We began the long drive towards the real lives we put on hold last August in Alexandria, VA at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday after stuffing as much free breakfast as we could into our mouths and pockets. Through no fault of the GPS, I immediately made a wrong turn in what i assume was a subconscious protest against my current plan to report for duty at my former employer in three months.
We haven’t planned an itinerary for our journey home because we figure, why start now? We think it will be a mix of re-visiting places we really liked and going to new places that we wished we had hit the first time. Of course, it will have to be a more superficial touch because we only have until the end of July. Saying we have “only” three months left in our trip seems spoiled, but my freedom is at stake so please allow me that indulgence.
Our first stop on the way out of Panama, which we estimated would be about three days of driving, was Santa Catalina, a beach town on the Pacific coast. It isn’t much of a resort destination but it’s popular with surfers because it has a point break and a beach break. I can’t surf either of them, but I carried the board down the cliff from our hotel so that R and J could surf the beach break.
We stayed two nights in an air conditioned room at Surfer’s Paradise in Santa Catalina. This place was recommended to us by an overlanding couple who is driving south from Canada in a Westphalia similar in style to Wesley. They had spotted Wesley parked in the street in Panama City the day before and stopped by as we were packing it to leave. We had a nice chat while we sent Coconut and J to the store for another $15 of ice cream. We couldn’t see their van because they had just packed it in a shipping container bound for Columbia. R and I both felt mild envy.
Our next stop from the beach was a hostel just north of David, Panama -slightly up into the mountains and closer still to our next country destination of Costa Rica. R has been talking online with a family running the hostel and we had this chance to stop and meet them. We also hoped it would be a little cooler in David than at the beach, but as we pulled into the Waterfall Hostal we were overwhelmed by the heat, again, and underwhelmed by the hostel itself (the online pictures and description make the place look and sound much nicer). I actually thought it was abandoned as we drove by at the behest of our GPS, which was indicating the hostel was further along the road than it actually was.
The pools and waterfall swimming hole at the hostel helped resolve our heatstroke and Matt, Michelle, Emilia, and Matty, who are running the place for the Australian owner, were very friendly and helpful. We stayed with them three nights and talked about their travels and work experience writing and managing hotels and hostels for most of the last eleven years - with some extended stays built in (they spent two years in Cusco, Peru.) We also learned from Michelle about a cool online learning program in the vein of Minecraft that Coconut and J may willingly use and Matty taught me a lot about Plants vs. Zombies.
We crossed into Costa Rica at Paso Canoas on Monday in under an hour - the most sensical and efficient border crossing we’ve had yet - though we did need to cross the street to make photocopies of random pages of our passport. Because Costa Rica is an hour behind Panama, it was like we were in a time warp because we arrived at the border to exit Panama at 11 and entered Costa Rica after processing all the paper work an hour later at 11.
We entered Panama on April 20 with almost no expectations of liking it, and in fact, R didn’t want to go at all. We had heard it was extremely hot (it’s hotter than that even), expensive (not as much as Costa Rica, but moderately so) and American (the only tortillas in the grocery are from Old El Paso).
Even though we spent only three weeks in Panama, which is our shortest voluntary stay in any of the places we’ve visited**, we ended up enjoying our time. The American influence turned out to be not so bad because R and the kids could go to the grocery and indulge on missed favorites like Snyder’s pretzel pieces, deli turkey meat, and cheese. We met up with old friends David and Imke, and Joe and Fanny (we spent our last night in the city with them hiking up Cerro Ancon for views over the city and Miraflores Locks and saw a wild sloth hanging in the tree canopy), and made some new friends (Captain Sandro and family.)
**We stayed only a week in El Salvador because we had to meet someone in Nicaragua, so we were kind of forced to leave. We did choose to spend only one day driving through Honduras for perceived safety reasons, so I guess that is the shortest voluntary visit to a country we have had. In defense of Honduras, though, we have met several travelers who have visited places in the country with no issues at all and who report it to be as beautiful and the people as friendly as anywhere else.
We also made memories in Panama transiting the Canal, going on jungle treasure hunts, and eating expensive ice cream in Casco Viejo (I spent more on the frozen treats than I did on beer.) Outside of a few urban centers, we saw that much of Panama is an undeveloped jungle. We also learned a lot about Panama’s history and current role in the world economy - something we would admittedly not have been remotely interested in if we stayed in the U.S., so feel free to shut me up if I ever start blabbering on about it - which helps us accomplish our family objective of gaining world perspective.
We had Aerosmith on the iPod as we headed out of Panama City and R was a bit weepy as Stephen Tyler sang “Dream until your dreams come true.” She’s been wanting to take a trip like this since her youth and she and I have talked about it for the duration of our marriage - which seems like forever. As the southernmost point of our journey, Panama City has significance to us as the realization of that dream, but also the end of it.
In the face of that, I tried to make R feel better. “We aren’t going home today.” I said. “We’re going to the beach to surf.”
We both know there are more adventures to come. That the end of one dream gives way to the beginning of another as long as we remain open to the possibilities. After all, Tyler also sings in “Sweet Emotion” that “I can’t say baby where I’ll be in a year.”