Panama

Crossing the Darien Gap


As most of you know, from Panama to Colombia there is no road, so the only two options are to take a flight, or a boat. We opted for the second one. At that time, we read on the boat’s website that there will be three days of relaxing in the Caribbean Sea, and then about 30 hours of straight sailing to Cartagena. So we though we could use some relaxation in the Caribbean islands, and then, how bad could those 30 hours be? After all, this is all supposed to be an adventure, no? Well, it looks like the adventure just started.

On the 26th we woke up in the morning and got ready. Here we are gearing up for some rain. Panama’s weather is the most unpredictable.

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Then we waited for a truck that was supposed to come pick up some supplies for the boat in Panama City, so we were supposed to follow the truck to Barzukun, the place where we were taking the boat from, since apparently the directions were not very straight forward. After almost 5 hours of waiting the truck arrived and we barely had the time to jump on the bikes and left. It was all a bit chaotic, since we were five bikes following a truck in a crazy traffic. So at the first turn onto a busy road where we had to yield to traffic we lost each other already. We managed to find each other again, and then we had to ride very close to each other and almost cutting off traffic and sharing lanes so we can stick together. The first part of the ride was just regular. But then the second part was a mere roller coaster!!! Steep up, steep down, sharp turn to the left, sharp turn to the right and steep up etc. At some point, especially on the high points, I was feeling an emptiness in my stomach, and then the steep down sections were like a falling.

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And to top that up, there were washouts after every corner.

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At some point the road was so narrow due to a landslide that I was wondering how trucks manage to drive by? But going by this picture, it looks like not too well.

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That was even crazier, to see on that tiny narrow road traffic on both ways. In moments like this I am happy I ride a motorcycle, so I can squeeze by. But I don’t really see how two trucks or big cars can go by each other. This was definitely one of the craziest roads we’ve done in this trip!

And we finally got there. This was the end of our journey in Panama and Central America.

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Then we met Michael, the captain of the boat. And he tells us that if we manage to get a small boat to carry the bikes to his boat now, we can load them already. So far so good.

So now we are talking to these local guys that have a small boat, to take our bikes to the ship. The problem is, their boat has a roof, so we won’t be able to pull the bikes up once at the ship. The solution: they tied up a canoe to the boat, so we put the bikes in the canoe. I know, it sounds crazy, but don’t worry, it’s even crazier than it sounds:)

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And then the loading of the bikes from the canoe to the ship. I have to admit it was quite stressful to see our bikes hanging on an old rope, above the water. Especially after seeing what their safety standards were.

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Once we loaded all the bikes and the luggage on the ship, they took us to Carti island, very close by, to a “hostel”. It was probably one of the best experiences we had so far. The island was inhabited by Kuna Yala people, the indigenous of Panama. Nice little huts and narrow dirt alleys were making the little village.

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They were so friendly and open, and once we settled in our hostel, we went to a restaurant and we had some great food, and a beer drinking competition between our group and the Kuna group.

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When the restaurant closed for the night, we went on the dock with the Kuna people and continued the party. That was one great night! We were all regreting to have wasted so much time in Panama City instead to have come here. But we didn’t know.

The next day they took us in a small boat to the ship, where we met the rest of the travelers and the crew. Here is our boat, our home for the next five days.

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The first day we sailed for about an hour and then we stopped by a small island for swimming and snorkeling. This little paradise was a very good start, but very misleading about what was about to come.

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The water was gorgeous for swimming. At night, they took us to the island and we had a beach party, with fire, music and drinks, after we had a great lobster dinner.

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The second day we sailed for about two hours and then again we stopped by another island for swimming and snorkeling. In the evening we went to Elefant Island where they made barbecue for us and we partied again untill late. And here we are leaving the island to go back to the boat. Our little boat didn’t have enough horse power so it needed a little help:)

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The third day, we sailed for four hours, and then again stopped for more swimming and snorkeling. So far so good, no? It looks too good to be true. But after this last stop, the real adventure is starting. We are supposed to sail for 30 hours straight to Cartagena, against current, against wind, against waves. And the seas here are famous for being very nervous. On top of that, the captain tells us that this is the worst time of the year for sailing on these seas.

So here is starting to get real: waves splashing everywhere, getting into the boat, that they had to lock all windows. The boat was rocking so bad that it was impossible to walk around. As I started to be seasick right away, despite the Dramamine taken every four hours, I was laying on a bench in the leaving room area. For 35 hours I had to lay there, and didn’t dare to seat up, since I was getting nausea right away. I would only seat up to eat quickly something, three times a day. It was almost impossible to use the toilets, since the boat was rocking so bad that things would splash everywhere. Also the generator that was helping flush the toilets were down each day for half a day. In the leaving room area stuff were falling off the shelves everywhere, and the crew were barely keeping up with it. Looking by the window I would see waves taller than the boat. Vasile went upstairs on the deck a few times and he said that many times, when the boat was tilting to a side, the waves were actually splashing all the way over the boat. We were very happy that we tarped the bikes so the salted water didn’t get to them, despite the promise of the captain that no water will get to them. This was pretty much a horror movie. An 85 ft boat was tossed around in the open ocean like a little nutshell. The good part was that I was so sick that I didn’t even have time to panic or to get scared. And as you can imagine we have no pictures of it, since the camera would’ve flown all over the place.

At some point the wind ripped off one of the wind generators that flew right by two of the guys that were laying down on the back of the boat at that time.This was not a big threat for the boat, since the boat had another generator, but it was just dangerous to continue with it like that, since as it was turning, broken, the blades were flying off everywhere, so the captain stopped to fix it.

