we were given orange vests to wear and finally got to see our container!

Because only the vehicle owners were allowed at the container, and I don't do backward in tight spaces so well, our shipping buddy backed the truck out for me.

It still took a few more hours before we were able to drive out, but we left the port just before 5:00 p.m. with our vehicles! Our hostel doesn't have parking, but the guy in the parking lot in front of the port said it would be fine to leave it there overnight, and that there would be a guard all night because - port! So, we parked the truck again and tried to catch a cab back to the hostel. Nobody wanted to go to el centro that late in the day, so we ended up on the bus. Fortunately, a couple of guys on the bus were kind enough to make sure I knew when we had to get off to walk the last few blocks to the park. So, one last shot of the walls around Cartagena, and we'll be off tomorrow morning, headed toward Ecuador.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Days 41-50: Panama and Loading Up For Colombia

To begin with, Panama reminded me very much of the US, and it still does in many ways. In the northern part of the country, the orange construction markers appear to be like the state flag. Yup; very US.  That pic was in the last blog. Bruce: “They put all this construction up so you think they plan to fix these crappy roads!” Lots and lots of neighborhoods with homes that look identical. Yup. Looks like many US deed restricted neighborhoods.

Even some of the individual homes look like they were just plucked up out of rural Florida or someplace similar.

And the scenery looked like Florida scrub land in the rainy season with some hills added to the distance – or the scrubland of just about any place that has both a rainy season and hills.

We stopped the first night about 150 miles into the country. Since it was raining, we decided to eat at the first place we came to, which was – Dairy Queen! Guess what! You can’t get a hamburger at Dairy Queen here! Three different versions of hot dogs or grilled cheese type sandwiches. That’s it for the main course. Banana splits were the same, though, and they sold Dilly Bars and Blizzards.

We were kinda trying to hurry to get to Panama City to get the truck inspected and loaded on a container for Cartagena. Our shipping agent had indicated that he had a shipping partner for us so we could split the cost of a container. We learned that night, though, that the shipping buddy was for the wrong week and the following day was one of the Panama Independence days. So, we just slept in and took a leisurely drive to Panama City.

Our first glimpse of Panama City was the Bridge of the Americas. We’re just scooting along, and suddenly, out of nowhere, out pops the Bridge of the Americas, and we’re driving over the Panama Canal! I almost wasn’t ready for it! Both sides of the bridge have a thick, steel mesh. They REALLY want to be sure you don’t drive off the bridge into the canal. You can see the Biodiversity  Museum in its colorful, new building though the cage, too.

Coming off of the bridge, you get a glimpse of the Panama City skyline.

I had a shipping agent and container lined up for the truck, though the dates weren’t firmed up yet. Now, to find a way to ship Bruce and I across the Darien Gap. For those of you who aren’t  familiar with it, the Darien Gap is about a 100-mile (160-km) stretch of jungle along the border of Panama and Colombia. It is the portion of the Pan-American Highway that was never finished. Thus far, there are no plans to finish it, either. To my knowledge, one person has crossed it completely on land in a vehicle, and he did it with an expedition team. Made the Guiness Book of World Records, and I believe it took him over two years. Some teams have carried special rafts and floated their vehicles down rivers significant distances to facilitate the crossing, making it in a much shorter time. We just didn’t feel these were options we wanted to explore at this point in our lives, so we’re shipping via container ship to Cartagena.

For transporting us, I found sailboat cruises, doing island hopping around the San Blas Islands. Cheaper than airfare, too! Since we didn’t have a confirmed shipping partner, we were pushing it to be able to get inspected and loaded in time to make the November 15 shipping date, and taking that shipping date would mean we would have to fly to Cartagena instead of take a sailboat, we decided to hang out in Panama City for an extra week. It would not only fix the above issues, but also give us a chance to see some of the sights and rest our weary bones (and let me tell you, these old bones are getting pretty weary!)

