I woke up to an earthquake. Oh no it’s James attempting a dismount from the bunk above me in our dorm room. The whole bed frame shakes as he rolls over and preps for the first ladder rung. The force of his roll flings all of the random coins of change out of his pocket and they come crashing to the floor in a loud clanking, rattling, and spinning of coins. It was like a slot machine had just cashed out from the top bunk. But this dumped all the change MacKay had been collecting from almost every currency in Central America, and probably some pesos too. I could pick out the notes from those heavy 500 colones Costabucks. It’s 6am. This is so stupidly loud in a dark, quite room of 15 other sleeping travelers. I hear him swear under his breath. I’m trying my best not to laugh out loud. This has definitely woken up most people in the room. When he makes a move for the ladder another collection of coins that had fallen on to the bed now also tumble to the floor in a second coinslide. I’m dying in the lower bunk, trying so hard not to laugh too loud. And when he moves down one rung on the ladder, a third cascade of coins hits the floor. Absolutely no one in the room could have slept through this. MacKay is quietly apologizing to people who are giving him the sleepy stink eye. I poke my head out from the bottom bunk to give him the double thumbs up, let him know how cool he is. Tollbooth Willy gives them right back. After starting the day out like this, how could it get any worse?
We waited for Diego in the common area around the agreed-upon time of eight. He showed up about ten minutes late and explained he’d looked for us in the other room… right around the corner. Like five feet away. He looked like he’d be killing rum till 5 am – didn’t he go to bed early? Seemed really off his game too, forgotten stuff he’d told us the previous evening. “It’s in Colon, right?”. We decide to forego breakfast and he goes to grab his bike from a nearby parking lot.
Five minutes later… we’re waiting. Ten minutes later… we’re still waiting. Fuck this, it’s getting hot and the parking lot is a 45-second walk away, did he get lost?? Let’s wait for him over breakfast. Coffee coffee coffee! Murphy orders an “American-style” breakfast of pancakes and eggs while I roll the dice with a “Panamanian-style” breakfast, described as “sliced beef and tortillas”. God DAMN! So good. That description doesn’t do it justice, not even close. The beef is super-marinated in something like General Tao sauce with grilled veg mixed in and the “tortillas” are like corn-based hash browns. If you’re in Panama City you definitely need to check Pip’s out for their breakfast, and probably for dinner as well, because of the super-hot waitress on the evening shift who spends half her time shaking it. Fantastic.
Diego shows up after half an hour later without explanation. Alright. We all jump into or onto our vehicles after Diego sets up his GPS and Murphy Googles up some directions on his phone. Looks easy, one road down to the waterfront then follow a straight line. Diego pulls in front and immediately takes a wrong turn. Shit. We decide to follow him regardless. Over the next ten minutes he’s roaming aimlessly, looking shaky as hell, coming close to nailing a couple of cars and almost dumping it at one point when he gets indecisive at an off-ramp at 5 km/h. When I get the chance I pull ahead hoping he’ll just follow us – instead he pulls up to the window and says “Let’s just meet at the Pizza Hut!” (our agreed-upon destination in Colon, an easy-to-find landmark directly off of the convergence of the two roads to the city.)
Thus began the 2014 Pizza Hut Pacific-to-Atlantic Challenge, an epic cross-continental race with the winner being awarded a glass of Pizza Hut fountain PepThe challenge began poorly for Team D & McB. Almost all of the roads in Panama are one-way streets and they don’t alternate one-and-one as you’d expect. We drive into the middle of a parade – this is nine o’clock in the morning, on a Friday, in one of the busiest sections of the city. Instead of blocking off the ends of the street, cops are hanging out to watch the parade. Keep up the good work boys.
Somehow we burst out of the parade and try to find roads on Murphy’s phone that look like they’ll get us out. Every time we get close to an on-ramp it turns out it’s only accessible in the other direction and despite several illegal u-turns it takes us forty minutes to figure out a way onto a main highway north. We shared our thoughts on the city’s planning: I said that the road was like feeding a dog spaghetti then kicking it in the guts and using the vomit for the road plan. Murphy compared it to what you would expect from a five-year old playing SimCity.
