“After another hour or so, we arrive at what must be the highest pass. I see no signage, only vertical drops on either side of the road that mercifully fall off into thick mist after a few hundred meters”
Act 1: Almirante to Rambala rest stop
I’m sweaty from the walk. Just over a kilometre from Almirante’s ferry terminal I sit with my backpack awaiting the next minibus that has space.
I strike up a conversation with a police guard who tells me that they come when they come, and that it’s probably best to check with him before I get on one. Across the road from the bus station, a dilapidated supermarket sells cheap snacks, but I opt only for water – you can never be too sure when the next break is coming.
When the next minibus arrives there’s room for two more, then others arrive and there’s room for three more. A few hesitant tourists let the locals cram in. They’ll wait for the next one, which is apparently larger. Then we’re off, and as we start rising towards the mountains we miraculously find space for three more (one is very small).
The sun’s out for the first time in days and up-front alongside the driver I get a good view of the rolling hills and pretty smallholdings we pass. I also get the best view of every sharp curve ahead and feel the bend and sway of the tiny bus like the moment a rollercoaster waits before the plunge. To my left, the handsome young driver applies his second lot of hand cream of the journey; leaving the wheel to itself. I wonder who needs hand cream quite that regularly and decide simultaneously that the window holds the better view.
After about an hour I need to pop my ears. We’ve risen into the mountains that stretch towards Panama City in the far south, splitting the country into two strips of coastline. From my perch at the front of the fairground ride, I watch the cars ahead bound for even higher terrain, where the cloud clings to the forests.
Rambala: A village where the sun soaks the busy café where we pull over for a toilet and snacks. I choose toilet and a leg stretch over any food. After all, nobody should eat before going on a roller coaster. Several buses have caught up with us from Almirante and I briefly wonder how their passengers are coping, as we had taken most corners without breaking. Hungry, angry wasps swarm around the bins at Rambala. They’re the only annoyance in an otherwise picturesque pit stop.
Act 2: Rambala to David via the highest of passes
Things go south shortly after Rambala. The slick yellow markings of the well paved road and the warming yellow of the sun through the open window disappear suddenly. Oddly, my driver seems more confident on this stretch and starts texting someone who puts a wry grin on his face. My grin turns to grimace as every other bend comes with a sign identifying a “curva peligrosa”.
Rain starts to beat against the windscreen and every few hundred meters we take to the opposite side of the narrow road to avoid potholes that could swallow humans. Now in the cloud forest, I try to focus on the eerie, yet beautiful landscapes. My window still open to save the air-conditioning system, a chill grabs me as we reach higher and higher. We pass waterfalls and a beautiful damn fully enclosed by dark mountains. After another application of hand cream, the driver and I make friends as he smiles and slows to let me take a photo.
After another hour or so, we arrive at what must be the highest pass. I see no signage, only vertical drops on either side of the road that mercifully fall off into thick mist after a few hundred meters. Still on his phone, my driver seems to know where every pothole is located and is now swerving expertly towards the slim verges. I feel like I would be lost forever if I fell out here. I double check the door is tightly shut and try not to put my weight against it as we veer to search for strips of smooth tarmac.
Act 3: David to Boquete
Eventually, we begin a descent. Driving rain turns into light mist, and then to a cool breeze and clear pretty views as we drive through the Chiquirí province. The landscape could be the Lake District if it weren’t for the occasional palm tree and unusual breeds of cow. I can’t hide my surprise as we reach a two-lane highway with minimal bends.
Lower now, the air becomes warm again and prepares me for a hot, dusty five minutes at David’s central bus terminal. Everyone is here and everyone is going somewhere. “Boquete!” a driver shouts at me in front of an old yellow American school bus. That’s easy, I think to myself as I board for $1.75. A surge of relief washes over me when I remember that there are no more high passes today.
For another 45 minutes smooth, marked highway stretches in front of me with postcard perfect mountains either side. Just before we curve downwards one last time to the small town of Boquete, a colourful sign to the right marks my arrival and I momentarily glimpse the peak of the imposing Volcan Baru.
A suitable end to a journey of extremes.