Retire Smarter

  Stretch the dollar of limited income

   Mar 08

First Anniversary

Today is the first anniversary of my Panama adventure. March 8, 2010, early morning, I finished packing my truck in Sarasota, Florida and headed toward the highway to drive to Panama.

Leaving the home

Leaving the comfort zone is not easy for anyone. It was not for me either.

Eleven days later I reached the destination full of hope that in a year I have my home built and life all set up. Those, who have followed my progress, know that it has not worked out like that. These plans where probably unrealistic in the first place. They could have worked out if everything would have happened exactly as planned. “Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” usually does not work in life. It did not for me either. Independent, an anniversary is always a good time to take a look back, summarize and learn for the next period.

In brief:

    1. Was it a good year? We learned a lot and accomplished few things in our agenda. Mainly learned to live in piece with ourselves and the environment – without stress. It was a good year.
    1. Would I do it again now that I know what it takes? No doubt, just avoiding the mistakes.
  • Stress free

    What's missing here is stress. Click for better photo.

    The past year

    I drove two cars from Florida to Panama. Would I do it again unless needed? Probably not. I got this “exiting” transportation method out of my system, so did my wife. Not sure about my youngest son. Yet, if the world terrorism advances and TSA intensifies and deepens the screening then I know how to get from here to there without all my body cavities being examined in the airport. So, this experience may come handy one day.

    I imported my truck to Panama and registered. The car is in this process since last days of December. In Panama this can only be done by a customs agent. The process for truck was intense and taxing because I set my deadlines to get it done. Some unpleasant interactions with consequences came out. I will never use same agent, but I also learned what I did wrong. The process with car is gorgeous and relaxed. I do not push her and she does take her time as well. We’ll see how long it all takes, but there is nothing I have lost so far because once the importation process has started I can drive the vehicle without license plates. Probably not forever, but few months or longer obviously does not matter.

    Found a finca of my dreams — virgin jungle, waterfalls, incredible views.


    Jungle and waterfalls. Click for a better photo.

    Large, very private, excellent Internet and very good price. Sounds too good to be true. As expected, it took long time and lots of effort from all people involved to close this transaction. There are also “strings attached” to it. It is in a “protected area”. For any construction (I do not know yet what else) we will need permit from Panama environment protection agency (ANAM). The application for construction of an access road and living quarters is in process since mid December and there is no end in sight yet.


    A view from the future house site. Click for a better photo.

    From my interactions with ANAM officials, I understood that a small tourist outfit my wife wanted to build in the future, would be a really tough call to get a permit for. Yet, this facility was one of our top reasons to buy the large piece of land (~50 acres) in a remote area surrounded by reservations of sacred mountain Guacamaya.

    The access road to the entrance of the finca is a “public street”. It is about half a mile. Years ago people had hastily cut a path into the steep clay slopes without any consideration for use. Over years this “road” served as a drainage ditch for the tropical rain that pours during the rainy season. It was not passable going up the slope when it was raining even with my 4X4 pickup truck. The clay base was covered with water and turned slippery like ice. There was no gravel on the road. Independent of the season, there was no way to get any trucks with building materials to go up this slope. It had to be built properly.

    Access road is bad

    Access road needs work. Click for a better photo.

    It took some effort to find a contractor offering reasonable price. Could be Panamanians have learned that gringos are very dumb in spending their money. If they deducted this from the way we spend our foreign aid money, then I can not blame them – hard to imagine anything more idiotic With the help of my good friends I got the price of gravel way below what even Panamanians pay. I ended up going with a very young road company for whom this was their first meaningful project – the lowest bidder. The operators of the machinery had many years of experience and I counted on them to teach the owner – I was wrong.
    It was a struggle to complete this project mid February. This road became the cemetery of the contractor’s heavy equipment. There was none that did not break multiple times.

    Equipment is not maintained and old

    Cemetery of heavy equipment. Fixing the machines. Click for a better photo.

