Antigua – Panama City IX

Panama & Panama City

14th-16th November, Days 26-28

Guess what?  It’s another early start, 7am.  We’re on the home stretch of our month long overland adventure, and Panama City, our final stop is within touching distance.  Panama, is the southernmost country of Central America, where the continent narrows to join with Colombia and South America.  Famous for the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel that has had an incredible impact on the flow of world trade since it was opened in 1914. 

Ship heading for the Pacific Ocean locks on the Panama Canal

But first, we’re off to Chagres National Park to explore the Grandfather of the Panama Canal: the Camino Real, a cobblestoned road that runs from the Caribbean to the Pacific and goes through the rainforests of Panama.  It was established as the transport route of Gold and Silver by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century.  The route was used by endless mule caravans carrying approximately 200 tons of precious metals a year from Peru and Boliva to the trade fairs at Portobelo, on Panama’s Caribbean coast.

More interesting for us though, is the fact that the Camino Real has only recently been rediscovered and we’re off to visit and stay overnight at a community, which worked together with researcher Christian Strassnig to identify the original route of the Camino Real in the jungle.  The community, is based on an island in Lake Alajuela and in order to get there we need to travel 1 hour via motorised dugout boats.  The alternative is a 5 hour walk!! The lake and scenery are stunning and the boats are snug. Rather worryingly, ours has a leak. We use a Tupperware box to bale at regular intervals, which fortunately the local children had emptied of watermelon and pineapple.

The community greet us with a very warm welcome and help us to unload and ferry our bags and tents up to their residence. We’re camping tonight and fortunately it’s under the roof of the large community area and chapel, as Panama at this time of year is notorious for frequent rain.

We have a typical Panamanian dinner of freshly killed chicken with pasta and vegetables, which is delicious, and then watch a presentation of traditional dancing from the Community’s young people. It’s a fascinating and very colourful spectacle. We help to celebrate the respective birthday’s of Jules our tour leader, and Heidi one of the group. Cake and large quantities of alcohol complete the evening.

The next morning it’s fried fish and rice for breakfast. Freshly caught at 6am. It’s traditional for the Community, but certainly not for us Westerners who are more used to toast and cereal. However, it’s very tasty it just needed some chips!! We take a boat across the lake and en-route, Christian regales us with tales of Spanish conquistadors and English pirates. We get the opportunity to walk a section of the Camino Real, where we see small sections of uncovered cobbles, whilst learning about the local fauna and flora, oh and how to make a traditional Panamanian hat from palm leaves.

We leave the Community at lunchtime, it’s been a fantastic day and a half. We’ve learnt so much and been the recipients of such great hospitality. It makes us feel incredibly humble. As we start to cross the lake, the heavens absolutely open and for the next 45 minutes we sit in our dugouts and get completely soaked and after unloading the boats we board the bus to change into dry clothes, ladies first of course!

Next stop, the Panama Canal. Operating since 1914 and considered one of the modern wonders of the world, this fifty-mile waterway transports ships from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vica versa, by raising them from sea level to more than 85 feet via a series of gravity-powered locks. The journey takes approximately 11.5 hours and costs often in excess of $250,000 per ship. An incredible feat of engineering that has to be seen to be believed.

Sadly, it’s our last evening and we get together for dinner to reminisce on our overland adventures over the past month. We won’t lie, it hasn’t been easy; often very basic accommodation, limited food choices, minimal hot water and long days on the truck. This is the reality of life on the road in 3rd world countries and is to be expected. However, we wouldn’t change it for the world. We travelled over 3,000km, through 6 amazing Central American countries and made so many wonderful memories. We had a great truck family with whom we experienced so many, many belly aching highs and the occasional lows. Jules and Duncan our Dragoman guide and driver, were fantastic and worked so hard to ensure that we got the most out of the trip with patience and good humour. They also threw the best pool parties which is always a winner when you’ve spent a long day on the bus.

We spend a further 3 days at the end of the tour in Panama and have a great time exploring the old city, visiting numerous museums, dodging the rain – it rained a lot, observing the local Pelicans, buying Panama hats and enjoying some seriously good food and Panamanian rum.

It’s Cuba next and we can’t wait.

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