Panamá has a higher per capita income than Costa Rica, but a trip halfway across it suggests to me that what wealth there may be is distributed a fair amount less. Panama City is incredibly Americanized (which sure does make sense), but in a way retains a certain charming tropical uniqueness that San José, equally Americanized, entirely lacked. The presence of half the world`s goods passing trough, along with a thriving off-shore banking idustry mean lots of consumerism and the money to support it. But, with plenty of things to see (including of course the canal itself), relatively safe streets, and relatively few tourists, I have found it to be a very friendly town to spend a few days in.
And I have a had to spend a few days in search of passage to Cartagena, Colombia. I originally didn`t want to fly at all, but I was really close to giving up. Until even this morning I was really thinking I would fly. There`s no regular boat service, and to get to Colombia from Panama without flying you just about three options: chartering a boat, paying your way on cargo ships, or walking across the Darién gap.
That gap would be the break in between North America`s and South America`s road networks. It`s also a narrow stip of hot swampy completely undeveloped jungle full of Colombian guerillas, paramilitaries following them, old-fashioned bandits, and drug smugglers. Panama is happy not to have the Panamerican highway go through; they don`t want Colombia`s wars, drugs, and diseases (foot and mouth disease, specifically).
If I wanted to go on cargo ships, I would have to hope all of the following: that they didn`t take two weeks stoppìng at every island, weren`t smuggling drugs up and guns down, and didn`t slit my thoat and toss me to the sharks halfway out in the open ocean.
Last of all, chartering a boat means finding one. That was what I wanted to do, but was so far terribly unable. All my leads were not working out. I was starting to see why so many people who say they want to take a boat just end up flying. Yesterday I headed out to the Caribbean and asked around in person. Everyone told me that my best luck would be island hopping on whatever I find. Discouraged, I returned to Panama City, ready to pop into the Avianca office across the street from my hostel as soon as it opened today and buying a seat on the 6pm flight. Taking a boat was going to be too dangerous, take too long, and cost as much as flying. Why should I be so stupid just because of a silly idea of not flying at all. Anyway, it wouldn`t be entirely illegite because I would be flying North, and the original original goal was to get as far South as possible without flying.
In the end, as with everything in life, the best way to make something happen is to stop waiting for it. David, another person at this hostel interested in making the trip by boat, said that as soon as I left the guy with the sailboat and an ad here finally did call back. So, he and I along with our Brazillian captain are heading out tomorrow morning, to arrive in Cartagena days of sailing and one day of islanding later. The owners of the hostel say they know him and that he`s been doing this for a while, so I feel safe with it. While it does mean I will have some 3 days less in Venezuela and Colombia, for the same price as the air ticket I have food and lodging for those lost days, and a very interesting trip. Best of all, my “peregrinatory integrity” (to use my mommy`s term for it) is still intact.