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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Crossing the Darien Gap by Air

Flying out of Cali

We have made it to the Hospedaje Casco Viejo in old Panama City, but what a tortuous journey. Here we will try to decide what do do next on a swathe from flying to SF to recuperate and heading for the hill resort of Boquette near the Costa Rican border to do the same thing for a day or two.

Scenes from the Cauca Valley in the way from Popayan to Cali

It started out at about 9.30 with a taxi to the Popayan bus station. We immediately got touted onto one of those rough ride buses that go from city to city driving at high speed but stopping for every person that waves them down.

Along the way there are men and women in very unusual native costume - the Guambianos peoples - who like many other ethnic groups have a long history of being evicted from their fertile lands in the Cauca Valley and gradually pushed up into the mountains but retain their own language and maintain their own cultural identity.

We saw only men but the women's dress style is very similar to the men.

Part way along the route the bus stopped and lots of people brought up different kinds of foods to sell. The guy in the photo below posed comically waving and then we decided to buy some of his bread rings. But we had only 10,000 pesos so after debating the wisdom of handing $5 out the window he assured us he would give us correct change, then meticulously counted out 9 1000s only when we counted it out ourselves there were only 8. 50c down the drain, but the cheese bread was clean and tasty.

We arrived in Cali three hours later traversing up the eastern fringe of the city to the huge somewhat soulless, although quite safe, bus terminal in the north of the city and took the elevator up to the first floor where a tangled posse of diesel fuming airport collectives were touting to absolutely fill themselves to the gunnels before heading off to the airport for the grand sum of $2.

Scenes on the way into Cali

I pleaded with them that the steps were too high into the bus so they offered me the front seat, which meant climbing up a dickey step with my good foot like getting into an articulated truck. Walking with a day pack full of camera gear and the laptop is also a bit of a strain on crutches, but my leg fees okay tonight with no painkillers and no pain when I gently stand on both feet.

When we arrived, the airport building was like standing in the runway behind a revving plane. There was no air conditioning and no windows, so the echoing noise of all the people combined with the planes roaring take off made the whole thing a cachophony. After a lot of searching we found a cambio booth to cash up our last 57,000 pesos into $30 US and then went to check in.

When we did this they then said they couldn't fly us because we didn't have an onward ticket out of Panama. I pointed out that we had a round the world ticket with an open jaw between Quito and Mexico City and that we were planning to travel overland but they refused unless we bought an onward ticket. Then when we agreed they said they couldn't use international credit cards and neither could they accept $US in Colombia, so I had to go into the airline offices and buy another (refundable) ticket on the internet for $780 from Panama to Costa Rica to get on the flight to Panama. And although they promised a written guarantee in writing at the departure gate that we could get a refund the letter never turned up.

The departure security was the stiffest we have ever seen. First they x-rayed everything, even my crutches then through the metal detectors which all went off because I had to get my crutches back to walk through them so they never even noticed my metal hip, then they opened all our bags at a separate inspection taking everything out and peering at it item by item.

When we arrived in Panama, the immigration didn't give a damn about asking for an onward ticket, so the whole thing was a load of bullshit, (or more a scam where the Panamanian government fines the airlines of they let anyone on, so they don't NEED to check!) When they then said at the Panama end that we would incur a $50 US penalty for canceling when the staff at Cali had said we would get a full refund I hit the roof. So they have put an entry on my booking that I have been raving at them about being ripped off and we'll see tomorrow how much of the $780 US I can re-extract from them. Just another hideous story of crossing the notorious Darien Gap.

Passing Cali

Neither did the Panamanians make any attempt to say we should have a yellow fever vaccination even though the airline quizzed us about it and we told them we had a medical waiver (and we haven't been anywhere near yellow fever because of the broken hip).

We then dissolved the $30 I had cashed up on a $28 taxi ride from the airport 47 kms out of town and are holed up in the most pseudo-traditional of old world hospedaje's in the most quaint old world sector of Panama City (whose central district looks like Miami fell off the bottom of the United States) - but Casco Viejo has a reputation as another neighbourhood where they might try to mug you for your camera and 'don't go out at night'.

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