Friday, April 24, 2015

The End of the Road (in Panama, anyway)

As many of you know, Roel and I have toyed around with the idea of crossing the Darien Gap. When we were initially talking about South America, we’d heard that the Stahlratt was the only option for crossing to Colombia from Panama and that it was some ridiculous price. We had since learned that is it actually a reasonable price, but for the past few months, for the first time, there has been a very affordable ferry service operating that runs between Panama and Colombia. Nevertheless, a dream was born about crossing the Darien Gap.

We’d met a fascinating man in California who had told us fabulous tales of crossing the Darien 2.5 times (by Land Rover and by horse), and the adventure and wonder inherent in this experience appealed to both of us. We both like the idea of having to get creative to get around roadblocks, whether they be rivers or steep inclines. And the Anthropologist in me would be over the moon to get into some of these villages that have been largely left alone and are insulated from the outside world by acres and acres of jungle.

Anyway, we’re also not entirely crazy and we do believe in signs: for the first time in years, there has been an inexpensive Darien Gap crossing option available that fits in well with our budget and has actually been available during the time we want to cross (it started operating in December and if the rumors are right, it’s final sailing took place on the 20th of April, because they’re not making enough money.) So, we pay attention to the signs and we take the ferry.

So although our ferry tickets had been booked and paid for, we had a few days to play with and so we set off for the end of the North American portion of the Pan-American Highway: Yaviza.

There was an annoying toll system where we had to actually buy a card for $13 that had $10 of credit on it. We didn’t fully understand why we had to pay for the card and couldn’t just pay cash, so this created a little issue with the manager of the toll who came over and laid a hand casually on my bike, and began leaning on it while telling us in Spanish “You don’t have money? Hah, you MUST have money to travel in Panama” in a condescending and mocking tone, like we were trying to get away without paying.

Roel fortunately didn’t understand enough of what he was saying to react, but I did and proceeded to push his hand off my motorcycle “Hello a$$hole!!! I have two toes on the ground here - are you trying to push me over!!!” OK, I didn’t say a$$hole, but it was definitely implied in my tone of voice and the way I push-slapped his hand off of my bike. And if we wanted to evade your stupid toll and not pay money, we would have just ridden through - Good luck with your cameras tracking two foreign license plates!! (Not that this would have been smart in a city where there were cops on every corner because of the Cumbre of Presidents of the Americas, but still. Anyway, we eventually sorted it out and payed for the stupid card, but having that interaction with a nasty official, was exactly what I need be excited to throttle on down the road to Yaviza, (rather than just sitting somewhere in air-conditioning for the remainder of the day).

Anyway, it seemed the farther East we got, the more friendly people got. There were several military checkpoints in the Darien province and they were incredibly friendly. One guy even welcomed us to the Darien before even asking for our documents. Our moods improved. They generally asked where we were going, why (because we’re dumb tourists who want to see the end of the road, duh) and how long we would spend there. All of this was noted in a notebook at one of the larger checkpoints and a call was made to someone, describing us and our intentions.

We found a lovely Hospedaje with adjoining restaurant to stay at, just before dark. It was a relief as it was still incredibly hot and the potholes in the road (which one of the military officials had warned us was ‘muy feo’ - ‘very ugly’) were growing from normal potholes, to baby-baths, to full-sized Azure-baths as the kilometers went by.

The next morning we made it to Yaviza, rode around town amusing small children who yelled, ran with and laughed at us and eventually we just parked the bikes and hung out by the port. People eventually began coming over and Roel looked at a map with some of the older guys in the port, who described what was beyond Yaviza.

One of the older men told Roel we needed to go check in with the military, so we followed him around the town to the military compound where Roel stayed with the bikes and I went inside to check in. I answered the same questions that we had at the other check points and went back outside. The guy standing guard at the gate asked if we were going across the bridge to another town. The bridge we had seen could JUST fit a motorcycle and so we asked for more information about that. It seemed you could go another “45 minutes” into the Darien Gap with permission. No one in the Darien province works with kilometers - only minutes. So, depending on how you drive the distance from Point A to Point B can be 1 hour to 3 hours. Hmmmm.

