End of one continent, say goodbye to that North American hair.
Two big things to close out Panama. The first a big cut through the Earth, took 33 years to complete, 1881-1914. The second a cut through the continuous network of roads from North America to South America.
Standardized shipping containers like these hold bulk cargo. The freighters carrying these are built to Canal specifications, and pay tolls in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Canal is used today for nearly four times the capacity it was estimated for, and it’s still not big enough. Construction is ongoing to let bigger ships through.
The last 40km (starting with the turn off the Panamerican) are brutally steep up/down pitches back over the mountains. Easily some of the steepest so far on this trip, but none of the climbs are very long. If starting this section on the 2nd day, there’s a good fonda for coffee and food with very friendly Kuna people at km 13. Good time for a break by that point.
Arriving in Carti, it is impossible to get lost. Ride down the airstrip to the port, everyone is used to seeing bikers and can easily direct you where to go. You can either catch a boat taxi over to Carti the island right away (5min ride) and catch the boat there the next morning, or wait on Carti the mainland and start with the boat in the morning. I stayed on the mainland, mainly because I didn’t want to go to the island and have to pay for a hotel for the night and the boat captain said I could just sleep in the boat if I wanted. This was not entirely the best idea. The mainland is very peaceful at night, only one family lives there and there is nothing around the port. Everyone there during the day returns to their homes on the island, so there’s probably more life and action there. Sleeping on a boat is not the most comfortable experiece, because even though you can make a comfy mattress with all the life jackets on board, it continuously rains intermittently through the night, you will get damp. But be glad for the rain, when it rains the tiny mosquitos or sandflies go away. Those mosquitos are hell. After 3 hrs I gave up and set up my tent on land and slept until morning.
Small map of the Dairen Gap. The Gap is a missing section of roads between Panama and Colombia (really the only missing section between Alaska and Argentina), about 100miles long on the Panama side and 60miles long in Colombia. Home to messy swamps, mountains, and numerous guerilla forces. The last reported crossing by bike was Ian Hibell in the 70s, and various people have walked through between then and now, but the guerilla forces have also become much more prevalent since then. I’m a little skeptical about the claim of no roads- even muddy singletrack trails would be passable on bike- but the unanimous opinion is that the paramilitary forces are very dangerous. So I took a boat around, of which there are many.
The two main options for boats are to take a swanky 10-20 person yacht on a 4-5 day cruise through the San Blas islands, stopping and swimming and enjoying yourself along the way, or to take a series of speedboats down the coastline for 2 days, visiting a few San Blas islands, but stopping only long enough to pick up passengers and drop off supplies. I took the speedboat option, wanting to get to Colombia sooner. The San Blas islands are home to the Kuna tribes, indigenous people who live in this section of Panama and maintain nearly autonomous control over their lands. Very friendly people, but it’s considered rude to take their picture so not too many photos of this stretch.
We had two huge drums of gas to get from Carti to Carpurgana. We refueled at 5hrs in. The guy running the boat turns on the engines full power as soon as he’s away from the islands and doesn’t stop. When going to a storm, plastic tarps and handed out and everyone huddles under these. Our crossing ended up being pretty fast at only 7hrs from Carti to Puerto Ovaldia (exit point of Panama); others reported it taking 9-12hrs.
Going by speedboats is a faster trip, but rough, especially for bikes. They go in the front of the boat on top of all the other luggage. The boat guys aren’t the gentlest when they need to take something out of that pile of luggage. Everything gets soaked, over every wave the bike just jumps up and down. You bounce up and down in your seat too, but it’s worse seeing it happen to the bike. Carpurgana is the first port in Colombia and is a world away from Puerto Ovaldia, the port where you stamp out of Panama. Puerto Ovaldia is a town of a few streets with not much going on; Carpurgana is a big tourist destination for Colombians and every other house is a hostel. From Carpurgana, you still need to get to Turbo, the Colombian port you can bike away from, but there’s a daily speedboat to Turbo around 8am. Supposedly you’re allowed 10kg of luggage on the boat to Turbo (weighed via a scale on the dock). In reality, I was charged a fee for the bike and then whatever bags the boat guy could weigh, he did, and then made up an amount based on that. This seems standard procedure. All in all, costs from Panama to Colombia were $150 from Carti to Carpurgana, $40 from Carpurgana to Turbo. Plus $5 for a hostel in Carpurgana. And meals in between. But at $195, far cheaper than the $575 yacht trip. A plane might be still cheaper, and much faster, plus less hard on the bike, but you miss out on the islands completely. Regardless, you’ll get to Colombia, and say hello to South America!
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.
5/29/14, Day 325.
San Juan, Panama, on the Panamerican Highway.
A clear sky at 3pm lunch, next town in 20km, head there for a coffee. Leave under blue skies, look up 12km later and see dark clouds ahead. Nothing around but construction so just keep on going, up the pace a little, feeling good. Keep on going, soon everyone knows what’s coming, construction guys start to point at the clouds ahead or point up and laugh instead of just waving. Nothing to do but continue. Darker and darker, plus now scattered lightning ahead, keep an eye for trees to duck under if need be but keep riding, keep pushing, regardless. Get to 19km and luck has held, except shit, hill ahead, the buildings are all at the top. Get to the bottom, charging now, rain lets loose, sudden rain, big fat drops coming down driving as hard as I am. Up the hill in the rain, soaked in 400m, but there’s a mini super at the top, head straight for cover under the eaves. 10 seconds later a guy comes galloping up on a horse, he had the same idea. Eyes meet, rueful shake of our heads. Brightside, free showers now if anyone needs one.