Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Darién Gap: Our Crossing From Central America to South America

The Darién Gap in green (image from Wikipedia)

Until recently, most of our family and friends who are following our adventure didn't realize that we wouldn't be driving all the way to South America. Although there is land that connects Central America with South America, it is un-driveable. There is no road, and most of the land is either mountainous rain forest or swampy marshland. This Panamanian and Columbian land is collectively called the "Darién Gap". In order for us to continue our journey to South America, we had to put our truck on a ship, and put ourselves on a plane.
Crossing the Darién by boat from Colon to Caragena

Crossing the Darién Gap was undoubtedly the most expensive and drawn-out process of anything we've experienced so far. We started requesting quotes for shipping our truck on August 26th, 2013. We quickly chose our shipper (SC Line), who sent us a quote that was less than half the cost of the other shippers. We picked up our truck in Cartagena, Columbia 1 month later. One month of emails, phone calls, piles of paperwork, 9 nights in a hotel, a plane trip, mis-communication, non-communication, Spanglish, and SWEAT! Whew, did we sweat. Panama City is hot, but I think Cartagena takes it to a whole 'notha leva. The typical heat index in Cartagena is between 100 - 130F. Unfortunately, the heat of both cities prevented us from truly appreciating them.

Welcome to our office, bedroom, living room, and kitchen during our week in Cartagena
We posted more information about this experience under "Helpful Information" on our website: Shipping Our Vehicle Across The Darien Gap

Reunited and it feels so good!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Overstaying Our Welcome in El Valle de Antón, Panama

El Valle de Antón, sometimes called El Valle, was our higher elevation escape over the past month while we kicked around Panama. We ended up driving up to El Valle 3 times. Luckily, it is only 16 miles off the highway, so the actual distance wasn't an issue. The drive is slow, twisty, and steep in parts, but the delicious climate was worth it - around 70F in the evening and maybe 65F at night.

A: Playa Venao and B: El Valle de Anton (we drove this 180-mile stretch 3 times).

El Valle is also an escape for the rich Panamanians who are lucky enough to have one of the mansions in the valley. We spent countless days exploring the valley roads that climb out of the valley. Some of the roads were unbikeably steep. We tried though...

The police station is right off the main, and only, road through town. They allowed us to camp/park on their property next to the soccer field. We thought it was a community/school soccer field, but later found out it was part of the police property. Santana, the night-cop, checked in on us a couple of mornings to ask if our sleep had been tranquilo. How nice!

Good morning El Valle

El Valle is only a couple of hours from Panama City, and therefore, it's a strategic place to camp before driving to the big hot city. We thought we would stay a few nights in El Valle and then head to Panama City to complete our shipping process. After our first stay in El Valle, we drove towards Panama City, only to learn that our ship was delayed (we will explain the shipping thing in an upcoming blog post). After a big shopping diversion in the mall near Coronado, we turned around and followed our tracks back to El Valle.

The silver lining of our false start to Panama City was that we discovered our favorite store EVER! For those of you from the northwest, think GI Joe's with groceries. It's called" El Machetazo" -- The Machete Man! It has good prices and pretty much ANYTHING you could need - home appliances, clothing, musical instruments, food, sporting goods, furniture, electronics, auto parts, the list goes on. We splurged on a couple of gifts for ourselves - a spear gun and a pressure cooker. Assuming we are now on the FBI watch list for these purchases...

Fantastic views with a storm on the way

Finding shelter from a torrential downpour

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Surfing(?) in Panama

Chasing surf is a significant element of our travels. If it were up to Scott, it's all we would do. As any surfer knows, just because you want to surf, doesn't mean you can. Are there waves?  What about tide, wind, crowds, access, currents, and water quality? All of these variables lead to our love-hate relationship with surfing.

Surfing in Panama has been no different than anywhere else. The potential is there, but we just can't seem to hit it right. We were hoping to catch some waves at Pavones in southern Costa Rica, but the 10-day forecast showed nothing. We bailed across the border to Panama, and ended up waiting another couple weeks before the next swell event.

