Panama: Plans Change (Again), or “Don’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet”

September 26, 2015

Obvious statement in the title of this post, but today was an example of how using the internet to plan can get you in trouble. Fortunately, I hadn’t made many plans.

Last night in Cahuita, Costa Rica, I decided to cross into Panama this morning and try to get to Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro. This requires crossing the border, taking a ferry to Isla Colón, finding a place to store the bike on that island, then arranging a boat to Isla Bastimentos and getting there before dark. I intended to just “wing” most of this. The one thing I had to plan for was the ferry crossing.

According to the ferry’s website, they sail twice a day between Almirante and Isla Colón: at 7am and at 12:30pm. It’s about an hour and a half ride from Cahuita to Almirante, and another two hours dealing with border paperwork. So it was clear I wasn’t going to make the 7am ferry. I felt I definitely had a shot at the 12:30pm ferry though, so that was the plan.

Judith (from Switzerland) and I teamed up again for the border crossing. This crossing at Sixaola is a very small crossing and an easy one. So easy and slow that there are no “helpers” hanging out here. The only problem is there is a regular shuttle service between Costa Rica and Bocas del Toro for the backpacker crowd, and as luck would have it, two shuttles full of Australian backpackers showed up just as we arrived at Immigration. The backpackers don’t have to do the vehicle paperwork, but we all have to go through Immigration first, both leaving Costa Rica and entering Panama. So this slowed us down a bit. Still, it was nice to have one person watching the bikes while the other person did the paperwork.

The old “Banana Bridge” at the Costa Rica – Panama border crossing at Sixaola. It’s now been replaced with a new one-lane bridge.



Through the border and back on the road. Still looks like we can make it. A few blocks south of the border, the real highway jogs a couple of blocks to the east. My GPS was telling me to go straight ahead, and it showed the road we were on meeting back up with the highway in a couple of miles. So, as usual, I followed the GPS. The two lane paved road turned to gravel. Then it turned to dirt. Then it turned to an overgrown two-track with tall weeds dragging the panniers. Then came the first wooden bridge, with wood planks on each side for car tires. No problem.

Judith crossing the first bridge. It’s hard to tell from this angle that there is a drop into a creek there. It’s also hard to tell why Garmin routed me down this instead of the highway. But hey, that’s why it’s called an adventure…

Shortly after that, the second wooden bridge: missing a few planks, a few loose boards, but still not bad. Another 300 meters or so, the third bridge: big holes where there used to be planks, very loose boards, no side rails. Things were definitely getting interesting. I was beginning to think this road was going to end before we got to the highway. But sure enough, a mile later, we were back on the main road heading towards Almirante.

Just a few kilometers later, we ran into our first military checkpoint. This was the first time in the past two months that I was stopped and asked for paperwork. First, my driver’s license. Then my passport. Then the vehicle import papers. Then my vehicle title.

As all of this was beginning, the military official who spoke a little English asked Judith, “Where are you from?”

“Switzerland”, she replied.

“Switzerland! Oh, it’s beautiful there!” the officer said. Then he looked at me: “Where are you from?”

“United States”, I answered.

Crickets. Total silence. Not even a hint of a smile. Hmmmm. Okay. I’ll just keep my mouth shut rather than offer a snappy retort about how beautiful my country is also.

Of course everything checked out fine and we were free to go. According to the GPS, it looked like I might make it to the 12:30 ferry by a few minutes after noon. That should give me time to buy a ticket and get the bike on board.

Pulling into Almirante, it was clear this was not a luxury resort by the sea. This was a shipping port. Scrappy, dirty, with no hotels, restaurants, or other amenities for the tourist.

I pulled up to the ferry. No cars. No tourists. No one else going to Isla Colón. A couple of workers looked back at me. I looked at the sign painted on the back of the ferry: “Almirante – Isla Colón, Tuesday – Sunday, 7am”. Not a mention of a 12:30pm ferry. Because there isn’t one. Regardless of what their website says, there is only one ferry a day, and it was five hours before I got there. I was very thankful that I had decided to “wing it” and not book a hotel on the island for tonight.

I pondered my options. I could try to find some place to stay in Almirante, though it didn’t have a nice, safe vibe to it. I could go somewhere else and come back in the morning, but I couldn’t go far because the ferry leaves at 7am.

I finally decided that I was going to spend three days in the San Blas islands in two weeks, so there was no real need to spend all of the time, money and effort required to get to Isla Bastimentos. Looking at the map, I was still a few hours away from Boquete, but there wasn’t much between here and there, and I knew Boquete was in the highlands and would be cool and a good place to relax for a few days. So on I went.

The road between Almirante and Boquete is a bit rough with potholes and sections that have been repaired with gravel but not yet paved. But the scenery is great, including views of the Caribbean and multiple waterfalls as you climb higher.

Climbing into the hills just after the rains. Low clouds, lots of green.


Lots of these waterfalls along the road.


Heading to Boquete

Just past El Letrero I turned off of Highway 10 onto a small side road that looked like a shortcut over to the David-Boquete highway. This turned out to be a great road, with beautiful views and several bridges over a nice river. It had rained very recently and the clouds were low on the hills.

Pulling into Boquete I ran into the same two Canadians on KLR650s that I had met on the ferry to Ometepe. It sounds like they might be on the same boat to Colombia that I’m booked on.

The temperatures here are in the 60s at night and 70s in the daytime. I’m nearly a week ahead of schedule. So I’m planning to enjoy the cool weather, change the oil and adjust the valves on the bike, give it a wash and get ready for Panama (City).



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.