Our start in Peru fast paved riding, banana tree surroundings harkening back to the first days in Colombia and every single Central American country. The paved road at first climbs into the hills, asphalt progress incongruous against the slow pace of the villages it passes through. Adults sit on chairs, benches beside the road there, the towns just collections of houses one or two rows deep on either side of the road. Children play in the street around the coffee beans sun-drying on black plastic tarps, village chickens pecking their way among them. Will spend the most time in this country out of any since the US. Mountain roads calling, the highest stretch of Andean cordillera here, thanks to extensive research by other cycle tourists long stretches of mapped out routes await too. Immigration official gives us 3 months visa time, probably just barely enough. A Canadian ex-pat says no problem to stay past the visa date, just then have to pay $1/day for every extra day. Have another reason to maintain southerly progress, in less than three months the transition to the rainy season scheduled to start. So ample external motivation to keep moving.
Middle section of Ecuador: fantastic, feels like the start of the true dirt Andean riding. Leaving the Casa de Ciclistas, point the bikes in direction of Volcano Cotopaxi, just look for the snow-topped come sticking out of the ground in the distance. And hope it’s not enclosed by clouds, though those too are white so you’re still looking for the same color. Leave Cotopaxi and start the Quilotoa Loop, a circle meandering through small villages high up on mountain slopes. There are paved roads connecting this loop; avoid them! The dirt roads sweep you up to 4000m and then drop you back off at 3000m, daily, except for that one day when you go down to 2100m and still have to make your way back to 4000m. By that time though you’re off the Quilotoa Loop and heading southbound, to riding right along the edge of the mountains. Look west and see the sea of clouds blown off the ocean abutting right up against the mountainsides, below you. Look east onto the patchwork fields comprised of all different shades of green. Colors start to fade when you climb high enough in the mountains, barren desolate fields owned by grazing alpacas and sheep. Ecuadorian summer is the dry season, so the only moisture appears when you’re riding through the cloud layers, but the wind is a fierce force howling down on you. Sunburnt noses and chapped lips are the marks of victory.
Paul showed up at the Casa while I was there, and with similar dirt goals we’re riding together for a bit, his trip account and photos are on his blog. He started out in the Alaskan north August 2013 and is also making his way down to Argentina.
Aug 10, 2014.
This race was intent on bruising us, pummeling us, then it patted us on the back and told us to go climb the last 600m.
The alpacas we keep passing, they’re solo or sometimes in pairs grazing on the hillsides, they look up with faces incredulous that anyone would come up to their land clad only in this Lycra and not the warmest wool. The sheep though, they’re much more nonplussed.
Equator crossing achieved, few days south of the Ecuador-Colombian border. It’s hard to miss, going south along the Panamerican highway just look for the giant orange pole sticking out of the ground. Since entering Ecuador, rode out on the first stretch of non-highway routes south to Tumbaco and the Casa de Ciclistas at Santiago’s house, just outside of Quito. One night of food poisoning en route, and the rest of the last week has been resting, recovering, cleaning everything.
From big city Bogotá down to El Desierto de Tatacoa and up to San Agustín. Then up through a section of the páramo to Popayan for the World Cup final, and down the Panamerican to the Ecuador border. Hit the 1 year milemark for this trip in this section, Colombian cookies and coffees were an apt celebration. Ecuador bound.
Medellin to Bogotá, via La Ceja, Sonsón, Nariño, Aguas Termales de Espiritu Santo, Florencia, La Dorado.
Into the Cordillera Central. Geographically, Medellin is a sprawling valley trap. You climb to get there, you climb to leave. Better start getting used to the 1000m ascents. Lowest gear spinning gives you plenty of time to appreciate the sky (it’s getting closer!) and work on your Spanish proverb practice. Once in the mountains themselves, settlements become farther apart. Small farms- fincas- dominate the landscape, herding cattle or growing fruits and vegetables. The latter get washed right next to the road, wherever a small stream comes out of the mountainside, then packed into burlap sacks. The farmers are universally friendly, waving or shouting encouragement or inviting you in for aqua de panela, hot sugar cane juice, they claim it’s the secret to the Colombian cyclists’ success. Colombians took 1st and 2nd in the Giro d’Italia this year, did you know? I love this country.
Off the boat at Turbo and rolling. No waiting around, this is the start of South America, continent #2, chapter 3. The Andes are calling mountain promise, but first a few more days biking across banana tree flatlands. Then up over the first cordillera branch to Medellin and the Casa de Ciclistas there. Meet 7 other traveling cyclists resting there. 4 of us leave together, but the other 3 headed straight for Ecuador, me to Bogotá. More on that next. Here the first set of photos from this fantastic country.
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.