April 26 – May 27 Portobelo to David, Panama

Filed under: Panama — Aaron and Amy at 1:29 pm on Sunday, May 27, 2007

    While in Portobelo, we camped at a hotel owned by a Panamanian woman named Nilda.  She had a small boat with a 15 horse power motor that she let Aaron take out on several occasions.  After our first week of sunshine in Portobelo the rainy season began and we were getting a hard rain at least once a day.  One day after the skies cleared up Aaron decided he wanted to take out the boat and go spear fishing at a trio of islands called Tres Hermanas (Three Sisters).  He was able to convince me that the water would be clear enough out by the islands so I went along with him to go snorkeling.  As we left the bay, the calm water turned a bit choppier.  As we made our way to the islands the waves grew in size and our teeny tiny boat rolled up and down over the dark blue waves.  We got to our destination and Aaron immediately started diving.  I got in the water with my gear for only a few minutes to determine that it was way too choppy and murky for me to enjoy snorkeling.  To avoid feeling ill in the choppy water I sat low in the boat while Aaron continued diving.  He wasn’t catching anything so we decided to head back before the dark sky turned into another storm.

The next day Aaron took the boat back to Tres Hermanas by himself.  While he was gone we got one of the biggest storms we had in Portobelo.  The thunder rocked the RV as if it was directly above us!  As the petrified dogs hid in the small space underneath the table, I wondered how Aaron was doing out in the little skiff.  He said the storm was brewing as he entered the water and then the earthquake-like thunder shook.  That was his queue to get out of the water and head back home.  We took the boat out one more day just to go fishing and Aaron caught a barracuda on the way back home.  The locals eat the barracuda so we gave it to Nilda. We were both interested in transiting the Panama Canal on private sailboats as volunteer line handlers and were told the best way to find a boat was to post our information in the yacht clubs in Colon.  We received a call from a Norwegian that owned a 28-foot sailboat.  We decided that it was best for one of us to stay with the dogs, (Nilda has 5 dogs and Skylos had already been in a fight with them) so Aaron signed up for the trip.  He took a bus from Portobelo to Colon and then a taxi to the yacht club.  Unfortunately he went to the wrong yacht club but was able to catch a ride to the correct one just in time to meet the sailboat.  The following is his account of transiting the Panama Canal on a private sailboat.            After the initial confusion of which yacht club we were leaving from I arrived in time to board the boat.  I posted my information at the Shelter Bay Yacht Club and my information was passed onto Lars from there.  Lars was at the older Panama Bay Yacht Club.  Since I had not posted any information there I never thought to ask where we were leaving from and he never thought I would go anywhere else (Panama Bay is the older more well known of the two).  Transiting from Colon on the Caribbean side to Panama City on the Pacific is the better trip as it is done in two days as opposed to one in the opposite direction.  After boarding the boat and making our introductions we headed out into the bay.  Once in the bay we connected with the two other sailboats that we would be going through with.  The primary traffic through the canal is commercial so private boats are only allowed at certain times and in most cases wait three to four weeks for their turn.  We tied up with the largest sailboat in the middle and us on the starboard (right) side.  Once securely tied we headed for the first of the locks called Gatun.  The Gatun locks raise (or lower) ships going between the Caribbean Sea and Lake Gatun a distance of 84 ft.  Once within the canal system all vessels must proceed under their own power and sailboats must use only their motors.  They are required to travel at a minimum of 8 knots in order to reach subsequent locks on time.  If they do not reach their destination on time they can be fined heavily.  Our boat had a maximum motoring speed of about 5 knots.  Lars paid a little under $1,000 US to transit as compared to the Panamax and cruise boats that can pay as much as $250,000.  Luckily, even with our slow speed Lars was not required to pay any fines.            After tying up to our mooring where we spent the night, Lars broke out the cooler full of beer and began pouring rum and cokes.  After a few celebratory drinks Lars made a nice pasta and we sat under the stars and enjoyed the moment.  A couple more drinks and by 1:00am we were ready for bed.The following morning we woke at around 6:00 to prepare for the day.  We were told that the canal pilot would arrive at 8:00 and we needed to be ready to depart.  