So I went back inside to ask permission, but was told that we needed to get this permission from the Aduana in Panama City. But next time we’re in Yaviza, if we have this permission, we can visit Boca de Cupe which is actually where the road ends in the Darien… 14 kilometers past Yaviza. 

Ok, “next time” we’re in Yaviza, we’ll make sure to do that

We went back to the bridge to check it out and make sure the bikes would fit (just for curiosity’s sake) and were approached by a young guy who told me that for $1500, he knew someone who could guide us through the Darien Gap. He also told me I needed no such permission. $1500 eventually became $300 after I told him that it was too expensive, and he eventually revealed that the guide would only take us to Boca de Cupe the town at the end of the road and then a Colombian guide would take over from there. Not sure what we would need a guide for to get to Boca de Cupe if there’s only one road and there seem to be a few more military checkpoints along that road. But we sat down to have lunch with this guy and his brother (who I think is the one who would have guided us) just to chat. We shared peanut butter and jam sandwiches with them and they brought out a pitcher of ice water. (Having seen the town water treatment facility on the way into town, I said a little prayer before drinking the water in hopes that this water wouldn’t kill me.) Yaviza is quite a sizable town to find at the end of a road and so I asked what the main source of jobs was here. They replied that there was no work to be had.

Hmmm… hence being willing to “guide” us into the Darien, which they seemed not to actually know much about, for $1500. Nice guys, nonetheless.

The old man who we chatted with in the beginning found us again and came over holding out a handful of leaves. He explained that he had a toothache and was planning to make a poultice of these leaves as they will get rid of the pain once applied to the gum like chewing tobacco.

Now, this guy I would love to cross through the Darien with. It was obvious that he didn’t really speak Spanish and it was easier for him to communicate with us in broken English, so perhaps he actually hailed from one of those villages originally.

We would have loved to have stayed in Yaviza for a few more days, which is what I think it would take to get some actual solid information on the Darien because you need to find someone who doesn’t just see you as a dollar sign. The people were generally lovely and with all of the comings and goings on the river, it was a fascinating place to hang out. But, we had a date with the ferry and I was keen to make sure we were back within spitting distance of the ferry port by the weekend, just in case.

We both felt really frustrated leaving Yaviza. Our sense of adventure had been peaked and my desire to meet more people with priceless, ancient knowledge of nature was filling my mind with possibilities.
But we dragged ourselves back in the direction of Panama City, stopping to camp along the way just before the San Blas Hills.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Panama City

We left the farmers field at 7am and made it our goal to get close to Panama City by nightfall. It was a long, hot day on the Pan-American highway, broken up with a refreshing ride into the cooler mountains around El Valle which Alison’s Wanderland and the lovely Belgian family had recommended. Thank goodness. We needed it - it was unbelievably hot on the highway that day. Every time we took our jackets off, our shirts were just soaked and it seemed we couldn’t drink enough water to stay hydrated.

The ride to El Valle

We weren’t able to find anything on the way into Panama City (we were really hoping for a love hotel), so we wound up riding into the city just after dark and began our search for a place to stay in Casco Viejo (the Old Town). The way our route took us was shocking. The part of the city that we rode through looked like some post-apocalyptic movie set… water mains leaking everywhere, loose trash piled up on the sides of the streets, empty faces watching as we rode past. It was pretty horrid.

It's incredible how frequently you see a newly renovated building right next to a falling down one in Casco Viejo.

We eventually found a hotel with parking in Casco Viejo and crashed into a deep sleep.

The lovely street our hotel was on. Fortunately, there was secure bike parking #allthatmatters

His and hers beers

The next morning we made sure to be at the police inspection first thing to get the process of departing Panama and securing our passage on the ferry started. It took a while to find the station as there was no sign on the entry side of the building. So we probably passed it the first time at 8:30am and then after a series of retornos, asking police officers where to go (none actually knew) and referring to Google Maps, we eventually made it just before 9am.

The inspection was easy and the inspector was very good-natured. We were told to report at the DIJ office “across the highway” at 2pm to pick up the paperwork.

