Entering Panama

What a way to spend Valentine’s Day. That night we lay in bed listening to the air braking of the countless trucks, a few metres away, that drove past our window, interspersed with the pounding of the rain and the howling of two annoyed cats that we couldn’t let out. Romantic, no?

Let me explain. 

We set off from Puerto Viejo that morning in the drizzle. Expecting the inevitable horrific gear noise, I was happy to report that we arrived at the Panamanian border without hearing it all. From the border, it was about ten hours to the capital city. It was a long way away, and it was a mountain road too, but maybe there was hope for us yet. 

The border seemed almost deserted and we parked up on the bridge over the river Sixaola, which divides the two countries. With the rain still going, we decided to drive a bit closer to the offices we needed. Then the gear noise made an appearance. Still we had made it this far. 

The bridge into Panama

Knowing that this day could potentially not go very well, I had prepaid our Costa Rican exit fee online, trying to keep things as simple as possible. Despite it being quiet, the inevitable border helper descended and told us to go to the office and pay. We told him we already paid online. He said we couldn’t do that. So much for being a ‘helper’. Having shaken him off, we quickly were stamped out at the office and then after a short wait we suspended our vehicle permit too.

So far, very easy. In the nearby copy shop we exchanged all our colones for dollars and got a few photocopies ready for the other side. 

A horrid crunch later, and we pulled up midway over the bridge. The officials checked our passports and then gave us a very detailed explantation of which buildings to go to. They had spotted the cats and told us to sort them first. The moment of truth was near, would we face the potential $260 charge to import them?

River Sixaola marks the border

On the other side, now technically in Panama, we parked up.

Panamanian immigration buildings

We paid $3 to fumigate our vehicle which was not fumigated, and then were directed to bring the cats into the nearby office. I really didn’t know how this was going to go. We collected our paperwork and two reluctant cats and headed for the office. They explained we needed to pay an inspection fee for each cat and then a paperwork fee. We waited for them to say it’s was going to be several hundred dollars while they wrote out an invoice. Then they showed us the papers, it was $40, for both cats. With this excellent news, we waited while they gave the cats a check over for parasites which they didn’t have, and then we were free to go to immigration. 

The queue for immigration was long and slow, finger prints, covid tests and locals skipping the line. It was straightforward enough though and we now had to deal with the car import. As ever, the cats are the most expensive thing and the car is the slowest. The insurance took nearly an hour as they couldn’t find the van on the system and then the vehicle permit took the same again.

A long wait for insurance papers…

Despite the fact that I’m the owner on paper, they were adamant it was Lee. Every time they wanted to check the paperwork they called only him to the office. They clearly felt that dealing with the car paperwork was mans business. Eventually though, we were sorted. 

To celebrate our official arrival into Panama, the last stop on this continent we headed to duty free. Something we had only just realised existed at the border. After buying two litres of gin for $5, we were pretty happy. We got some new oil for the engine, which had now attracted a crowd around its oil spill, and got ready to leave. After a rather long crossing, we hoped to make it to just before the town of David that night, around four hours drive away. This was the more challenging part of the road. At David we could rejoin the Panamerica, and take this large highway all the way down to Panama City. We just needed to get over the mountain road first. 

While the gearbox wasn’t great, it was still going. It made a nasty noise when you pulled away from standstill, but at cruising speed sounded normal. We hoped we could clear the town and then keep cruising. The roads on this side of the border were pretty terrible, as was the traffic and the weather. This didn’t make for a smooth exit of the border town, but we made it out.

The Panamanian border town of Guabito

As we continued, the roads were pretty hilly and bendy already and we were yet to start our climb into the mountains. With the engine also down on power as well, this meant revving everything rather harder than we would have liked. Clearly too hard. The defining moment was when Lee overtook a local bus, we made it, but looking back into the van there was smoke. We pulled over, it seemed like something might well be on fire. However, a quick check didn’t reveal any immediate problems and so we tried to keep going. The engine was reluctant to start, and didn’t sound so great now, we we were in the middle of nowhere. Maybe things weren’t going so well after all. 

That’s not lens flare, that’s engine smoke.

As we passed the town of Almirante, we went to drive up a pretty small hill when there was a large bang and the back filled with smoke. The car wouldn’t restart and something sounded very very loud and rattly. The rain increased. A couple of people pulled over to talk to us, but there wasn’t really anything they could do. We were stopped in the middle of the road, halfway up a hill. The only we could really do for now, was get out of the road. When I went to see if there was anywhere we could roll to, I realised I had left by umbrella at the border crossing. 

In the steady rain, I walked a few minutes back down the road to where there was some kind of abandoned quarry. It was possible to park well off the road here. I went back to tell Lee. I hoped we would have enough momentum from the hill to roll back round the corner and off the road. Another local had stopped and kindly shared his umbrella with me. We walked down the road to slow and oncoming traffic, while Lee rolled Ruby to safety. We were lucky at least that there was a place to pull over. 

The kid asked us what we were going to do. It was getting on in the day so it seemed we wouldn’t be going anywhere tonight. We explained we would need to get a tow truck but that we hadn’t yet bought a Panamanian sim card. He offered to go and get us one, which was rather nice of him. 

The abandoned quarry had a picnic table and a small shelter so we were also fortunate that we could sit out of the rain. We sat on the table and pondered our new predicament. It had been going so well. The only good thing was the we had made it across the border. We now had a brand new sparkly three month visa to get ourselves sorted. 

The kid eventually returned to give us the price. We gave him $7 to go and buy us a card, and then wondered after if we should have waited till he brought it back to pay him. Then again, maybe he didn’t have $7 in the first place. We nearly thought he’d taken our money, but he came back again with a sim card and credit. He explained how to set it up and made sure it was working before saying goodnight. 

Now with internet access, we could message Alejandro who owns the ‘overland embassy’ in Panama city. He has links to shipping and freight companies and we hoped he would be able to source us a tow truck. Thankfully, he told us that he could indeed find a truck but that it wasn’t in the best shape and they weren’t sure it could do the mountain roads. He told us to leave it with him and we would finalise something in the morning. With nothing else to be done, that’s how our first night in Panama ended up being a noisy sleepless one, on the side of the road. 

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