Archive for the ‘Panama’ Category

Colón, Panama – Colón: city of misery and violence

Dienstag, Oktober 11th, 2011

Colón is an island. An island made from poverty and misery, hopelessness and decay. Colón is eight by 16 streets large. Eight by 16 streets unworthiness and dirt, crime and violence. It isn’t a slum in a city, the city IS a slum. The island is surrounded by outrageous wealth, which doesn’t allow any drop to seep through the guarded fences. First, there is the Panama Canal that washes riches worth billions into the pockets of the already rich ones. Altogether four harbours belong to the big goods turnover sites on this planet. And the free zone lures businessmen and profiteers from all over the world. Only few of Colón’s 65,000 inhabitants have the opportunity to get a poorly paid job in one of these economic areas. The other employees come from better areas around Colón or commute from Panama City. The unemployment rate in Colón is estimated at 60 %, which inevitably leads to prostitution, drug problems, and crime of violence.

The population is mainly black, mixed with some Indians and inhabitants of Chinese origin. For the railway and later the canal construction Afro-Caribs were hired as cheap workers who had hoped for making some money to return to their home countries as made men. Therefore they didn’t integrate culturally and most of them didn’t even learn Spanish. Later the same fate overtook Chinese guest workers. After they weren’t needed any more they were left to their own devices. Without money to return to their homes, without education and income, they stranded in Colón. The government, which colour it might have, shoes few interest in changing the city’s highly explosive situation. To be fair one must admit that this is valid for most inhabitants as well. They don’t take efforts to improve their situation. Resignation spreads through generations, and school, education and improvement of the personal prospects stand in the end of their list of priorities.

Today we arrive in Colón by train. There is one passenger train in the morning from Panama to the north and another to return in the evening. Commuters use it as tourists do. The single ticket is 22 $ pp. Expensive though, but those views aren’t available from the road: Several times we get close to the Panama Canal and the shipping, we go right through the green jungle, and we cross Lake Gatun on a dam. After one hour we reach Colón.

There’s a ray of hope in the spiral of misery: the Sisters of Mercy. We immediately recognize them as they pick us up form the train station with their car, despite they don’t wear nun’s habit. A practical jeans skirt, a simple polo shirt and open-toed sandals replace the warm and impractical uniform. There is no headgear. Sister Barbara and Sister Dina are the only nuns that care for the house called MUCEC, founded by Barb, how she calls herself. Both of them dedicated their life to children and women, to the poor and the poorest of Colón. Who now imagines sanctimonious church types who kindly and graciously distribute alms, is completely mistaken. They are sympathetic, and generous with their love. Otherwise Barb and Dina are a resolute, well coordinated manager team in their daily fight for financing the project.

The social organisation wasn’t always located in such a big modern house. The new one exists only for ten years. Principal concern of the Sisters of Mercy is the promotion of neglected, abandoned or undernourished infants in early childhood who otherwise might end up on the street. So some small geniuses are discovered, and retarded girls and boys can be specifically treated. The kindergarten looks after different age groups. If the joy of learning is aroused, there is a good chance that the kids finish their school education, and maybe even visit a university later on. The complete education system in Panama is free, in case of need the facility supports with school uniforms.

The sisters look for neglected children in town, follow hints and try to convince the mothers to leave their offspring in the home’s care during the day. Mothers who bring their kids on their own accord are never refused. When the children go to school later they may still come for homework tutoring. Whether kindergarten moppet or student, the Sisters of Mercy make the distribution of food their main job. Each kid gets two meals per day, and often enough these are the only two meals of the day.

Panamanian structure of society causes that fathers – except upper class – rarely feel responsible for their offspring. Even most married men have one or more mistresses with whom they also father children. Without mistress a man isn’t a terrific bloke. The divorce rate is high. So the majority of Panamanian children just have one, the female parent. The problem of Colón’s mothers is that they grow up without education and self-esteem. To nourish their kids is their daily challenge. And so MUCEC also attend to the mothers, tries to convey self-confidence, to be able to learn something and to use it later on. They teach the women sewing, knitting and other craftwork that they can sell if they want. A lecture every Friday is about themes that could interest the mothers: health and hygiene, education, yoga and other fitness training, or it might be a Christian topic as well.

