Wakey wakey, time to flakey. Didn’t eat breakfast, just bolted out of David District straight to the Pan Am. The highways into town were just a tease, the entire way from David to Panama City is under construction. All Four Hundred and Forty-Fucking-Four miles of it. Construction the whole time. Spots where there was no construction were brutally bad with potholes. Traffic sucked. No scenery to speak of, just a claustrophobic corridor of trees lining the highway. Probably not the best way to see Panama.
We stopped at a truck stop to grab some brunch. Most of the places are cafeteria style here in Panama. You grab a tray and pick from available heated options behind the glass. We had some luke warm scrambled eggs, cold fries, a piece of beef that was really good, somewhere close to being beef jerky, and a cylinder of chorizo that was kind of like fried pepperoni. Dumped hot sauce on everything and scarfed it.
We filled up and got back into Construction Land. The only other stops were all police check points where we got waved through except for one. The guy gave me a hard time for passing a taxi going 20 right before the construction area. “Men working. Why you so fast?”, “Lo siento. How bout this construction, eh?”, “First time in Panama?”, “Si”. Waved through.
We pull into Panama City 6 hours later and wow is it a difficult city to navigate. All one way streets, lattice-work highways interwoven and stacked one on top of the other. Very hard to find the right way onto them. Then they split apart with dividers suddenly and you’re forced into a direction whether you like it or not. We were lost. Big time lost as soon as we got there. But we didn’t no where we were going so I guess the term lost can be used loosely. Driving was chaotic, lots of jerking and honking and not much patience from anybody. It was Panamanian pandemonium. The city was fairly modern with a large range of high rises. Some slick looking ones and pretty funky ones too. It had an 80’s Miami Vice motif to it.
Here’s a shot of the cool twistscraper we later found out is called the Revolution Building
We followed the flow of things and somehow managed to find an area called Casco Antiquo that rang a bell with MacKay’s databanks. We turned in and immediately found a hostel and several bars. Parked on the road and hopped out to look around. It was a very strange neighborhood. There were military guards with raspberry berets (but not the kind you find at a second hand store) on every single street corner. We walked past a park with about 30 of them, all in bulletproof vests.
The other odd thing about the area was that part of it was gorgeous with really upscale buildings that were obviously well kept. Right beside them, like on the same block, literally right beside some of these places, were absolute slums with ramshackle rooftops tumbling apart, some interiors were completely gutted by fire, doors asunder, holes in walls. I’ve never seen 2 completely opposite types of buildings side by side like that. Add all the military guard and it was a very strange vibe.
We were hunting for a hostel in the area so we could set up shop and try to figure out this damned Darien Gap crossing. The first place we found was Luna’s Castle. The place had a fun atmosphere, lots of travelers hanging around glued to their smart phones, a bunch of cool murals and art work all over the walls. Seemed like a great spot. We asked about rooms and all they had were dorms. James was worried about his dengue snore in a room full of people so we opted out and looked around for another spot.
A few blocks away was another place called White Lion. There were 2 military guards in the foyer. A dude with dreads behind the desk who seemed a little off. He showed us a room. Then said something about the ceiling and closed the door. He took us to another dorm room, said there was 3 people in it, but we could have it all to ourselves. Made no sense. On top of that, there was no one at all in the place besides him. No scene. no vibe. I mentioned that the other spot looked way more fun and when we got to the front desk again James pulled the shute and we were out of there.
In the parking lot of the place was a guy getting off a motorbike that had New York plates on it, a Canadian flag, and a Pura Vida sticker. He’s obviously on a similar trip so we go over to say hi. His name is Diego, he’s from Ecuador, he bought the bike in New York, drove it into Canada, up to Toronto, and then down all the way to Panama, like us. He is going to load his bike onto one of the sailboats, like our Quebec friend Gilles that we met in Comitan, Mexico. So he was just staying the night and shipping out on a boat the next day. We tell him we’re also looking for passage to Colombia, but haven’t quite got it figured out yet. He has no other info for us. We chat it up for a bit and then bail back to the first hostel to nab a dorm room.
After securing a room from a nice, helpful guy at the front desk, we stopped in next door at a bar called Pips and fired up a few local beers called Balboa, an appetizer with some sort of sweet meat in a plantain pastry shell, and a deluxe pizza.
Back to the hostel common room, we got some more beer from the communal fridge for a buck a piece, and sat for some blogging time before evening. While pulling some posts together Diego walked in. “Hey, Diego!”, “Hey guys!”, fist bumps (everyone fist bumps in Central America). He tells us that his plans fell through and he won’t be able to get on that boat tomorrow after all. Now he’s looking for another way. James and I exchange a hopefully glance. “We’ve got this number that a guy at the border gave us. Hubert Liu. I guess he’s got a ferry and it’s cheap and fast. At least that’s what Jose from the border told us.”
(Hubert Liu is a pseudonym, but similar to his real name – why we went with a pseudonym will be apparent in later posts…)
Diego grabs the hostel phone and gives the guy a call. After a two or three minute back-and-forth he gives us the scoop – the guy’s out at sea right now but he’ll be in Colon the next morning and he wants us to call him back then. He quoted Diego $40 for his self and $250 for the bike. He also said it would only be a six-hour trip, which is absolutely ridiculous unless he’s loading cars onto a jet-powered hovercraft. Probably just a selling tactic though – he qualified that by saying that if the weather’s bad it might be more (I suspect the weather is always bad). Sounds good, let’s get some beers! Diego seems pretty sloppy and for reasons I can’t recall he gives Hubert another call and (from what I can remember) basically repeats the earlier conversation.
While excitedly discussing our plans a dark-haired twenty-something girl enters the room and seems surprised to see Diego. “I thought you were leaving?” “My boat fell through.” The girl’s name is Hyla (maybe), she’s from Montreal, living here in the hostel and working under-the-table at a bar called the Red Lion down the street while studying Spanish. There was a small square bandage on her chest. She explained how she grabbed 2 handfuls of beers and when they touched in the middle the pressure from the heat on the bottles exploded one of them and sent a glass shard right into her sternum. She had to go get stitches. We hang out for a while and then she goes to crash out for a couple of hours in preparation for a night on the town.
Beer’s a dollar a pop in the hostel until the bar two stories down opens, then it’s 50 cent happy hour. We’re on it. The bar is kind of dead and a sausagefest but it slowly begins to pick up. One of the hostel employees who checked us in, Fernando, sits down with us and we shoot the shit for a while. He’s a local but went to school in New York, been traveling around between Panama and Colombia, handling the marketing for and helping to set up several hostels. Sweet gig by the sounds of it, he told us if he wasn’t working he’d want to hang out at hostels anyways, drinking beer and sharing stories with travelers. This way he gets paid to do what he loves. Jovial guy with lots of energy and a great outlook, “I’ve only got 50 cents in my pocket. And everything I need is here.” He told us he’s engaged to a Colombian girl and they’re gonna get married soon.
Fernando left for a bit and returned with a pack of young American army guys – West Point engineering students – who are in town for a conference. We tell them what we’re up to and they’re stoked to hear about it and some of our previous adventures. Real good guys, we joke and bullshit for a while over some beers and then call her a night not long after Diego found us and told us he was crashing out so he could get up early. We thought it’d be wise to do the same, gotta bring our A-game when trying to figure out international port shit with limited time, so we headed up to our dorm room.