Adam writes on 2014-02-18:

Some catch up:

About a week ago, we arrived in Panamá City, Panamá, after spending a day lazing on the beach in Santa Clara, just down the coast.  Santa Clara was a rest day for us.  While we enjoyed Boquete, we felt that it was time to move on, since we were not really taking advantage of the area and growing somewhat tired of the windy conditions (Jenn).  We were not quite ready to head to the big, bustling Panama City with all of its humidity, and instead planned to spend a day or two at “XS Memories” which is billed as Panama’s only RV park.

Since XS Memories is just over 100km from Panama City, we intended to head straight from there to the airport cargo terminal to touch base with Girag air cargo and firm up our plans to ship our bikes to Colombia.  Having arrived at XS Memories, we found that it was not only closed, but also for sale. A Canadian couple who were parked at the gate in their car were also scratching their heads as we arrived.  Our RVing friends from England, Alan and Julea, who we met on the Baja, had stayed there only one week ago, and recommended the place. Surprise!

It had sounded like a good place and even had a swimming pool which would have helped beat the coastal heat.  The area, being close to some large hotels such as the Royal Decamoron (one of Panama’s “fly and fry” destinations), raised some concern about finding affordable accommodations.  The couple in the car mentioned that there was a restaurant on the coast that provided camping on the beach and they pointed us in right direction.

We found the restaurant in question and they offered to let us “camp on the beach”.  In hindsight, it didn’t actually make a lot of sense, because I don’t believe that they could have even owned the part of the beach that they were offering to let us use.  The restaurant was fairly small, and seemed more like an expensive snack bar (but with plated food) and beer with a 300% markup from “corner store” prices.  They apparently had a good location with a decent parking lot and were milking their public access point to the beach.

Camping at this beach location, however, didn’t sit right with us.  The camping area was quite out in the open (i.e. right on the public beach), and they did not provide any sort of nighttime security at the parking lot (except on Saturdays).  We would also have to drag our stuff across a small stream-like water feature (housing enough garbage to be a bit gross), leaving our bikes in the parking lot which were not even sure got locked at night.  The bathrooms were open to the public and the showers offered no privacy so we would be showering out in the open chancing encounters with any strangers who happened to walk by.

We had asked the proprietors of the restaurant if they thought the area was safe, and they basically said “yes, more or less” which somehow didn’t seem convincing.  Their lot was adjoined to a hotel – which was apparently full – and offered cabanas close to the $100 range.  We got the strong impression that they did not offer camping, but did have security at night.  They also rented palapas on the beach which we probably would have felt better tenting under as they were close to the restaurant and cabanas.  This option, however, was not presented to us, and the proprietor made sure that it was clear that the camping happened on the beach and not underneath the palapas.

Somewhat frustrated, we headed back towards the highway to the police station we passed earlier as to inquire about the safety in the area.  We had heard many horror stories about people who chose to camp on beautiful beaches in tropical locations becoming the victims of horrendous attacks, and we didn’t want to take any chances.  Before long a few officers were involved in the conversation and next thing we knew, we were following a police officer on a quad (ATV), who took us back to the same area, pulled out a phone, and after some furious hand gestures, and a raised voice, he explained to us that we could speak with the woman on the adjacent lot next to the previously mentioned small “upscale” hotel and negotiate a price with her.  And that we did.

Having driven through a different gate into a different parking lot, it wasn’t exactly clear as to where we were.  We saw what seemed to be a rudimentary primary school, plus signs indicating something to the effect of “Ministry of Education”.  At this time, the various small fences and buildings all sort of blended together for us.