After we visited all care centre groups we go outside. Sister Barbara shows us “her” world. There are three Kuna women sitting in front of the door, sewing and selling molas, knitted pictures with geometrical forms. The Caribbean Indians proudly wear their coloured traditional costume: a blouse that’s decorated with molas, a short tight skirt that’s just a cloth wrapped around, as well as uncounted rows of thin bead chains at their underarms and calves. Their short uniform haircut is a bit requiring getting used to, sometimes they throw on a headscarf as sun protection.

Only few metres further the entire misery of this city opens. Half collapsed houses are still inhabited, even if the floor already shows a dangerous hole. There is nearly no house in a better state. Each flat consists of one tiny room where the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps. Partially simplest wood sheds were built that fulfil the same purpose. They don’t have bathrooms. For each 50 to 60 inhabitants there are two or three common loos and the same amount of showers, which don’t work. People here never learnt what a flush is good for. Running water is an occasion. Immediately bathrooms are stormed to wash kids and clothes. Despite of all the dirt the people wear astonishingly clean clothes.

Sister Barbara introduces us to the people of Colón as family members. Not to protect us, that isn’t necessary in her company. But thus we receive more respect, we may take some photos, and one or the other door opens to have a glimpse. Who can afford it puts a bunk bed into the room; the others sleep on the floor. There is little furniture only, at best some mats and a gas cooker. The people might not have money for food, but who can make it possible buys or pinches a television, plus there’s a satellite dish. Electricity that’s very expensive in Panama, is scrounged somewhere illegally. Most inhabitants don’t pay rent.

Barbara speaks to a very young woman. She has two children and prostitutes herself. “What shall I do”, she says, “how shall I feed my babies?” “Very simple”, says Barb, “don’t get babies.” This came from a Catholic nun! An elderly woman sits smoking on a plastic chair on the sidewalk. Exactly this woman begged from Barbara some clothes a couple of days ago, she couldn’t afford them. The Sisters run a thrift shop in their house where they sell donated clothes for a symbolic price. But they never give it; the chance of exploitation would be too high. Those who can’t even pay 25 cents clean the stairs or wipe the floor. Barbara conceals her indignation and talks to the old woman whom it is obviously embarrassed to be caught smoking. To spend money for luxury items instead of buying essential fool happens frequently. Another woman known as destitute crosses our way. Red coloured braids peep from her headscarf. There is honestly earned money as well. A man sells produce for very low price. A woman rented a ground floor room, cooks soup, and sells it for 50 cents the plate. A family breeds chicken. They are slaughtering the cock that was run over by a car.

Sister Barbara came as young nun first in 1964 from Brooklyn to Panama. In 1971 she went to Chiriqui. The Indians that live there asked her to teach them reading. Consequently they realized that benefits for overtime or Sunday working as pickers that they are lawfully entitled to get were not paid out to them. Their foreman withheld the bonuses. The big landowner held Barb responsible for the resulting riots and complained to the bishop. She didn’t make really friends there, but she didn’t consider returning to the United States. The chance she got was 1985 in violent Colón. Appalled by the misery of an entire city – that became worse after the withdrawal of the Americans – she began immediately setting up the MUCEC project, her life’s work. Still today she puts all her energy into the daily fight for financing and hence survival of the home. Sister Dina is a child of Colón. The psychologist joined Barbara many years ago. Both of her parents volunteer in the project as many other socially committed citizens do.

Who wants to contribute something to support these two incredible women and their work, even if it is very little, finds our e-mail address on our website. We will forward the centre’s email address with pleasure.

Colón, Panama – Arminius is travelling

Montag, Oktober 10th, 2011

On this bad day we have to temporarily say good-bye to Arminius. We bring him into the harbour of Colón, to Manzanillo to be correct, where our agent awaits us. He takes us to all offices, we have to pay 48 $ harbour and disinfection fees, and the customs bring a drug dog to sniff at our truck. The whole story takes three hours. The agent takes us to the bus terminal where we immediately can enter the express bus back to Panama City. It isn’t recommended to hang around at the bus station, the area isn’t too trustworthy. The icy air-conditioned bus takes 3.15 $ pp, but needs two hours for the 70 km / 45 mi in the evening traffic. An entertaining horror movie is on that stands out due to be especially bloodthirsty. Since the volume is loud it is difficult to evade the horror. Fortunately, there are no kids on board.