The road to Colon was decent and we got a few nice glimpses of a lake that makes up the Panama Canal to our left. As we pulled into Colon we went through a few roundabouts and pulled into the mall containing the Pizza Hut – no Diego. The 2014 Pizza Hut Challenge Cup goes to D & McB! It’s a strange victory though, we were pretty damn lost and needed some fancy footwork but it should’ve been way easier on a bike… Where the hell is he?
Pizza Hut’s closed, as is the Dairy Queen next door. The Pizza Hut entrance is shaded so we just hang out in there while employees are inside cleaning and interviewing new potential hires. They must think we white folks really love pizza. A dude comes over and says they’ll be open in half an hour but we can wait inside. AC and Wi-Fi, no doubt.
We spend some time blogging it up and researching ways to get our car from here to Colombia. No Diego. Fuck it, we order some chicken wings. Finish em up. Lick our fingers clean. No Diego. What the hell happened. We gave him a good hour and a half and still no show. Tack on our 40 minutes of lost time and he’s had well over 2 hours. We could have driven back to PanCity, back to Colon, back, and back by now. He’d given me his facebook info the night before so I fire him off a message that we’re going into Manzanillo Port to check things out, here’s my cell, let me know what’s up either on FB or via text.
We drive over to Manzanillo port. It is a large fenced in area. For absolutely no reason at all you are forced to drive past the whole complex, go around a curvy road and then come all the way back in the other direction, only to enter at the first corner you initially passed.
We snoop around searching for clues as to any sort of ferry service, any sign of Hubert Liu, or anything that looks remotely useful for our mission. We pass by a bunch of customs offices, way too early for that shit, and then hit an office building filled with shipping companies and agencies. MacKay recognized a few names from prior research we’d been doing. If we can’t find Hubert or a ferry we’ll come back to check these out.
We get to what looks like a central building at the Port. A large, mostly glass complex with lots of official looking stuff planted on it. We stroll through the front doors and get nailed by a blast of arctic AC. So nice. The girls at the front desk don’t speak a lick of English and our attempts to describe what we wanted only prompted them to call in some back up and tell us to wait. In a couple of minutes an older lady named Linda came by and she very politely introduced herself. Her English was excellent and she was wearing some very official looking name-tag badge.
We start describing to her our intentions to get our car on a boat from here to Colombia, that we have a guy’s number who supposedly has a ferry service here in the port. “Hubert Liu? No I’ve never heard of anyone by that name here.” She brings out her cell phone and gives the Hubert a buzz. Straight to voice mail. Shit. We tell her about our trip and that we’re trying to get to Argentina. “Whoa, driving? You guys are crazy.”
She gives Hubert another call and this time he actually picks up. From what I can gather from my I’m able to order beer Spanish, they have a strange back and forth. Linda explains who she is and that she works for the port. She describes what we are wanting to do and then there’s some odd pauses and she looks terribly confused. When she finishes the call she says, “Well that was all very strange. He says he doesn’t do anything like that. He directed me to some website.” Ohhhhh Hubert, you sketchy ol’ coot. As soon as someone from the port gets you on the phone you’re in the deflection zone. Damnit, that sounds sketchy as hell. We’re gonna have to bail on this option. It may be fast and cheap, but we really don’t have time to get stuck in a Colombian jail or caught up at the next border with no way to prove how we got in or what. Would have made a great story, but only if we don’t get fucked.
It didn’t break my heart to abandon the Hubert plan. The guy might be semi-legit, delivering the goods without the authorities knowing – in which case we don’t want to fuck up his game any more than we might have already, hence the pseudonym – but on the drive over I couldn’t stop envisioning myself, Murphy and Diego getting taken out to international waters and forced into a game of Russian Roulette while Asian men clutching fistfuls of dollars scream at us and smoke profusely. Sort of a cross between the Deer Hunter and the opening scene of Rambo III.
We ask Linda if she knows any other info about crossing. She doesn’t really. We could talk to their marketing department who usually deals with the shipping and… oh wait there is a new ferry service. It runs from Colon 2000 on the other side of town. Yes! Options! She starts giving us directions. Halfway through I’ve already looked the place up and have figured out a route there. She’s still going. Haha, the directions are crazy. But she’s so polite and has been so helpful we let her keep going. Near the end I reassure her that I have a map on my phone, our location, and we can figure it out no problem. “No way mister, I am your GPS, you listen to me now” she joked all sassy. We were all laughing, Linda was great.
