Pura Vida

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Costa Rica  ,
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Wow!! We nearly fell off our chairs during a routine visit to an internet café last week. We were casually scanning our newly arrived e-mails, and noticed a short one from Carmella (aka whereshegoes), the Community Manager at TravelPod. "Congratulations!"...congratulations for what, we wondered? "Did you get a chance to check out the December Newsletter?" she asked. Quickly clicking on the link we soon discovered that we were the recipients of the TravelPod 2006 Member of the Year Award! Well, what a surprise - especially considering the number of writers there are on TravelPod. We're not quite sure what we've done to deserve the award - or, in fact, who decided that it should go to us - but we're extremely honoured! Thank you.

Back in the real world we were just off to the FedEx office in Panama City to pick up the new fuel injector that Frank had sent down from Almonte. We had already checked around for a good workshop to do the installation, but had come up empty-handed, so decided to do it ourselves. The other injectors have been cleaned and checked so many times that we've become fed up with paying garage bills and ending up with no improvement in DC3's performance. A couple of hours later with the new injector and a fresh set of plugs installed we were back on the road and running pretty smoothly. What a nice feeling!

Before heading out of town and finding somewhere a little more peaceful up the coast, we decided that a trip over to the Panama Canal was in order. After all, this is one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century, and has played a major role as an international shipping trade route and also figured very prominently in the political and economic history of Panama. Although the idea was originally proposed back in the 16th century it did not become a reality until 1914 - after a failed attempt by Ferdinand de Lesseps (builder of the Suez Canal), and the later successful effort by the US with the help of some 75,000 workers, mainly from the West Indies. The 80 km dig was not an easy undertaking, and the early failure saw over 20,000 workers die of yellow fever and malaria. Disease continued to plague the US effort, and many construction and soil stability problems had to be overcome before the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were finally linked.

The canal operated under US control for many decades, leading to considerable friction with successive Panamanian governments, and eventually protracted negotiations led to a series of treaties that resulted in Panama finally assuming complete ownership and control on December 31st, 1999. The US has retained the right to limited military interventions to keep the canal open (US shipping accounts for over two-thirds of the canal's use, and over 10% of total US trade), but theoretically the canal is neutral territory and will remain open to all nations during both peace and war.

It was quite an experience to watch the huge container ships being shepherded through the double locks at Miraflores. Ships are apparently constructed with the dimension of the canal in mind - 305 m long and 33.5 m wide - and close to 20,000 transits are made through the canal each year. It generally takes about 24 hours to complete the passage, and charges are calculated according to weight. The highest fee paid to date was $200,000 for a 300 m container ship; yachts pay a special fee of about $500; and the lowest fee was $0.36 paid by Richard Halliburton who swam through in 1928! There are extensive displays and videos at the Visitors Centre which document the history of the canal, and also explain the current undertaking to double capacity by 2014 by constructing a third set of locks at a cost of over $5 billion.

With our minds reeling from all the facts and figures, we finally decided we'd satisfied our curiosity and it was time to go back into town, find our way across the Bridge of the Americas and continue
westward on the Panamerican Highway. It wasn't long before we had our first run in with the police. Our stack of immigration and customs documents, driver's licence, vehicle ownership and insurance were all inspected in minute detail. Everything apparently in order, we were reluctantly waved on our way. Ten minutes later it was the turn of a special customs contingent. Our third encounter with the authorities was a little more ominous. A motorcycle cop on the other side of the divided highway noticed our foreign plate and whistled us down. He said he had just been contacted by his buddy down the road, and insisted that we had been weaving all over the highway and had refused to stop when ordered. Law abiding citizens that we are, we denied any knowledge of this infraction, and hadn't we stopped immediately for him? He hummed and haa-ed and checked all our papers, and hinted that we really ought to pay the penalty on the spot. Well, maybe half would be just fine - it being such a busy time of year! Eventually we wasted enough of his time with our protestations of innocence and he let us go with dire warnings of the consequences of any future transgressions. Happy New Year to you too, officer!

We decided it would be prudent to keep off the roads for the next couple of days whilst "tips" were being collected, and headed up the slopes of Volcán Barú looking for some cooler mountain air. We had hoped to stay at a highly recommended coffee farm in the small town of Boquete, but discovered on arrival that they had discontinued camping six years ago (one of the disadvantages of using a 2001 edition of the Lonely Planet!). Asking around town we were eventually directed to Pension Topas and set up camp in their gardens - in the midst of a howling gale. Returning from a good day's hike the next afternoon we were pleased to see that another overlander truck had arrived - Colin and Liz from UK, who had been travelling for two years. We joined forces for an excellent New Year's dinner at a local Peruvian restaurant, and stayed up swopping travel yarns until the fireworks at midnight.

On New Year's Day we set out with some trepidation for the Costa Rica border crossing. What if
a few trumped up charges from disgruntled policemen or port security had found their way on to the Customs Office computer?! Our vivid imaginations conjured up all kinds of scary scenarios, so it was a bit of an anti-climax when we sailed through with no problems at all - just the usual tedious waiting in line and interminable photocopies and rubber stamps. After a wonderfully relaxing overnight stop with our friends Robert and Colette who used to run the Market Square Bistro in Almonte - now well established in their winter home amid lush tropical gardens overlooking the Pacific ocean near Hatillo - we continued our journey northward.

Remember, our rendevous with Sharon's sister Bonnie, her husband Bob, and friends Sheri and Lance was long overdue. The Fearless Foursome had been on a two-week holiday in Costa Rica, and the original plan had been to meet up with them for Christmas, or maybe New Year's. Delays in shipping the van across the Darien Gap had put paid to those plans, but we were determined to join them for at least the final day or two of their trip. A day's drive up the coast, over the ferry from Puntarenas to Paquera, and then a mad dash across the Nicoya Peninsula had us arriving after dark in Montezuma. We tracked down their hotel and had visions of relaxing with them on the beach for the next couple of days. It was not to be.....we quickly discovered there had been some confusion about their itinerary, and they were leaving early the next morning for Manuel Antonio National Park - just about where we had come from that morning! Never mind, we spent the next few hours catching up on all the latest family news, and enjoying Christmas cookies that Mom had sent down.

We might have considered joining them on their final jaunt, but were concerned about some familiar grinding noises that had started at the rear of the van on the previous day's trip. Yes, you've guessed it - the water pump bearing that was fixed for us in Bogotá was already starting to crack up again (it managed a grand total of 3,000 km). Our priorities had suddenly changed, and we were once again searching for that elusive half-decent workshop and mechanic!
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lucky on

Congratulations! You deserve the award.

Sincerly, Lucky

whereshegoes on

Keep it up!
We are behind you all the way :)

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