All boats whether a 28ft. sailboat or a Panamax (ship built to the maximum dimensions of the Panama Canal) are required to have a Panama Canal Pilot on board.  True to the Latin American way ours showed up an hour late and informed us that we had an appointment to cross the next locks in three hours (at our speed we couldn’t possibly make the trip in less than five).  He told us not to worry, but that we had better get under way as we were now “way behind schedule”.  The trip through Gatun Lake and the canal was breathtaking.  The entire area around the canal is national park and therefore pristine.  In several sections we passed construction under way.  The canal is undergoing a massive widening in order to not only allow two vessels to transit simultaneously but also to allow larger vessels through.  Currently there is a limit to the size of ship that can fit through the locks; these are called “Panamax”.  Larger ships must pass the southern tip of South America.  In the process of widening the canal the largest of these new ships will be able to cross the Isthmus of Panama.  After our trip through the canal we reached the second set of locks called the Pedro Miguel Locks.  There is only one set of gates here (30 foot drop) and it is the beginning of the drop out of the fresh water lake and into the Pacific Ocean.  We showed up late and the other two sailboats were already tied together and ready to go so we tied up to the Panama Canal tour boat which was going to go through with us.  After the Pedro Miguel Locks we entered the Miraflores Lake on the way to the Miraflores Locks.  The Miraflores locks were the final set before entering the Pacific.  The Miraflores Locks have two chambers which are the last ones delivering the ships into the Pacific Ocean.  After leaving the locks we crossed under the Bridge of the Americas and pulled into the Balboa Yacht Club where Amy and I had previously camped.  After a few celebratory drinks it was time to say our goodbyes and I headed to the bus station to catch a ride back to the other side of the country.  Bus transportation in these countries is easy and cheap.  I spent two hours on an air conditioned bus at a cost of $2.50.After visiting the San Blas islands our Italian/Costa Rican friends Adriano & Mikaila returned to Portobelo.  In the morning Aaron and Adriano took out the boat and went spear fishing at Isla Drake.  Aaron got a huge parrot fish (about 30 pounds) and two snapper.  That evening Adriano made excellent pasta with some of the parrot fish.  In the afternoon we all took out the boat to a new beach near Playa Blanca, the beach we had been to before.  Except for a local fisherman there wasn’t anyone else on the beach and we soon found out why.  The pretty little beach was consumed by mosquitoes.  We quickly made our way into the water and explored the coral wall.  Within a short distance of one another I saw two small balls that looked like purple glass.  After Aaron inspected them he said they were egg sacks!We packed the RV, said goodbye to Adriano & Mikaila and left Nilda’s at about 10:30.  We were headed to the San Lorenzo Fort & Gatun locks, but first stopped to have lunch at the Shelter Bay Marina.  After some great burgers and internet we found out we couldn’t get to the San Lorenzo fort because a tree had fallen across the road from one of the recent storms.  They were working to remove it but it wouldn’t be done in time for us to visit that day.  We drove back across the Gatun locks in order to get to the viewing platform.  Aaron had already experienced the canal while transiting in a sailboat, but this was my first experience with it.  The Panama Canal was actually first started by the French in 1882.  An extremely high number of workers’ deaths and environmental issues causing the project to be more expensive caused the French to halt canal operations.  In 1903 the US was granted the rights to land, to construct and manage the Panama Canal and the area around it which became known as the Canal Zone.  The Canal opened in 1914 and has been operating 365 days a year ever since.  The treaty that was signed by former US President Carter was honored on December 31, 1999 as the US handed over the canal operations and property to the Panamanians.  In 2006 the voters of Panama decided to expand the canal, allowing two ships to transit the canal at once as well as allowing the post-Panamax sized ships to transit.  This will ensure a much greater income for the country of Panama.  The new addition to the Canal is due to open in 2014, marking the centennial of the Panama Canal. While camped at the Balboa Yacht Club in front of the Bridge of the Americas for a total of two weeks, we watched the ships pass underneath the bridge all day and night.  They were especially beautiful as they passed at sunset or in the warm quietness of the night.  