Tod and Lisa’s Year of Adventure

Life on the Road to Central America

The Panama Blunder February 16, 2008

Filed under: panama — todandlisa @ 9:42 am

Forward:  For those of you just looking for pictures (yeah, I know, some of you can’t read) most of them are lower down in this entry.  Feel free to just skip past all of my heartfelt writing, I won’t mind. 

An old friend of mine once said “Nothing is perfect, except for your dreams.”  In this case that has certainly been true, as finally reaching Panama City has been far from perfect.  So funny how reaching a goal can really make you think about why you chose this goal in the first place.   Especially in this case where we (or more specifically: I) made a rather large error in planning.

Allow me to explain.  Our blitz from Oaxaca to Panama was based on one thing primarily….get there before it starts getting too hot (in March, April or later.) Looking at a map you will see that Panama, while in the tropics still lies quite North of the equator.  Therefore we (there I go again….I) was confident that although there are wet and dry seasons, wet being summer and dry being winter, the temperatures would correspond with our seasons here.


In Panama they call the months of December, January and February summer, the kids are all out of school and, you guessed it, it’s the hottest time of the year!  85 degrees with 75% humidity at 10PM anyone? So guess who is sweltering by the coast right now?

Lisa and the dogs.

I, on the other hand, am in Arizona at my parents where it is raining right now and uncharacteristcally cool.

Confused yet?

Well, as for my trip.  My mom has had Parkinson’s for 14 years and has been remarkly healthy all of that time.  Until recently.  Her symptoms have deteriorated rapidly, to the point where she is having difficulty walking.  Long story short, she recently had neurosurgery to implant a stimulation device (similar to a pacemaker) into her brain to mitigate some of the symptoms. 

The surgery has shown some positive results but the process has been slow and disappointing.  I’m here for moral support and to do some coordinating with doctors and care providers. She is slowly doing better and we’re getting the supports she and my dad need in place.  I’m lucky that  I can be here with them during this difficult time.

This has been a work week for Lisa so it seemed a good opportunity for me to make the trip.  I return to Panama on Monday to rescue Lisa and  flee to the highlands where Lisa has politely suggested we should have been all along.  Will you forgive me honey?

As for our trip from Costa Rica to Panama the interesting parts were pretty much Costa Rica as we essentially drove the length of Panama in one day.

 So, Costa Rica.

Well, to be honest I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I did.  I can be a bit of a tourist snob sometimes, so if a place is “the spot to go” I often avoid it.  But what’s not to like in Costa Rica?  Amazing beaches, incredible parks, flora and fauna, high mountains with cloud forests, friendly, well educated people.  Half the time I felt like I was in a magazine.


A sample of the flora from the Wilson Botanical Garden (see our sidebar for more pics!) 

San Jose was rather blah, but then again it’s a capital city and, to be fair, we didn’t do much more than spend a few days in a trailer park then get lost downtown trying to find the bypass route.  Honestly, for a popular tourist destination, the road signs here, were worse than many neighboring countries who have a lot less money.

After that though we promptly drove to the highest point on the Panamerican Highway called the Mountain of Death and spent the night in the cloudforests at about 10,000 feet.  We also managed to spot some quetzals with the help of a local guide that evening in some nearby trees.  Amazingly birds with such vibrant colors. 


Under the trunk of an ancient cloud forest tree

Following the advice of our  friends Paul and Bridgette (the Swiss mega-travellers), we drove down the mountain the next day and headed off of the Panamerican looking for the little town of Herradura where we hoped to find some great remote camping.  You may remember that Paul and Bridgette drive a tricked out Toyota Landcruiser…as in 4 wheel drive.  So when the road eventually became a trail with no viable campsites yet we decide it would be prudent to turn around.   Tricky proposal in itself when you’re 23 feet long.