Having negotiated a price of $10/night to stay in her gated area under a tree, we were pretty happy with our find – or the officer’s find.  We were significantly far away from the main gate which, as it turns out, is shared between this lady, the school, and several other lots including homes belonging to her father and her sibling.  The elderly father had subdivided his lot and provided portions to several siblings who all were attempting to make a go at offering beach side amenities, such as palapas, hammocks, and perhaps beer and snacks.  So essentially, we were nestled in her sandy yard – chickens, dogs, and all –  and not visible to outsiders from the access road or directly from the beach.  Our amenities included toilets, showers, a picnic table, access to the very small “kiosko” – a rudimentary shop operated by her elderly father at which you peered through the barred window and asked for things like eggs, cookies, potatoes or limes.

It was a pretty sweet deal as we were camped right next to her set of palapas, including hammocks, which was directly on the beach – which we did take advantage of.  Our early request for hot water (we could do our own on our stove but she had a room with a kitchen very close to our tent) was met with an invitation to use her kitchen when we needed to.   In the morning we cooked our breakfast eggs there, and she suggested that we purchase some “parga roja”, or red snapper, fresh from one of the families within her little community.  Having watched various fisherman bring their catch from their boats, packed in giant sized “beer coolers” with ice, followed by an almost constant stream of trucks taking the fish to market, our host pan-fried our snapper with onions for us that night in the local traditional manner.

It was an interesting little environment there.  On the one side of her lot was the little upscale restaurant/hotel, and then the restaurant who offered us the camping.  On the other side of her, was her father’s place, presumably another siblings place, and then if your were to follow the “lane” which was outside of the previously mentioned parking lot, it lead to the “kiosko” as well as bunch of small homes which were all involved in fishing.  The remaining area – where the lane terminated – as well as the entire area opposite to the houses when walking down the lane, was all fenced off and it seemed to be a sort of a “DMZ” or no-mans-land for a high-rise hotel (Hotel Farralon) which was not to far down the road.  There was nothing particularly nice about the apportioned land but it seemed that they were either wanting to keep it in their back pocket for future growth, or just wanted a large track of land separating the local community from the hotel.

As you may have noticed, I just stated that the “kiosko” was outside of gate.  It turns out that this is only one way to get to it.  I had noticed that our host had disappeared through another little gate in her yard into the neighbouring lot and had come back with some provisions.  We found out later that this was her father’s place and she also invited us through the gate into the neighbouring densely filled yard as a short cut to buy the previously mentioned fish.  We had passed some neighbours, who seemed a little alarmed by my presence, as in “stranger danger”.

So far, I have understated the presence of poultry.  While there were some friendly dogs here who were pretty quiet, I had made a joke to Jenn early about the symphony of “poultry in paradise”.

While there were a couple of white roosters, in our yard – one who had a very distinctive crow – and the other one been virtually mute.  Having arrived fairly late the first night, the poultry was not quite evident until morning – really early in the morning – when White Rooster #1 would bay out his song closing it off with a little rasp that of a chain smoker.  In the distance, we would here a constant call and response – but it was a little denser than we have heard before – with an almost gospel choir element to it.

Shortly into this, we realized that White Rooster #2 was virtually mute which was oh-so-amusing, but also a little sad.  Roosters love to get up on their perch and bay out their song.  Well, said mute rooster would prop himself up, prepare to amaze the world with his proud song and all the would come out was mainly air and a little bit of a raspy whistle as a refrain.  It was kind of like when a colleague shows up at work with laryngitis and you can almost here words, but not really.  I felt pretty bad for laughing at him as much as I did, but it was a sight to be seen.  Apparently it did not turn off the local lady hen, as he was still managing to get lucky with the third dark feathered chicken who seemed to relish in getting stuck in the tree above our tent.

So, it turns out that the rest of the gospel choir was owned by the next lot.  Having passed through the lot once with our host, I ventured to try again by myself but with some ill results.  Having passed the gate, and turning a corner around a building, the dog who was usually my friend started baying with all of his back fur up, a fleet of chickens started freaking out which caused the elderly woman (perhaps our hosts step-mother) in a walker at the house to standing up with alarm, and the seemingly disabled woman sitting near hear to violently turn her head with horror in her eyes and sort of bared her gnarly teeth.  Perhaps I was not meant to take this short cut by myself, but whatever the issue was, my presence seemed to invoke the response of “home invasion”.  In this case, I skirted around the rear of the Kiosko, bought what I was buying, and proceeded to take the long route back, even taking a gamble as to whether the gate would be locked knowing that I would have to walk way over to the restaurant and take the beach route back – I wasn’t going back there alone – the whole scene was just to “Ozarks” for me.

