The plan was simple: 1) drive from Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast to Panama City, 2) do some interesting things along the way. What wasn’t in the plan: visiting a Panamanian hospital, performing axle surgery on Lucky, and driving across Panama twice to fix a piece of paper. Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t go according to plan.
Gregor and I entered Panama on Oct 31 via the Sixaloa-Guabito border crossing on the Caribbean coast. Our goal was to get to Panama City by Nov 16 (26 days later). In Panama City, we would meet our friends John and Paula (Our Bigger Picture) to begin the process of shipping our vehicles from Central to South America.
Border Crossing and Bocas del Toro
The Sixaloa-Guabito border crossing into Panama was rather confusing because we had to go to four different buildings to process our customs and immigration paperwork. That said, with six previous Central American border crossings under our belt, we expected nothing less than going through a completely non-sensical and inefficient bureaucratic process to enter the country.
After crossing into the country, we headed for the Caribbean islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Although there is a car ferry to Bocas town, we were advised that the best way to explore the archipelago is to park your vehicle on the mainland and take a boat to the islands. Gregor and I thought it would be nice to escape van life for a few days, so we booked a 5-day stay on one of the islands through Airbnb.
We left Lucky in a secure parking lot in Almirante and took a water taxi to Bocas town on Isla Colon.
After our night in Bocas town, we carried our backpacks to a local dock where our Airbnb hosts, Amanda and Asher, picked us up and took us to their home on Isla San Cristobal.
This friendly and outgoing couple left the United States a couple of years ago to start a new life in Panama. He’s a web developer and she runs their house, which has several rooms that they rent out to Airbnb guests.
We had a great time hanging out with Amanda and Asher, and enjoyed swapping travel stories with the other guests in the house.
Amanda and Asher took us to an island restaurant called The Blue Coconut for some sunning and swimming. The vibe was super-relaxed and the water was absolutely heavenly!
David…and Gregor’s Big Toe
After a restful stay in the Caribbean islands, we drove to the city of David so that Gregor could work from a backpacker hostel called Bambu Hostel.
While camped in the hostel parking lot, we took advantage of the wireless Internet, communal kitchen, and hot showers.
Like Costa Rica, Panama was in the middle of their rainy season, so every afternoon the rain came down in sheets. Each time it poured, the tile floors in the hostel kitchen became dangerously wet.
One rainy afternoon, Gregor ran (in his flip-flops) from the bathroom to the kitchen and slid on the wet floor. As he fell forward, he smashed his big toe on one of the steps. “I think I broke my toe!” he yelped, writhing in pain. I looked down at his foot and winced. Yup, it was pretty screwed up.
The hostel owner, Greg, called a taxi and advised us to go to a private hospital called Centro Medico Mae Lewis.
Within 15 minutes of our arrival, Gregor got an X-ray. Several minutes after that, we saw that his big toe wasn’t broken – it was dislocated.
Soon a doctor came to tell us (in Spanish) that he would manually pull the toe back into place (yikes!). To lessen the pain, he would inject anaesthetic into Gregor’s deformed toe.
Fun fact: Gregor is deathly afraid of needles. When he saw the monster needle that was about to enter his toe he almost lost his mind. He begged for an oral anaesthetic or any other pain killer instead of the needle.
“Tell them I want to be knocked out!” he wailed at me from the hospital bed. I translated Gregor’s wishes in Spanish to the doctor and the assisting nurse (I think I said: “My husband wants to sleep”). They both looked empathetically at Gregor’s desperate face and explained with perfect bedside manner that the needle would be best for the pain and not to worry, it would all be fine.
Before he knew it, the needle sunk into Gregor’s now-purple toe joint and in about a minute he couldn’t feel a thing. Next, the doctor violently yanked on the toe, emitting a muffled bone-cracking sound (ehwww!). A hush filled the air as the doctor poked and prodded the toe for signs of misalignment.