    I am not happy with many things they did, but more with the things they refused to do as agreed, but not written clearly into the contract. I wrote the contract, no-one to blame. At this time the road is a major improvement from what it was. I can only hope that it lasts through the rains as well and learn from the mistakes I made.

    Found a rental property in a little and relatively quiet village very close to the finca. Rent is so low that there isn’t much financial incentive to build fast. The older Panamanian house is on a hill overlooking a river, part of the village and road. The 4- 5 acres surrounding it are populated with large variety of tropical plants, fruit trees, ornamentals and just large trees.

    Here we (my wife joined me in this house early Aug) have learned to enjoy the incredible rich and colorful tropical nature. The views of the mountains from the valley and views to valleys, other mountain ranges and the ocean from the mountain tops. The gusty winds, sun and even tropical rains.

    We have renovated the house (mostly my wife’s effort) and set it up to make it livable for conveniences pampered gringos. We have learned to cool the house during hot days without cost with the abundant natural resource here – water and few other clever constructs. We have learned to cope with the largest nuisance of tropics – the bugs. Mostly by keeping them out of the living area.

    The Bugs

    The bugs of tropics. Click for a better photo.

    We have not figured out yet how to discourage the neighborhood dogs to stage noisy fights in our back yard during nighttime.

    People here are friendly and helpful even though we are at best very beginners in their language. They invite us to their festivales, carnavales, fiestas and birthday parties. There are many of these here in Panama. We learn their culture, language and best ways to live in tropics. Some things are expected, others come as complete surprise. Some are very enjoyable, others not so. Most importantly, we have learned to understand their nature. Much better than most expats, living in Panama many years, but keep complaining about the locals. This helps to enjoy working with them when we need their muscles for our projects.

    From locals we have learned to eat like kings for less than $200 per month for two. We eat lots of fresh fish, meats, eggs and tropical fruits.

    The Penonome fish market

    The Penonome fish market. Click for a better photo.

    Some are free – just go and pick, others do not cost much.

    The Penonome meat market

    The Penonome meat market. Click for a better photo.

    The fruits of tropics

    The fruits of tropics. Can you carry enough? Click for a better photo.

    Many dishes in our new diet, if prepared properly, leave highest ranking restaurants in dust. One reason we do not eat out much – the food is better at home!

    The food

    The food. We both like our meat bloody! Click for a better photo.

    From locals we have re-learned to dance again. A standard feature in any fiesta, festivale, carnavale or birthday party. Even though the music they like is not among our favorites it has a rhythm. After few beers (or shots of rum) dancing with it is a pleasure.

    The dance

    The gringo dance. Can you keep up with me? Click for a better photo.

    We have made a handful of friends by helping them to do few things better than they knew how to. We have also made few enemies by disappointing them in their aspirations to milk us.

    Most importantly, we have learned to relax and enjoy the wonderful moments of life the way they come. I must admit, this has probably been the most difficult lesson for me. Thinking about, it seems like a no-brain-er, but implementing in practice has been spotty at best. I keep getting “carried away” and pay for it with aching joints and muscles because most of the work here at this time is physical. The previous life, where “make more money” to make the ends meet was the purpose of existence, does not appeal at all. Life without stress is good.

    What’s next?

    1. Have to get the permit from ANAM. Other permits (from municipality) appear simpler and faster.
    1. Have to build the access road to the construction site of the new home (another half a mile) that includes a bridge over a little lively creek.
      Have to construct the buildings for the living compound.
  • Can this all be done by the next anniversary? I do not know. The rainy season may start in May. Depends when I finally get the permits, how intense is the rainy season going to be first months and when the rainy season ends this year.

       Nov 20

    Second Drive down Oct 2010. Mexico

    Well’, yes I did it again. My youngest son insisted on the adventure and my wife wanted to see the Central America. I could not let the rookies who do not speak a word of Spanish embark on their own. This time though, we had the benefit of three drivers: one drives, one navigates and one sleeps. Rotating positions every so many hours keeps the driver alert on long stretches. Three of us and one Subaru Forester loaded to the brink started from Orlando, FL at 1:00 AM October 6. With gas, bathroom, and lunch breaks we got to Brownsville around 9:20 PM same day.