It seems like an odd thing to describe as beautiful, but watching those huge ships cruise by either before or after they transit the canal seems like an amazing part of history.  Tens of thousands of people died while building the Canal, including the French and American companies that built it and those that died building the first transcontinental railroad that allowed the Panama Canal to be constructed.  (Many died from malaria and yellow fever which are spread via mosquitoes.)  The Bridge of the Americas in Panama City was my only experience with the Canal until we got to the Gatun locks on the Caribbean side.  There was a ship that was already in the locks when we arrived.  Since it didn’t have much room to spare on either side, the ship appeared even more massive than they normally do.  We watched in awe as the ship slowly went through the locks, being lowered further and further until it reached the level of the Caribbean Sea.  As the first ship continued through the locks, another ship began the same process behind her.  It was interesting to watch as the locks quickly filled with water.  There is a measuring device on the wall of the lock that shows you the depth and speed at which the locks are filled.  The locks are filled with twenty six million gallons of water every time a ship goes through.  The ships are raised or lowered at a rate of about one foot every ten seconds.  I noticed a handful of tourists had left the viewing platform and was clicking away with my camera excited to have it all to myself for the next ship.  After a short time an employee came to tell us the viewing platform was closed and we had to leave.  We had only been there about 15 minutes and saw a portion of one ship go through the locks.  The entrance fee is $5 per person and we weren’t warned how little time we had when we entered.  We politely stated that we didn’t pay $10 for 15 minutes of entertainment and the guard was sympathetic, agreeing we should have been reminded of the closing hours.  He spoke to the boss in the building across the locks and they agreed to let us stay.  We waited until the next ship was passing the viewing platform and then had to leave.  We were on a schedule as well and needed to get back to Panama City before dark.While driving in Panama we popped more wheelies in the RV than anywhere else on our trip.  We are back heavy and sometimes the front of the RV is actually lifted off the ground when we go over severely uneven pavement or large depressions in the road that are not visible from a distance.  (Sounds like fun, huh?) While driving on the Caribbean side from the town of Sabanitas to Portobelo there was a bridge that was raised so much so quickly it acted as a tope or large speed bump.  The RV bounced from front to back causing the front of the RV to be raised off the ground.  Thereafter we had a clunking noise on my side of the RV.  Before making the drive back to Panama City Aaron determined it was the front right shock that had detached, probably during the wheelies.  He removed it completely and we drove as gently as we could back to the city.  We were going to have our brake discs replaced so this would be an opportunity to replace the front shocks which Aaron determined were probably due anyway.  We arrived in the city after dark, but we entered from a freeway and Aaron was familiar with the roads.  We also knew exactly where we were going to camp (returning to Balboa Yacht Club) so we felt comfortable breaking our rule of not driving at night.We returned to the colonial neighborhood of Casco Viejo to obtain more information on the properties we were researching to purchase.  After some time we connected with Bobby who had given us some price information the last time we were in the city.  After speaking with a real estate agent that specializes in the neighborhood of Casco Viejo, we obtained more accurate sale prices than what Bobby had given us.  The new information (significantly higher prices) meant that there was not the opportunity we were looking for in Casco Viejo property.  We were disappointed but determined that we wouldn’t have known whether or not the property was an option if we had never researched it.We spent several days completing errands in the city including getting our new brake discs installed.  After getting bad directions from the mechanics, we managed to survive a bottleneck of traffic that involved us squeezing between several semi trucks with the help of several traffic police.  We were basically on a back road in downtown Panama City; I don’t know how we came out unscathed.  We were also able to find several items and a movie theater at the Albrook Mall which was only a $2 taxi ride from our camping spot at the Balboa Yacht Club.  We also ran into Lars at the yacht club, the Norwegian who owned the sailboat in which Aaron transited the Panama Canal a week before.  