These kids had the right idea on the road from Herradura

Luckily, while driving back and figuring out our options we passed this beautiful house perched above the river, that we had noticed on the way in.  The owner was just coming out and he took one look at us and started laughing.  “Where’d you guys come from?” was his first question.  Obviously an expat, Billy gave us a few options to camp on his property which was a huge relief for our worried heads as it was getting late.  Unfortunately we couldn’t get Betty down near his 50 foot waterfall but we were able to walk down and enjoy it all the same. 

The next morning found us swapping stories until noon with  our new friend.  He’s one of those people that when you first meet them you feel like you’ve known them for ages.  He gave us some great advice too.  Ditch the Panamerica highway and head for the coast.  Just as fast and better camping.  He also invited us to come stay awhile on our way back through, maybe even do some extended housesitting for him in the future.  Hmmmmm.


Billy and Lisa, catching up on old times

Billy was right about the coast.   The night after leaving his place we spent on a beach at one of our best campsites yet.  Unfortunately our beach stays have always seemed to be on the weekends with the crowds and we were almost overwhelmed with the friendliness and generosity of the locals camped around us.  I guess they never see many tourists in that area so, as they were returning home from the weekend, they just unloaded all their leftover food on us.  Watermelons, chickens, the works.  Did I mention that the best cerviche shack in all of Costa Rica (honest, that’s what the sign said) was a 5 minute walk away? 


One of our beach buddies, Julian

At the beach, it was again the kids that made the connections first.  Julian and his little sister Julianna both wanted to throw the stick for Allie as soon as they saw me do it once.  Eventually we met their mom Wendy and Leo, her partner.  Over the next few days we met almost all of both of their families.  Leo is from one of the few remaining indigenous tribes in Costa Rica.  After the weekend at the beach he invited us up to his village, Baruca, an hour away. 

Leo is the principal of their equivalent of high school, where Wendy is also a teacher.   They showed us the town and his humble home with the million dollar, 360 degree views.  They then took us to a neighboring village where there was a traditional festival going on and we got tasty, cheap local eats (10$ for a table of four is unheard of in Costa Rica.)  Their eagerness to show off their culture and the kind gift of their own artwork touched our hearts.   Again, we have made friends who have showed us the generosity of the world.


 Lisa meets one of the locals at the Dance of the Devils festival

With the our goal so near and the weather clock ticking (so we thought) we pushed on to the Panamanian border where we overnighted near the renowned Wilson botanical gardens.  The next day we thought we’d take some more advice from Paul and Bridgette, (yes, we still trusted them) and cross the border at a little used spot called Rio Sereno. 

With no signs and little indication on our maps we spent a lot of time asking folks for directions.  Fortunately we arrived before lunch to find we were the only ones there.  In fact if we would have kept driving I think we could have just rolled through without anyone noticing.  What a relief not to be hassled by tramitadores and have to fight through lines of tourists to get to the proper officials. 

It still had it’s hitches though and the Panamanian Ag. inspector held us up on account of not having the “proper transit papers” for the dogs.  That was a crock but I was alone in a room with him and the lead military guy in the area.  He said my option was to wait two days (it was Carnival and the banks were closed) and go to the other border crossing to get the right papers where it would cost $135 per dog.  Fortunately he did me a “favor” for $20 and passed me through without the papers.  Argghh. 

Once in Panama we found a beautiful little town nestled on the shoulder of a volcano where we spent the night beneath more quetzals.  Instead of relaxing in the mild climate with all the other Panamanians who where there to escape the heat (hint, hint) we plunged down the Panamerican to Panama City.  The parking lot out by the marina was a reasonable campsite by city standards but had little shade and was subject to a lot of cars cruising through.  Not the place we wanted Lisa to spend the week while I was in Arizona.  After a  day or two of errand running and trying to make something work campingwise we retreated down the coast to Santa Clara, a little beach resort where we rented a cabana for Lisa to work from for the week.

When I return, the highlands hold promise as a relief from the heat and we hear the Caribbean coast is cooler.  If Lisa hasn’t left me yet for the hills we should be there soon!  Then we start our long slow journey back north.

Stay tuned!


Lisa in her mobile office.  Her desk does double duty as our toilet.