Keith Irwin

Panama City

Feb 27, 2014

Latin America 2014, Hitchhiking, Travel, Panama

This is part of my story of hitchhiking from New York to Buenos Aires and back, which I did in 2014. I may publish the entire tale in a book someday. Until then, you can read it for free here. To see other parts, check out Latin America 2014. 

February 27 – March 2

I awoke the next morning because some construction workers were standing around me, talking. I sat up. They watched me pack up and leave. They were too dumbfounded to ask for an explanation, so I never gave one.

I walked to a mall and waited for an internet cafe to open. When it did, I found that my host had emailed me his phone number. I called him and he told me he had to work until 5 PM, but I could meet him at his apartment then. I got the address.

I went to a sporting goods store to look for water purification tablets. I couldn't trek across the gap without enough water. But the store only sold clothing. With nothing better to do, I walked to my host's neighborhood and sat at a restaurant, drinking fresh juice and writing.

A photo of the author in front of the skyline of Panama City

I had to get directions from lots of people to find the exact apartment building. It was a tall skyscraper, typical of the city. The lobby was air conditioned and scented. I told the security guard at the front desk whom I was visiting and he called him. I was invited to sit on a very white pleather sofa while he came down. I never felt so out of place.

My host's apartment was clean and new. He had just moved there from Bolivia because he was offered a job. He asked where I'd slept last night and I thought he'd be disgusted to hear. But he didn't care.

“Ah! It's a real adventure you're on! That's the sort of thing I'd have done when I was younger. But not anymore, I'm getting too old for that,”
“I suppose you could call it an adventure,” I said. “But I can only do it for so long before I need basic amenities. In fact, I am super dirty. Can I use your shower? And wash my clothes?”

His place had hot water and a washing machine. I scrubbed myself clean and did loads of clothes until I felt like a new man. He had a spare room for couchsurfers. It had a large window, two beds, and a TV mounted on the wall. A remote was sitting on the bed, along with folded linens. It felt like a hotel room. I didn't mind that at all.

I stayed in Panama city for a few days, recuperating. I thoroughly cleaned my backpack and went shopping for dry food. I tried to buy water purification tablets, but couldn't find any. My host took me to some sporting goods stores, but they all sold clothing and not actual sports equipment. He was surprised as much as me.

“You can get them in Bolivia. I remember we used to buy them before we went trekking.”

I asked him about his experiences trekking and he had some good stories. “I only hitchhiked once, out of necessity. There were seven of us, five guys and two girls, and we we thought it'd be a good idea to hike at night. We got lost in a swamp and had no idea where we were. This was bad, of course, because we were trudging through waist-high water. We eventually found a road and tried to get a ride out of there. But it wasn't easy because there were so many of us. So we had to wait for a fruit truck to let us climb up into the truck and sit on the fruit. The truck went up into the mountains on the ‘road of death’. Have you heard of it? It's famous because it's very dangerous. There's only one lane, with a cliff on one side and a mountain on another. Sometimes there would be another truck going the opposite direction. So of course, our truck had to back up to a wider place where they could pass each other. Those were crazy times, when I was younger.”

While I was in the city, I also went to Carnival and visited the old city, which were neat. My host had quit smoking, but was picking up the habit again. He often offered me cigarettes, and I accepted.

Without water purification tablets, I was finally convinced to take boats across the Darien Gap, instead of walking. I did a little online research to find out how I could do it for the cheapest. It's possible to hitchhike on sailboats, so that was my plan. A hitchhiking website recommend going to the coastal town of Portobelo, where lots of sailors stop on their way to Colombia. It specifically mentioned Captain Jack's, a pub where they all go to hang out. I would have to go to Puerto Obaldia, a small town in Panama close to the border. That's where I could get an exit stamp in my passport. From there, there were regular motor boats to Capurgana, Colombia, where a migrations office stamps passports for entry. These coastal towns are only accessible by boat or plane. But from Capurgana, one could take a $30 motor boat to Turbo, Colombia, where the road continues.

Not knowing how long the crossing would take, I messaged my family that I would be away from the internet for a while, maybe even a week, and that they shouldn't worry.

Arrival at Panama City Portobelo