Our hosts Sue and Lew were so kind to offer us one of their rooms so that we can save the hotel costs in Panama City.

Panama City, Panama – A Panama Canal tugboat in action

Sonntag, Oktober 9th, 2011

Our host Lew returned from his journey. Today he fulfils our long-cherished hope to get a ride on a tug boat on the Panama Canal. He has late shift and no passengers are allowed at dark. But he arranges to get on his boat, the Cacique, during his off-time for a couple of hours. The task of a tugboat on the Canal isn’t usually towing. All freighters, passenger and warships go under own power through the passage, into the locks, and out. Because everything has to proceed as fast as possible there is not enough room especially for the big Panamax ships to manoeuvre. It is the job of the tugboats to support the big tubs in getting into the right direction. They might pull with ropes if connected or simply by shoving them from the stern or side. For protection the tugboats have a thick rubber bumper around.

The pilot who is present on every boat crossing the Canal coordinates everything and gives order to the tugboat captains as well as the train drivers in the locks. He knows the special physical performance of the Panama Canal. It must be globally unique that the pilot doesn’t advice the captain how to manoeuvre but overtakes supreme command for ship and crew and gives order (and accepts responsibility).

From the south end of the Panama Canal we bring a Panamax container freighter to the Miraflores Locks and hurry back. The tanker now is shorter, so both tugboats – two always work together – fit with it into the locks and we can experience this locking process once more from “ship perspective”. Afterwards the tugs assist the tanker to park between the mooring buoys on Miraflores Lake where it has to wait for the evening to continue, because in the meantime direction of travel on the one-lane canal has changed like always at noon. Our Cacique berths now as well at the quay and has an hour for maintenance until the traffic from the opposite direction arrives and the tug has to start working with the ships again. We take the chance to leave the ship.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Flight to a new continent

Samstag, Oktober 8th, 2011

We fly to Colombia. RoRo ferries don’t take passengers due to insurance reasons. Best price offers COPA Air by internet booking (around 30 $ less expensive than at the counters in many malls), the second supplier Avianca is most of the time more expensive. Prices change, a one-way-ticket is around 350 US$. We fly via Bogotá what extends travel and flight time, but is a bit cheaper. We fly over the Darién Gap and know now that we definitely don’t want to drive there, in the rainy season it’s quite impossible. The hilly jungle landscape is criss-crossed by uncountable meandering rivers; larger and deeper areas transformed into swamps.

At the ATM machine in Bogotá I withdraw 1,000,000 Peso or COP and become millionaire. That corresponds to about 550 US$ – too many zeros for my concept. Another possibility to get from Panama to Colombia is a mini-cruise with a sailing boat through the San Blas archipelago. These Caribbean islands belong to the autonomous precinct of the Kuna Indians and are relatively untapped by touristic means. The sailing ship Stahlratte seems to be recommended by many travellers (, they transport motorcycles and bikes as well. Unfortunately there is no suitable cruise for us.

We take a room in the hotel Oceano that has bearable prices and a convenient location somewhat close to the harbour. Rooms are simple, modern and very clean with TV and air-con. Despite price-fixing arrangement via our agent in Cartagena the administration asks for more than double the price, but this can be solved quickly. We get the double room including breakfast and taxes for 57 $. Rooms to the main road have a balcony; at the back without balcony it is quieter. The restaurant is acceptable.

Panama City, Panama – Robbery at police parking lot

Freitag, Oktober 7th, 2011

We have to be at 10 a.m. at the police station to get our number plate and VIN number checked, what is necessary for exporting the vehicle by ship from Panama. Afterwards Interpol allegedly checks if the vehicle was involved in any criminal act in Central America. We will receive the result respectively the export permit in the afternoon. One of the officers insists for an unknown reason that we park in the end of the lot – later on this won’t be without consequences. Because here is a passage to the road behind the parking where on the opposite side one of Panama’s very bad slum areas begin. At any time after 10 o’clock the officers of start to inspect the vehicles, ours is the last one. It doesn’t take long time, and I already want to get into our truck.