We enjoyed dinner and drinks with him at the yacht club before we left. We planned on taking several excursions from Panama City ranging from the San Blas islands (Caribbean); the Pearl islands (Pacific), the Darien jungle and Cartagena, Colombia.  We had a vet that could board the dogs ($6 per day, per dog) and a friend that found a secure place to leave the RV.  We began getting prices for the trips and setting priorities as to which were our favorites.  The San Blas and Pearl islands fell to the wayside leaving Cartagena and the Darien jungle.  Even though during the rainy season you can travel further upriver in dugout canoes to visit more traditional Embera villages, the rainy season is the low season for tourism.  Therefore there were no tours to the Darien jungle at that time.  We left our cell phone with Ancon Expeditions to call us if they found other tourists but we never heard from them.  That left Cartagena, Colombia which we were very excited about visiting, especially since we had already made the decision about not driving into South America.  The airfare we found online for a 50 minute flight from Panama City to Cartagena was over $400 per person!  We were shocked at this price and frustrated with our attempts to get into Colombia but continuously being blocked by high prices ($5,000 one-way for RV by ship or over $800 round-trip by plane).  On top of these prices Cartagena is one of the most touristy places in Colombia and is well known for having mostly expensive hotels and restaurants.  Begrudgingly we had to leave behind our trip to Colombia as well.We were determined to drive as far south/east as we could in Panama.  I wanted to get to the end of the Pan-American Highway in the Darien and take a photo with a sign that reads “fin de la calle”, (“end of the road”).  We made a trip of it and planned to take a short boat trip from Puerto Quimba to La Palma which passes beautiful jungle and mangroves.  Then we would spend the night in the Darien and return to the city the following day.  The “end of the road” is supposed to be the town of Yaviza in the province of Darien at which point the road ends and you can drive no further.  For those that don’t know; the Pan-American Highway that is supposed to run from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego (the southern tip of South America), actually has a large gap in the road.  This is called the Darien Gap and includes southern Panama and northern Colombia where the territory is run by FARC guerrillas and drug traffickers.  There are several reasons the road was never completed; there would be an increase of drug trafficking from South America, the possible transmission of hoof and mouth disease and the environmental devastation that would be caused to the pristine Darien jungle, its wildlife and indigenous inhabitants.  Many years ago the road was paved as far as the eastern side of Lake Bayano.  Since then they have been working on paving the road all the way to Yaviza.  Several locals assured us that the road was actually paved as far as the town of Santa Fe.  Just before driving across Lake Bayano there is a military checkpoint where they ask tourists their purpose for visiting Darien, record your passport number and ask how long you plan on being gone.  They assured us the road was nicely paved with asphalt all the way to Santa Fe and suggested several places to visit while we were in Darien.  One of the men asked for a regalito (small gift) so we gave him one of our Playboy magazines we brought for just this occasion.  In no way was he causing trouble or asking for a bribe but he was asking for something and we wanted to oblige.  We brought a box full of playboy magazines and were prepared to give them to the police when we were hassled or being propositioned for a bribe.  I seem to remember we had only given one away before that day in the Darien, but Aaron thinks that was our first time.  Since we had never used them we gave away half our supply of Playboys to other RVers way back in Guatemala so they could use them for bribes.  We crossed the lake and commented on the nice road that had recently been paved believing it would go all the way to Santa Fe.  Shortly thereafter we hit a section of road that was a combination of dirt and rock.  It was a layer on top of an asphalt road and we could only assume they were fixing a bad part of the road.  We drove on through the dirt and rocks and came to another well paved portion of road.  After that part came another bad section with a thick layer of dirt and rock that slowed us down as we crawled through the passable areas.  This scenario repeated from good to bad sections of road for quite some time and we wondered if it would continue to the end of the road.  We agreed that the short boat trip in the Darien or the “end of the road” photo were not worth beating up the RV and that we should turn around if the road was in poor condition.  Aaron drove on while I drew my “fin de la calle” sign.  