Feb. 9, 2007 Potrerillos, Panama
It sure has been great having a home base here at Denny’s house. It’s “just up the road from David,” but the key word is “up.” The elevation gain of about 2400 feet makes the temperatures here quite pleasant when it is just sweltering in David. And after the past week, we sure are enjoying that!
We spent the first few days in Panama visiting Denny, and he showed us around some great motorcycling roads. Exploring the side of the volcano, we toured around through ranch and farm land, as well as extensive coffee plantations. We visited the little used border crossing of Rio Sereno and stopped in at the main border-crossing town, Paso Canoas, to pick up new tires for our bikes to put on before we leave Panama. Through it all, the roads were delightful. Some were in better shape than others, but they were all twisty with little traffic and great views.
Then we headed off for the End of the Road. The Pan-American Highway, or the Interamericana as it is known here, does not actually join South America with Central America. The region along the Panama-Colombia border is called the Darien, and this stretch of jungle has not been broached by road. The road ends at a town called Yaviza, and that’s where we were headed.
But first, we had to cross the Canal, so we spent some time exploring that. We visited the Amador Causeway at the Pacific entrance to the canal. It is being developed with lots of restaurants and shops, and we saw some impressively large yachts there (including one with a helicopter on deck). Then we headed to the Miraflores locks. These are two two-stage locks that raise (or lower) boats about 50 feet from the level of the Pacific. There is a visitor center there that shows the history and the statistics, as well as the future plans, of the canal.
From there, we headed to Gamboa, which was originally set up as a town site for the workers making the Gaillard Cut, where the Canal goes through the Continental Divide (which is only about 350 feet there). Now, there’s a fancy eco-resort there on the Rio Chagres. On the way back, we kept trying to explore small, old roads, but we were met with a series of locked gates. At one, we were looking around when two soldiers on a motorcycle joined us. So, we talked bikes for a while, and they told us of a road that actually would go through. Without their advice, we might not have followed it all the way. It clearly had been a road, but now it was grassy and overgrown, with a few ups and downs and a narrow plank bridge. It was neat travelling through the jungle there, and we did see an impressively large owl that watched us for a while before flying on. The watershed of the Canal is crucial to the operation of the Canal, so it is well preserved. Amazing to think we were only about 20 miles from downtown Panama City.
We’ve done all we could to avoid large cities on this trip, but we had to pass through Panama City. It’s been a while since I’ve seen skyscrapers! We got on the Corredor Sur, which whisked us away from the city along the water. But when it ended near the international airport, we found ourselves in the mess of city outskirts for a while before finally breaking free to find a room in Chepo. 40 years ago, the road ended here, and many still consider this the start of the Darien.
Our drive to the end of the road was made much easier by the current effort to pave the road all the way to Yaviza. They are not done yet, but most of the road is either paved or being prepped for paving, so we didn’t see much of what was once a long, tortuous road. Along with the road have come first loggers then farmers and ranchers. There is no pristine jungle to be seen from the road. But the jungle past Yaviza apparently has more than its fair share of people trouble. It’s a large and remote area, and governments on both sides have difficulty maintaining law. This road was the only we’ve encountered with serious police checkpoints. There were about five checkpoints between Chepo and Yaviza, and we had to show papers and state our intentions at each. They recorded names, passport numbers, and motorcycle information. And they checked us off when we returned through heading back to “civilization.”
Yaviza was an interesting place to visit. It doesn’t feel like the end of the road, probably because for the people that live there, it isn’t. It’s just that the roads past there are all rivers. We saw very few vehicles as we walked around town, but the riverbanks were lined with canoes. While Tom was taking pictures, I chatted with an elderly man who had lived in Yaviza all his life. I’m sure my beginning Spanish missed much of what he said, but it was clear he has seen tremendous change in his time. He viewed the paving of the road as a good thing but was sure the road through to Colombia would never be built. As Tom and I toured town, kids mobbed us, excited to have their pictures taken. It was clear that everyone in town knew we were there. Our lodging in town was simple – saggy bed, bathroom down the hall, blood smears on the wall (I assume from mashed mosquitoes!). Our innkeeper was disappointed we were only staying one night, but we weren’t prepared for any serious jungle exploration.
We left Yaviza shortly after dawn, hoping to beat some of the tropical heat. We got checked out of the region at each checkpoint and managed to get through Panama City relatively painlessly. For a wonderful respite from the heat, we spent the night in El Valle, a wide valley in the basin of an extinct volcano. It’s a refuge for city folks from the heat and humidity, but mid-week, it was quiet and cool. We explored taking an alternate route away from the valley, but the roads were rough and steep, and our tires are nearly shot.
We spent a few days exploring the Azuero Peninsula, a quiet area of ranches, farms, and small towns. There’s a bit development starting along the beaches but barely. It doesn’t seem to be much of a tourist hangout. Maybe because of that, there are very few road signs. We have multiple maps, but none of them are right. After multiple wrong turns, we went with the strategy of ask lots of people for directions, often.
It may be true in Panama, more than any of the other countries we’ve visited, that there really is only one road. Any time we wanted to get from one part of the country to another, we’ve spent some time on the Interamericana. After a long, hot day on it yesterday, it was really wonderful to climb the hill out of David and finish the day with a cold beer, enjoying the breeze in Denny’s yard. Today, we put on our new tires, so I think we’re off tomorrow for more exploring. We’ve been to the end of the road, and we are now heading home but there’s lots more to see along the way.