Bridging the Gap
Our trip through Mexico and Central America was full of amazing, once in a life time adventures. But overlanding isn’t always glamorous. After a few magical weeks in Panama, we learned this the hard way as we found ourselves bogged down in the expensive and painful process of shipping our rig from Panama to Colombia. Life would get even more challenging in Colombia where we spent three weeks replacing our rear-differential on our truck (and learning that the company that built our camper had gone bankrupt). These challenges tested our determination and, at times, our sanity. But they didn’t impact our thirst for adventure.
Panama is a small country, but its packed full of beautiful coastlines and huge areas of primary old growth forest and jungle. It also offers world class scuba diving and surfing. Despite this, ecotourism in Panama is relatively undeveloped which is ironic given that Panama is a rapidly growing and relatively wealthy Latin America country.
We chose Cerro Punta on the east side of Volcán Barú National Park as our first stop and enjoyed a few days birding and hiking in the cloud forest. This area, which is inhabited by indigenous Nativa Americans, felt a lot like the cloud forest of the Southern Mountains of Costa Rica. Like Los Quetzales National Park in Costa Rica, Volcán Barú National Park is also one of the best places in the world to see Resplendent Quetzales which we saw in Costa Rica and heard but didn’t see in Panama.
From Cerro Punta, we headed to the coastal town of Santa Catalina where we were on a mission to scuba dive in Coiba National Park and surf the numerous breaks on the Santa Catalina coast. During our journey we’ve found that finding good campsites is almost as important as finding good destinations. And when we pulled into Surfers Paradise, we knew we had found a gem. Perched a few hundred feet above the ocean, Surfers Paradise has an amazing view and is steps away from from the Santa Catalina reef break. This break is one of the most famous breaks in Panama and it did not disappoint. As soon as we got there a huge swell moved in, resulting in overhead and double overhead sets that break over a rocky bottom. Unfortunately, the Santa Catalina reef break was a bit too “heavy” for our taste. We saw at least two experienced surfers returning to the hostel covered in blood, one holding a broken board. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, we spent most of our time surfing the Estero beach break which was “working” great due to the size of the swell.
Leah, Stefan and Thomas in front of our our rigs at Surfers Paradise
To see hammerheads, you have to go to Isla Jicaron, one of the more remote islands in the park. Diving on Isla Jicaron is no joke. Not only do the locals force the dive shops to use small boats for the 2 hour journey to Isla Jicaron, but the dive sites there, including the “Washing Machine”, are known for their strong currents. To make matters worse, the huge swell made diving there extremely challenging. On all three dives the swell pushed us up to 30 feet back and forth in either direction, making it difficult to avoid getting impaled on the sharp volcanic rock and causing an experienced diver in our group to get seasick. Despite the fact that Leah had just gotten certified in Belize, she did an awesome job. And despite the low visibility we did see hammerheads, including some big ones. The experience of having the 7 foot giants, with their crazy flat heads, emerge suddenly from the deep blue was an experience we’ll never forget.
After Santa Catalina we moved onto the Azuero Peninsula where we camped at the Venao Cove Hostel on Playa Vanao. This hostel is owned by Leif, a friend of our friend Keith from Boulder who provided us with tons of beta on Panama. Leif moved to Panama many years ago to open a hostel and using the revenue from it to build a house in the jungle and to raise a family. Today, Playa Venoa is getting developed but the western side of the beach is still relatively undeveloped. Although Playa Venao is definitely found, it’s worth a trip, especially if you are a surfer. And if you decide it’s too developed, there are numerous alternatives on the Azuero Peninsula that have amazing surf and are relatively deserted including Cambutal.
After the Azuero Peninsula we moved onto Panama City to begin preparations to load our rig on a container ship which was sailing from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. We won’t bore you with the details but the process on the Panama side was painful and ridiculous. But it was even more painful and ridiculous on the Colombia side. In total, it took us over two weeks to complete the process, despite the fact that it only took 2 days for the boat to sail from Colon to Cartagena. But after two expensive and frustrating weeks, we jumped in our rig and began our journey south through Colombia.
