The Road to Panama – Central America

While Bob Geiman and I had worked on community projects together in Santa Clarita, I surprised myself when he mentioned he was planning to drive to the end of the road in Panama; I offered to ride shotgun.

Driving to the end of the road
On August 24, 2005, we crossed the border at Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in his Ford Ranger. Rather than use the guidebook's directions to the vehicle registration station, we followed the signs. We were soon lost. When we finally did find the building, the directions inside were confusing. Plaintively I asked Bob, "Where do we go?"

A helpful lady at the door pointed up the stairs and said, "¡Izquierda!", to the left. I soon found the men's room! However, once the tension was broken. the process went quickly enough at a cost of about $80.00. We already had an insurance policy good anywhere, except the U.S. and North Korea.

Driving through Mexico was pretty straightforward, although we left the normal roads because of the huge number of vicious speed bumps. We also had to be wary of the gas pump guys at the Pemex stations who would try to start pumping before setting the gauge back to zero, would turn the pump back and then quote an inflated figure, or quote one exchange rate and then charge another. We did fine with checking the pump and catching the totals, but we got stuck once when we did not have enough pesos.

Guanajuato
Guanajuato

Since we spent more time on the toll roads than we had anticipated, we were ahead of schedule. The highlights were: Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas at the time of Feria La Morisma, Guanajuato, Teotihuacán early in the morning, the Indian villages around San Cristóbal de las Casas and the ruins at Toniná, a city built on a hill which made it look bigger than any pyramid I had ever seen. Although we drove through areas marked as Zapatista, we were never stopped to pay a "toll".

Then we doubled back across the southern part of the Yucatán and entered Central America by way of Belize. We were stopped repeatedly by the police, who wanted only to see our insurance policy. We might have saved time if we had bought Belizean insurance at the border.

We detoured to see Orange Walk, where we saw La Sultana Hangover Club with a sign painted on the front of the building, "Free beer tomorrow". Alas, always tomorrow. Everyone we talked to had complaints about the political situation. Caye Caulkner was pleasant and we enjoyed San Ignacio (where we stayed at the Hi-Et), although Belize City was the pits.

Taking a truck in and out of Belize was cheap, but entering Guatemala, we needed an expediter to help with the spray fees, truck fees, unofficial passport fees and the municipal tax. The bonus was finding a cold bottle of Starbucks frappucino in a Texaco minimart. After lunch at a primitive comedor in La Viña, we made it to Tikal in time to see the ruins. Clouds kept it cool enough.

In Flores we had a lakeview, air conditioning and television for about $21.00, double. A dinner of pollo cordon bleu cost about $7.00, a splurge on the terrace at the Restaurante Union.

Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango

We asked often about the roads south, and finally took the direct route to Cobán after we were told it was a new road. Indeed, it was in excellent shape; we slowed only in Sayaxche for the quick ferry ride across the river. After that we decided to take a similarly-marked route directly from Cobán to Chichicastenango. That was a mistake.

Soon the road was rutted; we were averaging about eight miles per hour. We got above second gear once while passing a number of small, unmarked villages. There was lots of construction, and we had to wait frequently. Night descended.

I was sure we were close to Chichicastenango, but the local Indians had never heard of it. In reality, when we finally gave up, we found we were in Uspantán, far short of our goal. A room with two beds and a bath next door was $11.20; we were not asked to register. We made it to Chichicastenango about ten the next morning, and found the market in full swing. That night, in Panajachel, we discovered we were unregistered guests once again. Breakfast in the morning was served on a clean tablecloth in a store made of corrugated tin.

We went to the indigenous market in Sololá, where we were the only foreigners in sight; we were largely ignored. Two weeks later the town was hit hard by mudslides. We enjoyed Antigua, and spent some time in Guatemala City as guests of missionaries. Visiting was great, but much of the city was depressing.

Tonina
Tonina

On a whim – we were ahead of schedule – we drove across the country to Rio Dulce, then took the "tour" to Livingston, where we met some of the Garífunas. Back in Rio Dulce we met a number of happy expats. The next morning we took a truckload of hitchhikers across the border into Honduras. At the crossing we noticed people were not used to dealing with U.S. traffic. It took a while to get the papers typed out a letter at a time on a fifty-year-old Smith Corona portable typewriter. Fees were $50.00.

We dropped our four hitchhikers in San Pedro Sula. They were from Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and Peru. That had not been the largest load. In Guatemala a man had waved us down. Could we take his friend, too? Of course. And their wives? Yes. The children? Hop in. It was quite a load.

