Category Archives: Panama

Northward-Bound Borders Collection: Panama to Costa Rica

Since we have been frustrated by the lack of information available for Overlanders traveling North, we decided to put together the Northward-Bound Borders Collection. The border information we have been relying on is for those going south, meaning we are trying to piece together information from various sources on the procedures going against the grain. It’s a lot of note taking, a lot of investigation, and really annoying. We appreciate all the monumental efforts of those before us (Overlandwiki, 30forthirty, Drive the Americas) but it doesn’t always apply to us.

So Northbound travelers – here you go – please enjoy our step-by-step process for overlanding borders the opposite direction.


Borders Collection: Panama to Costa Rica

When: June 5th, 2016

Where: Paso Canoas

Time Frame: 3 hours (mid afternoon)

Process:

**Warning** since we had so many problems on the Panama side, we can only advise on the process starting afresh on the Costa Rican side. We cannot offer any real advise for the Panama portion.

  • Drive through the Panama immigration/customs building once processed. Cross the main street immediately outside the border building and you will see a Costa Rican Border Office to your right about 200 meters down the road.
  • Request a Customs Declaration Form at an immigration booth. Immigration is located on the Northern side of the building. Complete the form and hand it in at immigration for a passport stamp.
  • Proceed to customs, located on the southern side of the building (other side from immigration). You will need to go inside and fill out the appropriate temporary vehicle import form.
    • Documents Needed (no copies required):
      • Passport
      • License
      • Vehicle Registration
    • A Customs Officer will come outside with you and inspect your vehicle. They did not check anything besides our license plate, and opened the back door but did not need us to open the back drawers.
    • Insurance is located back beside immigration on the Northern side. 90 days of coverage cost $37USD. It does not get refunded if you leave before hand.
    • No exit fees for Panama.
    • No entry fees for Costa Rica.

Pets: Customs noticed out cat, but completely ignored her. No documents needed. We did not declare her.


Additional Notes:

  • Panama side of the border is much more chaotic. Quite a few helpers who are very pushy. They can be helpful if you need assistance with your paperwork in Panama. They seem to work in cahoots with the border officials who often call them over for translation. Negotiate price ahead of time.
  • Although overwhelming at first, the general lay out of the border is in a straight line. When being processed in Panama, enter the building with your vehicle but do not drive entirely through as you’d technically be crossing into Costa Rica. Park somewhere along the offices. Someone will direct you if you are in the way.
  • Police checkpoint located within 20 km of the border. They needed to see our passports and our registration, and our vehicle import form.
  • Fill up on fuel before leaving Panama. Costa Rica is Fucking Pricey.

 

 

 

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Panama Papers & the Final Crossing

If you want to hear the full story  in all its gory details of our border crossing, including 3 attempts over 24 hours on two different coasts… we really encourage you to click to button on the right “Buy us a Beer”.  Its worth it for the story alone and we promise to spend only a small percentage of it on drinking our paperwork nightmare away, the rest will go towards fuel and food.

The export paperwork took 1.5 months longer then expected, and astronomically more then we expected. Did we mention we also bought a new engine? Although we stayed for free (in exchange for work), our beer budget, (although originally studious) is completely blown.  So… feel sorry for us and let us drink away the panama papers!


Normally we are budget conscious. We made a solid plan, and were sticking to it, until the paperwork happened and the engine blew up. We originally estimated 1 month to find a truck, buy a truck and to at least initiate the export process. It took nearly 2.5 months all said and done.

According to all the available information, export paperwork requires many many approvals to legally export the country: Registro Unico – Vehicle registration, DIJ – Security clearance confirming it wasn’t stolen; Certificacion corta (municipio):Paz y Salvo – Confirmation there are not tickets or liens against the vehicle; Muncipal approval – from the municipality of registration; Adunas – customs clearance, etc etc etc.

