Sugar bags and chequered flags – Final run to Panama City

Today saw us making it across our final mountain range of the trip, the jungle covered Serrania de Tabasara, passing over the dammed Rio Brazo de Mornito near the summit, before making our final decent into the flat, dry and stinking hot Pacific side of the country.

Rustic dorm lodging at Hostel Bambu, David

Wanting to get a minor noise in the transmission checked out before making the final push to Panama City we reached the town of David and pulled up at Bambu Hostel for the night. With temperatures way too hot to sleep in the van on the street we forked out for a rustic dorm out the back.

The middle of Panama
The final mountain range between us and the finish line

There wasn’t much around town that we wanted to check out so we spent the afternoon riding around in the heat looking for a transmission specialist, lounging by the pool and watching the resident coati scamper around. This little lady isn’t shy about dashing into the kitchen when it’s dinner time, climbing up onto the rafters and scouting for food.

Rio Brazo de Mornito dam

When there’s nothing on offer she’ll happily climb on top of the fridge, rip open a bag of sugar left behind by previous travellers and lap it up like a drug addict who’s stumbled across a bag of cocaine. If you happen to find yourself stuck in David for a night this isn’t a bad place to spend it and the outdoor kitchen is a gathering place for travellers of all ages and nations to chat over dinner.

Resident coati on top of the fridge getting its suger fix, Hostel Bambu, David
The resident sugar addicted coati at Hostel Bambu

The next morning we had a bit of a wild goose chase before finally locating a transmission specialist who luckily for us a) spoke brilliant English and b) told us the noise we were hearing was nothing to worry about and we should just head for Panama City. So that’s exactly what we did.

The fantastic conditions of Panama’s PanAmerican highway

Looking at a world map you wouldn’t think Panama is that big of a country, and in the grand scheme of things it isn’t (it’s 111th out of 189). But when you see the state of the roads between David and Panama City you’ll understand why our final 450km was shaping up to take us about 8 hours. That’s an average of 50km an hour….along the Pan-American Highway…between Panama’s two major cities. The initial section was mostly held up with roadworks as they’re widening the road to double lanes. There were a lot of men at work and we couldn’t help but laugh at the yet to be bulldozed power poles floating on islands like the twelve apostles.

Roadworks underway, we'll come back and bulldoze this bit later
Floating power poles along the PanAmerican

Leaving the road widening behind, we hit the horror stretch. In parts the road was in such bad condition it was a choice between which side of the road was bad and which was worse, and the only thing that kept our spirits up was the blossoming pink and yellow trees by the roadside. Luckily it was mostly flat so we could concentrate solely on pothole dodging and roadkill spotting (armadillos and iguanas included) instead of mountain passes. At one point whilst we were being blown all over the road by gale force winds we passed no less than eight stationary wind turbines…WTF?!

Scenery along the PanAmerican highway from David to Panama City

Realising we would be arriving in Panama City late with no idea where to park safely for the night we consulted the map and thought Playa Rio Mar sounds like a nice place to spend a final night in Porkchop by the sea. And it would have been if we could get past the towering white hotel resorts being thrown up all over the place, blocking the beach access for poor little travellers like us. Finding a sign for a surf camp nearby we tried our luck but again they were closed for the season so we ended up parking across from the Police station in the small village of San Carlos.

Our final cookup in gold old Porkchop

Not exactly ideal but the 24hr security, dark skies and peace and quiet ensured a good nights sleep…until we were reminded how much they love their fireworks in Central America…any night of the week. Still, with tomorrow’s chequered flag in sight we humming ourselves to sleep with a bit of Van Halen…

She’s blinding, I’m flying
Right behind the rear-view mirror now
Got the feeling, power steering
Pistons popping, ain’t no stopping now!
Panama, Panama
Panama, Panama

Morning saw us in a celebratory mood as we started her up and hit the PanAmerican, with the finish line of this part of the trip within reach. The last bridge for the last time in Porkchop was one of great importance to both us and the country of Panama. Spanning the grand Panama Canal itself, the Bridge of the Americas was constructed in 1962, one of only four bridges which connect the north and south American land masses. Watching the massive cargo ships pass underneath her 117m height is a sight to behold.

Standing on the Bridge of the Americas which spans the north and south American land masses and the Panama Canal
Standing on the Bridge of the Americas, spanning the Panama Canal and linking the north and south American land masses

Crossing the canal brought with it a mix of emotions, but we were mostly feeling elated. Our plans of driving a campervan from Toronto to Panama City had been realised, , through all the mountainous ups and all the breakdowns, more mechanics than we can count. New friends, new places, new experiences and a new found love for the van that in the end had (mostly) got us where we’d wanted to go.

Porkchop taking a well deserved rest at the finish line, Panama City

Being the final destination we’d previously booked a room in El Canjero through AirBnB for a week, being way too optimistic in hoping to sell the van and be on our way.  Having time to kill before the owner of the apartment arrived home from work, we soon discovered La Rana Dorada brew pub opposite the apartment. Needing no other reason than having arrived at the finish line, we headed over to cheers to the last 8 months, 33,926 kilometers and 10 countries.

The final scoreboard

Choosing between a beautifully appointed interior reminisant of a posh ‘attempt’ at an Irish pub or the slim front patio to bask in the afternoon sun, we chose the latter.  With several brews on offer the waitress promptly arrives with a yellow wooden boat floating samplers of Pale Ale (nice, not too hoppy), Pils (sharp, bitter, refreshing), Blanche/Belga (like sweaty socks), Porter (not too strong, matches hot climate, nice malt taste), and a seasonal Coffee Porter (smell the coffee immediately, tasty but too hot for this!) to our table.

Celebrating the finish line with a few Panamanian IPA’s at La Rana Dorada

Finding that we have both missed a good IPA, two pints of these, at half price happy hour mind you, quickly follow. With happy ‘hour’ running for six hours, we left wishing we didn’t need to make pleasantries with our new host we reluctantly paced ourselves so as not to be stumbling in his front door.

La Rana Dorada sample boat


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