    Mexico in October 2010

    Night in Super Motel 6 prepared us to enter Mexico early morning October 7 via the Gateway Bridge. My wife’s prior research indicated that there is no legal difference whether we would declare ourselves “transmigrante” or a “tourist”. The main hurdle: canceling the temporary car importation permit would be same. Unsure why Mexico has these two categories established, if there is no difference, we filled our visa applications for tourists and endured the interrogation of the immigration officials behind the counter. We were the only ones in this border crossing this early hour. Possible they were simply bored, but for us their rapid fire questioning appeared more like the Spanish inquisition centuries ago. Every one of us repeated the same story of our keen interest to study the indigenous culture in Chiapas Mexico (Chiapas is the state bordering Guatemala). Finally they gave up. We had our tourist visas, car permit and happy to get going before the town and the drug traffickers wake up.
    We did not know that feeling happy in Tamaulipas state of Mexico roads and streets is not a good thing.
    A police car was waiting for us right after the first left turn off the border crossing. I was driving, they stopped me. Apparently, I slowed down to almost stop, but did not stop completely in front of the stop sign right before the left turn. It certainly is difficult to argue how complete stop is complete. I attempted to ask in my beginner’s Spanish how many seconds (or perhaps minutes) I have to stay in the same spot to be considered completely stopped in Mexico. The policeman ignored my question. Different from my experience with Matamoros’ traffic police in March, he laid out my options without waiting. I could pay the fine ($60.00) on the spot or go to the office to pay it. The last would have screwed up our travel plans, so I opted to pay on the spot. He was nice to ask if I would like a ticket too, but took off without writing one, even though I said that I wanted the ticket. Appeared, that he knew – no more gringos coming – no reason to keep watching.

    Relieved to get out of the miserable town of Matamoros, we enjoyed the hilly landscape of North Eastern Mexico after sunrise. The roads are reasonable, drivers very polite, just watch out for police.

    Mystical Mountains in Mexico

    Are these mountains man made or natural? Click for better photo

    After a gas stop and few hours, we were approaching the port town of Tampico. My son was driving and the police on the road, of course stops us. Apparently, we were driving 39 km/h in 25 km/h zone. There was no sign like that, I argued. The police agreed, but insisted that it is supposed to be there because it is a school zone. Perhaps a drunk driver ran it over, who knows. Rest was repetition of the morning: either pay here (750 pesos or $60.00) or we confiscate your driver’s license and you have to go to office to pay the fine and retrieve it. My son did not believe me and did not have the International Drivers Permit to give away. We did pay.