It was a difficult decision because every time we got to a good section of road we thought it might actually continue and it really meant something to us to drive to the end of the road at the Darien Gap.  Out of nowhere there was a gigantic pot hole in a “good” section of road that took up the entire width of our lane and there was an oncoming car in the other lane.  Aaron had nowhere else to go so we drove right over the top of it holding our breath and waiting for the big bang and crash while we bottomed out.  Amazingly it wasn’t as bad as we thought and upon inspection no damage was done.  At that point Aaron said he was turning around.  There were plenty of restaurants on the western side of the lake where we could camp for the night.  We took our photos with my sign and had to settle with the fact that this might not be the official end of the road, but it was the end of “our road” being the furthest south/east we would drive on our epic adventure.  Unfortunately we only got as far as the town of Higueronal which is just shy of actually entering the province of Darien.  (Our southern most point was near Playa Venao on the Azuero Peninsula just south of 7.5 degrees latitude.  Our eastern most point was Higueronal which is just west of longitude 78)We were headed back on a section of “good” road while Aaron proceeded to drive around all the potholes.  There was a pothole in our lane and Aaron swerved to the right to get around it.  Unfortunately he drove too far to the right and off the side of the road.  It wasn’t obvious that there was a small ditch under the vegetation and the RV slid into it.  The right side of the RV was in the ditch while the left was up on the road and Aaron wasn’t able to get it back onto the road.  The RV was at such a severe angle to the road that it wouldn’t have taken much more for it to tip.  After we got out we could see that the rear differential was resting on the asphalt.  It had recently started to rain and the water in the ditch had turned the dirt under our tires into mud.  We both slowly crawled out of the RV with the dogs.  Aaron got the winch out prepared to use it for the first time on our trip.  A car drove by and suggested it was better to pull the RV out from behind instead of from the front.  He went to the restaurant behind us and got two guys with a truck to help.  We have a large chain but they showed up with one that was even bigger.  They hooked it up to the back of the RV and quickly pulled it out of the ditch.  We gave the guys two beers and $10 for their help.  We quickly inspected the RV and drove down the road to a more suitable place to examine it some more.  It doesn’t seem possible but we didn’t see any damage to the RV.  The box of the RV wasn’t ever touching the ground so there was no damage there.  We thought we might have a problem with the rear differential but we couldn’t see any problems.  A bit perplexed, we thanked our lucky stars and drove on to find a camping spot on the western side of the lake.  The military guards were surprised to see us the same day and we told them the road conditions were horrible.  They swore the road was good after the town of Higueronal and we would have seen that if we would have kept driving.  That may be true and we can’t report how far the “pavement” on the Pan-American actually goes, but we are inclined to believe we would have continued to have rough roads after Higueronal.  We camped at a restaurant with a large parking lot near the village of Canita.  We enjoyed several beers and a great dinner before calling it a night.  We were looking for adventure in the Darien and we got it!  Just not technically in the state of Darien and not in the way we were expecting!The following morning we had breakfast at the restaurant and departed for the city.  It only took us an hour from Canita so we had plenty of time to complete emails and make our last skype phone calls from the Balboa Yacht Club before heading west to the beach of Playa Santa Catalina.  We accidentally drove through the city of La Chorrera and all its construction instead of bypassing it on the Pan-American.  That cost us several hours but we drove as far as the town of Aguadulce where we stayed at a large restaurant with tons of room to park.  The owner said they have had a caravan of 40 RVs park on their property!  I don’t know how much they charge the caravan but we camped for free.  We put water in our tanks and left the next morning for Santa Catalina. Our friends Chris & Mel recommended Catalina and they said we should only drive the road from Santiago via Sona to Catalina because the other roads are too rough.  There are two paved unmarked roads west of Santiago and one of them had to be to the village of La Pena.  We asked construction workers on the Pan-American until we found the right one and confirmed the route with locals along the way.  The drive from Santiago to Catalina is two hours and it was full of lush green trees and vegetation.  