Panama has always excited my curiosity. It is a former Spanish colony that was liberated into an America colony, then granted its independence. The country boasts the closest distance between the Atlantic and Pacific (50 miles), more species of birds than all of North America, two distinct climates on each coast, a currency called the balboa, which has a picture of George Washington on the $1 balboa note and looks, feels, and spends exactly like a US Dollar because it is one. Oh, and the weather is heavenly.
When I originally booked the trip I decided to recycle the concept my roommate and I used on our trip to the South American continent last January. Fly into one city and out of another. Last year we flew into Buenos Aires, Argentina and out of Lima, Peru. Part of the trip's success depended upon this planning; "We don't need to be anywhere for a month, but we have to get to Lima. That's all we have to do." I booked a flight to Panama and out of Venezuela and said to myself, "I'll take care of the little details later."
The little details have become quite enormous challenges. Apparently, Colombia and Panama are separated by a jungle so dense that no roads pass through it. The Pan-American Highway, which in theory runs from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Rio Gallegos, Argentina (I've done both ends) actually ceases in Panama's Darien Gap. From there, you put your car on a cargo vessel and start again 90 miles into Colombia. The area is so difficult to traverse that the US government and every travel guide I've read suggests, "Don't even try it." Its run by Colombian drug traffickers and rebels. This is from the Lonely Planet Guide to Panama:
"The US State Department warns travelers not to cross an invisible like that extends from Punta Carreto to Yaviza and south to Punta Pina. The area from Nazaret to Punusa is like a low intensity war zone. The paramilitaries and rebels move in big groups armed with rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and machine guns. Panamanian border police buzz the sky in helicopter gunships and tote AK-47s. Travel to the towns of Pinogasa, Yape, Boca de Cupe and Paya is foolhardy at best."
The Darien Gap is considered by some to be the rainforest least affected by human contact. The Spanish lost thousands of men trying to get through it, and it has changed very little since western explorations in the 1500s. There are still no precise satellite images of the area. What does this mean? It means I gotta get on one of these cargo vessels.
So that can be arranged in Panama City, or Colon on the northern coast. This 4-day boat ride puts me in Cartagena, Colombia, where it is very easy to catch an 8-hour bus ride to Maracaibo, Venezeula. Flying from Panama to Colombia is certainly cheap, but problems arise when you end up in Bogota, and all the available bus routes to Venezeula are a tad dangerous.
Further complicating matters is the visa required for entering Venezuela by land. If you fly into Venezuela they could give a shit how long you stay or why you came. "You came on a plane! Oh my! Please rich man, stay with your iron bird a while!" Arriving by land or sea is totally different. You need to get a visa before you leave, and you need about 6 pieces of information that prove you exist. Employment letter, bank letter, birth certificate, passport, photographs, driver's license, immunization records etc... The Venezuelan Embassy is on 51st and Madison. I think I can get a visa on Tuesday but if they give me one of these, "Oh no, this won't be ready for six weeks," I'm screwed.
Plan C is just to pay for a $400 one-way flight to Caracas from Panama City. But since I feel like I got a JFK-Panama / Caracas-JFK flight for $600, and could have gone to India for a grand, AND I'd be missing a considerably more exciting traveling itinerary, I'm hesitant to do it. Part of me just wants to show up without the visa and say, "Oops, I forgot." But I don't know how to say "Oops" or "I don't want to go to jail" in Spanish.
But... as I've done more research, I realized Venezuela is not just a place to get to but a vacation in and of itself. A 6-day hike up a table-top mountain in southwestern Venezuela (on the Guyana/Brazil border) costs $300 all inclusive. You spend two days on top of a mountain where 70% of the plant and animal life exists only on this mountain. An isolated eco-system. Venezuela has rainforests, deserts, white and pink sand beaches, archipelagos, the Andes Mountains, the continent's largest lake, and 15 cents/gallon gasoline. So a flight might be worth the extra time in Venezuela.
In any case, this trip should prove to be completely unpredictable. I won't go on and on about things I hope to do because my itinerary at this point is shaky Sanskrit scrawled on a cough. What I do know is, thanks to Long Island University Hospital, I won't be getting Yellow Fever anytime in the next ten years. Uncle Sam and I say, "Screw you mosquitos."
Enjoy your New Years festivities. If you need anything please email.