74. PANAMA – Panama City, San Lorenzo and crossing the Panama Canal

After leaving El Valle we still had nearly 10 days to pass till the shipping. John and I wanted to sort out a few things, do some shopping and the city seemed to be the perfect place to do so. But as we had plenty of time we decided to head to a national park, San Lorenzo before the city.

San Lorenzo Nation Park is not just on the Colon side of Panama, opposite Panama City but you have to cross a small bridge over the Canal, by the Gatún Locks to get to the park. So on our way we visited the Panama Canal at the Gatún Locks.

Gatún Locks

Gatún Locks

We tried to stay somewhere around the locks so we can watch the traffic over night but nowhere was allowed to park up. Eventually we headed to the Park which fitted us nicely. We found a fine place to park up at the mouth of Río Chagres at a fishing spot with a view of the San Lorenzo Fort in front of us. It was peaceful, quiet and breezy.

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Camping in San Lorenzo

So much you can do in the jungle, so after a few days we headed to the Locks again for a proper visit where we bumped into the Overlander Family. As they were on the same ship as we were, they were trying to pass time too. Here we all got a message from our agent that our ship has been delayed and now it is leaving on 12th of April!! This was still the 29th-30th of March and the idea of another 2 weeks of waiting didn’t go down so well.
At the end of the day with the Family we decided to go back to the park. We ended up staying there for a couple of days. It was the weekend and was a bit more busy with fishermen but was still nice. We did some fishing, small walks, had BBQ together. It was certainly nice to share time with other travellers.

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Again, a couple of days later we all ran out of inspiration and food and were running low on water so headed to a nice looking marina that was not far from here. We knew they didn’t encourage RV’s to stay there but John and Steven did their best to talk the English manager guy in to letting us stay. We were charged for staying in their car park, but were allowed to use their facilities and swimming pool, plus they had a decent restaurant, bar, a small shop and laundry room.

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Here we met Maurice, a Dutch skipper who is sailing around the world on his own. Maurice has just arrived to the marina from the Caribbean and in a few days he was heading to the Pacific through the Canal. He spotted Burt and came up for a chat. We all ended up spending a few drinks and dinner with him and found out that he has no line-handlers for the crossing. Legally you need at least 5 people on your boat to transit the Panama Canal, so we all thought, if time works out OK (with our shipping) then we would love to volunteer as handlers on Blue Eyes (his Catamaran) We exchanged email addresses to keep in touch and see if we can make this happen.

As nice as it was to stay in the marina it was becoming slightly boring. We still had over a week to pass but by now we also were running out of Burt’s legal papers (insurance and the import document) When we crossed the border, almost a month ago they gave Burt 30 days allowance (John and I got 90 days as tourists) So we needed to head to Panama City to get extensions on these documents.

So finally we arrived to Panama City where all overland travellers stay, at the Balboa Yacht Club. It isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, certainly it isn’t as nice and peaceful as the Shelter Marina was. Parking is on the street in front of the club’s restaurant. It is pretty filthy and from Thursday till Sunday it is very noisy. Although having other travellers give some comfort and the restaurant is pretty chilled about using their facilities and free wifi even if we don’t buy anything.

Here we met a few friends and travellers new and old. Petra started the line with Boris, then there were the Swiss kids we met in Costa Rica, a South African couple Peter and Sue, the German guy we crossed the border with a month ago, Arvin, and the following day Trevor and Pat arrived too. The Overlander Family were staying in a hotel in town. Except the Swiss kids, we were all waiting for the same ship.

on the street at Balboa Club with the gang

on the street at Balboa Club with the gang

John and I with Arvin went in to town to get new insurance first, then a couple of days later we got Burt’s import document extended.

Funny thing about (some) Panamanians. Due to the style of our travel we get in touch with locals on the road, in small villages, in towns, on markets, shops etc. We have been here for a month now and came across with friendly and very helpful locals but the majority of the attitude we are experiencing seems quite the opposite. No matter how nice, friendly, smiley, humbled, open we are, none of these make a difference to people here. We just get the same frowny faced, unhappy, couldn’t-be-bothered attitude.
Interestingly enough it wasn’t just us who felt this way, pretty much all of the fellow travellers we met said the same.

So as we still had plenty of time and we got all paperwork sorted it seemed we were able to help Maurice on his Cat crossing the Canal. We left Burt on the Panama side, at the Balboa Club (as this is where we will come to after the transit) and jumped on the bus with the Family to get to the Shelter Club.

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We got there way ahead so had time for a quick lunch in the club and help Maurice to prepare the boat and practice The Knot. Our jobs will be to take responsibility of the 4 corners of the boat. each of us standing on a corner, catches the line the outside handlers throw, make the know and feed it back, then once the boat takes position and fixed all 4 corners by the line hold it firm and go with -either the filling or the draining.

