The Long Way to Colombia
It’s Saturday morning. The road in the village of El Valle – an endless traffic jam. There must be 1000s of Panamies escaping the heat of the lowlands. True, by now it’s the caravan of poor guys. Those who did not fly in on Friday afternoon with their chopper. By now, it’s just the parade of the latest SUVs, and other lousy cars searching for parking, people looking for a place to stay overnight, or whatever it might be.
For us time to leave for a less crowded place.
El Valle 2 Panama City
Playa Coronado, 12th February
Finally, we find Playa Coronado. No idea what to expect, we just found on Google there must be some infrastructure, some eateries’n’watering holes, and a beach – anyway, it’s just for a night. And surely there’s the opportunity for a walk along the beach and a sundowner watching the sun downing over the Pacific.
After a short drive, we arrive at the entrance of the village. No signboard telling us to reduce speed to save the villager’s cats lives. No, there’s a police station on the roadside and a gate with a guy asking us why the hell we intend to drive to Playa Coronado. Quickly our story about the sundowner is accepted and we’re on the way to the beach.
The next surprise: supposedly there’s a beach, but you cannot access it. The whole length it’s closed with huge walls hiding even bigger houses. Rarely any small passage. At least, in a hotel parking we can see that they have white sand and there’s really the Pacific Ocean.
Finally, we find that Playa Corona is not a romantic village on the shores of the Pacific as we imagined. But a gated community for foreigners, mainly Canadians. Somehow, they built here their own world, surrounded by the odd Panamese reality. To avoid any misunderstanding with their neighbors they simply gated the whole thing – and it’s fine for them.
We only learn this in the evening during our futile efforts to get a dinner in the best restaurant in town. Well, we got the story of Playa Coronada – and later a few crackers and cheese in the nearby supermarket for dinner.
Miraflores, 15th February
Playa Coronado – it’s just for a night. Early next morning we’re pretty glad to drive on. True, it was our very 1st experience in a gated village. Nevertheless, we think once is enough.
Arriving in Panamá’s proud capital we head for Isla Naos. Connected by a causeway, the place developed into a kind of amusement park and eatery hotspot for poor Panamesies suffering from heatstroke in town. For us just fine, near to tomorrow’s bureaucratic marathon to prepare the shipment of Prado.
It’s Monday morning, 6 am. Time to start the shipping process for Prado. Of course, shipping is not driving. Thus, you may not just go to immigration and customs to get whatever these guys invented to make your life harder.
For shipping a car, the Panamies developed a really exciting number of steps to follow – a kind of adventure playground for overlanders thru the very bottom of bureaucracy.
Thus, this morning we start with the Dirección de Investigacion Judicial – a unit that will testify that you did not steal your mother-in-law’s old car, nor did you hide your grandma’s remains somewhere in the trunk. For that, you have to be there at 7 am latest. Open the hood and have the engine cool down.
We’re there at 7 am. We meet our container buddies – Amber’n’Hector living in Nevada – on their way to Argentina. Thus, some time to complain about the world’s finest bureaucracies.
At 8 am a guy arrives. Telling you that no shorts are allowed in his presence, in which order he would like to have the numerous copies he needs and that only 1 person may be with him during his investigations. Then the process starts. He checks each and every letter or number on all copies, verifies the car’s VIN, and tells you, that in the afternoon you may get the document from a different guy in a different building. So, they have time for all necessary background checks.
Of course, in the process of shipping Prado we don’t get out of work. By now, we have some time to shift the hell a lot of money from our pocket to the shipping company and the local agent.
We find the 1st bank to pay the shipping company. After this, we can go to the 2nd 1 to pay the agent. Of course, in Panamá, they don’t mix things. Consequently, there’s no possibility to transfer from 1 bank to another. Great. Anyway, that keeps us busy until we can pick up the result of the investigation.
At 2pm we’re even allowed to visit the headquater of the Dirección de Investigación Judicial. Of course, we won’t have a cup of tea with the Director – he’s surely too busy during his working hours. Nevertheless, after having explained to them our humble request to eventually receive the result of their investigation, we’re invited to sit at the entrance for more than an hour. Then the guy at the reception decides, that he wants to get rid of us. Thus, he sends 1 of his subordinates to get this most important document and we’re free to do whatever we like. At least for the next 2 days until the eternal process of shipping continues.
