Capital – Panama City              Currency – The balboa               Language – Spanish, Kuna plus 14 other

21st December – We are flying today with Copa Airlines from Cartagena in Colombia to Panama, whilst our Land Rover makes its way more slowly by ship.  We board and leave on time and no sooner do we seem to be up in the air, than it’s time to get ready to land at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.

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It’s a huge airport with rows of luxury, Duty Free shops.  We complete immigration, which includes photos and finger prints of both hands.  We find our baggage is waiting and as there are 8 of us (that have all shipped our vehicles together), we share a taxi van to Hotel Parador, a **star hotel that we booked whilst staying in Cartagena.

Panama City is certainly the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America, stretching almost 20km along the Pacific coast.  Its abundance of luxury shopping malls, business centres, clubs and restaurants rub shoulders with the more polluted and chaotic areas of poorer neighbourhoods. The views from the roof of our hotel show just a small area of  the concrete and glass skyscrapers that decorate its skyline.

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23rd December – It takes us a while by taxi today to find an insurance company where we can take out 3rd party insurance for our Land Rover for 1 month only, as the majority will only do a year.  We finally find Cia International de Seguros, on Avenida Nicanor de Obarrio, San Francisco who will provide this for 15 US$. This is fine for us as we have to leave Panama by the 20th January.

From here we continue to the Seaboard Office to obtain our original Bill of Lading……Seaboard Marine Ltd. Urb. El Dorado, Av. Miguel Brostella.  This is where we have to pay our half of the shipping costs after having shared a container.  As it is just over 500 US$ they insist that it has to be paid into their bank, which is fortunately only 5 mins. away, just across the road and first left. The bank then gives us a receipt which we return to Seaboard with, to receive our all important Bill of Lading and we have just made it before they close at 5pm!  It has taken us 6 hours to complete all of the above as our journeys around the city have encountered endless traffic jams.

24th December – We learn today that our ship is sitting in the harbour waiting to unload, so we won’t be getting our vehicles now until the 26th at the earliest.   Never mind, Xmas in Panama City is no problem and hopefully it won’t be long before we are on the road again.

We visit the old, colonial town of Panama City with German friends Dagmar and Bernd, who are also waiting to get their vehicle from the same ship.  Known as Casco Viejo, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

Panama City was founded in 1519 by the Spanish but was looted and almost totally destroyed following an attack by the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan in 1671.  The ‘New Panama City’ was shortly afterwards rebuilt on a small, rocky peninsula and a wall was built to surround it and to prevent further pirate attacks. Views across the water from this wall show the more sophisticated side of Panama City with its shimmering tower blocks.

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During the18th century however, this fascinating, colonial district of Casco Viejo was severely damaged by fires, which destroyed much of its original architecture.  Many of the buildings today amongst its cobbled streets, are in a crumbling, dilapidated and often dangerous state.

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However, renovation is continuing on a huge scale and many of the completed buildings give one a sense of just how magnificent this city must once have looked.

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Plaza de la Independencia is the heart of Casco Viejo and it is also where Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903.  The square is dominated by the Cathedral and also at the moment, by a huge Christmas tree.   We celebrate Xmas Eve with our Dutch and German friends at a cosy Italian Restaurant overlooking the lights in the plaza.

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25th December – What better way to spend Christmas Day than watching ships pass through the Panama Canal!  We take a taxi to the Miraflores Visitors Centre where exhibition halls  provide interesting information about the construction of this famous waterway and its locks, the importance of water, how the Canal works and its role as one of the most important trade routes  in the world.    

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The Canal must be one of the world’s greatest engineering feats.  It serves as a maritime shortcut, saving ships time, distance and costs in transporting all kinds of goods.  This 80km waterway connects the Pacific Ocean at Panama City to the Atlantic Ocean at Colon, at one of the narrowest points of the Isthmus of Panama.  Ships worldwide are built with the dimensions of the Panama Canal’s locks in mind and they pay according to their weight.  The lowest amount ever paid, was  0.36 US$ in 1928 by Richard Halliburton who swam through!

The Panama Canal was inaugurated in August 1914 and since then, more than a million ships from all over the world, have passed through.  Another huge project is underway to expand the Canal in order to take ships with greater dimensions and to double its capacity to handle the increasing demand of worldwide trade.  Its completion in 2014 will also coincide with the Canal having been in operation for 100 years!