Its a complicated mess of bureaucracy that is difficult for even the Panamanian to navigate. As non-super-spanish speakers in a foreign land it was nearly impossible. So we took everyone’s advise and hired someone. Prices originally went to over $1500 for a lawyer whom we obviously rejected. We found someone online to assist us through craigslist at a much better price. This was good.

The rollercoaster of emotional ups and many downs (bottomless at times), we faced could have broken us. But in the end it made us stronger individually, as a couple, and mentally.

Although, honestly, we encountered real bad news at least ever 4 days over the course of 45 days… thats a lot of negatively to really go through. So we’ve summarized the best of the worst of the problems for you here:

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1 – Engine replacement and 1st set of export paperwork happening at the same time. On the last day of paperwork, when taking the truck to the security clearance, our paperwork fixer found out we had replaced the engine… instantly negating ALL THE PAPERWORK TO DATE. Our Engine serial number had changed, thus canceling all our paperwork which indicated the old number. This was 2 weeks in, and one full set of document/labour costs in.

2 – There was a miscommunication about the price of the new engine. Our mechanics gave us a new engine labour free in record time, but we still did not expect that cost and due to a language barrier mis-interpreted the price by $500USD.

3 – A new engine has to be registered (yes more paperwork) in various places, including the municipality.  After spending $20 to fill out a special form between us and the engine seller (a bill of sale essentially), and registering it officially, we found out the seller/importer hadn’t registered it in the first place. Meaning we couldn’t re-register it…. this lead to complications and about a weeks delay.

4 – There were continuous delays in the second set of export paperwork, because we could not just register a new number or correct the old paperwork. We had to start a fresh once our engine SIN was confirmed.  Every few days a government office, official, courier, etc would basically not efficiently do their job and forget to process our paperwork. Our deadlines kept being blown. Typically it should take approximately 7-10 business days. This second set took 3 weeks.

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5 – The border denied our first 2 attempts to cross with all our official paperwork. Again, “Buy Us a Beer” we’ll go into that much more deeply… but for now it was some of the lowest points of our life. After 1.5 months of additional problems in Panama, we were pretty much planning to either move permanently to Panama or burn our vehicle and collect the insurance. It was like we were held hostage in foreign lands, being trapped by a truck and by paperwork. How do you leave a country in these circumstances?

With all this in mind, here are some rules:

1 – Do not pay for anything up front. We recommend a lawyer, a one time fee to someone who has done it before and recommended by someone you trust.

2 – Have patience. UNLIMITED PATIENCE.

3 – Understand that Panama wants to make it essentially impossible to export. As a Panamanian with a vehicle, you actually need to go through this entire process (except the export tax) to drive your vehicle to Costa Rica for the weekend on holiday. To export, you need to do exactly the same paperwork plus export approval (confirming you pay taxes). As a non-resident your only option is final export. You cannot leave the country with a Panama vehicle legally without final export paperwork. You must export.

4 – The vehicle selection in Panama requires patience, a good understanding of mechanics, and a keen eye. There are awesome vehicles driving everywhere, but never judge a book by its cover in Panama. Because the covers are real nice, but the insides are garbage.


Moral of the story is we learned our lesson. We won’t ever buy a truck again in Panama. We promise! We are extremely thankful however that our time in Panama was extended, if only for the fact that we got to experience so many parts of the country that we would have ignored if the paperwork had gone smoothly. Panama is wildly beautiful. The pound-per-pound impact the country has in terms of beaches, jungle, mountains, animals, people really beats a lot of more popular tourist destinations.

Although we may now never be allowed back, we are so grateful for our experiences in this lush and vivid place.

 

Started from the bottom…

May 23-May 27
Panama City (again)

May 27-May 30
Darian Province

How do you start a drive up the Pan-American highway? Obviously from the very beginning, or at least the beginning this side of the gap.

Yet again, on Friday May 27th, our paperwork was delayed. Surprise! Bet nobody expected that. We had waited all week wasting away in the heat and boredom of Panama City to be informed that bureaucracy moves at a snails pace in Panama. So Monday it would be.

