Photo Essay: Death of the Diablos Rojos – Panama City, Panama

Unlike in the US, where the dominant bus line has the word “grey” right in the name, buses in much of Latin America are pandimonious converted Bluebird school buses covered in bright artwork, stickers, flashing lights and anything else the driver/owners can think of to one-up the competition in the unspoken bus beauty pageant that goes on in the street. In Panama, the local festive buses are called diablos rojos (red devils) not because of their looks but because of their reputation as overcrowded death traps. You can still see these moving pieces of art across the country but in March of 2013 all 1,200 diablos rojos in Panama City were decommissioned, deemed too gaudy, polluting and dangerous for the city’s shiny new profile as Miami South.

Diablos Rojos bus Panama

Owners of diablos rojos in the capital were given US$25,000 per city bus. Diablos rojos drivers who did not have too many tickets or deaths on their hands were also given the chance to train to drive Panama City’s new Metro Buses which are the same drab make and model as buses that ply Mexico City and other metropolises.

After years of “service” the diablos rojos were unceremoniously rounded up in a large dirt lot at a giant field which was part of the old US Howard Air Force Base, and taken apart piece by piece. Hundreds of wheels were loaded into containers which we’re told were headed to China. Mountains of scrap metal were created. Engines were lined up on the ground. And we were there to witness the death of the infamous diablos rojos.

Colorful Red devil buses Panama City Diablos Rojos junkyard demolition Panama City Diablos Rojos bus demolition Panama City Diablos Rojos junkyard Panama  City Junked Diablos Rojos buses Panama City Diablos Rojos tires Panama Diablos Rojos bus detail Diablos Rojos motors Panama  City Diablos Rojos junkyard demolition Panama Diablos Rojos Panama City   Diablos Rojos junkyard Panama  Pacifico Diablos Rojos buses Panama Decomissioned Red devil buses Panama City Diablos Rojos Panama export metal china Diablos Rojos bus Panama City Diablos Rojos bus junkyard Westin Hotel Panama Diablos Rojos detail Panama

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End of the Road – Yaviza, Darién Jungle, Panama

For all but the craziest among us (more on them later), driving through the Darién Jungle overland is not within the realm of possibility. But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel to the end of the road in the Darién and visit a town called Yaviza where the pavement of the Pan-American Highway stops and ass-whupping jungle begins.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

Our truck entering Darién Province, home of the Darién Jungle, on our way to the end of the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

The only break in the Pan-American Highway

The Darién Jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, covers 10,000 square miles (26,000 square km) just on the Panamanian side. The region’s dense vegetation and marshy expanses create the only break in the Pan-American Highway which otherwise runs around 16,000 miles (25,750 km) from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina along the length of the American Continents.

The 60 mile (96 km) break in the action caused by the Darién Jungle is called the Darién Gap and it’s a pain in the ass for overland travelers like us who aren’t certifiably insane and, therefore, are forced to ship our vehicles around the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia rather than driving through.

Welcome to Yaviza, Darien Panama - End of the PanAmerican Highway

Welcome to the town of Yaviza where the Darién Jungle forms the only break in the Pan-American Highway.

Oh, sure. Some crazies have attempted to drive through the Darién Jungle. A handful have even made it starting with the Trans-Darién Expedition in 1960 during which a husband and wife team spent five months hacking a “road” through the Darién Jungle and averaging about 600 feet (200 meters) per hour. Good times.

It was 12 more years before another team made it through the Darién Jungle, but just barely. Back axles on Range Rovers driven by members of the British Trans-Americas Expedition broke and new parts had to be air dropped in. Clothing rotted on their bodies from the humidity. About half the team suffered serious injury and illness.

In 1975 some dudes on Rokon motorcycles tried four times before getting through the Darién Jungle overland. In 2015 a fresh crew of crazies plans to attempt to drive through the Darién Jungle and for US$4,400 you can join them. Send a postcard.

Literal end of the Pan American Highway - Darien Gap, Panama

A bit anticlimactic, perhaps, but that’s the end of the road for the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

Mother Nature’s border

“Why don’t they just close the Darién Gap by connecting the highway through the Darién Jungle?” you may wonder. First of all, building a road through a jungle is never easy. Think about it. Then consider the fact that the remote Darién Jungle has proven to be a good hideout for all kinds of bad guys who have moved in over the years and they don’t take too kindly to bulldozers and work crews getting in the way of their lucrative, totally illegal business. So, if the snakes don’t get you the narco traffickers and FARC guerrillas will.

Yaviza Panama end of PanAmerican Highway. Roadless Darien Gap

This bridge in the town of Yaviza goes over the Rio Chicanaque, the longest river in Panama, and marks the end of the Pan-American Highway and the beginning of the Darién Gap created by the road less Darién Jungle.

There are also political reasons why the Darién Jungle remains a vast, road less expanse: it’s Mother Nature’s border and a really excellent buffer zone between Central America and South America.

In the early 2000′s Alvaro Uribe, then President of Colombia, proposed a road through the Darién Jungle to complete the Pan-Am and make trade between nations easier. That idea obviously never got off the ground and we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s never a road through the Darién.

Darien bus terminal, Yaviza, Panama

Someday there will be a bus station at the end of the road in Yaviza, Panama. Someday.

Drive to the end of the road in the Darién

We were in Darién Provence at the end of four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle with Panama Exotic Adventures. Rather than return immediately to Panama City, we decided to drive to the end of the road in the Darién.