That’s why I don’t pay full attention to my surroundings and I don’t notice two Afro-Americans approaching me rapidly. Suddenly one of them tugs at my purse and tries to snatch it away. Idiot! That doesn’t work, the bag is tightly attached to me and has one strap across my body and another around my hip. He would have to take me as well, but for sure that’s not in his plan. I found this special “handbag” in an army surplus store in the States. If the thief had paid attention he could have seen at least the diagonal strap so he would have known that’s impossible to just pull away the bag. Even cutting the straps is difficult since they are made from very stable Cordura – and it’s two.

Everything happens very fast: Joerg shoves away the second attacker and throws himself between the first one and me. After the first moment of shock is gone we begin to counterattack and turn the tables. We try to catch the unsuccessful purse robbers, roar loudly and pursue them. The two fellows bellow as well, now by fear, and run off like rabbits. They are smart and split up. Joerg is fast, but he chooses the wrong one who’s faster. The other one falls over a parked car and falls onto the street. But I am too slow with my nice sandals that I specially took for the police visit (they are very particular regarding clothes). Both young men disappear in a pathway opposite of the entrance to the police parking lot. We don’t intend to follow them into the slums! Well, at least we gave them a fright.

But what about the officers who checked the cars and stand only meters away on the parking lot? Quite a while after we returned to Arminius, they stroll along really calmly. They waited long enough to make sure not to be involved. They ask us uninterestedly what happened. Then they order us to leave immediately, because this wasn’t a safe place. Ah? A: We just WANTED to leave and B: why am I forced to come to a site that’s not safe? There’s no answer, of course. In view of the fact that the robbery took place in broad daylight in the parking lot of the National Police and the officers had an amazing knack of not being involved into the occurrence, there is a legal question: Does the police collaborate with the bad boys? Hard to say, but a least there must be a certain tolerance to occurrences of this kind, otherwise they would have reacted faster. Of course it is always awkward to have a purse but for the police visit we needed passports and some other papers what makes a bag somehow necessary. In any case this is a warning for other travellers to park in this lot in the very beginning whatever the police say, to keep the doors locked and to safeguard valuables.

At half past two we have to be in another police station, the Secretaría General, on the opposite side of the place of crime. Men have to wear long pants and closed shoes to enter the office (ladies should be well-groomed, can wear a skirt, and nice sandals are o.k.). The strictly looking lady is known for being able to delay the procedure, but today is Friday, she wants to go home at three o’clock, and so she works speedily. We receive the necessary confirmation that we aren’t villains and that we are allowed to export the vehicle within eight days.

Panama City, Panama – A perfect Evelyn

Donnerstag, Oktober 6th, 2011

Evelyn Batista from Wilhelmsen Ship Service / Barwil Agencies in Howard doesn’t disappoint us. She is prepared, has an answer to each question in form of a mostly already printed form. We receive city maps, GPS data for the most important offices, a written and additional oral instruction in which sequence we have to go where. She prepares all necessary copy sets and helps with any other request. Besides, she is just likeable – that’s nearly too much for a not too pampered Central-America-traveller.

San Carlos, Panama – Ferry misdemeanours

Montag, Oktober 3rd, 2011

It’s not really fun what we get to know today: The ferry was again delayed, now to the12th of October. But there’s one good thing – we decide to ask for another shipping offer. The unbelievable happens, the new offer is 500 $ less. Plus, we now deal with the agent whose professionalism is praised by all travellers: Evelyn Batista from Wilhelmsen Ship Service / Barwil Agencies in Howard close to Panama City ( Ironically our first inquiry was sent to Evelyn but was answered by another colleague who made us one of the more expensive offers. RoRo shipping Colón-Cartagena is right now around US$ 61.50 per cubic meter including bunker. Less expensive offers might not include bunker. Prices change all the time depending on the petrol price.