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We were scheduled to cross the first set of locks (Gatún Locks) at 5PM. We left the marine way before time to sail around a bit before getting in line for the crossing. I got slightly seasick but wasn’t too bad. Once we were in line a pilot, Rick joined us on the boat. Having a pilot on every ship is the Canal’s mandatory requirement. Rick was very nice and friendly and very helpful. I’m sure he has dealt with beginner handlers before and it is everyone’s good interest not to damage the boat or the canal so he kept us cool and focused with a slight wit.

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We were in the lock with a smaller (but still quite large) cruise ship and a marvellous looking private yacht in front of us. This yacht in front of us had hired professional handlers and a couple of waiters serving champagne to the black tie, evening gown guests. Gilly and I thought we were on the wrong boat as we were sweating away with the ropes 🙂

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Here we went through 3 locks and by the time we successfully completed the transit here was dark. After a 20 minutes sailing down the Gatún Lake Rick found our spot in the middle, tied us to a couple of yacht -also anchored for the night and said goodbye and left. Throughout the night more and more private boats were arriving and were being tied to us. It wasn’t the most peaceful night. As Maurice is sailing on his own for such a long time he wasn’t really prepared for us for the night. Although he had plenty of space on the boat (1 master + 2 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, + plenty of room to sleep upstairs) But he didn’t clear out one of the rooms so the Family slept in one tiny airless bedroom and us, well, wherever we found a surface. I wasn’t too bothered as I put myself away upstairs on the deck but John was having a lot of trouble not able to sleep. Besides there was no air movement at all and it was very hot and humid and as more and more boats arrived they made a big fuss for half an hour.

The next morning we just needed lots of coffee, and after that and some breakfast we were in good spirit again so the weird night was forgotten. By 7AM we were all packed and ready to welcome Jose, our pilot for the day. These guys actually more like coordinators, the pilots are for the large ships usually. But I liked to call them pilots. Jose was also a wonderful guy with a strong big voice and a gentle sense of humour.

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It took 6 hours to get to the first lock, Pedro Miguel then soon after we got to the last set of 2 locks, Miraflores which was practically in Panama City and we were done. At Miraflores Jose called in the guys to turn the webcam at us so we have enough time to wave our friends who were watching us crossing the locks. All went well here too. It was the easy part as here they were draining the water which makes the handling easier than when they are filling. Once we were through Jose had to leave and we were on our way to the Balboa Club. Maurice had a bottle of chilled Champagne for the celebration of the successful transit which was a lovely touch. It didn’t take long to get to the Club, where we all hopped out and waved Maurice goodbye as he was sailing away from us.

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On our overland travel, sometimes we get a chance to visit, see or experience something that it would be difficult or impossible without a vehicle, for example. Even though we didn’t actually needed the vehicle for this, it was BURT who attracted the invite of this event in the first place. This was a rare opportunity and I am (we all are) so happy to made it happen. This certainly will always be an event to remember forever.

After our two days adventure we were back to business. The following day we all (8-9 vehicles) had our police inspection for the shipping. This required our agent (well, her representative as her daughter) to come and meet us at the Club and lead 8 or 9 vehicles to the police station in town.

Once there, we all had an average 2-3 minute inspections of our rigs and we were good to go. At least till the afternoon when you have to return and pick up the official report of the inspection. When this was done, at least we were feeling something was happening finally!

The next day we filled up with propane and cleaned BURT top to toe for the delivery to the port tomorrow.

The following morning we were at the meeting point to join the group for the delivery. It was 9 vehicles(!) + Amy, again the rep of our agent. At this point most of us was complaining about Tea, the agent who we all booked our shipping, but she is not very brilliant and efficient with her responses. Poor Amy was trying to handle the custom, coordinating 9 large vehicles to park in the port and dealing with some of the frustrations. We knew there’s not much we could do but at least we were in the port now, and after hours of waiting for further inspection finally Burt is (and all vehicles are) lined up to be loaded on to AGATA in the next couple of days and that what was matter the most.

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Although on some levels we all were frustrated, mostly about the illogical and inconsistent high prices we all had to pay for the shipping (added the ridiculous air fare /pers on the top of that) But we all knew that this border crossing will be the most costly one and braced ourselves but when you are actually facing that fact that you pay what you’re told, regardless, is just what it is. Monopoly, so nothing we can do.

After our delivery day which took the whole day we booked ourselves into a decent hotel in Panama, booked our flights for the next day and finally we were on the move again. At least checked out of Panama and arrived to Cartagena, Colombia, South America. Our final continent of this trip.

Next, a short reflection on Central America.

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