This was a hard one. This country surely has a lot to offer. It’s a new place, different people, different attitude. But it’s too close to Colombia, and I’m ready to leave Central America behind and move on to the next continent. So all riding was fast, relentless, get up with the sun and ride until dark. 6 days from Costa Rica to Panama City. Lots of potential in the mountains though. Rain storms daily but a very tranquil vibe overall. The people were very friendly; there’s constant construction on the Panamerican, but the construction guys are used to seeing cyclists and wave you through with a thumbs up or smile, probably both. Coffee’s good too, comes in tiny little paper cups with fold out handles, buy two if you want an American small. Everywhere uses condensed milk for coffee instead of the dried powder, so that’s a step up too.
Welcome welcome. I’ve never had a problem at customs anywhere on this trip- in Canada and far north US the border agents were a little suspicious, but no real problems. Everywhere else I just show up, get the tourist visa for 30, 60, or 150 (thanks Mexico) days, pay the fee if there is one and leave. Lot of people (maybe mainly backpackers) say the Panama border is the harshest, requiring proof of at least $500 in your bank account and an exit ticket from Panama. I had the first, not the second. The agent who took my passport asked for my exit ticket, I said I was traveling by bike, he looked at the bike, stamped the passport, told me to enjoy Panama and that I should ride to the World Cup. So I’m still problem-free.
Not in Costa Rica anymore. Back to the Central American generally accepted practice of just gathering all trash and burning it by the side of the road. Maybe they bring all the Costa Rican trash here, it was definitely one of the biggest piles I’ve seen.
Time to cross back over the Continental Divide to meet up with the Panamerican. I think Panama based their road-building on the Canal- everything’s steep and as straight as possible, curving only if necessary.
Sheltering from the rain near the pass over the mountains. I ducked under the eaves of one of the big dorm buildings here thinking it was an empty construction camp. Turned out to be a tourist hostel with big group houses, but after a while the guy watching over the place, Josef, came out and we started chatting. Then he opened one of the houses for me, so I had a kitchen for the night and a dry place to sleep, a welcome end to a drizzly afternoon.
We met up on the Panamerican and rode together for a morning. From Honduras, he quit drinking 24 years ago and started biking a year after. He’s been to riding since, went up to Mexico and back, now on the road for however long headed for Brazil (no, not for the World Cup, which was my and everyone else’s first question to him). I didn’t catch his name, my Spanish wasn’t too good that morning, but he’s riding to different AA groups and spreading the word. Our bikes shared a common color.
I holed up Casco Viejo, the section of the city built in the late 1600s after the English pirate Henry Morgan destroyed the original city in search of Spanish gold. Now, Casco Viejo is a small part of the city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, nicely rebuilt and maintained.
Meanwhile, the rest of the city is filled with modern skyscrapers and banks and businesspeople everywhere. “Panama City is just like Miami, except everyone speaks English,” everyone unanimously describes the city.
Raining out there, warm in here. From the city, next up is the final return to the Caribbean to catch a boat to Colombia. Despite being connected by land, a jungle impenetrable due to guerrilla forces and drug traffickers lies as a physical barrier between the two countries. It’s unrideable, the Darien Gap, but easy enough to swing around by boat, so that’s next on the agenda.