El Valle, Panama – Sunday market in El Valle

Sonntag, Oktober 2nd, 2011

El Valle de Antón is a mountain village around 25 km / 15 mi from San Carlos. Most Panamanians go into raptures over it. It is nice, many prosperous American retirees settled here and nowhere else the Porsche-Cayenne-density is as high as here. But generally I would say the village is overrated. The landscape is pretty, thanks to the cooler climate many plants, fruits and vegetables grow here that don’t flourish in other parts of. Sundays a small but famous market takes part where some fruits and handcrafts are sold. Mainly it is international tourist kitsch, but there are some high quality artesanías as well. Most of them are more inexpensive than in Panama, at least not pricier.

San Carlos, Panama – The beach house

Samstag, Oktober 1st, 2011

Our hosts Lew and Sue own a beach house an hour west of Panama City. They use it rarely, but Robin lives here who returned to Panama after some years of retirement in Texas. Chance would have it that he also worked in the past together with our friend Wallace from Washington State. Robin takes care that the caretaker of the house does his job. He seems to be happy to have some company. The stony Pacific beach is only five minutes away, and there is a chilly pool in the garden. The temperatures here are more bearable than in the city where it is really hot right now.

Panama City, Panama – The Causeway

Freitag, September 30th, 2011

Another popular destination of the Panamanians is Calzada Amador. This dam was also built with the surplus soil of the canal construction and serves as a breakwater for the canal entrance. At the same time it connects several islands with the mainland. There are some marinas, shops, and many restaurants. There are bicycles to rent to run up and down the Causeway. We like the view from here to the ships waiting to cross the canal, the bridge Puente de las Americas, and the skyscrapers shooting up that easily can hide the fact that this is still a developing country.

Panama City, Panama – The Darién Gap: an impenetrable obstacle?

Donnerstag, September 29th, 2011

Why do we hang around in Panama? Why don’t we head to South America? Why do we want to take a ship instead of driving? The answer is Tapón del Darién. Darién is the name of a jungle area in the south-east of Panama and the north-west of Colombia, the only land connection between Central and South America. Unfortunately, there is no road. The Pan Americana stops in Panama and continues 110 km / 70 miles later in Colombia. In-between there is enemy, swampy, impenetrable jungle. Nobody wants to build a road for various reasons: ecology, deforestation, costs, Indigene interests, illegal migration, and drug transfer.

But is the Darién Gap really impenetrable? No. The first successful attempt to cross the wilderness was in the 1960s. Different expeditions with different means of locomotion tried their hand at the Darién: jeeps, dirt bikes or bicycles that had to be carried most of the way. There were even attempts on foot. The numerous rivers had to be crossed swimming or with boats of the local Indians (probably not suitable for a vehicle of Arminius’ size). Since 1997 the expedition tourism came to a standstill because guerrillas ply their dreadful trade and the Darién isn’t safe anymore, if ever have been.

Today, the only option is to take a ship (or an airplane for smaller transportation devices). Most ships leave Colón on the Atlantic side and head to Cartagena / Colombia (or other ports in other countries like Ecuador and Venezuela). There is the classic RoRo (roll-on-roll-off), a LoLo (lift-on-lift-off), or a container ship. Cheapest and safest option is the container, but too small for Arminius. Since there is nearly no price difference we prefer RoRo instead of craning this heavy vehicle, but ferries are rare and regularly re-scheduled. There is no way of passenger transportation on the ship due to insurance reasons. We will have to fly over. For the moment, our RoRo, that has already been delayed once, is re-scheduled again from October 2nd to 7th.

Panama City, Panama – Boat ride on the Panama Canal

Mittwoch, September 28th, 2011

It is great to have friends. Although Lew had to travel abroad he asked a befriended boat captain to take us on a ride on the canal. There is a tourist boat that offers trips, but they start at about 100 $ for a short tour. The Canál de Panamá corporation uses an old crane ship, the Atlas III, for pilot training and for public relations tours with school classes, associations and others. Today a school class from Colón goes aboard in Panama City and leaves the ship after the Miraflores Locks. We kindly can join the tour. The Panama Canal Corporation is not allowed to take any money for that, but there is no way to apply for it, you have to be invited.