    Next traffic light, next police stops us because, apparently we stopped too close to the red light. Oh, there are no lines to indicate were to stop. Maybe they have warn off or covered by dirt. Either 750 pesos or $60.00 here or in the office, which is it going to be? You bet it was way beyond ridiculous, but that wasn’t the worst yet. We were crawling at the officially posted speed limit on the toll road around Tampico while the Locals beeping at us and whizzing by on opportunity. Obviously, we were a speed bump, but three fines were more than enough for one day. Approaching a round-about with a yield sign for our lane we slowed to crawl and although no-one was coming we got stopped by a group of policemen. According to them, we did not slow down enough. This officer even spoke English. This was one of the most ridiculous accusations I have ever heard from any of the legal road robbers anywhere in the world. I was “boiling over” and challenged him to show me the Mexican law that specifies the exact speed a car must slow down at a yield sign. Seeing a hesitation and surprise, I continued asking for the method he used to determine our car speed and the precise measurement of our speed. He backed off and I felt relieved. Too early! Understanding that he can not bum $60 out of us, he requested the driver and the car documents. From my Honduras corrupt traffic police experience in March, I should have known what that means. I missed to “connect the dots” and here it came. “This driver does not have insurance to drive this car!” he stated victoriously. “I will have to arrest your son and take him in until the judge will decide what to do with him whenever he gets to it.” he continued. “It may take few days, may be a week or more because the judges are busy, but the fine for driving without insurance in Mexico is 6000.00 pesos.” the officer explained gladly in Spanish. In defense, I stated, that according to the recent interactions with Mexico officials, car insurance is no longer mandatory for tourists. The officer, very politely, took the “high road” in his reply: “ Senior Raud, I am only following instructions of my superiors. You are welcomed to challenge them in front of the judge. Don’t you agree this is the best way to resolve the disagreement?” What can you say? Everything appears legit. My wife wanted car insurance at least for Mexico, but somehow we forgot about it in the heat of preparation for the trip. Insurance was for sale also at the border crossing, but when asked, she wasn’t interested unless it is required. Since no-one paid any attention, let alone suggesting, we did not buy it. I saw a prospect of getting entangled in the differences of local and federal requirements in Mexico, potentially for weeks, if not months. Seeing this conflict flashing on my face – or so I thought – the officer continued in very friendly Spanish: “I understand that this is a serious detriment to your travel plans. I could offer to collect the fine here, but I could face corruption charges if I do. Therefore, I need compensation for that risk. I’ll take the risk and let you go if you give me $1000 in cash.” My reply was fast and simple – I do not have that much cash. We never thought we need US dollars in this amount for the whole trip because local currency is always available from ATM’s for superior exchange rate. Now the officer “tipped his hand” saying “Ok, give me $500.00 in cash and 1000 pesos”. One thousand pesos is about $80. If official fine is 6000 pesos or about $480 then everything above this amount is negotiable. From this point on the real question for me was the minimum amount we can get away with. Simply calling his bluff same way I did with “not slowing down enough” accusation carried too large risk for me. While the exact consequences of an arrest of my angry 19 year old son were unpredictable, knowing him I had to assume the worse.

    Leaving the back door open for negotiations I offered him $200.00 explaining that after paying now already 4 fines I will just enough money left to buy gas. He took the lie and we took off changing drivers in first gas station.

    Rest of the planned journey for the day went according to the trip-tick. The coastal road was quite improved from March and we made back the time wasted with the corrupt police. We were all fed up with Mexico. My wife wowed never to step on the soil of this lawless country again. My son promised to come back for revenge. Unanimous decision was to drive through the night toward the border of Guatemala to avoid getting robbed yet another time. Since the tourists mostly do not drive at night, stumbling on more corrupt police appeared less likely.

    We reached Esmerald Coast beach towns at daylight. By the plan we were supposed to stay here overnight, but decided in favor of a dinner break instead -Canadian beach resort “Villas del Palmar” restaurant “El Tucan” at km 85 on the road 180 between Poza Rica and Nautla. Food was excellent and service even better. Their WI-FI reached our dinner table for latest news from the world and emergency updates for friends watching after our progress. We were done in an hour, ready to continue.

    Villa Las Palmas - Amor

    Villa Las Palmas? Click for better photo

    Well’, it did not work out like planned. The only road forward was blocked by demonstrators demanding justice for their friend. The line of cars and trucks stopped on the road was miles. The demonstration had closed the road indefinitely. Their friend allegedly was run over by a drunk driver who walked free. They were determined to sit on the road until the justice is done. We had nothing else to do but go to hotel and hope they get what’s right by morning. The detour would have been more than 150 km on secondary, unpaved roads. Considering the possibility that the demonstration will end some time over night and the benefits of driving the detour in daylight we decided to stay here overnight. This region is good for overnight stay because there are many hotels in close proximity. The same resort’s 285 pesos – $23 appeared reasonable. As we found out after signing in, this was per person, not per room. Always ask first.

