May 1st through 10th, 2022
Schwellenangst: Fear of crossing a threshold to begin a new chapter. From schwelle (“threshold”) and angst (“anxiety”), this word explains that feeling you get before deciding to set out on a new journey. (Origin: German)
The area of land that separates Panama and Colombia, and the North and South American continents, is called the Darien Gap. It is not possible to make the crossing by land. It is 66 miles of roadless, lawless mountainous jungle and swampland. Deadly creatures, including armed guerrillas and drug traffickers, frequent the area. We needed to ship Francine over the gap and fly or sail to meet her. It would have been so much simpler and cheaper if there was a road, but it is doubtful that will ever be developed. The environmental impact and extreme cost are primary reasons. We were also told that the motivation behind the paramilitary forces and traffickers, as well as the incentive to keep the Panama Canal the only shipping route, will prevent any future development.
We had tirelessly researched the crossing and decided to hire an agent, Overland Embassy, to assist us with the long, complicated, and expensive process. The dates and route changed several times, and we learned the joy of logistics. We wanted to ship via the direct route that takes one day, however the only option available for our timeline was a 14-day route that would go from Panama, all the way up to Mexico, and back down to Colombia. Theft and burglary of vehicles is well-known on this route, and the longer the voyage the higher the risk. With no other options, we reluctantly locked in that voyage for May 21.
We entered Panama on May Day, feeling ahead of schedule with about three weeks until we had to send Francine off on the boat. It was the Labour Day public holiday in Costa Rica and Panama, so the borders were quiet and the crossing was smooth. We headed straight for the cool mountain town of Boquete for a respite from the heat and humidity. We went out to explore and heard live music as we approached a small open-air bar filled with locals drinking beer. It looked like a private party, but they welcomed us in to escape the pouring rain and informed us we were lucky to see this Panama-famous band. We enjoyed drinks and the energetic vibe. It was the perfect welcome to Panama.
Boquete is a beautiful, lush town set in the hills with warm days and cool nights and is known for its coffee. Much development is going on to create parks and a new trail along the river near town for all to enjoy. It felt progressive, so it wasn’t surprising to find out it is also a popular town for expats to move and retire to. Coffee connoisseurs will know of the geisha coffee bean grown in the area. We didn’t try it, as a one pound bag sets you back over $1000 USD, but we did enjoy many of the other coffee varieties and shops. We found a great little RV park on the edge of town and, luckily for us, two groups of our overlanding friends (Robbie & Jeanne and The Everlanders) were there at the same time.
The cooler temperatures made it easier to hit the road running and hiking. On our second day we set off on a five-hour hike from town to the top of El Pianista. We walked past coffee farms, a tiny village, into farmland and eventually entered the rainforest. The uphill climb was steep and muddy, and we reached the top to see nothing but clouds! We discovered the monument for two Dutch girls who went missing in 2014 and whose bodies were later found. I had read about the tragic story before the climb and was happy to have a hiking companion. As we chatted with a brave solo female traveler the clouds cleared and we enjoyed views of the villages below.
A couple hours into our trek we received a text from our shipping agent that he was able to secure us an earlier shipment of Francine on the one-day route, and we needed to make the seven-hour drive to Panama City ASAP. We were only two days into Panama and that meant we would sadly miss seeing most of the country. However, there was no chance we were going to give up an opportunity to secure a spot on the direct route. That night after the long hike we shared shipping dramas with our overlanding friends over nachos and wine, and we took off for Overland Embassy in Panama City the next morning.
We were comforted to find we were in good hands and in the company of other fellow travelers shipping their vehicles at Overland Embassy. Our emotions were validated in meeting others who were also anxiously putting their home on a boat, hoping they’d find it in one piece on the other side in Colombia, and flying solo while they waited to reunite. We intended to spend a few days completing theft prevention measures for Francine’s voyage, however the earlier ship date meant we didn’t have the luxury of time. After thinking of every possible break-in opportunity, we settled on shoving a piece of scrap wood in the dining room window frame to secure it. We figured if someone wanted to get in, they would, and the more secured she looked, the more enticing she would be for a thief. We packed our valuables in five backpacks to carry with us while Francine was out of our hands. Will took advantage of parking inside the warehouse to deep clean and redo some of the seals on Francine. That meant we spent two sleepless nights inside a tiny camper, in a hot and humid warehouse, with no breeze. The Overland Embassy staff pulled all-nighters, both nights, working (loudly) on the camper of another couple prepare it for shipment. Talk about a living nightmare!
Our shipment was scheduled for May 10th, but we had to deliver Francine to port by the morning of May 6. We made the ninety-minute drive to the Manzanillo International Port in Colon, bleary eyed from no sleep and stressed at what would happen to our home along the way. Only one of us was allowed to drive into port, so I waited outside, peering through a fence as I watched Francine disappear. Will drove in and was greeted by a massive man with a machine gun who demanded $400 as a bribe as he entered port. Turns out he was a gentle giant, and it was just a joke. After inspections and paperwork Francine was off on her own and we felt like worried parents letting our baby fly solo!
Feeling exhausted and homeless, we walked a few miles through heavy cargo traffic to catch a bus to take us back to Panama City. We collected our backpacks at Overland Embassy and were already informed that Francine’s shipment would be delayed. We took a breath and headed to a little AirBnB we had booked in the historic part of the city, Casco Viejo. We would stay there until our flight to Cartagena on May 10th.
The clean and vibrant streets awakened our spirits, but the contrast in lifestyle messed with my head! At our disposal were luxuries including a bathroom, kitchen, balcony, washing machine, bicycles, and heaps of hip bars and restaurants. We cleaned up and put on our nicest clothes. I put makeup on for the first time in ages. We went to a fancy wine bar and my emotions came crashing down in my first glass. I started questioning everything we were doing. The shipping process had taken such a toll that I felt my time on the road was coming to an end. Instead of the romantic outing it should have been, a fight erupted, and I ran out of a buzzing restaurant in tears, and in desperate need of sleep.
Fortunately, the morning brought a fresh mind and calmer mood. We used the crappy bikes to explore the Bridge of the Americas and the Amador Causeway at the entrance to the Panama Canal. We got to see our friends Robbie & Jeanne again and had dinner with them and other travelers, including a Swiss couple who had the exact same Ford F250 and Lance Camper that we did. I say “had” because one week after purchasing it in Peru it was confiscated by the police for not having the correct paperwork. They waited for months and hired lawyers, but never got it back. In hearing their horror story, I felt guilty for feeling so stressed about the shipping process. We were in a fortunate position, and it was time to smarten up and be grateful for the journey.
We hiked up to Ancon Hill the morning before our flight to soak up some final views of the North American continent. We arrived at the airport early and attempted to check in for our flight, but we were denied. We entered Panama by land and were leaving by air and this created much confusion. We were told to step out of line. With heightened nerves, we called our shipping agent and connected him with a supervisor. For one long hour and many Google translate conversations we waited. Finally they made an exception to let us check in. We narrowly made our flight. It was an anxious ten day whirlwind, but we were on our way to South America and the next chapter of our adventure.