On the Atlas III we have the opportunity to see the locking live. What an experience and chance for photos! On our way north we are locking together with a smaller tanker and two tugboats. There are even a complimentary lunch-box and sodas available. After we dropped the school kids we head south again and share the lock chamber with a motor yacht and a working boat. Despite our boat captain Carlos is very experienced, a pilot has to be on board – nothing goes without them.

Panama City, Panama – Panama’s old town and shelter for travellers

Montag, September 26th, 2011

Panama’s old town is called Casco Viejo, a quarter where Spanish and French colonial style left its marks. Some years ago restoration was started and is partially finished. A particularly beautiful place is Paseo de las Bóvedas, a flower-covered passageway built on a fortress wall with a grand view into the bay of Panama and the numerous skyscrapers of the new city. For lunch we meet with Roz, another friend of Wallace. The former teacher runs a second-hand shop for exclusive formal dress where even the First Lady of Panama sells her robes.

Then we head to Panama Passage, a relatively new facility under Canadian/US-American management. It is at the same time guest house, tiny campground, mailing station, help for shipping, obtaining spare parts and much more ( Christian and Persephone, co-proprietors and current managers are very likeable and facilities like that non-existent so far. Beds in their guest hose cost 15 $ a night, camping is 10 $ per vehicle. The only other camping option in Panama City we know is the Balboa Yacht Club parking lot at Calzada Amador.

Panama City, Panama – The Panama Canal, a technical accomplishment

Sonntag, September 25th, 2011

The Panama Canal is still considered to be one of the biggest human accomplishments of all times. The French tried to build it in the end of the 19th century. They had a good engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the architect of the Suez Canal, but the wrong plan. The idea to create a canal on sea level was their financial ruin. After Lesseps’ death, 17 years of construction, and 22,000 casualties they had to give up their plans. After negotiations of the United States with Colombia regarding a canal failed, Panama declared its independence and signed the canal contract with Teddy Roosevelt, the work was resumed in 1904. But the Isthmus-Canal-Commission with seven members worked bureaucratic, inefficient, and was too far away from the scene. Workers fell like flies and nobody listened to Canal physician William C. Gorgas who couldn’t prove his theory that mosquitoes were the carriers of the dangerous diseases. After one year the project ran the risk of failure. Roosevelt quickly reacted in appointing a new commission with three heads only and a new chief engineer. Health matters received priority since all kinds of tropical illnesses carried off the workers in epidemic waves. And the train as a lifeline of the canal was extended.

Only in 1906, after resumption of construction work the final decision against the plan to build a canal on sea level in favour of the Gatún plan with locks and an artificial lake in-between was made. The Culebra Cut, a cut into a mountain range, was the biggest technical challenge. With the dug soil the Gatún Dam was built, that kept the largest artificial lake at the time in place. It took 15 years to flood it. Still today, the three-phase Gatún lock works at the Atlantic side, the one-phase Pedro Miguel and the two-phase Miraflores lock in the south with unrevised doors. The lock chambers are each 305 m long, 33.5 m wide and 26.3 m deep and contain 101,000 cubic metres of water. The canal was finished on time in 1914, cost 386 million Dollars and another 6,000 casualties.

The Miraflores Locks have a good visitor centre where we can watch the cogwheel locomotives helping the big ships to stay in place while locking that takes ten minutes each. Every ship has at least one pilot who has to invest eight years in his education, and the larger ships two tugboats that actually don’t pull but help the ships to navigate. Around 14,000 ships pass the channel each year, one million so far. The canal was built for ships no longer than 294 m, no wider than 32.3 m and 12 m draught. To guarantee profitability in future an extension for larger ships than the so-called PANAMAX class was inevitable. Building was started in 2007, and the third lane shall be finished in 2014. Admission fee for the Miraflores Locks visitor centre is 5 US$ for the roof terrace, 8 $ including museum and film showing. Best time for a visit is the morning around 9 am or the afternoon between 3 and 5 pm.

Panama City, Panama – Panamanian Baywatch

Samstag, September 24th, 2011

The beach prepares for the weekend when many urban refugees from Panama invade. We find the Panamanian Baywatch-issue especially nice. An army of apparently cloned rescue swimmers with nearly similar physique and fitness level in diverse chocolate tones is getting ready. Only the Pamela-Anderson-substitutes miss bust size. We escape into the opposite direction, hoping the city is empty.