    We started early the next day, October 8 while it was still dark. Luckily the demonstrators had left. Our objective was to get out of Mexico and we were making good progress early on. Large part of trip-tick second day’s route is on autopistas. They are easier and faster to drive, although tolls on some are significant. Getting to the first one from Veracruz to Mexico City is about 50 km and I was in “sleeping seat” of the car. Half an hour into the trip, my wife and son woke me up because the intersection with the next autopista to Acayucan, Minantlan, Coatzacoalcos, wasn’t as described in the trip-tick. Potentially we had past it. Seeking a place to stop and ask direction, we reached a rest stop with exits.

    The clerks at coffee shops did not know anything. I spotted a policeman next to the clerk in entry booth. She was very knowledgeable. As expected, we were past our intersection by about 25 km. What’s worse the autopista to Acayucan was apparently closed because a bridge collapsed few days ago after heavy rains. Luckily there was a secondary road that was to take us about half the way to Acayucan at Cosamoloapan. We had to take a detour on narrow mountain roads to Palomares from there, because the direct secondary road to Acayucan was flooded. The detour was about 50 kilometers longer, but what’s worse, the road to the Pacific highway from Palomares was also closed because of landslides. To get to Guatemala, we would need to go from Palomares all the way back to Coatzacoalcos at the Caribbean coast and then another 200+ km toward Yucatan to Villahermosa. From there we can take a mountain road to the border crossings with Guatemala. This was more than 700 km detour on secondary roads, probably congested by traffic because of road closings. We can not make it by the end of the day.

    The news was bad, but it was difficult to imagine it could get even worse. Heading back on the autopista we found the intersection without problems. The entry to the autopista to Acayucan was blocked by the cones. The trucker ahead of us said something to the guard and the guard let him on to the autopista. I decided to ask why. Apparently, the autopista was fine until the next exit at Cosamoloapan where the trucker wanted to go. This is about 90 km and same place we could get to on the secondary, longer and slower road. Next 90 km went faster than we anticipated. At the exit I decided to inquire again. It was possible that the situation was quite dynamic and the local knowledge was most accurate. Unfortunately, the exit officials confirmed closure of the autopista further from this point. We had to branch off to a narrow secondary road.

    The road hugged a significant river. Driving through villages confirmed seriousness of the situation. Houses were still under water.

    Flooding in Mexico

    Flooding in Mexico. Click for better photo

    People had constructed cardboard, tarp and roof panel huts for them right on the road because it was higher.

    Huts on the road

    Makeshift huts built on the road. Click for better photo

    Although primitive, the huts had even power for moder conveniences.

    Power to the huts on the road

    Power lines to the huts. Click for better photo

    Some had boats to retrieve belongings from their home, others had constructed temporary bridges to the roof or second floor of their homes.

    Boats to transport things

    A way to get to their belongings. Click for better photo

    The road was two narrow lanes with no shoulders and traffic was heavy. Essentially, we could not move fast. Finally the ground turned higher, but then we got stopped behind a 4 km long line of cars and trucks. As it turned out there was a bridge in construction 4 km ahead. One line was closed and the traffic was re-directed to one lane. After 1.3 hour wait we got going and arrived at next larger town – Tuxtepec in the late afternoon.

    Waiting for our turn on the road we had very useful conversations with friendly Mexican truckers. According to them the federal police have the most accurate information on road closures. Truckers did not know about the condition of Palomares – Pacific highway road, but suggested to check with feds in Tuxtepec. If this road would be open then from Palomares we would be on our planned route to Guatemala only about 7 hours away.

    Another bit of important information came when we explained our strong reluctance to have anything to do with Mexican traffic police. Apparently, they are known to be after tourists, but only in the states bordering US. Tamaulipas, were we had all our corrupt police encounters is one of the worst. The trucker’s advice was simple – offer him to confiscate your driver’s license and take to the office. In vast majority of cases he will not bother because there is no money for him and he only loses time with unnecessary paperwork instead of catching other “violators” who will pay on the spot. If he takes the case to the office, then there you explain your version of the events: the signs were missing, how slow is slow enough at the yield sign etc. Good to know for next time if there will be one.