In the end, we had had quite a good time.  One of the evenings we hung out with our host, as well as her companion (who we believe was her secret lover – a secret to her father who runs the kiosko), and the friendly companero dog “Sorro” – who barked up a storm at me earlier.  The morning after night #2 we head off to Panama City.

Arriving on the outskirts of Panama, Jenn and I had our GPSes set different – one of us was pointed directly to the airport, while the other had just a rough course to downtown Panama.  At the last minute we veered towards downtown missing the much desired by-pass, and not being able to return back to recover from our mistake, we took a long, hot, sweaty route to the airport via downtown Panama.  We arrived at the cargo terminal, and after some waiting, and discussion, we were told to bring our bikes back bright and early in the morning for preparation for shipping.

We set a course to the Hostel Mamallena, a hostel which Jenn and I stayed at in 2010, and which has parking for motorcycles.  We booked ourselves in, proceeded to repack our luggage as to optimize what we were sending with the bikes via cargo, and attempting to reduce the weight of our duffel bags.  Girag had suggested that we come as early as possible – my suggestion of 10am was met with a response that earlier was better. [Edit: they have had our bikes for over a week.]  We got up fairly early, got on our bikes and proceeded to do a sort of “snakes and ladders” approach finding our way to the toll road.  We don’t normally like to spend the money on toll roads, but we figured it would save us some valuable time in the rough Panama traffic.  When we showed up at the booth with money in hand, the attendant – in a rude manner which seems to be common to customer service in Panama City – tried to express to us that it was not possible to pay cash to use the toll.  Apparently we had to pay $8 each for access cards which then had to be loaded with fare money.  We had only expected to pay a couple bucks each and ended up turning around.  In hindsight, if we had been able to cross using one card, or had used the toll road more often during our stay in Panama, it would have made sense, but this was not the case.

After a rather interesting route through the city to the airport via the free roads (thank you, GPS, you never seem to take every opportunity to make it known how much you hate us), we made it back to the cargo terminal.

We dropped the bikes off after a typical waiting period where someone takes your information and forms and comes back much later.  Thankfully the waiting for the “much later” happened in an air conditioned office (you don’t realize how wonderful it is until you have it).  The process of actually dropping the bikes off was fairly straightforward although I had expected to help put the bikes on pallets and assist with the shrink wrap process like I did in 2010.  Other than that some fuss was made with how much gas was in the tanks.  I am sure that it is only because we have translucent tanks, but I had to basically insist that we did not have too much gas.  Although we have 32L tanks, we made sure that were almost in reserve which is probably about 4L.  I have heard time and time again that Girag isn’t too picky about how much gas is in your tank as long as it is about 1/2 or 1/3 full.  In any respect, the optics of our big Safari tanks probably make it look like we have a lot of gas in the tanks.  An empty tank isn’t really an option since we needed to ride the bikes to the airport, and will need a little bit on the Colombia side to get us out of cargo and find a gas station.

Having dealt with customs (and probably one of the most friendliest ladies in customer service in Panama City), she emerged from her gated booth, took us under her wing, and made sure we flagged down an official cab, rather than a fly-by-night one, as she had concerns that we might not make it to our proper destination.  Arriving back at the hostel, we didn’t do anything particular exciting.  Ate food, drank some beer, walked to the grocery store, got my hair cut, and started to get catch up on Dakar Rally footage (which ended back in January) with anticipation of our flight to Bogota.

Santa Clara photos
Panama City photos