Headlamp…warm, long-sleeved shirt…wool socks…earplugs…I am running through my checklist of things that I need to keep handy for a nocturnal road trip on the Pan-Am Highway. There are few times when you feel the cold in the coastal lowlands of Panama. At this time of year the mercury is frequently nudging at 30°C even in the middle of the night.


But experience has taught me that – unless you are lucky enough to find a bus in which the air-con has finally been burned out – Latin American buses are almost always kept chilled to almost arctic temperatures. Perhaps the drivers deliberately keep to a level of frigidity at which sleep is impossible. Blaring salsa music invariably blasts out throughout the night for the same reason. Maybe it is because it is a safety measure that nobody ever complains. It’s all part of the experience of a Central American road-trip anyway and the thick wool socks and the earplugs (which just manage to muffle the din to a normal listening level) make it bearable.


As we pull away from Panama’s Allbrook Terminal the passengers around me cross themselves and utter little prayers for the road. For added security Latin America buses are often emblazoned with Madonna’s, saints and religious catchphrases: ‘Jesus Es Mi Copiloto’ or ‘Good Shepherd Protect Us.’ In Venezuela I once took a bus high up the windy roads into the Andes. It bore the legend: ‘Solo Dios Sabe si Regresarémos’ – only God knows if we will return. (“In that case,” I told the driver, “I’ll have a one-way ticket”).

Soon we are leaving the lights of Panama behind and are roaring over the web-like structure of the Bridge of the Americas. Northward from here the tarmac serpent of the Pan-American Highway ripples onward for about ten thousand miles, all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska. To the southwards though it deteriorates quickly (becoming almost un-passable in the rainy season) until it finally stutters to a halt altogether at the dusty town of Yaviza. Apart from a ramshackle collection of bars dispensing seco con leche (a particularly raw type of rum, traditionally drunk with milk) Yaviza has little to recommend it. It is amazing to think that this phenomenal feat of engineering would link Alaska with Tierra del Fuego if it were not for the entirely impenetrable and untameable Darien jungle.

The bus roars on through the darkness. The passengers are wrapped in all the clothes they carry and with ears muffled against the booming ‘entertainment system.’ In the first bleary light of day we arrive at Paso Canoas. The name Canoe Pass smacks of pure adventure and the spirit of Latin American exploration. Actually it is just a busy border post very similar to others all over the world. You concentrate on watching your bags and your pockets as you negotiate first the exit queues and then the entry queues. There are bag searches and (at the moment) forms to fill in allowing you to tick the appropriate boxes if you are suffering any of the symptoms of swine flu. (Strangely, the Panamanian officials are all wearing masks, yet the Costa Ricans aren’t).

I take a taxi the first few miles across the border to the town of Rio Claro where I head into the only eating place that is open at this ungodly hour and order mango juice, coffee (x3) and a plate of the ubiquitous gallo pinto. ‘Spotted cockerel’ is rice with refried beans, and is best eaten with liberal splashes of tabasco.

During the next month or so I will be following the Pan-Am Highway north from here all the way to Mexico City but for the time being my plan is to branch off and head over to the paradisiacal Osa Peninsula to visit some old friends. And to surf some un-crowded waves.

From Rio Claro I hitch a ride to Golfito and from there I take a boat across the gulf to Puerto Jimenez. Eighteen hours after leaving Panama City I finally jump off the rickety old truck that is the only public transport along the dirt-track that leads deep into the Osa. Finally I have arrived at Tierra de Milagros – Land of Miracles.