I had started experiencing some computer problems on our last night in Costa Rica. My computer was unable to locate networks or connect to them when it did locate them, even though there was no connection problem with either Bruce’s computer or my phone hooking up to the hotel wifi. From what we had seen walking around, electronics seemed to be relatively cheap here, so we decided to replace my computer here instead of having to do it in Ecuador where the import taxes will eat you alive. Off to the mall we go!

Allbrook Mall is huge! The different entrances are marked with different animals. I especially liked the orange and white zebras! And, the Christmas display was beautiful! We found a nice laptop for a really good price after applying the Black Friday sale price (which they did early), and headed for the food court. We’ve been eating typical foods in the neighborhood of our hotel, so we did some US fast food again. Popeye’s Chicken this time. Not really our best move. They laughed when I asked for spicy Cajun chicken. There were no Cajun mashed potatoes – just seasoned French fries. The cole slaw wasn’t bad, though. For the record, McDonald’s Big Mac tastes the same.

Trying to get back to the hotel was a little interesting, though. The front desk of our hotel told us that taxis hailed on the street were safe in Panama City so long as you take the yellow ones with the black and white and the number on them (basically a Checkered Cab). It cost us $5 to take a taxi from the hotel to the mall. Our cabbie was Daniel. Remember him, he’ll show up again later.  For the trip back, it went like this. We stepped outside the door of the mall. Some gentlemen were standing around offering taxi service. I asked, “How much to the Hotel Bella Vista?” “Ten dollars.” “Ten dollars? It only cost us $5 to get here from there.” “Okay. Five dollars each.” “That’s too much. I won’t pay that.” “These are special taxis.” “What is special about them?” “They are safe.” “Other taxis are safe. Five dollars total. That’s all.” “Don’t you care about your safety?” At which point, we just turned around and went back in the mall. I had neither the interest nor the language skills to argue with them. Out a different door, we got a cab to the hotel for $4.

My new computer did the same thing as the old one. Apparently, it wasn’t my computer. Not sure what the problem is, but hope it quits soon.

So, back to Daniel. When taking us to the mall, he started talking about different sights in Panama and asked what we were doing at the mall. I told him we were going to pick up some things, have some lunch, and catch the hop-on/hop-off bus to see the sights. He offered to take us around and show them to us personally for $10 an hour. The HO/HO bus was going to be $30 each for a 24-hour ticket. More for longer. He gave me his number in case we wanted him to give us a tour. Folks, just so you know, the best tour guides I’ve had have been cabbies, and Daniel certainly didn’t disappoint!
We started at the church of Don Bosco, officially the patron saint of young people and apprentices. Unofficially the patron saint of street magicians. Beautifully built with arches and openings allowing a nice, cool breeze into the church.

Next stop, the boxing gym where Roberto Duran trained. Daniel escorted me down on the floor and introduced me to several of the boxers and the primary trainer. He and the trainer pointed out what championship many of them had. I’m going to have to start watching boxing now just to remind myself who I “knocked gloves” with.

We went up on the Cerro Ancon, the highest point, and enjoyed the views, even though it was hazy out.

And on to the Miraflores Locks. The ships were scheduled to come in several hours after we got there, so we didn’t wait for them. There was a neat film in the museum, and even though it wasn’t 3-D, the way it was all set up, you almost felt like you were on the ship navigating the locks.

We saw the Parque National. It was billed as a protected wildlife sanctuary within the city limits of Panama City; that you could walk the trails and see various species of monkeys and other animals indigenous to the area. I was expecting the trails to be unobtrusive or maybe a caged walkway or something with the animals having primary access to the park. But, no. All except one set of monkeys were caged. All of the animals have apparently been rescued and cannot be returned to the wild, though. A gorgeous golden eagle flew in and walked around in front of us, though. And, that was awesome!

Then, the Biodiversity Museum and several other places with breathtaking views. Finally, we got worn out, and it was starting to get dark. So, we had Daniel take us back to the hotel. He said we had three more things to see, but we just couldn’t see any more. We were beat. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to call and have him take us to see those last three things. The Trump Tower doesn’t really interest me, though, and that was one of them.

The next day was spent recovering from our day of sightseeing and getting ready to get the truck shipped.