Honduras was gorgeous if slow going because there was an Independence Day parade in almost every town. We thought we would go into El Salvador, but decided at the last minute not to bother with the congested crossing. Later we learned the fees would be about $114.00. As it was we were stopped by a policeman who wanted to know why we did not have a local customs stamp on our truck papers. I could not explain in my horrible Spanish that we had not crossed the border. He said, "veinte dolares." I played dumb. Finally, not knowing how to say "twenty dollars" in English, he said, "five dollars". We paid.

Cathedral in Comayagua
Cathedral in Comayagua

We were stopped three more times by the police; one time in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panamá. In each case they waved us on with a smile after we were able to let them know we understood why we had been stopped. Another problem arose because I carried too little cash and relied too much on travelers' checks. The checks were extremely difficult to cash.

We arrived in Estelí, Nicaragua, before the independence festivities were over, and hence missed seeing some of my old friends; people I had met on repeated medical missions. It was disappointing, but I should not have planned a surprise. We stayed once again at the Hotel Nicarao where I had met many backpackers, Peace Corps workers, bicyclists making their way from Patagonia to Alaska and other interesting people.

At our next stop, Granada, we found the Hotel Cocibolca having a grand opening. This sparkling place two and a half blocks east of the Alcadia (city hall on the main square) with reliable water and electricity, still charges about $39.00 U.S. per night for two. We made a trip to Ometepe on the launch, returning on a faster car ferry. On the way back we saw the sight of a fatality, where a taxi had hit a bicyclist. The next morning, on our way to Costa Rica, I drove by a shrouded body still lying in the road within feet of the previous accident. There was another taxi with a smashed windshield.

Getting in and out of Nicaragua had been easy. Getting into Costa Rica was cheap, but a hassle. Finding our way around Costa Rica was a problem. Street signs were rare, house numbers were not marked, and directional signs were to nearby neighborhoods. We had to ask our way until we were well clear of San José.

Jacó and Quepos were pleasant. A place a block off the beach cost $7.00 per person for decent beds, a few shelves, a fan and a private cold water bath. Hurricane Rita was having its effect on us; the bone-jarring road to Dominical lived up to its reputation. We made under fifteen miles per hour over the first sixty kilometers, stopped in Palmar Sur to see some remarkable pre-Columbian stone spheres carved from granite, and were soon in Panamá ($52.00 for tourist cards and truck clearance), where we were greeted with a four-lane divided highway and a 100 kilometer-per-hour speed limit.

We made it to David in no time and spent the night in beautiful Boquete. It was pouring; the thunderclaps were loud. Breakfast in a place catering to expats cost $5.50. We took the scenic route around the Boquete area in the morning and then drove to Panama City. There I got a terrifying e-mail from my youngest daughter, Danielle, who was evacuating Friendswood, Texas, in the face of Hurricane Rita.

Museum in San Blas Islands
Museum in San Blas Islands

With calls to the U.S. on phone cards costing a nickle a minute, I was on the phone perhaps more than I needed to be. There was nothing I could do so I joined Bob in flying to Kuna Yala, to the airport at Provenir in the San Blas Islands. I was through security before they remembered to turn on the metal detector. After a short flight, we signed up for a one-day tour at $35.00 each for a hotel, three meals, including lobster dinner and tours.

For our $35.00 we also got transportation by outboard canoe, choice of a room either on the second floor with concrete floors, or on the first floor with sand. We did a forty-five minute sail to Carti Sugyupo, where we visited a museum, a quick sail later to Wichub Huala (where they had a radiotelephone). Dinner was lobster with rice and salad, watermelon for dessert and rainwater to drink. If I had wanted something besides lobster, I think I might have had a problem. The generator went on at dusk, and the noise of the surf and the wind soon put me to sleep.

Two pangas loaded for La Palma
Two pangas loaded for La Palma

The flight back to Panamá by way of Rio Sidra was quick. We had to show our passports as we were arriving from an autonomous territory. Before heading home we drove to the mudhole which stopped traffic north of Yaviza. Along the way the police kept close track of us. We had driven 6,080 miles from Dallas, and turned around. We spent a night in a rough hotel in Metetí.

Darién as a province was getting little attention from the national government. We drove to Puerto Quimba, having rented our $14.00 room for a second day so we could leave luggage. There the policia nacional took our information once again. We were glad to leave the port: a warehouse, a couple of primitive restaurants, disgusting sanitarios, and not much else. The "ferry" schedule was off as one boat was falta. It cost $6.00 for the round trip to La Palma, the largest town in Darién; accessible only by ferry or by air. While we waited we watched them load two pangas with supplies, with half the supplies being beer – not much else to do except drink beer.

Before I could get a flight to Houston we took in the canal, the old cities, and parked the truck at customs. Bob decided that rather than sell it, he would come back to Panama in a month or two and drive it home. Fortunately I found my daughter's family in good shape. They had taken twenty-two hours to make a little over 200 miles to a place of refuge, but had returned to find their place in good shape.

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