Standing on the highest of the series of viewing balconies at Miraflores, we are able to watch the massive lock gates open and close, raising or lowering the water level to allow ships to pass through, either beginning or ending their voyage at the Pacific Ocean.

The highlight however, is the beautiful liner ‘Silver Whisper’ from Nassau in the Bahamas.  Waving and shouts of Happy Christmas from both sides, plus the ship’s hooter, creates a great atmosphere on this Xmas day!

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The liner is followed by a container ship……

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……..and then the enormous hulk of a Panamanian vessel ‘Sincerity Ace’ carrying new vehicles.  Once the water is lowered, it only has approx. 60cm to spare on each side as it glides through the locks!  Vehicles on rails are attached to the ships to guide them through the locks and to keep them in a central position.

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The Panama Canal has been highlighted as one of the best tourist destinations for 2014 amongst a list of ’11 destinations not to be missed’…..and I would certainly agree!

26th December – Will we manage to get our vehicles out of the port today at Colon we wonder?

We take an early taxi from Panama City to Colon on the Cariibbean side.  Passing through this city, we notice people are living in dirty, crumbling buildings, many of which also appear very unsafe.  Rubbish fills alleyways and lines the streets.  Although this city has seen times of prosperity, it appears to be on a downward spiral and unemployment and poverty have led to a serious crime problem here.

The next 2 days inside the port however, turn out to be very long, very hot and very frustrating ones, being sent from one queue to another, office to office and window to window.  A final payment from us is refused at the end of the first day as there is only 5 minutes to go before that particular office closes.  At the end of the second day we are told that it is too late for the special machinery to lift our container down from its stack, although Bernd and Hermanus are fortunate in getting their vehicles that have travelled on the flat rack.   We have had no choice but to take a hotel here in Colon.  Our taxi driver recommends Hotel New Washington, a grand, old, colonial building that is still being renovated and which has sea views and breezes and wonderful hot showers!

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28th December – Today we breathe sighs of relief as we are able to get our vehicles out of the port, partly due to some special help from a guy there named Victor Blake.  It’s great to have our wheels rolling again!

We have had a number of people asking about the shipping costs involved between Cartagena and Panama, so the following is what we had to pay by sharing a container, but of course, things change all the time and it will vary according to the hotels that are chosen and time of year for flights etc.  We hope the following helps anyone planning this  journey.

Cartagena, Colombia – Manfred (our shipping agent)…Manfred’s charges plus port charges and handling       583.14 US$

Panama City – Payment to Seaboard (see also our post Colombia 7- Cartagena de Indias)……..40′ high cube container plus shipping costs       512.50 US$

Colon, Panama – Port charges        445 US$


Direct flights From Cartagena to Tocumen Airport, Panama City with Copa Airlines (2 people)          790 Euros

Hotel Bellavista, Cartagena, Colombia……Camping 8 nights     240,000 COP           Room 3 nights    240,000 COP

Hotel Parador 2**, Panama City…..5 nights        245 US$ (special offer)

Hotel Washington, Colon, Panama……2 nights           120 US$ 

Taxis and meals

From Colon we return towards Panama City before heading southwest for Santa Clara and spending two nights at XS Memories Hotel, where they provide a camping area in their large garden.

30th December – It’s a long, hot drive to Boquete, situated in the Chiriqui Province amongst hills and mountains.  Known for its cooler, fresher climate, flowers, coffee, vegetables and citrus fruits all flourish in this valley’s fertile soil.  Foreign retirees (particularly Americans), began flocking here and buying mountain plots, after Boquete was rated as one of the 4 top places in the world to retire to.  One of the most popular places here with locals, tourists and foreign residents however, is the American run bakery ‘Sugar and Spice’.  They bake the most delicious, ‘real’ bread, plus muffins, pies and cakes and serve breakfasts, lunches and snacks throughout the day…..a real find!  Boquete also has an excellent library, only a few minutes walk from where we are camping at Pension Topas.  Comfy armchairs allow you to relax and enjoy a good selection of English books, newspapers and magazines……another treat!  We spend New Years Eve with German friends Dagmar and Bernd and have an excellent meal together at the small but very welcoming Art Cafe French Restaurant in town, that is also celebrating the New Year!

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