Colombia has a violent history including the bloody campaign waged by Pablo Escobar. However, despite this violent history, Colombia is one of the most environmentally and ethnically diverse countries in the world. And we were determined to explore both side of this coin. It’s worth backing up a bit to describe our time in Cartagena. Cartagena is a beautiful colonial town on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia. It was the main port for trade between Spain and its overseas empire and the port that the Spanish used to export the gold and silver that they plundered from South America. It was also Spain’s biggest slave port, which explains the African heritage of many Colombians. The beauty and diversity of Cartagena is a great introduction to the rest of Colombia although the percentage of Colombians of African descent in Cartagena (and Barranquilla) is much higher than in the rest of Colombia which makes it unique.
After Cartagena, we moved south to explore the beautiful colonial towns of Santander. Perhaps our favorite colonial town was Barichara. For over 100 years many communities in Santander (and throughout Colombia) have been plagued by war. Barichara, a small colonial town in northeastern Colombia, is no exception. The ~7,000 people who live there have suffered through numerous wars over the past 100 years including the 1,000 day war and most recently the Colombian Civil War that ended in 2016. Fortunately Barichara is gradually emerging from a state of endless conflict and has become one of the most authentic and beautiful places to visit in Colombia. Frozen in time, visiting Barichara (and the tiny villages nearby) is a great way to see what colonial cities were like 300 years ago. We also loved Villa de Leyva, despite the fact that it has definitely been discovered and is on the beaten path for Colombians and other tourists.
A mechanic with our old rear differential in Bogota
But while our rig was getting repaired (and we were waiting for parts) we had plenty of time to explore Bogota. Bogota is a huge city with over 8 million people, horrific traffic, some incredibly poor areas and some very wealthy ones. As described above, Colombia has been in a state of political and social unrest for at least the last 50 years with groups like the ELN (led by priests), FARC (led by farmers) and M-19 (led by members of the upper class) engaged in violent conflict against right wing governments and paramilitary groups. In the early 2000s, this resulted in the death of over ten thousand innocent civilians (called Falso Positivos) who were killed during the government’s civil war with the FARC. Graffiti writers and street artists use art to help articulate this resistance. Nobody knows what the future holds for Colombia, but it’s clear that there is still political and social resistance is alive and well.
A homeless man in front of a graffiti intervention describing the Falso Positivo murders
While we were in Bogata we made a few repairs to our truck. The biggest issue was a crack in our rear differential. It turns out that the OEM rear differentials are prone to cracking so we replaced ours with a stronger aftermarket one and resumed our journey.
A huge street art mural in Bogota. Unlike most graffiti, which are illegal “interventions”, this mural was approved by the city.
After our rig was finally ready to roll, we headed to the coffee triangle to the west of Bogota. After another crazy and curvy road, we ended up at Hacienda Guayabal, a beautiful coffee finca to the west of Manzanillo where we relaxed and drank amazing coffee grown on the finca. The coffee region of Colombia is actually a great place for birding and we weren’t disappointed by the diversity and number of birds in the trees on the finca.
The owner of Hacienda Guayabal
After the Cocora Valley, we decided that it was finally time to boogie out of Colombia and hit Ecuador. After three days of driving through the huge mountain ranges of southern Colombia we finally crossed the Ecuador border (which was surprisingly painful) and drove the amazing, paved, two lane highway from the border to the beer garden of Finca Sommerwind.
No trip to the coffee region of Colombia is complete without a trip to the wax palm forest of Cocora Valley. Unimpressed with Salento, the gateway to the Cocora Valley, we decided to camp at the end of the valley from where we did an amazing hike through the Quindío wax palm forest. The Quindío wax palms are the tallest palm trees in the world and can grow up to 200 feet tall. Karl also did an amazing day of enduro mountain biking in the mountains above the valley.
The view of Cocora Valley from our campground
Comment by Randy
Randy July 15, 2019 at 9:27 pm
Awesome trip report. Glad you back in action
Comment by Guided by Wolves
Guided by Wolves July 20, 2019 at 4:06 pm
Thanks for checking it out!