I thought I was the only one that felt so bad, but when we finally got to calm see, and everyone came out of their cabins, I could see their green faces, so I realized that all passengers with very few exceptions have been very seasick, even though everyone onboard was taking pills. So I guess this time the sea has won:) I could hear everyone around me swearing that this was the last time they would put foot on a boat:)

The unloading of the bikes was another shit show. Complete chaos, disorganised, bikes on the little dingy and off to the shore. But thank god we got there safe and sound, and bikes in alright condition.

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Now the next challenge was to do the immigration and customs quickly, since it was the 31st of December and they were closing at noon. The good thing was that the captain’s girlfriend took care of our immigration, so we didn’t even have to go there, we only handed her the passports. Then she put us in contact with a German guy who, for $35 each, did the customs for us, so we managed to finish before noon. The only thing that we didn’t manage to do was the insurance, since insurance is compulsory in Colombia. The offices were closed already. So we had to stay in Cartagena until the 2nd, to get the insurance too. In the meantime we took our chances and rode the bikes through town to find a place to stay. Well, that wasn’t easy. We walked through all the hostels, all the hotels, and there was nothing left. We were even considering camping on Playa Blanca now, when we met this Jamaican guy, Donald, and he offered to rent us two rooms in the house he lived in, for $10 per person. This was great! We took the offer right away, and here we are unloading our stuff, and doing laundry (after all the boat ride, we so needed it!) and washing our bikes so the salt doesn’t damage them.

In the meantime Donald cooked dinner for us and we all eat and had some beers. Then we went out to town, since it was New Years after all. It was nice to watch all the fireworks and all the people dancing on the streets. This was a totally different New Years celebration! But as we were very tired we did not party until the morning as we would normally do, and around 1 am we were nice and cosy in our beds, sleeping tight:)

So far we love Colombia! More about it to come in the next post.

Categories: Colombia, Panama | 5 Comments

Panama


We hardly made a mile into Panama, when the road was blocked by a fallen tree.

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We had to wait about 15 min until they cut some branches, just enough room for our bikes to get across. But then we entered a fairy tail land.

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Costa Rica and Panama look like a totally different world in Central America. A lot more developed, very clean, more people speaking English. And Panama even more so. And as a bonus, in Panama they use the US dollar. No more conversion headaches.

As we left the border quite late (around 1:30 pm) we did not have time to get too far. Plus, the weather was not really on our side: it was either too hot, or raining. So we had to stop on the side of the road and put the raining gear on.

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We rode about 180 km, and then we stopped at a gas station to gas up. There was a restaurant nearby, with a big lawn behind, so I went and asked them if we could camp there. “Sure, but is it safe for you to camp here?” (whatever that means). “Why? Is it not safe around here?” “Well, no, it’s just that there are lots of venomous snakes and raccoons here. This is not Canada, this is a wild place”. Well, we decided that we were not going to sleep-walk and we wouldn’t step on any snakes, so we camped there. We set up our camp, we put the bikes under a palapa there, and then we had some burgers and local beer at the restaurant.

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As the place looked like a perfect scenario for theft and robbery at night, as it was behind the restaurant and right by the forest, we decided we could not leave our bikes unattended there, so Chris mounted his hammock right there under the palapa, between our bikes. And apparently there were quite a few people passing by in the middle of the night, for whatever reason.

In the morning we had some porridge and eggs and on the road again. We went all the way to Panama City. Here we are crossing over the Panama Canal.

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We stopped at Mamallena hostel, a very nice place close to downtown Panama City. As they had no rooms until the next day, Chris convinced them, in the spirit of Christmas, to let us put our tents in the backyard for one night.

Same evening, one lady that was staying in the same hostel got robbed, right in front of the hostel. They stole her thick gold chain she had around her neck. Now I don’t want to insinuate anything, but so far, all the stories about theft and robbery that I heard here are something like this:

On Caye Caulker Island, two girls left the disco bar completely wasted and that night they got robbed in their hotel room. They didn’t hear anything, but when they woke up the next day, their stuff were missing.

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In Panama City, a guy leaves the bar late in the evening, drunk, and he wants to walk to his hotel; takes the wrong turn and he  finds himself in a bad neighbourhood and he gets mugged.

I don’t know why it looks to me like common sense. Don’t walk out there drunk or wasted, especially at night. And don’t show signs of affluence, any travel website tells you that. I am not saying that it couldn’t happen to anyone, just for being the wrong person in the wrong place, but most of the time it can be avoided.

And now leaving that aside, we went to see the famous Panama Canal from close, and see the big ships crossing through. There is so much engineering behind it, it’s unbelievable. We all took a cab to get there. Vasile and I on the front seat, and the rest of the guys in the back:)

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And here is the canal. There are different compartiments where they adjust the water level for a smooth crossing between the Atlantic/ Caribean and the Pacific.

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Then we went to see the Casco Viejo of Panama City (the old town). It is gorgeous!

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And also, this is the first proper downtown we’ve seen in Central America so far. It’s beautiful.

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While walking around the old town, our friend Cory points out a sign to us and goes “I don’t know what language that is”. And guess what the sign was.

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That’s right, that was a sign for Merry Christmas in Romanian!!! Who would have ever imagined that we would see a sign in our mother tongue in Panama! That was so funny.

Then on the 26th we had our Christmas dinner at the hostel, withThai food and sangria .

Today we will ride to the boat. We will camp there by the water, and then tomorrow we will be on the boat, starting our 5 days journy on the water. Details to come once we get to Cartagena, hopefully safe and sound:)

Categories: Panama | 2 Comments

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