Rio Chucanaque, Yaviza Darien Panama

Yaviza at the end (or beginning) of Pan-American Highway in Panama is a port town and villagers bring there produce, including these plantains, to town so the goods can be distributed to other parts of the country.

The road continues until you reach a town called Yaviza, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. It’s not the predictably lousy quality of the road that makes this little drive hard, it’s the hoops you have to jump through to get there.

Bringing produce to Yaviza on the Rio Chucanaque, Panama

Space is money so plantains are packed into boats like sardines in Yaviza at the beginning of their journey to other parts of Panama.

As we mentioned before, the Darién Jungle has become something of a hot spot for illicit activity. Therefore, Panamanian officials are anxious to keep tabs (as best they can) on who goes into the region. This means that everyone, including day tripping tourists, have to follow the rules and regulations of Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (Senafront), Panama’s border police.

Loading plantains in Yaviza Darien

We’ve never seen produce packed more precisely than these plantains on their way out of Yaviza.

Senafront officers control access to the Darién region with multiple checkpoints along the Pan-American Highway. At these stops, everyone’s documents are checked and rechecked. At any point a traveler may be turned back.

Luckily, we weren’t turned back though we did have to sweet talk our way past some officials especially when we wanted to park the truck and walk around Yaviza on foot. For some reason officials were worried that we were going to abandon our truck and wander off into the Darién.

Fried fish lunch & Balboa beer in Yaviza Darien, Panama

Lunch of champions (and everyone else) in Yaviza, Panama where the road less Darién Jungle brings the mighty Pan-American Highway to a screeching halt.

Not that there was much to see in Yaviza where reportedly less than 2,000 people live, but, hey it’s the end of the road.

Yaviza Darien Panama

There’s only one way to go from Yaviza, Panama.

A new way to stay in the Darién

It’s not exactly a hotel boom, but it is worth noting that in 2014 the folks behind Canopy Tower and two other hotels in Panama opened Canopy Camp in the Darién Jungle offering luxury safari tents from South Africa and some of the best bird watching in the country.

Canopy Camp, Darien Panama

In 2014 Canopy Camp opened in the Darién Jungle offering travelers luxury platform tents and plenty of rainforest immersion.

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Border Crossing 101: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Paso Canoas, Costa Rica to Paso Canoas, Panama smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

To: Paso Canoas, Panama

Welcome to Panama Paso canoas Border crossing

Lay of the land: Exiting Costa Rica was a swift process that took less than 15 minutes and involved no exit fees. On the Panama side our first step was to buy insurance which is mandatory for anyone driving in Panama. Then we got our Panamanian visa which was given without forms or fees. Then we went upstairs and had our insurance papers stamped before returning downstairs to a glass-fronted booth marked “Tursimo” where we handed in our paperwork and were told to wait for 20 minutes. Nearly an hour later we got our completed paperwork back.

Elapsed time: 2 hours

Fees: US$15 for 30 days of mandatory driving insurance.

Number of days they gave us: Humans get 90-180 days. We were given 180 days at this border. Vehicles, on the other hand, get 30 days which can be extended in-country up to two times for a total of 90 days. You can extend your vehicle importation permit in Panama City or in Divisa, a tiny town at a crossroads on the Pan American Highway about midway between David and Panama City. We extended in both locations and highly recommend doing it at the Divisa office if you can. Staff at the Panama City office did not know what they were doing and made mistakes that then had to be fixed by the very, very knowledgeable and helpful staff in Divisa. Even they seemed annoyed by the ineptitude of the PC staff.

Beware of accidents sign Panama

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance before driving in Panama and it costs US$15 for 30 days. They sell insurance in one month blocks with no discount for purchasing multiple months at the same time.

Where to fill up: Diesel was cheaper in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed so we waited to fill up on the Panama side of the border where diesel was US$3.81 a gallon.

Need to know: Though there is a tourism information office at this border it was locked when we were there. A lot of the agents at this border spoke English. It’s good advice for any border crossing, but be sure to check the facts on your vehicle importation permit at this border. We didn’t realize until much later that the authorities at this border had mistakenly listed Eric’s nationality as Costa Rican and this error had to be fixed later. **If you will be shipping your vehicle onward from Panama to Colombia your paperwork has to be perfect and this border is known for making careless mistakes that if not noticed at the time have to be corrected later. Panama is always one hour ahead of Costa Rica so you’ll need to change your watch.

This next border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: We were not aware until we arrived at the border that Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (usually not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days.

Luckily, Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit which puts it on hold until you return to the country at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork when we left the country since we knew we’d be returning.

Panamerican Highway Panama

Duty free finds: We crossed near Christmas so the duty free shops were scenes of shopping chaos. We avoided them. If you do find bargains, remember that you’re allowed to bring US$200 worth of alcohol per person into Panama with you. However, alcohol is very cheap throughout Panama compared to prices in neighboring countries because taxes are lower (though there are nasty rumors that the Panamanian government may be increasing them soon).

When we were in Panama the country had the cheapest alcohol prices we’ve seen in any Latin American country from Mexico south and you could find things in Panama that were unavailable in other Latin American countries including our sorely missed bourbon (both Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark) at well-stocked and well-priced stores like Filipe Motta.

Overall border rating: Easy and relatively snappy, even during the busy holiday period.

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