We don’t know if the Azuero Peninsula has turned green since we were there a month ago, but this smaller peninsula to the west was extremely lush and had a much greater density of trees including various types of palms.  As we made our way to Catalina we enjoyed seeing all the small huts made of mud bricks or reeds with thatched roofs.  There were also cinder block and more modern houses sprinkled in but for the most part they were houses of the Panamanian poor.  It’s kind of hard to describe but the environment felt very Central American to us.  So much of Central America is more developed than we expected.  Therefore when we find these areas of poverty and simple lifestyles, that is what feels like “real” Central America to us.  Other than Costa Rica, that’s what we expected in all of these countries.  Guatemala and Nicaragua feel like the most authentic areas we have visited and I’m sure the Mexican state of Chiapas will be the same.  Following Chris and Mel’s directions we spoke to the owners of the Oasis Surf Camp for a place to camp but they had territorial dogs and didn’t want us to stay.  We backtracked and found a place to stay at Surfer’s Paradise which advertises the “best view”.  After successfully maneuvering in the tight space we got the RV situated on the only flat piece of land and looked around.  On a cliff above the sea there are several rooms, a restaurant with hammocks and a sun deck with a 180 degree view of the ocean and the surf break below.  We met several other couples that were car camping.  One European couple had driven down from Mexico and had just sold their vehicle in Panama City.  Another European couple purchased their car in Mexico, drove down and was on their way to sell their car in Panama City.  They were both going to continue traveling to a few countries in South America by plane before returning home.  The day before we left we met a Canadian traveling solo in his VW van and he is taking it into South America.  There were lots of Europeans (mostly Swiss and Austrian), Australians, Brasilians, Canadians and a few Americans staying at Surfer’s Paradise while we were there.  It was really great to be back at a surf break even though we weren’t there to surf.  It’s always a great group of people from all over the world that we get to hang out with.  The afternoon we arrived at Catalina Aaron took out the kayak with one of the Swiss guys, Simon.  They carried the kayak over the rocks at low-tide and found a good spot to launch it.  They went all the way around Catalina Island (which is in front of the hotel) looking for a good spot to spear fish but the water was too murky.  Our second night there we met two guys from Florida that had prearranged a SCUBA diving trip with the dive center in town to take them to Coiba Island.  Their package included six dives over two days with a night stay at the ranger station on the island.  We only joined them for the first day of three dives and then made the hour long boat trip back to Catalina ($300 total).Coiba Island had a penal colony on it until 2004 and the National Park was designated in 1992.  It is slowly being discovered by tourists but those that know about it usually go there to SCUBA dive.  The reports of the quantity of wildlife are amazing and sharks are seen on every dive.  It is also a renowned location to dive with hammerhead sharks.  As many of you know that was a priority on Aaron’s list but more of a fear that I was going to overcome.  Unfortunately the first dive didn’t start well for me.  As we were descending my mask was coming right off my face.  It wasn’t something I wanted to deal with at the bottom so I went the few feet back to the surface with Aaron.  When I tried descending again I wasn’t successful at getting down.  We resurfaced and took some time for me to relax and the dive master Herbie suggested I go down the anchor line of the boat to help get me down.  Our friend Scott was also having issues with his mask so once we were all ready we began the dive together.  Not long into the dive we saw the first shark which was a white tip reef shark.  I only saw the second half of its body out of the corner of my eye as it turned the corner and swam away.  That was a good brief introduction to sharks for me!  Around the next corner there were several white tips sitting on the bottom and then five or six swimming around us among the rocks.  My first thought was, “Huh.  So those are sharks!” After that I was OK with them being in the water around us.  None of the sharks that day were any larger than six feet; which was OK with me.Unfortunately the visibility wasn’t great since this was the beginning of the rainy season.  The rivers get full from rainfall and flow into the sea making the visibility poor.  There was also a red tide; which is a layer of algae that was ranging from three to ten feet thick at the surface.  