Monday morning, and time to get the truck inspected and officially certified for shipping to Colombia. Be there at 9:00 and have copies of the TIP into Panama, the insurance, the title, and the owner’s passport. For those looking for the location, the coordinates are 8.966387,-79.544905. There is no signage, but it looks like the picture below. If you have made it to the corner, you’ve gone too far. Apparently, the inspectors don’t come out while it’s raining, so we all sat and stood around waiting. But we got to meet our shipping buddies, three young boys from Switzerland who are exploring the world after finishing university and before settling down into their respective careers. They bought their car in Alaska to drive to Argentina, where they will sell it.

When it quit raining, the inspectors came out, took my copies, looked at the VIN number, and told us to come back in the afternoon(with more copies), across the street, to get the Secretary General’s signature on the certificate. So, we came back in the afternoon, got lost a couple of times looking for the place, and finally got the certificate. That part worked well, too.

After getting the certificate, the guys from Switzerland wanted to take a day to get their car serviced and pack everything for the container. Sounded like a plan to me, so we let Boris from Everlogistics (the shipping agent) know we would like to load on Wednesday. We spent Tuesday laying around thinking about what we needed to do. I also made all the copies Boris said I needed, so not a completely wasted day.

Wednesday morning, bright and early, we packed everything we weren’t going to need on the boat and headed to Colon. Unfortunately, we also packed the sunscreen into the truck, so we have to get more before we get to the boat.

The layout of the roads in Panama City are highly confusing to put it mildly. They are not in a grid pattern. The one-way streets are not alternating so you may go a km or so before being able to turn the way you need to turn. There is at least one street on which you drive on the left-hand side of the road (but there are no signs telling you that). Heading to Colon, we learned of another issue with the roads: Corredor Norte. Corredor Norte is a toll road. You must have a PanaPASS sticker to drive on the Corredor Norte. It is a $15 fine for each turnstile you pass without a PanaPASS sticker on your car, even if they let you through the turnstile just to stop you from blocking it. We got stuck on the Corredor Norte. At the first turnstile, she let us through, fined us and sent us on our way. At the second turnstile, he made us make a U-turn and go back without going through and paying the fine. We went in circles until I started crying, called Boris in Colon, and he got us headed off the Corredor Norte and onto the right road to Colon, after talking to the guy at the turnstile for me. When we finally made it to the rendevous spot, I was never so happy to see a Domino’s sign in all my life! (We were all meeting at this Domino’s.) We were only 15 minutes late.

We all convoyed over to customs and took care of that paperwork.

Then, we headed to the loading yard. The containers were on the flatbed trailers that would carry them to the port, and there were no dock ramps. Instead, we backed the truck up on a wrecker, and the wrecker lifted the truck (and Bruce) into the air. See how unconcerned he is?

They backed the wrecker up to the door of the container.

This still left a step that whas too high to drive over, so they used a bar on the back of the flatbed truck holding the container to raise the bed of the wrecker up almost level with the floor of the container, and Bruce just drove right on in.

I can't seem to get this last video to load through Blogger in spite of meeting all the requirements. So, I loaded it into youtube and tried to embed it. Hope this works!

<iframe width="560" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

I shared it at the top of the blog in case the link doesn't work.

There was some discussion over whether he was going to be able to get out after driving in. I was waiting for them to start up a pool on whether he would make it. We all cheered when he was able to squeeze through and join us after the truck was loaded.

And the truck is now loaded and ready to ship to Cartagena. We have an e-mail address for the shipping agent who will meet us in Cartagena, instructions of what to do and bring, and a link to track the ship. It should leave port on Sunday and arrive Monday. We’ll be on our sailboat trip, though, and won’t be tracking it. The guys have a later sailboat than we do, so they asked if we could leave the car in port for a few extra days at their expense so they could see the islands, too. We said sure, and figure that gives us a couple of days to see Cartagena and rest before finishing up the journey.

The next post will be after we take the truck out of the container. So far, I highly recommend Boris at Everlogistics for shipping from Panama to Cartagena. We’ll see if I still recommend him when the trip is over. I anticipate that I will.