Here is our Panama City crew, Sam, Chris, myself, Brett and a Venezuelan chica from the hostel.

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If we had this extra time, why not do something most tourists never do? Why not really start our adventure at the very bottom of the highway. Travel to where the longest highway on earth literally ends for a section of impenetrable jungle. Approximately 60-100km of dense jungle separates the north and south portions of the Pan American highway, and we decided to start from mile 0 on the Northern section in a town called Yaviza.

Supposedly less then 300 kms from Panama city, we thought easy, lets do it in a day and drive back the next. But the highway was slightly problematic.

It immediately became clear from the lack of information online, or in any guidebook that nobody really drove this way. To properly travel into Darien province you need permission from SENAFRONT (Panama’s equivalent of the national guard), and we obviously didn’t have that (again that would take forever bureaucracy wise). After being failed yet again by Lonely Planet Panama (which we swear was written by an older bird-watching lady) we decided to start driving to see if/when we were turned around by the numerous police check points.

Turns out, after 4 check points, we can go the entire way. Look at us babes.

After reaching check point 3, we decided to spend the night. It was getting dark and rainy, so lets find a place to crash before we get into the really jungly territory. We read in the continuously terrible guide book that at some point called “Ipeti Embera”, an indigenous village ,you could camp. We found the village through no help from the book.

Mostly the village consisted of small huts, and homes, dogs and pigs. We drove to a small tienda and asked about camping options. I was told to ask la Presidente of the village for approval. So I did. She was delightful, and had a crew of other women clean out their communal hut for us to hammock in over night. We agreed to a price, and to a meal. Also we were asked if we wanted to look at any handy crafts, sure!

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When the handy craft ladies showed up, it was literally every women in the village. We spent equal time at each blanket examining beautiful jewelry, baskets, and weaving but only had enough for a limited selection. We hope they were not all offended it was slightly intimidating to have an entire village show up to sell you something.

Dinner turned out to be absolutely delicious.

Next day, the road turned into ruins. Like 200km of construction on a dirt road in the jungle kind of ruins. It was sort of like building your own adventure through the pot holes, and unmanned construction obstacles. Exhilarating, this seemed really wild.

The scenery was some of the most beautiful we had seen throughout panama, mostly because the Darien province consists of Comarcas or tribal run lands which basically means the government ignores it completely (except when they want oil or resources obviously).

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Eventually, we rolled into Yaviza. The wild border town at the edge of the gap. The town was actually pretty exciting for a Sunday morning, but we could see how it might be seedy at any other time of week. And yes, the road does literally end into a foot bridge across the river. We tentatively took pictures on the bridge, not entirely sure where the permission part of the Darien started.

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On the way back we stayed a night at a developing Ecolodge we had heard about through friends, located in another Comarca (San Blas Hills). Pachamamma is going to be one spectacular hostel. Right now in a stage of construction, its wildly beautiful.

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Finally, on our route back on Monday, May 30th for paperwork, we encountered a horrifying sight. A garbage pile on the side of the highway, a dog freaking out, and a kitten as the target. We drove for another 5 minutes contemplating the scenario…. until Brett realized I was slowly dying. So we turned around and saved her. She was cowering in a garbage dump, literally by the curb, 3 feet from moving traffic on the highway.

We didn’t want a kitten, really. But she chose us. And we saved her life 100%, someone had thrown her away in the trash.

This her her before photo:

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This is her after glamour shot about 2 weeks later:IMG_20160607_122601

 

 

Venao’d Out

Venao Cove
Ending May 23rd

We definitely lost count of days and forgot many of our sorrows while staying at Venao. It sort of has that effect on people. All the guests, owners and volunteers were one big happy family by the time we left. We played together, worked together and partying together.  So before we wrap up this entry to move on to what we did after Venao, there were some really exceptional moments that we want to show you.