Back in El-BP we speed across town on the latest ferry lead. Quick scan of the Pizza Hut on the way by, no Diego. What the hell happened to that guy? I hope he’s alright. When we pull into Colon centro we are floored. Had no idea what to expect, but this place looks like it’s caught in a war. MacKay mentions that when we were in Sarajevo 2 years ago it looked less like a war zone. What look like once nice buildings area all now in shambles and crumbling, literally into the street, and we have to avoid debris as taxis are beeping at us for every split second we may hold them up. There are no street lights. People steal them for the metal apparently. So every intersection is a game of chicken. We watched a guy on a bike lose such a game and he had to jump off the bike as he got nailed side-on. Totally his fault, he tried to shoot the gap, frogger-style, and the gamble didn’t pay off. His arms wheeling as he landed back on his feet he actually manages to remain upright. Shaking his head like he’d been hard done by. The guy in the SUV pulls the whole 4-way flasher thing and gets out with his vehicle parked right in the middle of a 4 way intersection. We’re right behind this guy. Seriously? Horns erupt in every direction. The guy is going to check if the biker is ok. Fair dues, but dude pull to the side. He’s clearly not thinking. Now we have to back it up while the taxi behind isn’t budging, just honking, and try to pull around. We manage, but MacKay is hating every second of this drive.
We navigate to where this Colon 2000 place is and start searching for anything ferry-ish. In the distance we see a huge boat. Whoa, is that a ferry.
We quicken our steps towards it. Now hope is a fickle bitch. Every little teaser gets you amped for a solution. And we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs on this trip. Every little tinge of hope gets you gliding. And more often than not it’s been a let down. In this case, we close in on the massive ship and it turns out to be a cruise ship. Letting a bazillion passengers off who cross some fenced in gateway to be let into this shopping area. Lots of shipping = lots of shopping, and the plaza we were in seemed like the epicenter.
Damn, ok keep searching. We go into the Radison hotel/casino to see what’s up with this spectral ferry. Once again we’re greeted with AC, but this time it’s casino AC and wow is it incredible. Icy cold and such a welcome refreshment. Almost hit up the wheel of fortune just to hang in it for a bit. But we were on a mission and we strode right through the slots-noisy casino into the lobby. The girl behind the desk gave us a number to call to get info for the ferry. Can we use the hotel phone. No. Ok, cool (not cool). She directed us to some public phones.
Back out into the scorch, we rounded the building back to a grocery store in the center of Colon 2000. There was the smallest, most crowded square of 8 phones packed behind a bunch of random machines and whatnot that we had to squeeze around to get to. James put 15 cents in the payphone and dialed the number on the paper Radison girl had given us. List of options. For English press 2. He presses 2. Do you want this, this, or this, or wait for an operator. Wait for operator. Dial tone. WTF? 15 more cents, from our stash of about 55. Redial. Hit 2 again. Same list. Hit 1. Goes through to a guy. Doesn’t speak English. Then hangs up on him. Receiver hulk smash. Redo. 15 cents. Immediately asks for more money. throw a dollar in. eats it. no more time. dial tone. MacKay holds up the phone flabbergasted. I check the map, “Alright dude, let’s just head towards this hanger looking thing and see if there’s an office or something”. We walk towards the exit and the doors slide shut right on MacKays face. Waving at the sensor. Nothing. I start laughing. That’s so symbolic of where we are right now. We’re now having such a shit time it’s laughable.
Ok, next up we’re trucking past a bunch of restaurants towards the hanger thingy and I spot an advertisement for a ferry. Holy Shit! It’s outside some cafe. We ask a waiter guy about it and he points to the cafe. Really the office is in that little cafe? That makes no sense. He takes us in and grabs a waitress. Yep there’s a little window booth at the back of the cafe where some dude is dealing with ferry stuff. YEEEESSS!