2 free days. Great, no bureaucrazy; no waiting for important signatures, stamps, or papers.
Hence, the opportunity to visit the famous Panama Canal. Probably, after bananas the biggest source of income for the government.
To prepare, we check at what time the ships pass the sluice gates in Miraflores. Then we reserve a ticket for exactly that time. Great, now we’ll see everything.
We drive the few km to Miraflores. Thru rather run-down areas we wouldn’t go for a beer at night.
Then we’re at the visitor’s center, just on time to see the vessels passing the sluice gates.
Just – why the hell are there so many people waiting in front of the entrance. No idea, so we ask an officially looking guy. He’s clear, it’s all about these coronies. As those are sneaking around everywhere, they don’t follow anymore the schedule of the reservations, but they apply the system of 1 queue – everybody waiting patiently for her turn. Ok, he confirms that the reservation is still important despite the obvious fact, that they don’t consider it anymore. So, we queue up like everybody, waiting for our turn, being convinced that the coronies would ignore everybody in the queue. And still convinced that it might be important not to neglect the useless reservation.
Nevertheless, it moves quite quickly and 1/2h later we’re on our way to the viewing platform. On our way up to the platform, all exhibitions are closed – again to avoid these coronies waiting there for unaware tourists.
We quickly climb up the 4 stories to reach the viewing platform. We rarely stop on our way. Surely all these coronies waiting for us in the exhibition halls are as intrusive as leeches in the jungle.
On the platform quite a crowd. Fortunately, everybody escaped the viruses on the way up, so no further measures needed to fight them. Thus, we can stay there as long as we want.
Well, we’re happy to be here just on time to see the ships in the gates. About to get down to sea level.
2h later the ships are out of the gates. And we are on our way back.
The next morning, we drive back to Panamá.
Again, we have to take care of Prado’s shipment. Now, to get it into the container in Colon.
Panama City, 18th February
In the afternoon a stroll thru Panama City’s urban jungle.
Just by the way, esteemed reader – should you be an analyst for electrical systems or a specialist to save impossible problems, surely the municipality of Panama City always has an interesting and challenging opportunity for your future career.
The next morning, we have to be quite early. At 7 am we’re on the road to Colon. The place where Prado gets shipped to Cartagena, Colombia.
We drive the Corridor Norte. A kind of express-way connecting Panama City and Colon. For poor tourists normally, it’s not easy to use this highway, as you have to pay tolls. Of course, in a modern country like Panamá, you don’t pay road tolls with cash or a card. No, you use the Panapass. A fully electronic system, even with a tera-cool app where you can see on what days your boyfriend visited his new lover girl and where you can recharge your account even in your bed. Great. The only bad thing is, that you can only apply for it at the headquarter of the Almighty Toll Road Authority of Panamá.
You have to go there in person with certified photocopies of the name of your grandpa’s 25th girlfriend, the certified health certificate of aunti Julia’s nephew, and the certified list of all the purchases you’ve ever done at Amazon. Once you’re done with this application you just wait for 3 months and you’re a proud holder of your personal Panapass – a beautiful sticker on your windscreen. Easy, isn’t it.
For us, it’s easier. We arrive at a toll box, stop, wait a few moments, then somebody of the Almighty Authority concludes that foreigners cannot have a Panapass. Thus, they open the gate and we continue for free. Thanx guys.
On the way, we discover Amber’n’Hector our container buddies.
At 8 we’re in Manzanillo, the port of Colon. 1st we drive to Neptune Lines. Our shipping company. They already expect us. Promise to get our Bills of Loading in a few minutes. Half an hour later we have it.
On to customs. They need to authorize that we can leave Panama without our car. Somewhen, we find their office. Well, it’s not really the proud office of a proud government service. It’s rather a neglected, small building somewhere on the side of the port’s zona franca.