    We did search out the federal police station in Tuxtepec and got confirmation that Palomares – Pacific highway road is already open after repairs. We had 175 km to Palomares on mountain roads and then another 7 hours on easy roads to Guatemala. Hope was up again. The first 20 km from Tuxtepec was a breeze, then stop behind an endless line of cars and trucks. Periodic oncoming traffic shared the news – there is road washed away 20 km ahead of us and the remaining line is shared by the repair dump trucks. We started calculating our speed to estimate possible arrival to Palomares, then about 150 km away. We were moving about 7 km an hour. Of course, the hope was that after we get past this road repair we can stretch out and go faster. It was dark when we finally got moving for good, but only for few kilometers to the next and the next road repair. It was difficult to sleep because of the excitement each irregular move created. Some moves were only 100 yards or so. If you were late, others behind you passed and you lost the 100 yard move completely. For longer moves the loss was few car/truck lengths, but to lose even an inch is depressing in situation like this. As the midnight approached numerous trucks pulled aside to the hotels in villages the road passed. The traffic became looser and opportunities to move increased because some road repair crews retired as well. There was a moment after the oncoming traffic ended to rush ahead of the truck line in front because they took longer time to get started. Should the oncoming traffic resume you should find a space between the trucks to “tuck in”. This game wasn’t for fainthearted. We started taking advantage of these opportunities. After 2:00 AM the traffic loosened up and we had continuous drive for few hours. Passing long lines of slow moving trucks in this narrow and curvy two lane road was at times challenging, but we made pretty good time for these hours. The move stopped again at 6:00 AM because the road repair crews closed the road to establish their supply. Yet, we were not that far from Palomares at that time. It was very surprising that the Mexican truckers and other drivers awake at that time, all took it with a stride. Jokes and friendly comments from the folks who suffered with us meant much more than ridiculous hostility of police in specific Mexico states.

    We finally got to Palomares when it was already light. At this time we had been on the road non-stop more than 28 hours since previous morning. Last 18 hours we drove only 180 km. No-one had had much sleep. We filled up the car and had coffee in Palomares’ gas station, and made final inquiries for the road condition to Pacific highway that confirmed that the 80 km road is repaired. Hurray – no need for the 700 kilometer detour.

    It is a very nice ride down from the top of the pass between the high mountains. Yet, we were all too exhausted to enjoy the scenery. The road had been substantially improved since my last trip in March. We made it to Pacific highway fast. Although my son was driving and there were police checkpoints along the way, we were not stopped at all. Must be corruption hasn’t reached that far south yet.

    Wind generator farms.

    Approaching Pacific highway and wind farms. Click for other photo

    Reaching the Pacific highway we had been on the road 36 hours without a break. We decided to stretch on to Arriaga (130 km) and take an early rest there. There were no surprises on our road to Arriaga. It is a scenic road and easy to drive, recommended any time. We stayed in the same hotel I found in March for the same money – 250 pesos ($20) a room and slept until evening. The dinner in the familiar downtown Arriaga restaurant was tasty, filling and inexpensive as in March. No sign of inflation up North that mysteriously seems to keep evading official measurements. Back to sleep to take off early for Guatemala.

    Last stretch in Mexico was event less. The location to cancel your car importation permit is exactly same on the same highway. Right after it the right turn sign to Guatemala leads you around Tapachula to either CD Hidalgo or Talisman. I have been in both and I will never go back to filthy and corrupt CD Hidalgo.

    Lessons learned in Mexico this time

  • If stopped by police for infraction you believe is false, play poker.
  • Check the road conditions frequently and believe the local information. Not everything you hear is correct.
  • Enjoy the politeness of Mexico drivers and be polite yourself
  • Talk to locals (many speak English) on all opportunities – you may learn something you can use.
  • It is a beautiful country with wonderful people, but their government sucks. Similar to the country just North from Mexico. I wonder why is that?