Panama City Chaos

After showering and fueling up on some food at the gas station in Santiago, Panama where I sent my last post, we thought we were in for an easy-ish rest of the afternoon. Google maps said it would only take 3 hours to get to Panama City where we hoped we’d arrive before dark and tuck away at a spot on iOverlander. Maybe we shouldn’t have stuck around for lunch, maybe we should stop relying on Google Maps as it gets less and less reliable the farther South we go, and maybe those few little rain drops hitting the window where we sat and ate lunch should have been a sign to get the show on the road and try to beat the storm. We missed all of these signs and found ourselves on yet another urban adventure driving to Panama City.

We weren’t driving long before the first big drops wet Savannah’s windshield. The rains in Panama seem to be short, intense bursts with intermittent drizzle in between. Luckily Highway 1 (which is technically part of the official PanAmerican Highway) was decent and despite some intense rain we were able to cover the miles pretty quickly. Just on the outskirts of the city, we decided to top off on gas. This was, and is, a tricky game since we are not allowed to have more than ¼ tank of gas when we load Savannah in the container to be shipped. Personally, I hate driving with less than half a tank. We thought $20, which put us around half a tank, would be enough for driving around in Panama City for the inspection and making the shipping payments at the bank, then driving to Colon. Panama is so thin here (hence the Panama Canal construction) that to bounce between the coasts wouldn’t be that many miles.

After we topped off, the sky was looking more ominous and darkness was encroaching fast. Oddly, when we tried to leave the gas station, the road to continue on HW 1 in the direction of Panama City was coned off. We tried moving around whatever the incident/accident there might be, but again at the next road, cones blocked entering the highway South. And again, and again… There are three bridges that cross the Panama Canal: “The Bridge of the Americas” located on HW 1 and the farthest West bridge, “The Centennial Bridge” on HW 4 a bit inland from the Pacific, and “The Atlantic Bridge” on the far East side. Surrounding the Western bridges are protected forests. As we tried to get on the highway we ventured farther South and began getting on smaller, more steep roads. When we ended up driving up a steep hill, in the now heavy rain, on a road the size of a bike path we knew we were cooked. To confirm, as I was doing a 6 point turn on the tiny road, Savannah’s tires spun out and I wasn’t really sure we would actually be able to turn around on the steep, slick asphalt. Eventually, we got her nose turned back downhill and towards the main area in town. There we noticed that the lanes heading South to Panama City were blocked off for traffic to drive North and out of the city. We’re not sure if this was just a 5 PM workday traffic pattern or if a game somewhere ended but all lanes on the “Bridge of the Americas” were now for Northbound traffic. We merged in with them, heading in the direction we had just driven 3 hours from (North), hoping we could come up with an alternative.

We were able to hop over to HW 4 to cross the Centennial Bridge after getting honked at a few times and using Savannah’s size to push our way in. At this point, it was a full on thunderstorm. Just after we crossed the bridge over the Panama Canal, I saw a lightning bolt literally do a loop-de-loop in the sky! I had no idea lightning bolts could curve, let alone look like they were returning upward before striking the ground. It was probably our fault for driving in after a work day but the driving was insanely hectic. And google maps really didn’t help us. We found ourselves on an exit ramp, that turned out to separate us from the next highway that we wanted to get on, with an automatic toll booth. Unsure if we’d get stuck in the lane or if we should try to back up to the main highway, we put the hazards on and freaked out (mostly me freaking out) on the side of the road for a bit. I couldn’t see to reverse back down the lane from the heavy rain and cars were flying down it off the highway, and I didn’t want Andre to stand in the rain and try to direct me in fear he could get hit. So, we drove into the toll booth and waited at the red light for about half a minute before it gave up and raised the arm to let us through.

The road swooped out into the bay, then returned to the mainland. We left the highway to some quieter side streets until we made it to the Raddison Hotel. We took a road that went around the building and dead-ended in the back. Finally, 3 hours later than we had planned to arrive, we tucked Savannah in at the end of the road right next to the Panama Canal. It was still raining, but not storming any more. We had read there may be a chance to bum off the wifi at the hotel but we couldn’t catch it. Instead we played some games of cards, watched a movie, and set up our documents and clothes for the next morning. It would be an early start to get Savannah inspected.

