Backpacking Panama City ,
Racing Through Central America
Eight Months On the Road
By David Rice  

Welcome Aboard

On a backpacking trip it is not so much the looks of a hostel as where the hostel is located that gets my eye when I am racing through a country. I found just such a place in San Jose, Costa Rica, a hostel just across from the bus station where I could get an early shot to Panama City.
Once in Panama City I put into the Prima Vera Hostel and started a search for boat passage. I would take any area of South America but expected to head for Cartegena. Roads south of Panama through the Darien Gap are rough and according to some reports dangerous and impassible in the rainy season.

Panama City

I checked other hostel bulletin boards and finally found a note from a German guy who knew a Frenchman who owned a sailboat and, out of desperation after running out of money on a world cruise, was taking paying passenger to Cartegena.

I emailed and waited, enjoying Panama city in the interim.  Such a lively place, the life seethes on Avenue Espana where you can find anything: hostels, gambling casinos, girls, music, street food, and a lot else going on. You also find the cheapest taxis anywhere: $2.00 for any trip, even a 45-minute ride to the airport.

In the morning, I caught a bus to the locks on the Panama Canal to watch the ships go through. The normal sized boats go through and in the morning and the supertankers go through in the afternoon. It is great watching the boats go through and imagining where they have been and where they are going. Who is aboard; where do they live; what do they believe; are they happy.

Welcome Aboard

The French sailboat captain responded after a day with departure date and a, “Welcome aboard, meet at the docks near Colon in three days with all you luggage and we will leave.”  
When I arrived at the port near a Spanish stone fortress, I could see the boat anchored in the bay at Portobelo. He came in on an inflatable, I put my backpack aboard, and we headed out to his sailboat.  With hardly a flourish we were underway, headed for Colombia via the Archipelago de San Blas.

Pirates still roam the Caribbean and not the movie kind. These boats all have weapons aboard and although the French captain never showed his, I knew that the former kitchen equipment salesman from Paris was armed because one cabinet on the boat always remained locked.

I stowed my backpack below decks and relaxed. At first the trip was idyllic and I looked forward to an enjoyable five-day  cruise, that is for the first two hours.
I have been on the water before but I am no sailor and had no idea when we set sail on the glassy waters of Colon Bay that, before long, the ocean would turn our deck into such a frenzy of pitching and heaving that I would wish to die. Once we hit rough water, I spent the rest of the day and all of that night hanging over the side puking. When there was nothing left to throw up, I upchucked phlegm until I nearly dried up. The deck rolled to the side and I swear the mast nearly smacked the wave tops. Then the front of the boat would suddenly pitch up and I would hang on to the stainless steel rail with a death grip and just as quickly, the boat would pitch down violently and come crashing into a wave with a shudder.    
By dawn there was little left of me and I prayed for a merciful death. As the sun rose, however, we came miraculously into the lee of an island and knifed through glass calm water where the captain dropped anchor in a sheltered cove. I jumped into the jade lagoon with my clothes on to clean up and within a few minutes, I felt well enough to think about breakfast.

That turned out to be a good omen and a fortuitous spiff-up for me because later in the day we would be invited to dine with a Queen.  
Panama City
Backpacking South America,
Eight Months On the Road
By David Rice  
Backpacking Panama City
Page Five
David Rice Photo
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