Nevertheless, we’re informed that their boss – looks like the only person with the authority on stamps – will only arrive by 9 am. Thus, we have to hang around for a while in front of their entrance door. About an hour later we’re informed that the guys are completely desperate, as their boss – His Authority on All Custom Related Stamps – has not arrived yet. And who knows if he ever will be in his office today.
Finally, a smart lady in a kind of cage within this customs building feels sorry for us. She invites us into the building – to her cage. We’re honored to submit to her all these photocopies we made for her. Without checking its contents, she puts all these important papers in the correct order, prints out a document that our cars left Panamá, and stamps our passports to allow us to leave without car. That’s it, done in less than 5′. Well, in reality, it took us 1 1/2h.
Back to Neptune Lines. It looks like they’re happy to have us back to continue the process. The smart lady at the front desk asks us nicely to be patient for 1 or 2 minutes. Half an hour later a guy asks us to come with him to start loading the cars. Finally.
Arriving outside, he checks the fuel we have in the tank, takes some pictures of the cars, and disappears.
We’re happy to wait with our cars. There’s nice sunshine, some 37 degrees. About 1h later we see him preparing a container: opening the doors, placing the ramp for the cars to enter, inspecting everything inside to make sure there’s nothing left from Pablo’s last transport from Colombia.
Finally, the 1st car drives in; gets firmly tightened and that’s it. Then Prado; the same procedure. Finally, the guy takes a beautiful picture of all of us, closes the container and we’re again on our way to the office. We just have to sign another couple of papers. Then we’re free.
A taxi to Colon’s wonderful bus station. And 2h back to Panama City. In a marvelous bus – looks like formerly owned by a Chinese bus company, by now fully converted into a Panamese racing vehicle.
Unfortunately, we did not see too much of Colon. Nevertheless, considering its reputation as Panamá’s crime hotspot and a glimpse of the decaying buildings and the trash piles everywhere led easily to our decision to skip this slightly rotten place.
Next morning. It’s our last day in Panamá. A visit to Casco Viejo, the city’s famous old town. Formerly a decaying slum – probably comparable to Colon – now it develops into a hip zone and the place to visit when in town.
Uber drives us there. Approaching Casco Viejo we state immediately this mix of fully renovated houses next to buildings just about to collapse within the next 5´.
But no worries, the odd tourists are well protected from any accidents. The slightly weaker houses are supported by huge steel columns. And to avoid that you need a helmet to visit, they protect you from falling bricks or roof tiles with iron sheets. Thus, you may sneak around without any worries.
Casco Viejo is not that big. Just a couple of streets, lined by all these colonial buildings, many churches, and restaurants. Populated by numerous souvenir sellers, touts and all these folks sneaking around.
Should you be 1 of these investors constantly searching for incredible opportunities – definitely in Casco you’ll find them. Probably hundreds of valuable colonial houses just waiting for guys like you. Of course, they all need a little spa, some repairs, and maybe a minor general overhaul. But then your investment will be an inconceivable beauty. Definitely ready to be taken over by the next investor or an unwary expat dreaming of opening another overprized eatery in Casco Viejo.
Whatever, we sneak thru every street. Fully ignoring the 36 degrees of heat and the 145 % humidity.
Later, just for a change a little more of modern Panama City.
Finally, our last evening in Panamá. our last beer in town and the opportunity for an enormous Lebanese Mezze.
Cartagena, 19th February
Next morning: we share a taxi with Hector’n’Amber to the airport. There, our Covid vax is checked several times. At the check-in, they even confirm that we have flights out of Colombia – at least for the time being.
1h flight and we’re already in an Uber bringing us to a sleepery in Cartagena’s famous old town.
What a difference to rather unspectacular Panama City.
Well, Cartagena is the place where we have to wait until Prado is getting released by the Colombian Customs-Port-Whatever-Authorities.
Initially, the container should arrive within the next 3 days. By now, it’s already slightly delayed by another 3 days. We’ll see how many delays they’ll add in the next few days. And how well we’ll know Cartagena until Prado hits the road again.
Guys, that’s it for this post. More of Colombia, and especially of Cartagena soon. In our next post.