Once you get below it the visibility gets better.  On the rest of our dives we saw a plethora of eels, an abundance of white tip sharks, parrot fish, snapper, puffer fish, rays, a turtle and something called a frog fish.  Herbie pointed at something but I didn’t see much other than coral.  He signaled to me to look again and pointed.  This time I saw eyes and a mouth on something that looked like a chunk of orange coral!  Talk about camouflage!  I’d never seen anything like it before.  It seems like an unusual name for a creature that looks nothing like a frog.  We also saw the skull of a fish that we thought came from a sail fish because it had a very long nose.  We couldn’t believe it but Herbie said it was a large needle nosed fish.  On the first dive we looked up towards the surface and saw a ray and then a huge cloud came over us as if there were a solar! eclipse.  It was a school of rays that swam right above us creating a momentary blanket of darkness!  It was the same effect as when a cloud moves underneath the bright sun casting an eerie shadow on everything below it.  We left Scott and Ed at the ranger station and made our way back to Catalina in a horrible rain storm.  We sat in our wet suits as we were drenched by the rain and our bums slammed against the seats when the boat slapped the water.  The captain got a kick out of Aaron hooting like he was riding a bucking bronco!  There are lots of activities on the large island such as hiking trails, snorkeling from the beaches, visiting the old penal colony, hot springs, waterfalls and of course more SCUBA.  We would love to come back and explore more of the island on another trip.  We spent the rest of our time at Catalina reading in the cool hammocks, walking the dogs on the beach and hanging out with the other guests at night.  We wanted to rent SCUBA gear from Herbie and take a different (cheaper) boat out, but that didn’t pan out.  The night that Scott and Ed got back from the island we made lasagna for them and for our friends Kaz and Jenna that took care of the dogs while we were diving.  It was a great home made meal that everyone enjoyed.  (We spent five nights at Catalina at $10/night, plus countless meals and beer.)  Once it was time to go we realized the group of Canadians were leaving the same morning and would have to deal with several busses with all their gear to get to Santiago.  We were backtracking to Santiago anyway so we gave them a ride.  It was much easier than walking and hauling around their heavy bags and surfboards.  We dropped them off at the bus station in Santiago where we all had lunch and used the ATM before parting ways.  We were headed to Boca Chica which is near the city of David in western Panama.  When Aaron first saw the area on the map he thought it would be a good place to go fishing around the islands and mangroves but it was a 4×4 road only.  Later we read an article in a local newspaper indicating they had paved the road to Boca Chica and any sedan could now make the trip.  We read the article way back in March and were back in the area to check it out before leaving Panama.  We confirmed with locals that the road was paved with asphalt all the way to Boca Chica and headed south.  Soon it started to pour and we were driving over a road that was not new.  We thought maybe the original road was already paved to the town of Horconcitos and was simply in poor condition and that the brand new road would start after Horconcitos.  After getting directions in the middle of the downpour we continued down the potholed road with streams forming across it.  We got on the “new” road that was supposed to be paved all the way to Boca Chica to find that it had a new layer of compressed earth but nothing else.  We began to wonder if Panamanians have two definitions for the word “asphalt”.  The road was good at the beginning but the rain was collecting in potholes and creating streams across the earth road.  There were sections that were mud or flooded and required careful maneuvering.  We made it to the end of the road and continued driving through the small town of Boca Chica on what resembled a wide sidewalk instead of a two-lane road.  We stopped at the top of a hill when we saw a small cement dock and the sea not far in front of us.  Aaron walked down and found Wahoo Willy’s Hotel and Restaurant who gave us permission to camp on the small piece of land just to our left.  We parked as flat as we could but still had a pretty steep tilt to the RV.  It was all we could do for the night so we went down for beer and dinner.   The owner came in and actually bought us a drink!  That has never happened before!  They also advertise being a dive shop but don’t currently have tanks.  We spoke to the owner and his son about a fishing/snorkeling trip.  He said he would see if there were any other tourists in the area and get back to us.  