Thursday, March 31, 2011

El Valle

That’s all you have to say - “The Valley” – and people in Panama know what you’re talking about. Then again, there aren’t a lot of picturesque mountain towns nestled 6,000 ft. up inside a 3 mile wide volcanic crater, at least not that are still around. And with 3-5 million years having passed since the huge volcano blew its top to form the crater, you could say they’re either completely safe or about due. 


The third offshoot of our “Panama 2011 – We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Beaches Tour” again took us an hour or so north off the PanAmerican Highway. As in Boquete and Santa Fe, there would inevitably be mention of a mysterious and treacherous trail that continued over the mountains to the Caribbean, usually only passable by foot or horse and then only in the dry season. But in El Valle, the only obvious exit was via Chorro de Las Mozas where the great lake that had filled the crater broke through the wall and drains to this day in a never-ending waterfall.


This one is too expensive. This one is too cheap. This one’s right in town. This one’s too far outside of town. We did the usual Three Bears routine looking for a hotel that would be “just right.” At the Golden Frog Inn, wouldn’t ya know it, the least expensive rooms – the ones used to set the low price in the Lonely Planet – were not available. We told the nice young guy who greeted us that we’d have to do another lap around town looking for something a little cheaper. He earned points with the response, “Hey, you should see the dumps I stay in when I travel,” and continued with details on the lavish homemade breakfasts and the included happy hour cocktails. 

There’s no question but that adventure comes from unexpected situations, from sudden changes of plans or even unwelcome mishaps; Staying flexible is essential to the enjoyment of a trip like this. And for many travellers, optimization of their budget is not only necessary for the trip to continue, but is part of the experience. The most important thing is making sure that you and your travel partner – let’s not dance around this, 99% of the overlanders we’re meeting are couples – have the same expectations and/or have ways to communicate when they don’t. Otherwise, one of you will be cursing the darkness in a campground or stewing over the price tag of a room when they should be looking at the stars or taking a 25 minute hot shower.

In the end, we spent another hour driving around El Valle, poking into hotels, rejecting others on arbitrary factors like the logo on the sign, time we should have spent lying in the hammock surrounded by bougainvillea at the inn that used to be the home of the vice president of Panama. It was yet another splurge but one we were glad we made. I would just have to make sure I got our money’s worth at happy hour; Ann would take care of breakfast.


Watching the wild sloths in the trees might have been worth it alone.


Realizing rather suddenly that we were a day’s drive from Panama City, we figured we should put out some feelers about shipping the truck back to San Francisco. We’d read countless detailed accounts of the shipping process from Panama to Columbia but, like border information, found a lot of these “colored” by the personalities, travel styles and circumstances of the writers; One person’s adventure is another’s catastrophe. We got the name of one shipping agent from our friends at Panama Passage, a new landing spot and shipping assistance service in Panama City, and put the word out on Drive the Americas, Expedition Portal and even Adventure Rider that we were looking for someone to share a 40 foot container; It was a longshot for a container heading north but would cut the cost by a third or so.

In the afternoon, we went to El Nispero, a large collection of rescued animals spread out around a huge property in the center of the crater. While the animals are in cages and could have looked happier at times, we were assured that they had all been brought there with injuries or other reasons that prevented them from being released into the wild; We chose to believe that as it made the meandering walk through an extensive display of everything from ostriches to tapirs much more enjoyable.



We caught these guys at nap time. Hard to tell how many are in the pile.


Yeah, this guy was in a cage, but at least the mask made it seem like he’d done something to deserve it.


There were also colorful birds including toucans which I hadn’t seen before. Ann had seen two flying overhead in the Chiquibul Forest while I was off getting’ muddy with NoLimitX.



The autofocus of the G10 insisted on adding its own insightful commentary on the challenging ethical implications of keeping these wild animals in cages. 



And of the “free” birds added his own punctuation to the discussion. Well, to Ann’s arm actually.


The owner of the inn had told us not to miss the tapirs, and we had to look for a sign pointing off to the side to be sure we didn’t. These pig/rhino lookin’ things were huge with comically dainty feet.

Fortunately, there was not one in a tree above Ann.



And finally, what post of mine would be complete without… PICTURES OF FROGS!!!



Including the namesake of the Golden Frog Inn.



Back at the aforementioned, I reviewed a few responses we’d gotten from our morning shipping inquiries. There were two people interested in potentially sharing containers, one from Panama and the other possibly from Costa Rica. At this point, I should have made myself a list of the shipping agents mentioned on the various forums and blogs and emailed them for quotes, but I was caught up by the fact that there were no accounts of people shipping their vehicles along the exact routes I wanted, only Panama to Columbia. Of course, these agents likely could have arranged transport pretty much anywhere. Instead, I submitted a few “cold” inquiries through web sites that felt like I was reserving a U-Haul, and we made plans to head to Panama City the next day.