We tried Santa Catalina, a very popular surf destination. We caught the tail-end of a really big swell. We thought it would be perfect, but after our first day surfing, we realized things weren't going to work out. There were lots of surfers, some who were quite good... with unwelcoming attitudes. Other than not having waves, this is the biggest no-go for us at a surfing spot. Additionally, the wave was pretty heavy in the take-off zone, so I was intimidated, to say the least. Pictured below is the wave at Santa Catalina. It was a long paddle out - you can hardly see the surfers in the picture.

Santa Catalina

Next, we tried Playa Venao. The waves petered out before we could realize the potential of this place. We hung out at Playa Venao for almost a week and as the waves got smaller and smaller, we found other things to do. Luckily we had reasonable internet access, so much of the time was spent hanging out under the awning, researching and arranging the shipment of El Tigre to Columbia.

With no swell in the forecast, we packed up our boards and headed to the highlands of El Valle. We didn't expect to surf again until Ecuador. However, El Tigre's boat got delayed for 9 days, and a new swell was due to arrive, so we made a 180-mile detour back to Playa Venao to try again. Once more, there are no waves, as we write this from under our awning at Playa Venao.

We don't get it. In the past 60 days, there have only been ~7 days with surf-worthy waves. And honestly, we're not that picky. The rainy season is supposed to be the south swell season. We expected to see consistent waves originating from the winter storms coming from New Zealand.  Unfortunately, for us, New Zealand must be experiencing a mild winter.

Our office at Playa Venao (notice the calm waveless ocean)

Scott paddleboarding during a storm at Playa Venao

Friday, September 6, 2013

Panama (Pre-Panama City)

I have to admit, other than visiting the Hopp's, I didn't have any big expectations for Panama. I had always thought of Panama as "that piece of land between Costa Rica and South America". Oh, and also the country with the Panama Canal. Many people driving the Pan-American highway zip through Panama for various reason. One of the reasons is related to the anxiety of having to ship your vehicle around the infamous Darien Gap, an impassable swampy jungle occupied by FARC rebels and drug smugglers between Central and South America. The process takes at least 1-2 weeks, so for some, their time in Panama is centered around the dreaded logistics of vehicle shipping from Colon to Cartagena.

The Pan-Am highway runs East-West, the Panama Canal runs North-South, and we're going North to Columbia!?

Panama has been a lovely surprise. The landscape is lush and green, possibly more so than Costa Rica. We've seen waaaay more monkeys here. The cost of living is much lower than Costa Rica, with many grocery items half-price. The highway infrastructure here is amazing, almost a little odd. Four-lane highways seem to be sprouting up everywhere. Other than the customs lady at the border, the Panamanian people have been some of the friendliest people we've met.

Stopping for fruit on the roadside

Sniffing the Janson's coffee
Before arriving to the small mountain town of Boquete (via a 4 lane highway), I had no idea that Panama was famous for it's coffee. Who knew? Panamanian coffee was voted best in the world by the Specialty Coffee Association of America from 2005-2007 (coming in 2nd in 2008-2009). Boquete is home to one of the most famous Panamanian coffee growers, who reportedly fetch $130+ per pound for their premium "Geisha" coffee. Since we are in such a famous coffee growing area, we started buying better coffee (not Geisha). Instead of paying $2-3 for a small bag (250 grams), we bought the $6 bag of Janson Family coffee. OMG, it is so good. I can't imagine what the really fancy stuff tastes like.

The mountain highlands are refreshing and a great way to escape the gorgeous, albeit hot beaches. Unfortunately, much of the prime beach front is quickly being bought up by foreigners. The law may allow public access, but it won't be the same when the jungle backdrop is replaced by houses and hotels, so plan your visit soon.

This public parking lot (the only one at beautiful Playa Venao) will be closed to vehicles in a couple of months. 
Locals will be able to access the beach via a hole in the large gated concrete wall.