The entire time we were at Venao, we were watching the developments next door at Panama’s next big thing: a restaurant called Panga. We did not expect to be on the beach long enough to see it open, but we were. But that wasn’t such a bad thing based on the amount of amazing food we consumed that night. Their motto is to try to focus on all local food, within 20km and handmake whatever is missing. Our motto is to just keep eating the delicious food until we cant eat anymore.

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DSC01892One of our great new friends, Jen, helped give the opening a bit of atmosphere.  She is a traveling surfing babe who happens to sing like an angel.

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Speaking of surfer babes, I have been bequeathed by the babest of babes her surf board. As she was headed back to England, I received a pretty sweet deal on the board, fins, leash and bag. We now have 2 boards, and are ready for whatever breaks this adventure has to throw at us. Just hopefully they are gentle, and maybe not over too many rocks.

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Brett really upped his lighting game while here. His sign now features prominently in front of the hostel, and his lamp now hangs over the smokers hut (as we all know he has always wanted to make it more pleasant for people to smoke). In return for the lighted surfboard, he also received a legit surf board in return.

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Finally, one of our last days a swell came in and ruined the waves. Not only was it choppy and messy to surf, there were frequent shark sightings. Don’t worry moms, these were just baby sharks that would only take a bite out of your thigh, likely nothing serious). So we decided it was best to head back into shore and not try to swim with them. They had other plans though, and somebody noticed that down the beach one shark had washed ashore. We ran like kids as fast as we could down the beach, and then stood in a circle wondering what to do. Thank god we had Marian with us, a bad-ass Venezuelan chica who didn’t wait for nobody and grabbed the beast by the tail and flung it back through the waters where it came from! (photos not by us!) Powerful!

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On Sunday, May 23rd, we packed up everything we love including Sam and Chris, and headed back into Panama. Our expectation was to check in on the paperwork progress (it was supposed to be finished the following Friday) and then head down to the bottom of the Pan-American highway while we waited. We made a pit stop along the way back to the city, and discovered a hidden gem of a free camping spot. We cannot tell you where it is though, we have been sworn to secrecy.

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The waves were absurdly fun. A very strange break, that gently rocked you but then threw you to shore. All four of us paddled around for hours.

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Panama Essentials

Wifi – 3/5

The wifi in Panama is less prevalent than in Colombia. It doesn’t usually exist within bus terminals, parks or other public spaces. If it does, its annoyingly complicated to login or issues the statement “Connected, no internet” which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.  Within the few hostels we have connected, it is easily bogged down by the number or users and is difficult to make calls. Typically the more remote the hostel, the better the connection. Right now we are at Playa Venao, a surfing paradise and the Wifi is great!

Transportation – 4/ 5

Urban transport is efficient within Panama City, there is a new Metro and new modern buses going into place. The old form of chicken buses are going out of style (although still incredibly stylish with 2pac painted on the back, weird 90’s cartoons over the sides, purple bubble windows on the top and only about 6 inches of visible windshield after taking all the insane stickers into account).

The main form of medium distance travel here are collectivos. Easy to figure out by the to & from locations listed on their windshields (“Anton – En Valle”); easy to catch (wave your hands frantically at the side of the road); and cheap. To travel from Panama City to the ecolodge in Coronado only cost $5.50USD and it was 2 collectives over 2-3 hours. Much cheaper than Colombia!

Long distance travel is always a nightbus, which from what we can tell are modern with bathrooms and on time. We have no experience with this nonsense anymore though – we have our own long distance transport now suckers!

Road Conditions – 3.5 / 5

The Pan-American highway is a dream here. Smooth sailing, divided and beautiful.  Not to mention there are only tolls in Panama City which are electronically monitored with stickers. So maybe, if you have an foreign plated vehicle you can just drive past them without issue! Don’t trust us on this one though, we inherited a sticker with our Panamanian truck.