With no one in sight and no word about the snorkeling trip we packed up to leave at about 10:30 the following morning.  We saw the owner on the way out and he said he would take us out, but we were already packed up and on our way out.  We made the long drive back to the Pan-American (which was lush and beautiful now that we could see it without rain!) and headed into the city of David.We planned on being in David for several days to get some more work done on the RV.  First we had the Ford dealership replace our spark plugs in about five hours for $75 labor.  Several days quickly became two weeks getting lots of work done on the RV before heading any further north.  We returned to the mechanics and they adjusted our new brake discs, added a new thicker leaf spring to the rear of the RV, changed our fuel filter and tightened the new front shocks that were installed in the city.  We decided most of the spare parts we had been carrying around weren’t necessary in the RV so Aaron spoke to a man in town that is frequently looking for Ford parts.  The excessive weight of our RV has been an issue ever since we left the US.  In Costa Rica Aaron cut off a part of the heavy storage unit underneath the motorcycle and that made a difference but we were still too heavy and the weight distribution was also a problem.  Other than the generator on the left, most of our weight is concentrated on the right side and most of that lies behind the rear axle (two water tanks, six batteries, two heavy boxes and the motorcycle on the back).  Way back in Mexico we developed a hump in the floor just behind the rear axle.  It seemed that we couldn’t move anything and we just had to deal with it.  Here in David Aaron had the idea to build a new storage unit for the six batteries and inverter on the left hand side in between the two axles; balancing the weight and providing more support.  With the help of the head mechanic, Rene, he and Aaron found several people in town to work on the project.  They would weld the storage unit with a sliding tray (so that Aaron could pull it out when he needs to work on the batteries) and build a fiberglass door.  After lining everybody up for the project Aaron cut a hole in the RV fiberglass so they could begin their work.  Unfortunately he quickly realized how incompetent the men were in their fields.  The battery system that Aaron created for the solar panels (which provides all our power in the house part of the RV) is the single most important part of the RV other than the engine.  Creating the new storage facility was nothing to be taken lightly and it had to be done correctly the first time.  After working with the first welder for several hours he said he didn’t have the tools for the job and found a more competent welder to take on the project.  Aaron worked with the new welders for about five days and they did a great job ($200 plus material).  The fiberglass door was not square, ugly and the guy couldn’t figure out what Aaron wanted for a seal from the elements.  We went back to the welder and they completed the door putting metal all around the edge and created a sturdy hinge.  The hump in the floor has gotten better and it feels like we are more balanced with a smoother ride.  When we drive over uneven roads we are no longer bouncing all over the place and popping wheelies!  So after moving around the RV every day, sleeping in malls, grocery stores and in front of mechanic’s shops/houses and working in the rain we now have a vehicle better suited to finish the last year of our Latin American trip!David is the second largest city in Panama.  It is large enough to have a variety of parts and services available and is still negotiable in the RV.  The mechanics and welders provided a high quality of work for a fair price and they are easily reached in a large vehicle.  We want to include their information here so that anyone needing their services can start with a great recommendation.  #1 Taller Saldana, Owners: Rene Saldana and his family run the shop.  They specialize in brakes but various mechanical services are provided.  Heading east-bound on Pan-American Highway, turn right on the road at Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Ford dealership.  Drive 12 blocks and the shop is on your left-hand side with 5 tall vehicle bays.  Painted on the wall are the words FRENOS Y EMBRAGUES.  They are next door to another shop that specializes in tire repair, don’t get them confused.  Panama telephone: 775-7111 & 775-6388.  #2 Taller Reyes, Owner: Luis Alberto Reyes.  Welding/machine shop.  Driving East-bound on Pan-American Highway, turn right onto Avenida Central.  Across the street from the Super 99 Grocery store is the Mirage Casino.  Turn right at the casino and drive three blocks and the shop is on your left hand side (also a home but has a faded sign out front).  Panama telephone 775-1675.

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