We rush up and talk to the guy. It’s 700 for the car something like 150 for each of us. Fuck it let’s do it. Ok, he whips out his smartphone and pulls up the calender app. Swipes over to November and MacKay and I exchange the no fucking way glance. Yep. It isn’t running until November 14th, 21st, and 28th. Which would we like. Damn. None of the above. Thanks anyways man, but we can’t be sitting here for a month in gangland Colon. Is there any other ferry services. No. K, peace.
Alright, no Hubert, no ferry, options were ticking down and things were looking bleak. We get back to El-BP and start to book it back across town to the port again to look into shipping options for the car. We’ll have to figure out how to ship the car, fly over, and then meet it on the other side.
We get back into the shitshow that is driving in dilapidated, clusterfuck Colon. We’re down a one way street and some dude suddenly pops the car in 4-way-I-can-stop-anywhere-I-damn-please-cuz-I-used-my-4-ways park. The other side of the street where you may be able to go past is covered in building rubble and there’s no way around the guy. Line of cars start forming. We’re stuck in the intersection now with cars coming right up to our doors. Soooo mad at us. and everyone is soooo mad at this guy. Horns. Loud loud horns long and staccato from every direction. Us in the middle. MacKay starts eating the steering wheel. 4-way bro calls out to a street market guy in an apron who runs over to the passenger window. After some back and forth, the dude has finally placed an order of some sort. Apron guy runs back to the market and comes out with a bunch of fish. This guy stopped in the middle of the road to order fish? Couldn’t have even pulled over a bit. We’re all waiting on fish? Is this for real? Apron guy passes the fish through the passenger window, snags some Panabucks and takes off back to the market. Then dude needs to find a place for his fucking fish. This takes a bit of time. No rush. We enjoy the horn chorus. And the heat. This is such a great experience Fish Fuck, take your time. Daaaaaaarrrrrrrrrg!!!!
After some other driving bullshit we finally get out of the very very small area that is central Colon. Seriously, it is insane how inefficient driving there is. We cross back to the other side of town, back to Manzanillo port. Now familiar with the drive a mile just to come back a mile to the entrance thing, we make a little better time. Except on the double-back into the port entrance there’s a ton of traffic. It’s cool though cuz someone has there 4-ways on. So we wait for whatever pressing business dude has to settle up with before letting all the port tractor trailers and sweating tourists go through. Fist bump?
We park up and check into the first building of shipping offices. I recognize two names of shipping companies that I’ve read about other overlanders using, Wilhelmsen (or something like that) and Barwil. The first one we pass is Wilhelmsen so we check it out. A girl comes up to the glass and I ask “Habla ingles?” Nope, but she calls over another girl in the office. Holy shit, she’s an absolute knockout. She speaks English perfectly – better than perfectly, with an unbelievably sexy Caribbean accent and a slightly shy delivery – but I’m struggling to reciprocate, especially when she drops the bomb on us that there’s a boat leaving today. WE WANT ON IT! But it’s impossible. She says it’ll take two days – two fucking days – of customs, police and insurance paperwork before our car would be allowed on. The next boat isn’t for another 15 or 16 days. She also tells us that Barwil is a sister company and so there’s no point in checking there, they’d have the same availability. We’ve had our hopes shat on by Colon again.
At this point we say fuck it and decide to head back to Panama City to find a room, maybe make some phone calls and reassess our options. The fuel tank is down to almost an eighth of a tank so we have a look at a few gas stations – all of them have line-ups that are 6 or 7 cars deep for some inexplicable reason (it’s 2 in the afternoon?) Rather than getting straight on the toll road we head to Panama on the free road and slam grille-first into another shit show. Five lanes of cars packed onto a three-lane road, everyone muscling for position, some cars pulling into parking lot entrances, punching it and racing to the exit to move ahead a car or two. I get to a point where I just can’t take the 2 km/h flow, exhaust and horn section anymore, so we muscle over to the left lane and pull a superillegal u-turn across three lanes and a dirt shoulder. I’d rather run out of gas on the toll road than deal with this horseshit.
Ten miles down the toll road we pull off an exit and find a gas station without too much traffic. We take a breather and use the opportunity to really think about our options, and the frontrunner at this point is selling the car. Goddammit.