At 2pm, I sat with the other overlanders we’d met that morning at the inspection inside to get the paperwork while Roel sat outside with the bikes. (Yes, we know - NEVER trust the police in Central America!!) By 4pm everyone had their paperwork and we figured we had just enough time  to head across town and get to the Ferry Xpress office to pick up our tickets. Again, it took a bit of creative riding and figuring out retornos, etc, but we eventually found the office and got our tickets.

Crossing the canal

Kurt and Tinneke, the Belgians we’d met in Santa Catalina, had invited us to stay with them in Panama, so we headed to their home which was conveniently very close to the Canal so we could have a look at the Canal quickly. We spend a wonderful evening with them and their energetic, fun and brilliant kids, which gave us a taste of the family life we sometimes miss.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Underwater Adventuring

Semana Santa was in full force and so we decided to leave Bocas del Toro and head for the town of Santa Catalina where we’ve heard you can find great diving just off the coast off of Coiba.

We broke camp on Red Frog Beach, got a boat taxi to the main island, and then another to the shore, re-packed the bikes (which we are always relieved to return to after any amount of time away), and got on the road just before noon.

Once we descended the mountains and rode onto the plains the heat became truly miserable. We were grateful that we were riding on a holiday weekend as the roadworks signs for a 100+ kilometer stretch of road indicated that usually, the speed limit would be 30kph. Since there were no workers, we were able to blast through the insane heat at 80kph. Thank goodness. 

We stopped in the center square of one small town for a break and to discuss what we would do next. Santa Catalina was about an hour away, and if we made it there early enough, we could schedule a dive for the next day. While we were discussing our options, several guys who were interested in the bikes and are riders themselves came to chat. They told us about a beautiful Good Friday procession that would happen there later that night and recommended that we find a hotel nearby so we could be present for it. The only issue was that they couldn't think of a hotel in the town, we hadn't seen one coming in and a short search produced zero hotels. We were keen to finally go diving and had heard that Coiba was a world-class site. Given the ever-ticking Ferry Xpress clock, we were worried that we would miss the short window of time that we had available to go for a dive if we didn't make it to Santa Catalina that night and book something. I was miserable for the entire ride to Santa Catalina. I felt like we were racing towards the tourist trail, yet again, and missing an incredible opportunity to witness something that we might never again have the opportunity to see. 

We made it to Santa Catalina just after dark around 7pm and right away found a great dive shop that we both had a good feeling about. That good feeling is so important when you’re doing a sport where you are literally putting your life in the hands of the operator of the company. They didn’t have availability until the day after the next so we headed out of town to camp and spent the next day doing research on Colombia, and eating the best pizza we’ve had in ages at an Italian/Panamanian owned brick-oven pizza shop that every tourist and local seems to wind up at when it’s open on the weekends. We met a lovely Belgian family who gave us a lot of great recommendations as they had been living in Panama for the past 6 years.

Wild camping on the outskirts of town

The weather on the day of the dive was HOT but we were soon out on the water enjoying a LOT of sea spray and within 50 minutes, a lot of underwater life. We did a total of three dives with the middle dive being absolutely stunning. We saw dozens of white tipped reef sharks, turtles, eagle rays, a frog fish and many, many eels. We took the GoPro which was a bit frustrating to work with as there is no display and I’m not competent enough with it to adjust the settings, so, sorry for the mediocre UW photos. My Olympus Drop-Proof/Water-Proof/Dust-Proof point and shoot turned out not to be so much of these things and no longer functions after swimming in Guatemala.  But next time we’re at Coiba, I will have my underwater housing for my Nikon so that the photo look like this:

A photo I took in Indonesia a few years ago... really makes me miss my underwater housing for my Nikon... but there's certainly no room for it on my bike

Rather then this:

A frogfish!


They would drop us off on islands between dives so that they had room to swap out the used tanks for full ones. Not a bad way to spend a surface interval.

Couldn't help myself SHARK SELFIE!!

We returned to shore at about 4pm and by the time we were showered and had the bikes packed, the sun was setting.

We wanted to get a little bit of distance out of the way, so we got on the road and eventually camped between a farmers cow field and a sugar-cane plantation.