I left Panama City around 10AM on Sunday. The initial plan was to make it to Metetí in Panama’s Darién Province by 5PM or so, where the pavement supposedly ends. Then the following day I would make a dash to Yaviza, 50 kilometres further on (theoretically on a barely passable road) and the end of the North American part of the Pan-American Highway. (Is the Darién technically part of North America or am I already in South America? Hmm!?) After that, I would return to Panama City on Monday, if time permitted.The Darien Gap starts on the other side of the river from Yaviza, a couple of hundred kilometres away from the nearest road in Colombia. There is no road, just some trails and potential rivers. The Darien is full of narcotraficantes, the remains of the left-wing FARC Colombian guerrillas, right wing death squads hunting the remaining FARC, and First Nations with poison dart blowguns and firearms pissed off at all these Europeans (they include the mestizos and the blacks in that bunch) fucking up their land. Not exactly a safe place to go unless you go with a guide and stick to the various eco-lodges. Anyway, I got to Metetí at 3PM after a serious border police road block where I had to explain why I wanted to go into the Darién. I convinced them I was just a crazy Canadian on his male menopause trip from the other end of the Pan-American Highway who just wanted to get to the end of the road and would turn immediately back and drive 15,000 kilometres back home. I did tell them I just needed to go in the other direction, stay on the same road and that I live about a kilometre away from the Pan-American Highway in the North. (It’s true; I live about a klick away from the Alaska Highway which is part of the Pan-American system.) The guide books lie; the border cops told me the highway was in good shape and paved all the way to Yaviza. And so it was except for a couple of mud-gravel stretches, a couple of hundred meters each, and a few relatively short rough spots mainly before bridges. I had no problem keeping an average speed greater than 60 klicks, doing 80 most of the time except in the villages and at the few rough spots.
So the Pan-American Highway is now paved all the way from Delta Junction, Alaska to Yaviza, Darién. (The Dempster bit from Inuvik to Dawson City isn’t paved, but it is off the main road, although our new jack-booted religious fanatic PM has promised to finish it, whatever that means.)In Meteti, I got a room at the local high end hotel: $17.00 a night for an air-conditioned room with a single bed. No hot water of course, and the bed is a little hard. But the toilet is pretty newly tiled and the room smelt heavily of chlorine when I first walked in, generally a good sign in the tropics: it means most of the nasty bugs got killed. I ask how long it takes to get to Yaviza and everybody I ask says 45 minutes to an hour. “So,” I thinks to myself, “it’s now 3:45. I could pop there and come back before dark & get an early start to Panama City tomorrow”, and maybe stop in Itique where there are three interesting communities: Embera-Woonan, Kuna, as well as a “Colones” latino/mestizo/white community.
So I head out to Yaviza. The area and the town feels a lot more Caribbean than Central American: wooden houses on stilts and a mainly black population. I get to the river, the end of the road, where people are unloading produce (plantains mainly, but also yuca/cassava/manioc roots). I buy a slice of watermelon and a couple of oranges for 50 cents. I’m sure the shop owner thought: “Hey I did a good job ripping off this dumb gringo.” But I don’t really care, good for him. WTF, a couple of quarters.
On the way back, I move to the right on a muddy/gravel stretch to let another vehicle move by. I was sort of wondering why there were no car tracks there. Well, whaddayaknow, I sink in the mud. It’s already in 4 wheel drive, but I put it in 4-low and try the old back and forth which usually works on snow and ice. Well, guess what? It only sinks deeper into the barro down to the axles.
I curse and hope I can get the winch going, which did not work last time I tried. It worked perfectly when I left Canada in November 2009 but the tropics did their number on the wiring and connections. I give it a couple of whacks and the motor starts clicking when I hit the in and out toggle switch. A few more judicious whacks and the winch is working. Yeah! So I pull out the chain from under the back seat and tie it around a tree about 75 feet away on the other side of the road. A guy stops and offers to help me: Juan Corrado(??), a really good guy, bless him.
Anyway, I ask Juan to get into the truck while I operate the winch. Stupid idiot that I am, I pull hard on the winch cord and pull off the cord from the connector. Fuck! Shit! Hostie de Chrisse de Câlice de Tabarnak! I now have to go inside the camper, find a small screwdriver and try to fix the connector. Sweating like a pig, I have to guess which wire goes in which hole. I do my best, but the motor just clicks as the winch cable is taut. I get pissed off, get in the truck to try some more back and forth, which loosens the cable. Juan offers to attach the cable to his truck and pull me out. We should have done that the first place, but the winch cable and chain were already positioned around the tree when he got there. Anyway, he pulled me out quite easily (with me assisting by steering and putting some power to the wheels).
I start off and then realize I forgot the chain around the tree. So I turn back, stop before the mud starts, go to the tree and drag the chain back. Of course, the chain, the driver’s side of the cab, the winch cable, the tailgate and the camper floor are all muddy, as are my shoes and clothes not to speak of the truck. I have a pretty big clean-up job to do.
Back at the hotel, there is no water in the shower. I tell the woman who runs the place who tells me she forgot to turn it on. I go for supper across the road, comida corriente with chicken guisado (in tomato sauce?), beans, rice and two slices of tomatoes. I have a beer and some bottled water. Nothing to write home about, but decent enough. I come back to the hole-in-the-wall room take a quick cold shower in the coldest cold water I have yet experienced in Panama, and start writingMonday morning, it is raining and I head back to Panama city, to the Pequeño Paraíso B&B in Los Cumbres in Panama City’s northern suburbs. A wonderful place run by two Canadians: Richard from Montreal and Anita from Kingston. I think it has the best value for the money I have seen so far in Central America: $69 for what I consider pretty high-end accommodation, and friendly owners. I have to write a trip advisor review, but I can’t post it from here as they might think it’s fake.