“Todo bien,” he said (“All is good”). The rest of us in the room clapped and cheered like we had just witnessed some sort of magic trick. Once Gregor’s toe was taped up, he was good to go.
Gregor and I were very impressed by the care we got at the hospital that night – all the workers were friendly and caring, the treatment was fast, and the cost was cheap compared to Canada or the US. Gregor was able to walk again after spending $275 CAD ($205 USD) and only 1.5 hours in the emergency ward.
We had to spend some extra days in David to let Gregor’s swollen toe heal up. This wasn’t particularly awesome because there’s really nothing to do or see in David – it’s more of a “shop, gas up, and move on” kind of place.
Our plan of “doing interesting things” in Panama wasn’t exactly going to plan.
Since we wasted…er…spent an entire week in David, we ended up rushing through Panama’s Pacific coast. Luckily, the roads weren’t that busy because we drove during Panama’s Independence Day holidays (Nov 3-5).
El Valle de Anton
After sweating for a few days on the Pacific coast, we headed for the cooler climate of El Valle de Anton, a quiet mountain resort town where local city slickers and disenchanted expats can escape the noise and pollution of Panama City.
Our friends John and Paula joined us in El Valle to prep our vehicles for the big Panama-to-Colombia shipping adventure. They parked LoJo (their camper) right beside Lucky at Windmill Hostel.
On the steep and winding road to El Valle, we heard a loud clunking noise coming from Lucky’s rear axle. It was her passenger-side CVs again, the same ones that were clunking on the mountain roads back in Guatemala.
We couldn’t ignore it any more – the CVs had to be replaced. Fortunately, Gregor’s extensive blog research before our Pan-American trip warned of this problem with Westfalia vans, so we carried two extra half-shafts with pre-packed CVs already attached.
Having never replaced a half-shaft before, Gregor had a heck of a time undoing the bolts on the old CVs.
Seeing Gregor struggling, John suggested that we search for a How-To video on YouTube. Following this excellent advice, Gregor was able to swap the half-shaft without a problem (Thanks, John!).
Back and Forth on the Pan-Am Highway
In preparation for shipping our rigs to Colombia, Paula and I decided to compare our Vehicle Temporary Import Permit papers, which we received when we crossed the border into Panama. Once the papers were side by side, I noticed a mistake on our permit:
The field for “Motor Number” was “NOLEGIBLE” or “non-legible”. Other overlanders who had gone through the shipping process told us that this field should contain our van’s VIN number to pass the police inspection that was required for the shipping process. This error wasn’t obvious to us until we compared it to Paula’s papers.
After searching through overlanding blogs and inquiring on Facebook forums, we assumed that we could correct this at any customs office in Panama. However, several Facebook replies said not to bother correcting it in Panama City because the customs officials there were inept and apathetic – we would get better service in the city of Divisa (which we already passed 100 km ago).
Ultimately, we drove about 900 km up and down Panama looking for a customs office to correct our permit.
We drove 100 km west to customs office #1 (in Divisa) and they said they couldn’t correct the papers – this could only be done at customs office #2 (in David).
We then drove another 230 km to office #2 and they said they couldn’t correct the papers – this could only be done at customs office in Panama City (460 km east of David).
Rather than go backwards, we drove 50 km further to customs office #3 (at the Panama-Costa Rica border).
They said they couldn’t correct the papers – this could only be done at customs office #2 (back in David).
We drove 50 km back to David and stayed the night at Bambu Hostel, the same place where Gregor dislocated his big toe.
Frustrated with all the mis-information and fruitless driving, we pinged our Facebook friends one more time. Fellow VW overlanders Gorm (Bee-Individual) and Martin (Viaje.ch) came to the rescue. They reassured us that everything could get fixed in Panama City with no problems, as they had gone through the shipping process only a few months before.
The next day, we drove 460 km all the way to Panama City. With 200 km of construction on the Pan-Am highway, it took us 8 hours. We didn’t do much sightseeing along the way.
The next phase of our Panama adventures: Shipping Lucky to Colombia!