The traffic congestion within Panama is absolutely atrocious though. We assume to be frustrated within every latin american city but Panama City is our first and we dislike it. The city is small, the streets are well paved but the traffic planner must have been drunk. Every street, including the thoroughfares are one way, and without a well-laid grid pattern its not exactly easy to get from one side to the other. Shaped like a banana, its sometimes easier to from one end to the other then through the middle. Also, a quick trip can take literally hours during peak traffic.

Food  – 2 / 5

Pretty boring if we are honest. Fresh fruits are good but variety is limited; standard Pollo Asado (BBQ chicken) is good if a little repetitive; the remaining food is a bit bland for us. For the record if anyone tries to suggest the local version of KFC to you “Pio Pio”, just skip it. The versions served by mom & pop establishments are far superior.

Street food is typically a steamed hotdog, maybe a stale empanada if you are lucky.

One thing we can say is that western food is very prevelant here, thanks to the huge expat population. As long as you have money, you can find any kind of sustenance you want! Want some fancy bread? French Cheeses? Kraft Dinner Mac and cheese? You got it! This is only appealing to us because we have reached the part of our trip where we (specifically Jessica) is going a bit crazy for the tastes of home.

Sorry Panama!

Safety  – 5 / 5

Great! No issues yet (knock on wood). Some neighbourhoods in Panama City are not safe at night, but also not really interesting to see so why even go there? We haven’t heard about anyone getting robbed, or assaulted and certainly have been easily keeping out of trouble ourselves.

Just don’t try to invest money here, seems you might get in trouble or something.

Street Dogs – 3.5 / 5

There seems to be better stray dog control here, as there are fewer within city limits than other countries. The dogs we do see are again very well cared for, and maybe too well fed. Hostels tend to start collecting them and we haven’t stayed anywhere that hasn’t had a few dogs kicking around.

Panama Discoveries and Pablo Test Phase

May 1-6
Mamallena Ecolodge to Santa Catalina

Good news everyone, Brett is back in Panama! We are happily reunited even if it was after a canceled flight and a extremely delayed taxi due to an apparent parade. Within 3 hours of his arrival, we made plans to get the hell outta Panama City (this is a recurring theme on the blog, can you tell?), and this time hopefully with our truck! We have never experienced such an exciting, yet anxiety ridden drive in our lives. Would Pablo make it? Would the engine overheat? Would something else go boom? Its a difficult feeling to describe, trying to keep your hopes down while at the same time they are soaring with each passing mile. But we couldn’t get too excited, just in case the engine fell out or something else awful happened. This time though, Pablo held his shit together and we rolled into Mamallena’s Ecolodge without any exciting events to report (exhale).

The storm clouds have started rolling across this part of the planet, and the landscape has changed from barren farmland to lush tropical paradise. The drive in and around the Ecolodge is absolutely stunning this time of year, and although these pictures were taken a few weeks ago (before the rains), I think I should share some of them so you get the idea. Also a sense of the Ecolodge grounds

Photos on the hike up the little mountain, including areal view of the ecolodge and spectacular mountain shots.

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The volunteer house, a little rough around the edges, but home sweet home.

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Smallest, most adorably annoying puppy being baby sat by us volunteers. The locals seemingly abandoned him for their weekend getaway. Seriously, they didn’t even feed him. But I promise we did.

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We stayed two additional nights at the Ecolodge, and spent a day volunteering for our keep. We unpacked and repacked the truck, tested out some gear including the roof top tent. I packed up my life at the Ecolodge, which seemed much longer then the 22 days I actually stayed there. To be fair, I was starting to get a little stir crazy at the Ecolodge, not to mention a little stir crazy in Panama…If the Ecolodge has taught me anything though its that there is more to Panama then our basic stereotypes and our current perceptions. Without having any real plan of where were were going we struck out North along the Pan-American highway looking for Ocean.