The alarm went off at 5 AM and we almost convinced ourselves we didn’t need to get up that early. It was Wednesday, and we knew we needed to have the inspection for Savannah done by Friday. Wednesday was in fact the earliest day we could do it, since it needs to be completed no more than 8 days before the loading date onto the ship. We contacted our agent the night before to ensure that this date of inspection would be acceptable. She lives in Argentina and with the time difference and when I messaged her, we still didn’t get a reply when our morning alarm went off. Grogginess ignored, we knew it was best to try to just get it done – and if something went wrong, we still had two more days to figure it out. We threw on some long pants and close-toed shoes (which is for some reason required for the procedure), and drove the 15 minutes from the back of the hotel to the inspection site. We arrived there by 5:30 AM and were the very first car in line. Oddly, there were some guys hanging out on the street who walked over to the van and offered an explanation of the process. Basically, we would have to wait on the road until 6:30 AM, then the gates would open and we could pull into the lot. We should pop the hood to let the engine cool, and beginning at 8 AM the inspections would begin on a first come first serve basis. These tips and advice were of course followed up with a plea for a tip, which we gave.

The inspection was to ensure the vehicle wasn’t stolen before being shipped to Colombia. The VIN number would be checked against the Interpol database of stolen vehicles. As we waited, I thought they may also check for the engine number and, after realizing we didn’t know where that was under the hood, panicked for a bit trying to find it. I texted my Dad and he said we probably wouldn’t be able to see it anyway just by popping the hood, so we hoped they wouldn’t ask. The process began late, after 8 AM. We were the only vehicle in the lot until a little after 7 AM. Once they began, there were at least a dozen cars with their hoods popped. The man began by calling out who was first, which I thought was obvious we were being the farthest in the lot from the road. After someone jumped ahead of us, we made sure to hop right in when he called out for the next person. The inspection site only checks 25 vehicles per day, which was why we arrived so early in the morning. When it was our turn, the man simply checked the VIN number under the windshield with the vehicle import permit. He tried to tell a joke about gringos, but neither Andre nor I understood it and he seemed disappointed. All letters matched and soon after we handed over all of our copies of passport/registration/insurance/import permit, we were told to return to the secretary office for the paperwork at 1:30 PM.

We found a nearby coffee shop with wifi to have some breakfast and chill out. It poured for most of the day. Andre went on an urban adventure on a scooter that you can hear more about here.

We parked back at the inspection lot and walked over to where we would pick up our paperwork. We were early of course, which helped because we had some confusion about which building to go into. After maybe 20 minutes of waiting, we were called up to the front to receive our official inspection form. She passed, she isn’t stolen!

We were done with bureaucratic shenanigans for the day so we escaped the city for a bit. We drove out onto the spit leaving the city where there were a few spots we found would be safe to camp. It was much breezier out there and cooled down after the rains. Originally, we thought we would only be spending a night out there. However, our bank transfer to pay for Savannah’s shipment took an extra day to go through so we ended up staying two nights and one full day out there. There wasn’t a whole lot to do, and we didn’t want to return to the rally car driving in the city, so we hung out there and never moved Savannah. We did a lot of lounging… and sweating, got some food out, and rented a 2 seater bike cart for $10 to ride along the spit and watch the boats in the canal.

This morning we woke up to hot, thick air in the van by 8 AM. Panama is really, really hot and humid, even in December. We quickly packed up after checking that the funds went through and went to the nearest bank to make the deposit of $1200 to the freight line. The fee covers the cost of the ocean freight (about 500 km of maritime shipping), the bill of lading, picking up/emptying the container, returning the container to port, and handling charges.

Now free of the city, we’re near Colon, where we will be loading Sav into the container on Tuesday. We found a hostel that offers cheap camping, showers, food, a safe place to park, and a cute dog. Tonight though, we are in a room at the hostel to refresh, shower, and sleep in some not so stifling air. Colon is known to be a dangerous city so we’re happy to be here and surrounded with green space. We will actually now be forced to rest for a couple of days since there’s nowhere farther to go until Savannah is on the boat!

We are still making a plan to try to sail to Colombia. Hopefully over the next few rest days we will figure something out 🙂

Since we’re pretty much at the end of our journey through Central America, here are a few fun facts that Andre has been calculating:

  • We’ve driven over 5,000 miles South of the US/Mexico border
  • Today is our 75th day of being on the road in Savannah after departing from Durham, NC on September 20th
  • We’ve slept in 57 different places on our trip beginning in the Outer Banks, NC to this hostel in Panama
  • Including the US, we’ve driven through 9 countries

Andre’s post, here!

Updated map of campsite, here 🙂

One thought on “Panama City Chaos

  1. I cannot imagine the brain power and time it took to figure out all the ins and outs of traveling through all these countries! You must have spent weeks just researching … but wow, I am SO impressed! I realize you’re close to the next leg of your journey, but I do worry about S.A. Just cuz I’m an old lady and I worry about everything! hahaha As always, stay safe! Love you..

    Liked by 1 person

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