When handing over the Panama Canal to the Panamanians most Americans went back to their home country. So did Wallace whom we’ve met long time ago in Alaska and visited a year ago in Washington State. Others stayed since they spent their entire life or were even born here. Like Lew and Sue, two of Wallace’s many friends that we shall meet in Panama. They live in a house in the suburbs with enough space to park Arminius, so we make ourselves comfortable.

Santa Clara, Panama – Santa Clara in white

Freitag, September 23rd, 2011

The Pan Americana is in quite good condition, partially even a four-lane highway. The journey is so fast that we unexpectedly soon reach the next Pacific beach at Santa Clara. Actually this one is public as well, but there is not too much access, it is congested by villas of rich Americans, by restaurants, and an ugly multi-story hotel. Actually the only access belongs to a Canadian couple that offers a parking lot, a bar and soon a restaurant. They ask for 3 $ entrance fee per person incl. parking, 5 $ for camping, and we are allowed to park at the beach. It is soft, white and very protected so that there are nearly no waves. Santa Clara is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches at the south cost. It is guarded, safe and extremely quiet at night: N 08°22’29.9’’ W 80°06’18.1’’.

Las Lajas, Panama – Lonely beaches

Donnerstag, September 22nd, 2011

Las Lajas is a lonesome beach. We just find some simple accommodations and restaurants, most of the buildings are decaying. The quiet kilometres long dark sandy beach is quite pretty. There are some waves, but swimming is o.k. We ask in a hostel if they mind us camping right at the beach, but nobody cares. We meet some pensioners that spend the cold winter here to return to their home countries during summer season. It is very quiet here, but stay away from the restaurants and hostels; they might switch on the music in the middle of the night as soon as guests arrive. (N 08°10’00.7’’ W 81°51’39.2’’)

Boquete, Panama – Panamanian departments, a classic example of inefficiency

Mittwoch, September 21st, 2011

The border-crossing Paso Canoas at the Inter-Americana how the Pan Am is often called here is the most important one into Panama. Again the Costa Rican side is discretely signposted. The lady at the Migración is very friendly and even practises her English at us. In contrast to this lady we are just unreasonable for the Aduana officer. It’s not so much personal, it is the presence of any client that forces him to a different act than to meditate in front of his black computer monitor. That’s not designated in his daily routine. Obviously the poor man can’t even talk. He gives his orders by nodding, a gesture is nearly more than he can spare. Now he even has to get up to have a look at the evidence. But Mr Cool doesn’t have himself under complete control. For a short moment his face fell into astonishment as soon as he detects Arminius. Official again he silently and reproachfully taps on a spot at the import certification. Letter confusion happened with our license plate number. Later we’ll realize that the VIN number wasn’t correct as well, but fortunately he doesn’t check it. We should have paid more attention at entry, this can cause problems. Unmoved I shrug my shoulders: “That must be a mistake”, I say in a terse way. Eventually he signs the papers and we may leave.

Now Panama: Some officers direct the arriving vehicles where to park. Two claim we have to go to Aduana first, then to Migración, the other one the opposite. We follow the majority. The Aduana officer ignores us in the beginning and sends us to insurance office first. We have to buy a third-party insurance, 15 $ for 30 days. Back to the customs we wait again to get to know eventually that we have to get the insurance papers stamped in another office. The responsible officer takes her lunch rest and shall be back at one o’clock. This would be in half an hour. After one and a quarter of an hour an army of travellers that’s stressed out awaits the dearly smiling queen who finishes her extended lunch rest in an excellent mood. In less than two seconds she manages to stamp the papers. That’s all. I can’t believe it. That’s why I waited so long? The Panamanian customs is a classic example of Central American inefficiency.

Back to the glass wall in front of the counter we have to wait more. At a certain point the officer can’t delay our papers any more and finishes them with great difficulties reading the German licences. Another officer has a short look into our camper’s compartment, but the 60 cans German beer from Costa Rica is of no interest. Migración is fast as usual: Fill out a form, smile into the camera, get the passport stamped, ready. Last step is vehicle disinfection for 6 $.