Our destination ended up being Santa Catalina, a sleepy surf town at the end of the road from Santiago & Sona. The village is built around two surf beaches, one of which is breaks on rocks (not for us) and break along sandy Estero Beach. There is one tienda, many hostels and little else here. We drove Pablo through the river (!!!) and over the beach to camp out at Oasis Surf Camp which was absolutely dead (much like the town) as May 1st brings the low season. You can’t deny it wasn’t beautiful, but it was lacking a little atmosphere and excitement departments.

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We tested out more of our set up, figured out what we are missing and what was working well. The bed we built in the inside of the truck is comfy but absolutely SWELTERING. Also not bug proof. Obviously we need some improvements unless we are camping in a windy and cold area. The tent is also only big-bug proof, which doesn’t do anything for the hordes of no-see-ems that thrive in the tidal zone. We also discovered that the whisperlite is malfunctioning, also (foolish us) you need multiple tips to use multiple fules. *Warning, do not try Kerosene*. So we have a little work to do, but we have a few months to work it out. Thankfully communal kitchens are bountiful here.

This is us doing a few important test runs…

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What we have discovered so far about Panama, is that despite a few pockets of expat developments, its really and truly wild. Jungle and desolate beaches and more creatures then either of us have ever really seen in our other travels. It has some added benefits of having a few modern developments like hardware & department stores & Kraft Dinner… but otherwise its completely destroying our expectations in the best way possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muy Malo: Part II

After all that good news, what possibly could go wrong? What possibly could stop us from getting the hell out of Panama City after 20 long, sweaty, days? Well, it turns out, its long story.

We spent 3 sweltering days getting the truck ready, working to build the bed and to process the title paperwork. Let us be the first to say there was a lot of waiting around for the paperwork. All we wanted was to take Pablo for a spin on the weekend and to experience something more then just city in this country. Hell, we hadn’t even been to the canal yet!

In typical Panama fashion, the title and registration were not ready in time for the weekend. Honestly, the amount of trees, no wait, forests, that the bureaucracy in Panama requires to complete anything official…….but we digress. After some quick thinking our friends drew us up an authorization to drive around under their registration over the weekend. By mid afternoon on Saturday we were on route, our first taste of the canal, of the PanAmerican highway and of freedom! We cannot describe the exhilaration!

Pablo was purring down the highway, like a satisfied kitten, then 1 hour outside the city there was instantly a bad sound and we just as instantly overheated and shut down. Only after cooling down and refilling the radiator did we see one of the cooling lines into the turbo had popped. Not an exciting thing to see but after attempting a slow drive back into the city, our tails between our legs, we had to get a tow back. We might add that our two truck driver was literally insane.

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Sunday AM, we get the call, the truck is ready. Once again, we are so excited, Pablo sounds good, looks good, and rides smooth. Lets get the hell out of this city! But Jefe Pablo, he really just wants to go where he wants to fucking go. You can’t make this guy do anything that he doesn’t want to do. He is el Patron after all, we are simply the drivers. We only made is 15 minutes this time before he started heating up and this time it was really no bueno. The mechanics determined that we have a serious issue – the engine had warped during the overheating.

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So, here we are 20 days later. We have a brand new (refurbished) engine, and a deep seemingly endless hole in our budget. A new engine wasn’t exactly in the contingency fund. We are choosing to look at the positive side of things however. What if the engine had blown in Honduras? What if Procars wasn’t a phone call away? What if the motor blew when Brett returned back to Panama and not immediately before? There are a lot of good luck snippets in our bad luck story.

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Brett flew back to Canada for 20 days, I was also working on export paperwork which would take two weeks, so this was the most opportune moment for this most unfortunate event. We are happy to report that as of April 30th – we are reunited in Panama and have both successfully left Panama City in Pablo.

Paperwork nightmare continues, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Now we have 2 weeks and a great ride to travel and explore Panama for real. Considering we have only experienced Panama City and the Ecolodge in Coronado, we think this forced adventure is a great turn of events so that we learn to fully appreciate the beauty the country has to offer.

So cheers to our first night in our humble abode, and cheers to two weeks of exploration!

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